Most students about to embark on a protracted undergraduate course of study should be able to give a basic definition of the subject they are studying. After all, if you are about to devote three or four years of your life to furthering your understanding of something into which you may already have devoted a lot of educational effort, it seems pretty obvious that you will have thought about the subject and be in a position to describe it to others. Students of, say, Psychiatry, Sociology, Pharmacy, Botany, Theology, 12th century Icelandic Literature, Interior Design, Hairdressing, even Baristaology (I kid you not: I saw a billboard promoting such a course in Mumbai) would all, surely, be able to give a broad description of their chosen subject (although I suspect Baristaology is less concerned with the art of making coffee than with the ability to press buttons and turn handles on a coffee machine without continually consulting the instruction manual). Students of music, however, seem to be an exception. The trouble is just about everybody knows what music is, even if no two people have quite the same perception of it, and so it is highly unlikely that anyone would ever ask a music student to provide a brief description of it. As a result few music students have ever felt the need to sit down and think precisely what it is they mean by music.
Over my 40 years of intermittent university teaching, whenever I have a class of first year students, I ask them to define music in a way which encompasses Bach, Boulez and Beyoncé but excludes Birds and Bells; we all recognise the former group as musicians while accepting that the musical sounds created by the latter is not, in itself, true music. These, though, are instinctive thoughts; surely part of what being a music student is all about it to be able to quantify these instinctive thoughts into coherent definitions? Yet no student has ever been able to come up with a meaningful definition of music, and my question has been met with blank stares, tears, spluttering utterances and a succession of random words, sometimes including pitch and rhythm, but rarely grouped together to form a coherent sentence, let alone a clear definition.
Some years have elapsed since I last had a group of first year university students, and perhaps in that time students have become more savvy (or, more likely, the admissions panel has become more rigorous in its selection process), but the first year students I encountered this year nearly all were able to come up with their own sensible, fairly coherent, if flawed definition of music. True, one or two attempted the opt out “I agree with the previous student’s definition”, but mild coaxing soon produced a reasonable, independent response. What struck me was how many of these definitions of music from students embarking on their university course in 2015 included the words “nice”, “pleasant”, “satisfying” and “beautiful”.
I have no problem with any of these words being used to describe music, unlike the authorities at Trinity College London who have placed a blanket ban on all examiners from using the word “nice” in their report forms. (The rationale being that, since the word “nice” has assumed vaguely pejorative implications amongst the trendy middle classes of the south east corner of England, the risk of upsetting Tarquin from Epsom is more important than delighting Tariq from Dubai by describing their various performances as “nice”: the examination board’s obsessive terror of a customer complaint demanding the replacing of artistically-driven individual reactions to a performance by bland, uniform and ultimately meaningless stock phrases.) My problem comes with these words being seen as defining music, rather than describing aspects of certain musical sounds. It is what I describe as the Classic FM or Symphony 92.4 approach to “classical music”; the selection of sanitized titbits from the repertoire as a kind of aural analgesic, intended to ease the pains and aches of everyday existence. Music can provide that, but to define music as being that in totality is to undermine one of the most elevated and profound of all human endeavours.
Music is one of those things which defines humanity. Only mankind creates and performs music – the wild beasts may produce musical sounds, but they cannot create true music – consequently, music is an expression of humanity; the totality of humanity not just the nice bits. If we go along with Victor Hugo’s assertion that “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words”, then we must accept that music expresses all human thought and emotion. And while different kinds of music reflect the society and the age in which they were conceived, one continuous thread running all through human existence is the gamut of emotions passing from hatred to love, from anger to tranquillity, from misery to joy and from nasty to nice. Music must reflect all of these to be in any way a legitimate art form.
Immersion in a musical performance, either as a performer or as an audience, has a certain element of escapism about it; for the time you are wrapped up in the music, the rest of human existence temporarily passes out of reach. But escapism does not necessarily equate with nirvana, and one can just as well use music to escape a happy experience in order to indulge in the passion and misery of the composer’s creation, as to escape the drudgery of washing up the breakfast dishes while “nice sounds” emerge from the titbit of “classical music” presented on any one of a whole number of easy-listening classical music radio stations.
If any one of my first year students had defined music as “expressing the totality of human existence”, they might have got a little closer to the point. As it is, they can rest easy; after 40 years of deep contemplation, I am still no nearer to finding a definition of music which would encompass Bach, Boulez and Beyoncé but exclude Birds and Bells.