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What is music made of and why do we listen?

By T.J. Ray

Of late, my mind has begun to contemplate things.

For instance, where does a sneeze go when it’s almost out and stops? How do birds remember where they laid their eggs and return to do so again next year? What awareness is there at the moment of death? What is music?

A bit of searching may yield up answers, even though some of them may not pronounce the curiosity cured. Take that last one, for instance.

When does a brain note the presence of music? Are the tunes that go through our memories, without the presence of a performer, the answer? When one looks at a guitar or sitar or kettledrum, does one feel the audible twang or boom of the instrument when being played? Are marks on paper that resemble flags really music? Real musicians can convert those notations to particular sounds on instruments, but to the non-musician there is no “music” but a visual code, which, when executed, might be music.

What moves us to turn on devices when we enter a room or crank our cars, or gadgets that pour out music? My first overt act when I sit down before my computer is to select the music I want to hear. Notice that my purpose in approaching the computer is not to listen to Louis Armstrong, Stan Kenton or the Boston Pops; nevertheless, I activate some sound.

How does the mind inhale and process words on a printed page while at the same time having impression assault the eardrums? Yes, I’m aware that we are built to multitask, but that still doesn’t answer the question. Why do public spaces almost always serve up music the moment we enter the door?

Here is a quote from my exploring for these answers. Not sure who said it, but I certainly agree with the words: “We have become so accustomed to recorded sound that it has become rather facile and formulaic. When you can literally access any piece of recorded music at the touch of a fingertip, something valuable gets lost or devalued in the process. Music has become ubiquitous. It’s in shops, restaurants, bars, airports, waiting rooms — in fact, anywhere that people gather.”

Sadly, in a way, music has become just another kind of social “filler,” like small talk or gossip. Do you get frustrated when you sit down to eat with a friend and can’t actually have a conversation because “background” music dominates the situation?

You may be aware that it’s not so much that you’re surrounded by unwanted noise but that a particular variety of it is annoying. Good steak does not go well with raucous rap!

Has modern medicine discovered the cure to anxiety in the waiting room? Why is it that nearly every one we go in is flooded with sound, either from music sources or a mindless TV playing come-ons.

One final thought about my latest curiosity. Back in the middle of the last century, a fellow named John Cage composed 4’33”. And, yes, that’s its official name.

The web has several videos of someone performing this work. A tuxedoed fellow walks to stage center and sits down at a Steinway piano. After the puts the music on the holder, he removes his glasses to put them in his pocket, opens the keyboard, and sits upright and still. About every two minutes, he points to something on the piano. And after 7 1/2 minutes of this, he reverses all those steps and leaves the stage. Wild applause fills the auditorium.

You see, Cage thought that ambient sounds may be sufficient to constitute something musical.

Let me leave you with that and a challenge. Ask a musician to play the first note of a composition. You probably won’t be able to guess whether it’s Beethoven or the Beetles.

Long ago when watching television was fun with all its quiz shows and silly family series, one show, Name That Tune, asked contestants to name a song after only a few notes were sounded.

Finally, I will give you the serious definition of music: the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity.

That definition prompts another question: continuity may be easily agreed to, but just what is “unity” in music?

Here we go again!

T.J. Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.