The Borders and Frontiers of Music Itself

Some days I get the felicitous pleasure of correcting an idiot who thinks they like all music.  Have you met this guy?  When I ask what you listen to, I don’t mind noncommital answers like “a lot of stuff.”  Feel free to tell me that classical, country, rock, and rap are all fine by you.  Just don’t be ignorant enough to say that you enjoy everything.

Such headlong claims are propelled by one of two fallacious oversights.  Linguistic philosophy teaches us that operational definitions are prerequisite to coherent discussion.  In small words, we need to decide what we mean by “like” before we can talk about whether you “like” all music.  Muddled by your intuition, with no such leading clarification to guide you, it is tempting to overapply the word and convince yourself that you truly do “like” everything.  But these technicalities aren’t so interesting.

Allow me to walk you down the other troubled path.  Our lodestar will be the core question: When you say you like all music, what counts as music?

Don’t limit yourself to what’s familiar.  Realize that the word “everything” suggests far more than “everything I’ve ever heard.”  Maybe, when you said you like everything, what you meant is that you have yet to come across music that doesn’t work for you.  In that case we have a simple miscommunication and I won’t hold it against you.

Maybe you can’t name a genre without at least a few representatives in your last.fm “Most Played.”  So you like some rap songs, some pop songs, and so on, but not all rap songs and all pop songs.  If you fit that description, my apologies to you as well.

The people I’m challenging are those who  say something bolder: that they like (or expect to like) every last bit of music, even what they haven’t heard. They believe all music will, as if by definition or natural mandate, have enjoyable, appreciable elements.  For their schooling, we endeavor to answer (I repeat): what counts as music?

We’ll start with a simple parallel.  What counts as singing?  Easy, right?  All those words coming out of the frontman’s mouth!  But what if they aren’t words?  I doubt there are many who would deny that The Dissociatives are singing on the track Lifting the Veil from the Braille, which features only whistles and ahhhs.  What about the pitchshifted pornogrind stylings of Cock and Ball Torture?  Check out the track Enema Bulldozer and tell me if you think that guy is singing.  Come to think of it, do Cake songs like The Distance actually feature singing, or is that something else?

Even the liberal-minded individual might not know how to classify the vocal performance of Georgia Brown.  This Brazilian world-record-holder has been lauded for “singing” in the so-called whistle register, using a poorly understood physical mechanism a step beyond falsetto.

Still with me?  Nothing contentious yet?  Let’s go up a level.  Let’s build a box for songs and put all songs inside the box and anything that isn’t a song outside.  Oh – you’re alright with microsongs, aren’t you?  Because some people struggle with or deny “pieces” like the 1.316-second You Suffer by Napalm Death.  How about Green Carnation’s recent prog metal opus Light of Day, Day of Darkness?  The band declined to subdivide the 60-minute track into movements, but there are clear demarcations between passages.  Is that one song, or several songs presented wrong?

Again, terminology can get in the way here.  Everybody knows the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies from the Nutcracker, but is it a song?  It is one of several “scenes” from a single multi-part composition that spans an entire ballet.  Labels are tricky, but I want to avoid focusing on them.

To the heart of it, then.  People like you and I aren’t bothered by the foregoing ambiguities (as some unwitting fools are) because people like you and I are born with a mental knife for separating the fog.  Well, if you can handle what comes next, you’ve got a leg up on me and every historian of music in academia.  Polaris is still asking: what counts as music?

Exhibit A: the absence of a (discernible) beat.  When someone says they “like everything,” my go-to response is Panasonic Youth by The Dillinger Escape Plan.  Screaming and harsh licks pervade this hardcore ditty, but what’s more jarring is the deafeningly technical mathematic organization of rhythm.  No casual listener has an ounce of hope of tapping their toe successfully to the precise, plotted shifting of the time signature.  Can you digest music without a pulse?

Exhibit B: spoken word tracks.  Is the first track of Family Man, a classic Black Flag record, a song?  Exhibit C: noise.  Did avant-garde Japanese noise rockers Hantarash ever make a “song” in their career?  Arguably a generalization of this is Exhibit D: ambience.  If you stick your head out your front door, do you hear a song?

You should be familiar with John Cage, the bogeyman of western musical tradition.  If you’re not, Google him.  From a long career of questioning where people set their borders – with music on this side and chaff on the other – his best known heirloom to mankind is 4’33”.  Cage presents 4’33” as a song in three movements.  There just don’t happen to be any notes.  He calls it “aleatoric” and emphasizes that the song is what each person hears while it is being played; thus, 4’33” is different for each listener and upon each new listening.

Fewer students become familiar with Cage’s sequel to 4’33”, known as 0’00”.  If the former was a bastard of a piece, the latter is its mongrel son.  Free from notes, tempi, and (sometimes) even sound altogether, 0’00” consists of this instruction: “Perform a disciplined action.”  Its first live performance – unsurprisingly, by Cage himself – consisted of the writing down of that instruction.

If you consider 0’00” to be music and claim to “like all music,” you must have a bone through your head, because this taste of the extreme provides a hint that there is an unfathomable amount of space left to be explored in music.  To claim appreciation of the entire infinite domain would show an arrogant lack of skepticism of what might arise from it in years to come.

If you think 0’00” is a fine piece but not “music” per se, then you’ve placed it beyond your border.  We can all set our borders how we please.  But once you say that Aerosmith writes music and John Cage writes something else, you’ve admitted that a line exists.  So where is it?

Yeah, I don’t know either.  I’ve been introduced to some wacky streams of sound in my time.  I tried to refer in this article only to songs accessible through an easy Google or YouTube search to help you probe your borders.  If you need me to suggest more outliers, just ask.

Gerrymander music however you like.  Put up a fence around it.  Leave it open to the wilderness.  But whatever you do, don’t look me in the eye and tell me you like “everything.”  You’d be lying to both of us.

Colton O.

Colton O.

Colton drinks straight out of coconuts and writes about music for Earn This. He joined the site in 2009.

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