Composition 1960 #7

La Monte Young is one of my favorite composers.

His text pieces are both charming and thought-provoking. And while some may come across as humorous, they aren’t frivolous. His compositions, together with those of John Cage (such as 4’33”), while intriguing and novel also test the limits of even the most generous and inclusive definitions of “music”.

An assignment that is among the very first I have given to Theory I students, and among the very last I have given to Theory IV students, is to come up with a definition for “music”. There are no restrictions—they just need to be satisfied that what they have written fully encompasses what their notion of music is. The ensuing class discussions are always very lively.

The Theory I students often struggle to encapsulate the experience of music (e.g. “I know it when I hear it.”), and they also tend to try and build very high and systemic fences. The Theory IV students tend to be more circumspect, but are also surprised that after two years of studying music theory it remains a daunting task. I remind them that this is perfectly alright, because even in the 29 volumes of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians—the largest and most authoritative musical reference work—there is no definition for “music”.

I also share an opinion with them: While everyone has personal thresholds and boundaries, the point of studying music and being a musician isn’t really found in trying to convince the world what should or shouldn’t be considered music; in that sense you aren’t likely to find much meaning in the definition, or in the defining. But if you instead take on the commitment to consider and express what you encounter in the world in a musical way, then you may find the music, and what you do as a musician, to be more meaningful.

Ever since first preparing the “define music” assignment, I have been collecting relevant quotations of well-known musicians, writers, and artists. One of my favorites is by George Crumb, who defines music as: “A system of proportions in the service of spiritual impulse.”

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