What is music?
Lately I have been making music. Having studied philosophy, I know that in order to make good music, I have to understand what music is.
Having thought about what music is, I decided that the essence of music lies in the sounds and their emotional effect. The intelligibility of the sounds, e.g., the words and their meaning, is not an essential part of music.
Based on this understanding of music, I will argue that rap is not music. It belongs in a different category.
The Cambridge dictionary defines music as: “a pattern of sounds made by musical instruments, voices, or computers, or a combination of these, intended to give pleasure to people listening to it.” I am going to challenge this definition.
There are many weak points to attack: The criteria of intention and pleasure instantly stand out. But critiquing the weak points often ends in a weak critique. For a real impact, I will tackle the definition as a whole by a counterexample: Is an audiobook music?
An audiobook has a pattern: it is structured by a plot, storyline, chapters, etc. It is made up of a voice or voices, and it can be intended to give pleasure to the listeners. It seems to fulfil all the criteria, yet we know full well that audiobooks are not music. But why?
It is because the sounds and their emotional impact are not the essence of the audiobook. The essence is the words and their meaning. The audible qualities of the voice in the audiobook do affect the experience, but they are in no way definitive. As long as the words are read understandably, many different voices and expressions will do. In the end, audiobooks belong in the category of literature, not music.
Thus, I propose that the essence of music lies in the sounds. I propose this alternative definition: “Music is a pattern of sounds composed such that the sounds generate an emotional response in the listener.”
From this definition we can infer that words are not needed to generate the emotional response, thus words are not essential to music. Melodious “oohs” and “aahs” are just as emotionally adept as words.
Rap and literature
Returning to the audiobook: Let us now imagine a very short audiobook. Perhaps it only lasts about three minutes. Let us now add some music in the background, something simple: A beat. Is it now music? I argue that no, it is not music. There is music in the piece, but the audiobook is still a piece of literature. Much like music in a movie does not turn the movie into music, the musical elements of this little audiobook are just elements in a larger piece: an audiobook.
Finally, let us imagine that the audiobook is read rhythmically along with the beat. What do we have now? Some might call it rap, others might call it poetry. But is it music? Or is it still literature?
I propose the following answer: If the words are essential to the piece, then it is literature. If the sounds and the emotional effect they have on listeners are essential, then it is music. This is my point: Rap, like poetry, is defined by the words. The lyrics are essential. This is not the case for music.
To illustrate why words are not essential to music: Take choirs in classical music or opera. Even if you knew the language of the piece, you would not understand a single word. But focusing on the words misses the point. You can still get an emotional response from the singing.
This illustrates the essential difference between the categories of music and literature. And because the lyrics – i.e. the words and their content – are essential to rap, I believe that rap is best categorised as literature.
But what do you think? Are these definitions weak? Is the argument weak? Feel free to comment below and let me know your thoughts!
I like rap, rock, blues, pop, etc. I am not trying to use the category of “music” as a standard. This text is not intended to say: “Rap is not good enough to be music.” It is intended to say: “Due to its essential properties, rap belongs in the category of literature.” It is meant as an analysis of rap, and not as a judgement.
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