"Organized Sound" Is A Terrible Definition Of Music

21 September, 2018
The definition of "music" as "organized sound" is both circular and incomplete.

Knowledge and Definition

In what sense can we say that we know what music is?

There are two main ways that we might know what music is.

The first is our own personal subjective experience of music. Subjective experience is a way of "knowing", but it does not necessarily lead to a useful definition.

The second way to know what music is would be based on a scientifically verifiable objective understanding of the phenomenon of music.

Unfortunately, such an objective understanding of music does not exist, at least not yet, because our scientific understanding of music can be state roughly as: "no one has a clue".

In other words, subjectively we "know" what music is, but objectively we don't know what music is.

This is very problematic if we insist on being provided with a definition of the word music.

"Organized Sound"

A popular and commonly quoted definition of music is that music is "organized sound".

This was apparently first said by a composer named Edgard Varèse.

But, did Varèse actually state that "organized sound" is the definition of "music"?

Here is a longer quote from "Liberation of Sound" (eg see here) that I have found, which may or may not be the sole source of this definition (the quote itself suggests that Varèse may have used that phrase either privately or publicly on many earlier occasions):

Although this new music is being gradually accepted, there are still people who, while admitting that it is 'interesting' say, 'but is it music?'. ... Until quite recently I used to hear it so often in regard to my own works that, as far back as the twenties, I decided to call my music 'organized sound'. ... Indeed, to stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise.

If that is the source of his "definition", then it's not really a definition. It reads more as a statement about his music, or even some kind of manifesto about what music should be, and not necessarily a definition of music per se.

If you want to hear the compositions of Edgard Varèse, you can go onto YouTube and search for his name. Some of his greatest hits are Ionisation, Poème électronique and Amériques.

(You can listen for yourself, and then you can have an opinion about whether Edgard Varèse's "organized sounds" are actually "music".)

So, what does "organized" mean?

Possibly Edgard Varèse was not intending to declare that "organized sound" was an official definition of the word "music", for example one that should hereafter be used as the correct definition in all dictionaries.

We could just leave it at that.

However, it is such popular and oft-quoted definition, that I think it is worth fully analysing it, regardless of the intention of the original author of that definition.

And so I will proceed with an analysis.

Sounds, which are always "organized" ...

Music certainly consists of "sounds", and it is not too surprising or controversial that a definition of "music" would contain the word "sound".

This leaves us to consider the word "organized". The implication of a definition of music as "organized sound" implies that if we have some sound that is organized, then it is music, and if we have some sound that is not organized, then it is not music.

"Organized" is a word that has a certain fluidity of meaning. It means something like "arranged", or "grouped together, in a particular arrangement". It almost always implies the existence of some underlying purpose to the arrangement. For example, I might "organize" the socks in my draw, which would serve the following purposes:

The "arrangement" can refer to positional arrangement, but it can also refer to making certain things happen at certain times.

With music, there certainly is an arrangement of sounds (in time, if not in space). But, to what purpose?

For the most part, the purpose of organizing sounds into music is to create music. (I would go as far to say that music is almost never the result of organizing sounds to make something other than music – although perhaps that was how Edgard Varèse composed his music. )

If we accept that "organized" always means "organized for a purpose", and the purpose of organizing the sounds that make up "music" is almost always to create "music", then the definition of music as "organized sounds" is essentially circular.

In other words, "music" is "music". Which is not much of a definition.

Description versus Definition

Even though "organized sound" is not a satisfactory definition of "music", it is certainly true that music does consist of "sounds", and those "sounds" have always been "organized" by someone.

But these are simple descriptive facts about music.

Yes, music consists of sounds.

Yes, music always consists of sounds that have been arranged by someone into music.

If you were a new student of "music", and you didn't yet know that music consisted of sounds, then that would indeed be a useful thing to learn.

It would also be important to learn that music is the result of sounds being organized by human composers.

But these two facts about the nature of music fall very far short of a complete description of what music is, and what music isn't..

Definition and description are not the same thing.

What is the definition of the word "tyre"?

If we lived in a world where our only experience of tyres was things that we found in rubbish dumps (and never attached to cars), we might wonder what they actually were.

(Perhaps this happens in a future post-apocalyptic society where all memories of past technologies have been erased ...)

"Organized Rubber"?

In such a world, the philosophers among us could ponder the definition of the word "tyre".

For example, philosophers could define a tyre as "organized rubber". Certainly tyres are made of rubber, and the rubber looks very much like it has been arranged into the shape of a tyre by the agency of someone. But that doesn't really tell us anything much about what a tyre is, or why tyres exist at all. At most it tells us that tyres serve (or served) some human purpose, but it doesn't tell us anything about what that purpose is (or was).

And if some avante garde "tyre composer" decided to arrange some rubber into a novel shape, eg a square, and call that a "tyre", then we might be liberal and accept that new creation as indeed a new sort of "tyre".

But, if we know that a tyre is (or was) actually something that you put onto a car wheel so that the car goes better, then we can easily make a judgement that this new square tyre isn't really a tyre. We can make that judgement, because either we wouldn't be able to put the square tyre onto a car wheel, or, we could put it on, but the result would be that the car is no longer useable as a car.

If I say "it's music", is it therefore music?

Because we don't yet know, in any objective sense, what music actually is, it is always possible for someone to organize sounds in some manner, and assert that they have created "music". And because we have no objective understanding of what music is, we cannot prove that these organized sounds aren't music.

To make things worse, it can be asserted that a person who appreciates a special category of "music" that seems unmusical to other people is actually a "better" appreciator of music. Of course we have no way to verify if such a person truly appreciates the music in question. But anyone who contests such a claim risks exposing themself as an inferior "appreciator" of music.

The result of such shenanigans is that the waters of investigation are well and truly muddied.