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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Humanly Organized Sound?

Recently I was in an international meeting on music education. Many concrete music education practices were shown. One of them started from a definition of music which ethnomusicologists immediately recognize: John Blacking's famous "Music is humanly organized sound".

Although I am an ethnomusicologist and I admire John Blacking (at least the relatively little I know of him), I am not at all a fan of this definition. At a first glance, it looks rather harmless. It is nice that the word 'human' is there. But I don't like he stress on 'sound' - it points too much to the idea that the essence of music is the way it sounds, and it is only a short run then towards the idea that music is, essentially, a 'piece' of sound. I also don't like the stress on 'organized', as it turns our focus towards they-that-organize: composers and musicians. And I miss, for example, the word 'meaning'; meaning is what music is all about.

It is good to remember that defining is not an innocent, neutral or objective activity, and that a definition is not an objective fact or a representation of an abstract truth. Defining is a human act, and an individual act for that: somebody defines. Defining means: stating which of the innumerable characteristics of a phenomenon one considers characteristic of the phenomenon. It is choosing a specific focus on the world, and ignoring other possible focuses. And it is marking boundaries; it is an act of inclusion and of exclusion.

It is maybe good to realize that John Blacking was, apart from being an anthropologist focusing on music, also an accomplished classical pianist who for a time had the ambition of becoming a professional concert pianist. Maybe this background and the doubtless emotionally grounded importance of being a classical pianist shimmers through his definition of music. Mind you: I know that John Blacking is the opposite of the classical musician considering classical music the alpha and omega of music in general, and that his work amongst the Venda in South-Africa made him realize that nearly all his presuppositions about what music might be had become untenable. I am not accusing him of implicit musicological colonialism; I just want to suggest that maybe our own experiences with music are so fundamental that it is hard to detach us from them.

The main thing I want to say is: when people start defining music, be cautious. So here is my own definition of music, to be equally cautious of: "music" is what someone considers to be 'music'.

1 comment:

  1. I'll just add that some people focusing on 'zoomusicology' or 'ecomusicology' would also have a bone to pick in regards to the 'human' part of Blacking's definition...

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