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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Is all sound 'music'?

June 10, 2011 at 5:00 PM

A quote from this article jumped out at me:

“Hasn’t John Cage already proved the point that all sound is music?”

Former Kronos cellist Joan Jeanrenaud said this in reaction to a melee that occurred last Sunday night at The Royce Gallery in San Francisco, when an audience member disrupted the performance by John Eichenseer of his own work for viola and electronics, called "Untitled."

Jeanrenaud was a member of the audience, who witnessed the hissing and clapping from audience member Bernard M. Zaslav, a disruption that ultimately led to the performer throwing down his instrument (which broke) and storming off the stage, according to the New York Times.

What a scene! Apparently Zaslav, a violist himself who supports modern music -- was in physical pain as a result of the music. Zaslov, 85, later apologized, explaining that he uses hearing aids, which were affected by the high volume of the music and, unable to escape the room, he reacted.

Still, should "music" cause pain? I'm still stuck on this question: is all sound "music"? For me, a lot of this depends on my mood, and the context. If I'm in a good mood, I can hear music in the birds outside, the buses going by, the espresso maker at the coffee shop, the neighbor's noisy argument. A modern music concert, something that explores unexpected elements of sound, can open my ears in new ways.

But I have to admit this: If I'm feeling less than charitable: noise is noise, Bach is music, those are different things!

But let's put it to a vote, and please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below:

From Jefferson Dixon
Posted on June 10, 2011 at 6:25 PM

I think that "music" is any sound that makes the listener think or evokes something from the listener. Similarly, art is any visual that means something to the viewer. If the sounds of scratching on an insrument is nothing to you but noise, than for you it is not music. However, that doesn't mean that it's not music for someone else or the composer. With that said, it IS a composer's job to make his or her thoughts understandable to an audience. I think the answer to this poll depends on each individual piece and the listener.

Great topic!

From Jim Hastings
Posted on June 10, 2011 at 7:31 PM

If it's something I don't want to hear at a given time or in a given situation, then, to me, it's noise.  Volume is another factor.

At the gym, I hear some catchy music via satellite radio during workouts.  Although it's not the kind of music I listen to at home, I consider it good background.  To me, it enhances a workout.

But I emphasize the word background.  If it's loud enough to let us hear the words of the song and show off the sound system -- and still restrained enough for us to converse with our training partners without shouting or asking each other to repeat -- no problem.

Regarding symphonic music: I can listen to most of it -- even quite modern symphonic pieces -- while doing household chores.  But when I'm trying to concentrate on something in the office, a lot of this music refuses to be background.

And as a player, I winced at the volumes in some of these scores that had delighted me as a listener.  That's part of what killed my orchestral ambitions.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on June 10, 2011 at 8:27 PM

No definitivly, all sound is not music...

Would one like to have a gun shot or air plane motor next to the ear...

Sound at certain frequencies, at certain dB volumes, put together in a certain way that is pleasant to the ear is music...

Againg, music is also in the ear of the beholder as some will love modern music (par example) and other hate it and see no beauty in it. 

But a concert should never be amplified so much to cause pain to listeners...

About that man with the earing aids.  Why couldn't he simply take them out of his ears during the performance?  Were they stuck in his ears? I don't want to judge but why is it that escaping in a discreet way was impossible?  Seems to me that this is less offensive to the player.  But, again, I can't judge of the situation!  I'm just asking myself questions.

From Eloise Garland
Posted on June 10, 2011 at 9:16 PM

 In my opinion, no, not all sound is music. If it was, a tree falling or a bomb explosion or a screaming baby would be music. Sound is something we pick up in hearing as a sense. We have the ability as humans of turning that sound into something beautiful and powerful for us to listen to in a totally different way. 

From bill platt
Posted on June 10, 2011 at 10:09 PM

"the headstock had snapped off"

Haha, the reporter is a guitarist :-)

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on June 11, 2011 at 1:50 AM

Eloise, a screaming baby... lol that made my day ; )  That really can't be considered music!

From Emily Liz
Posted on June 11, 2011 at 2:42 AM

What if the screaming baby is a child that hadn't been breathing? Is it music then? ;)

Actually, what is music, period?

From Corey Worley
Posted on June 11, 2011 at 5:20 AM

 I agree with jefferson Dixon

I can listen to John Cage's "helicopter quartet" and see the art in it and the music. Whereas my friend would as if I'm on something... 

It's definitely a topic of perspective


From Trevor Jennings
Posted on June 11, 2011 at 8:24 AM

Can John Cage's 4'33" be defined as "music" in any reasonable sense of the term (bearing in mind that it is not the absence of sound)?

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 11, 2011 at 11:50 AM

 I like the phrase, "It was music to my ears."  It takes into account the role of context and listener in deciding whether something is music or not.

I would have had trouble staying at that concert and would have sympathized with the guy with the hearing aids.

From Eloise Garland
Posted on June 11, 2011 at 12:21 PM

 Hahahaha, well a screaming baby is a screaming baby... It's not a nice noise (to me) but even if it was a noise to someone because maybe they are relieved that a baby is alive and well, for instance when it has been born, I still don't know how that can be 'music'. As I say, we as humans have the ability to hear sound. But we are also the ones who have the ability to turn sounds into beautiful music. You don't see crabs on a beach with lots of little bottles lined up, tapping them with sticks to make tunes, do you? - another random thing! :)

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on June 11, 2011 at 1:23 PM

However, some animals have a great deal of musicality (no jokes)

I am forever amazed about these... (these birds sign better than some young kids!) 


From Laurie Niles
Posted on June 11, 2011 at 3:29 PM

 "Headstock," I wondered what that was! The scroll I suppose?

From Randy Walton
Posted on June 11, 2011 at 5:32 PM

Remember the old adage, 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder?'. Also 'one man's junk is another man's treasure?'  I think the same idea applies here.

The baby screaming could trigger hysteria or elicit a feeling of relief depending on circumstances.

By definition music has melody, rhythm, harmony and timbre. All of what we call "sound" does not fit this definition.  All of what is called music (it has melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre)  is not music to me because we are all different.

From Asher Wade
Posted on June 11, 2011 at 7:57 PM

Human beings for centuries have codified pretty much what their native language's words mean (& granted there are always new words which come into existence and there is also 'literary license' and, of course, there is satire).  However, we all do know the difference between "music" and "noise" (unless you feel that you have 'completely' wasted 4+plus years and way-too-much money on conservatory education or even simple music lessons).  My definition of music is such that when I am listening to a performance and I 'can' tell if a wrong note is being played, then that [for me] is 'music'.  On the other hand, if I am listening to a performance (with recognizably traditional musical instruments) and during their playing I am unable to distinguish between a 'wrong' note and a 'right' note, then I, and most people who are not caught up in the delusion of the "emperor's clothing", would consider this "noise".  I do believe that in the haze of ancient philological word-creation, this [above] distinction was used to define these very differently spelled words: noise & music.  What people want to do today in regards to blurring these definitions "may" come under the [above mentioned] category of satire.

From Juan Manuel Ruiz
Posted on June 12, 2011 at 12:53 AM

I think that not all sound is music, but there is a musical use that can be given to certain sounds that we would not normally consider as music by themselves. My neighbor's drill at 8 AM is not music, but not every sound in a musical piece needs to be a musical note (we tend to prefer it that way, though... ;) ). Think about the overlapping alarm clocks at the beginning of Pink Floyd's song "Time", or the cash register that fades out and gives way to the bass line in "Money". These are not musical notes and one would not consider them to be music if they were out of the songs' context, but they are used to produce a certain effect and evoke an idea or image in the listener, so I think it is safe to say that they add something to the overall experience of listening to the musical piece.

From Sean Gillia
Posted on June 12, 2011 at 2:46 AM

Tough question.  I think all sound has the potential to be music -- even, yes, a baby screaming.  I think it depends upon intent and context.  Or maybe just context.  My daughter once played a piece by Ira Mowitz called "Kol Aharon" for electronics, traditional acoustic instruments and -- yup -- a baby making baby noises.  At one remarkably effective point, it's just a solo violin and the sounds of the baby.  In that context, the carefully assembled and presented baby noises constituted music., in my view.  A few weeks ago, I saw the Kronos Quartet rehearsing the new Steve Reich piece about 9/11 and he uses actual recordings of emergency calls from 9/11 and other things to powerful effect, in my humble opinion.  Music of a high order.  And then, perhaps still on the outer edge of what music can be, there's Ligeti's poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes.  I saw this piece "performed," and it was a complex experience that raised a lot of questions for me -- and for most everyone else there, I imagine.  It engendered laughter (I think, intentionally) and a host of other emotions, including at one point, a gripping fascination and tension as the metronomes slowed -- agonizingly -- and began to stop.  What constitutes music is what the composing and listening community decides is music --- and if history tells us anything, it's that that definition is constantly changing, or rather, expanding.  I, for one, am glad of it.

P.S. I don't know exactly what happened at that concert, but if I were offended, or in pain, while watching/listening to a piece of music, I would respect everyone there enough to simply get up and leave, without making a scene. Not cool.

From Sean Gillia
Posted on June 12, 2011 at 3:16 AM

I was just thinking about Thelonius Monk and his unique approach to composition, improvisation and accompaniment.  I read somewhere (can't remember) that one of the reasons his stuff seemed and still seems to work so effectively, is that he delivered his "wrong" notes with such complete conviction that they became "right" notes....interesting...maybe that gets partly at what I meant when I mentioned "intent" and "context" in my previous post...

From Tobias Seyb
Posted on June 12, 2011 at 6:51 AM

What explains everything, explains nothing. Isn't it as simple as that? If all sound is music, there is no music (resp. no sound). Obviously all sound can used for making/creating music, but no sound by itself is music.

It's fine if modern artists stretch the borders of art in order to explore new territory, and some ideas by Cage were in fact great. But such results should be treated as experiments, not as the "truth". A completely empty painting can only be "painted" once. So it's already beyond the line that separates art from nonsense. If only more comtemporary composers and artist would realize this ;-)

From oliviu dorian constantinescu
Posted on June 12, 2011 at 7:52 AM

Depends on who you are asking. That is why I have 2 answers.

1. For the western philosophical frame of mind:

This is a typical case of mistaking the wheel with the cart. Is the wheel a cart? No, but it is part of one. Are all wheels carts? No, but some of them are part of carts. Sound, like noise and silence, is a component of the musical process but by itself is not art nor it can be. Only the deliberate context in which it is used can be called art. Even if the composer has thrown together what seems to be (from your perspective) the most appalling and nauseating confluence of frequencies, that is art. You can wriggle and squirm as much as you want, but that is art by definition.

So, to answer your question in its unfortunate formulation, no, not all sound is art. In fact, no sound is art. Just like a bucket of paint sitting on the floor is not a masterpiece. But all deliberate associations of sound, silence and noise, no matter how horrible they may be to you, are music and therefore, art.

PS: Is Cage's 4'33' art? Yes, because it deliberately organizes silence into three movements. Is any "art" involved in "performing" it? No, because the "performing artist" does nothing but sit and gawk emptily at the audience. I consider it a pile of rubbish and an insult to any decent musician. But it is art nonetheless, no matter how much I hate it's guts.

PPS: You know, hearing aids do have a button to either adjust volume or to turn them off. It seems that old gentleman was just being an arse and cheaply blaming his apparatus for his own shortcomings in concert etiquette.


 2. For the Zen buddhists:

Yes, all sound is music, because you can interpret it as such. Everything can be anything as long as you grant it the appropriate value. 'Nuff said.



From Richard Watson
Posted on June 12, 2011 at 1:16 PM

Much 'music' is not music.


From Charles Cook
Posted on June 12, 2011 at 8:30 PM

All sounds can be musical

From Rebecca Hopkins
Posted on June 12, 2011 at 8:32 PM

I agree with  oliviu dorian constantinescu

From elise stanley
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 2:42 AM

Interesting to reverse: Is all music sound?  Some would argue that silence is music too... in particular when its within a piece of music...

From oliviu dorian constantinescu
Posted on June 14, 2011 at 5:00 PM

Not all music is sound. Why? Percussion instruments. Or 4'33''.

From Randy Walton
Posted on June 14, 2011 at 8:41 PM

4'33' is not music. If you believe it is, then you believe the emperor has beautiful new clothes.

Silence is not music but it is an ingredient just as eggs are not cake but an ingredient.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on June 16, 2011 at 4:41 PM

Doesn't "music" apply to the conscious arrangement  of sound?

Cage's 4'33" has less to do with absolute silence, an impossible state anyway, and more to do with an awareness of ambient sounds and the concept of active listening.  The helicopter quartet (Karlheinz Stockhausen, not Cage) was a similar attempt to push boundaries from a composer famous for pushing past every limit he could find.  Including the limits of decency and good taste re: his comments on the al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center.

Both of these pieces are way down the road of conceptual art.  Are they music?  I would say so.  Anything I'd want to pay good money to go see?  Another question entirely.  The 20th century completely divorced the ideas of art and beauty, opening the doors to pieces like the one Laurie cites.

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