In most colleges, students are required to take humanities courses to fulfill the institution’s promise to impart unto its student body “well-roundedness,” a word I’m pretty sure was invented by college recruiters. This usually means the student must take music appreciation, a course that according to my friends’ descriptions sounds unspeakably dull. I didn’t have to take it (I guess they figure music majors must already appreciate music enough), but from what I heard, it seemed more like an abridged music history class. They discussed (or at least were lectured at and tested on) the whens and wheres of music, probably got into the cultural impact of this music on that society, and learned just enough terminology to talk to the music majors like our discipline was easy. This, fortunately, lasted only a semester at the most, and usually wore off when they realized their music major friend had more work to do in a week than they did in a month.
I’d like to design a college course called “The Philosophy of Music” and use it to replace any and all music appreciation courses like the one taught at my alma mater. Such a course probably already exists, I’m sure, but from what I can tell, the only people who would take that class as a requirement would be either music or philosophy majors. I don’t understand why the philosophical aspects of music aren’t already the main focus of the “appreciation” classes all the other students are required to take. The historical and cultural contexts are important, sure, but I don’t think they really help anybody appreciate music in any profound way (not to mention you can get them in bullet-point form with a quick Google search, a tactic frequently used to pass the class). The beauty of a philosophy class (besides the lack of homework) is that we don’t ask the questions where or when nearly as much as we ask the ever-more-important question why.
Why do we feel compelled to make music in the first place? This is the question you will be asked in the first minute of class. In a previous post, I suggested that music is intrinsic to human nature, that it thrived within our species despite not making us more fit to survive. Since writing that, I’ve come across the research of anthropologists who believe that music was necessary for human survival. Personally, my belief that music is woven into our DNA remains unshaken, but the opposing concept itself is fascinating. I won’t go into it now, but you can read about it here. There’s so much that’s still open to interpretation. Imagine the debate and discussion that could be generated between supporters of both schools of thought! I bet you appreciate music more already.
When we look at the rationality behind making music, some intriguing thoughts surface. Most of us have never considered that there exists a thought process that justifies us flapping our lips against the mouthpiece of a tuba or belting out the words of a song on the radio when we think no one can hear us. Something in our minds drives us to release our inner-selves in such a unique way. Is it biological? Psychological? Both? Could it just be an obsession almost everyone just happens to share? We will never know the answers to these questions if we don’t initiate a discussion about them.
Another concept we’ll explore is the very definition of music itself. This is the part where I open Webster’s dictionary and give you the textbook definition of music…except I don’t do that. Ever. No offense to anyone who uses that writing device, but save that little gem for when you need to fill extra space on your term paper. If you want to know Webster’s definition of music, look it up. I don’t even know exactly what it is, but I’m guessing it will leave you unsatisfied anyway. I have a simple definition that we’ll use for now: Music is any sound created in which the creator intended the sound to have an emotional impact upon the listener. That’s it.
What I like about this definition (which I admit was largely adapted from John Cage‘s definition) is that it makes the creator of sound responsible for the meaning of it. It also has some pretty bizarre implications. For instance, since emotional impact isn’t universally quantifiable, we must assume that Mozart’s Requiem, the Addams Family Theme Song, Tibetan throat chanting, the works of Andrew Lloyd Weber, even your uncle yelling at you when you were five are all classified as music. I’d bet that most people can get over their personal tastes and could grudgingly make the stretch for all but that last one. Our very words could be classified as music? Why shouldn’t they? Not all music has the same purpose or comes from the same intentions. Music can be gloriously uplifting but it can be equally as dark and unsettling.
My point is simply that we must ask difficult questions and examine unusual avenues of thought when we approach music as an entire concept. Music is a human institution, and most of us would agree that it’s much more than entertainment or some frivolous ancient ritual. If we really want to appreciate it, we must delve into the riddle of what it means to be human. Forcing students to memorize (and subsequently forget) mountains of terminology and musical excerpts will never accomplish that.
That, and it would mean a lot more papers for me to grade. Class dismissed.