What Is Music?

Most people like music of some kind, even if they are not musicians themselves. But not everybody likes the same kinds of music. So what is music? Why do we like some kinds of music but not others?

Frankly, I'm not sure I can provide good answers, but I know where to start. I define music in a very broad and basic way: music is any sound or set of sounds intended for aesthetic pleasure. Pretty vague, eh?

So let's be more specific. Sounds are used in a variety of ways and situations. A car horn is honked, a doorbell rings, a computer beeps, or a phone rings. These sounds are not primarily intended to be music, but to indicate something--someone's at the door, someone's calling, the computer has a problem, or you've cut a driver off in traffic. But of course, you've probably heard a fancy doorbell, and who hasn't heard any number of cell phone ringtones? Their musical aspect is secondary, though, to their primary purpose.

So when a garage band gets together, or an orchestra performs, the primary purpose is for the listening pleasure of their audience. Whether or not the band is good is a secondary question, the intent is there. Even thirty seconds of silence could be considered "music" if a composer intends it for aesthetic pleasure (see John Cage's 4'33" for example).

While we commonly listen to rock, country, jazz, classical, showtunes, etc, with clearly defined instruments, parts, and musical construction (melody, harmony, rhythm, etc.), usually based on the 12-tone system, much more variety is possible in music. While I'm very fond of artists like Genesis, Steely Dan, and Christopher Cross, more experimental artists like Tangerine Dream and Ned Lagin have created music that is undeniably different from what most people are used to, but which must be considered music, nonetheless, at least by my definition. Whether you like it or not is a different question.

Which brings me to another point: familiarity. Music in general seems to be pleasing to us because of pattern recognition--this is especially true with pop music, but even complex classical works are based upon a pattern that can be discerned, even if only after several listenings.

Of course, thanks to modern technology like multi-track recording and digital processing, even a modern pop song can be very sonically complex, although not in the same way as a Bach concerto. When the rock band Asia came out with their debut album in 1982, one of its impressive technological features was that it was recorded with 32 tracks (for a 4-man rock band, mind you).

On top of pattern recognition, though, is simple repetition. We often tend to like songs more after we've heard them a few times. Much commercial radioplay was based upon heavy rotation of popular songs, but were they in heavy rotation because they were popular, or were they popular because they were in heavy rotation?

One of my early attempts to understand popular music basically just stated that people want to hear what they are already familiar with, but with some slight difference or novelty to keep it interesting. An interesting idea, but ultimately, one that fails to consider the wide variety of musical backgrounds that people come from.


Intellectual Property and Theft

There's quite a controversy brewing over intellectual property (IP) these days, thanks to the computer and the internet. Music companies and movie companies want to preserve and increase their profits, and think that illegal downloading of music and movies is depriving them of revenues.

I've argued before that there is not necessarily a one-to-one relationship between an illegal download and a lost sale. It's quite possible that someone would download a file where they would not be willing to pay the full retail price for an album or movie. Or someone might download it, and then decide they like it enough that they do go ahead and buy it, and/or recommend it to friends who may also buy it. Thus, there may well be no loss of sale related to the download, and it may actually increase sales.

But while that may be a good, practical argument, it is far short of an adequate moral argument. Does the downloader have the moral right to download a file without the creator or owner's permission? Frankly, as much as I might like it otherwise, I tend to think the answer is no, you can only justify downloading or copying if it is with their permission, allowing for fair use exceptions and back-up copies. After all, let's be totally fair. If I have legal ownership of the file, I may want to put it on more than one computer, or on a portable player, or back it up to an external drive or disc in case my hard drive crashes and loses the data.

And I might argue that the creators and companies should change their business models to recognize the ease of copying digital files, and how that can help sales as well as hurt sales.

One problem I see is in how the problem is actually defined. I referred to the problem as illegal downloading, but many pro-IP people refer to it as theft or piracy, and for that matter, we say that we are talking about "intellectual property". But ideas cannot truly be owned, only thought of. Only the physical media that an idea is saved or incorporated in can be property and be owned, not the idea itself. Real property is stolen by depriving the owner the use of that property so that the thief can use the property instead: a cd player, a computer, a television, a car, etc. When an illegal download occurs, the downloader can enjoy the content, but the owner is not deprived of the content, either. So how can it be considered as 'theft'?

Again, I'm not saying that it's okay to download without the owner's permission, but I do think that thinking about the problem in the wrong way, with the wrong terms and concepts, will do nothing but muddle the issue and make it that much harder to deal with and resolve. The law and the legal system too often gets in the way of achieving true justice, and this is just one more example of that, unless we start thinking about this issue in terms that are closest to the reality of the situation.

Epistemology has a profound impact on how we think about things and how we act based upon that thinking. A proper understanding of the problem is necessary to work on the best and most workable solution to the problem. Improper use of the terms 'property' and 'theft' not only makes illegal downloading more difficult to deal with, it also muddles our thinking about real property and real theft. More confusion in the legal system is the last thing we need.

No alarm clock

I don't wake up to an alarm clock. No harsh buzzing or loud radio to wake me up. I have an alarm clock in my bedroom, but it's just there to keep the time--I haven't set the alarm in something like fifteen years or so.

I just wake up at some point in time. I have a regular 8 to 5 job, and I usually wake up about 6:30 in the morning. It's a habit. I don't remember exactly how I got started without the alarm clock, but I remember that at some point in the early 90's, I didn't have a job for about six months. An aunt had given me a somewhat large sum of money, and so I quit my job and slept in every day until the money started running low and I decided I needed to go back to work.

During this period of unemployment, I went to sleep when I felt like it, and woke up when I felt like it--I wasn't on any kind of schedule, except that the Perry Mason TV show came on a local UHF channel at 11:00 am, so I always made sure I was up in time for that.

But when I went back to work, I still didn't bother with the alarm clock--I didn't need it, and I haven't needed it since then. I try to make sure I get to bed early enough so that I get a decent amount of sleep, eight hours, or something close to that. When I went to bed, I would tell myself what time I wanted to wake up, and lo and behold, I would wake up at just about that time.

Over the years, this has become a habit, and I don't need to tell myself what time I want to wake up, unless I need to make a change to my regular schedule.

I must admit it's not perfect. I've occasionally overslept when I've stayed up way too late past my normal bedtime, or when I've been sick. Usually I "oversleep" by waking up first and then going back to sleep instead of getting up, rather than just sleeping through my normal wake-up time.

So does this really mean anything important, or is just one of my peculiarities? I don't know, but I imagine if I can do it, then many other people should be able to do it, too. It's a matter of habit, and of allowing yourself enough time to sleep, and of putting your subconsciousness to work by telling yourself when you want to wake up. It really is nicer to wake up to silence, instead of to a harsh buzzer or loud music. If you need something to smash in the morning, keep some empty aluminum cans or something handy.