Analyzing the Nature of Music

by Oliver King (guest contributor from MUSI2500 – Introduction to Music Technology)

The nature of music is a complex topic, primarily due to the exceptional variety of sounds, genres, and subjective notions of what music is. Music is not just sound, and sound is not just music, but the two are inseparable, and so when discussing the nature of music, the nature of sound is greatly relevant. Some would suggest music is the ordering of sounds (naturally or man-made) into some larger and more cohesive form, from which people can derive meaning (or a lack thereof). Musical compositions are therefore often layers of melody and harmony, held together by rhythm, because some people can derive understanding from this format. Music can also be something natural and separate from the structure of composition, in either the natural world or unintentionally created by people. Even though these are some of the ways of understanding, they are certainly not all, and the diverse spectrum of sound, is best discussed through different examples of musical pieces.

It is best to start with compositions as a medium through which music is created and expressed, because they are a structured building block, and a good lens through which to view music. Composition illustrates how music can exist in a written and ordered form which can be played and replayed in different ways. The structure of composition allows intricacy and sound patterns that could not exist naturally to be born. It also allows a certain ‘picture’ to be painted with the sound at the discretion of the composer. For instance Vivaldi paints a musical picture of the seasons with Le Quattro Stagioni, a piece through which the physical realities of the world are reflected by music.

Inversely to the notion composition can create music through structure, some find music in natural settings, with or without the hand of man. ‘Found rhythm’ is an excellent example of music occurring without intention. For instance the sound of a train racing across tracks creates a steady rhythm, and that while it is unintentional is can be recognized by the ear as a definite sound and solid rhythm. Another example of this in the push and pull of ocean waves over a sandy beach, which has often been in musical tracks. The track Vancouver Soundscape Revisited: Fire (2nd Movement) is an example of found rhythms and voices being compiled together to create a wall of sound the ear would associate with a certain time and place, in this case Vancouver.

Some sounds have intrinsic musical qualities about them, which are heard and interpreted by people, and are often rearranged into mosaics to illustrate those qualities. Luciano Berio’s piece Thema: Omaggio a Joyce takes the voice of a person reading James Joyce’s Ulysses and cuts it into packages of sound that possess musical quality. For instance voiced stops in the English language have percussive effects similar to certain instruments, while the air escaping during the pronunciation of the letter ‘s’ produces a sound like the wind. Berio recognized these qualities of the voice as musical elements, and his resulting piece showcases his interpretations.

The nature of music may be complex, but because its existence varies from person to person, it follows that music has no definitive form. Music can be created or found, and it can be layered or simple. The interaction of people with music is interesting, because in different times and places, the interpretation of people might, for a moment, be able to define music as it intrinsically exists to them.