Everything Is Music
Creativity and Composition
By Keith David Reeves
My first teaching job was as the only instrumental music teacher in a small, rural school district in Western Upstate New York. In both my general Music In Our Lives class and my advanced Music Theory class, I spent a significant amount of time exploring the originating question, “What is music?” We meaningfully explored natural phenomena as well as man-made sounds, both intentional and resultant, rhythmic and arrhythmic, tonal and not-so-much.
One of the activities many of my students recall when recounting their experiences is the culminating debate, after listening to both fluorescent light fixture ballast hum, as to what constitutes the division between “noise” and “music.”
One of the arguments from the “that’s not music” side of the house is that these things cannot be notated. Inevitably, I present Cage’s 4’33”, showing that even absolute silence can be notated in a variety of ways, from a whole rest with a fermata over it to the now-famous “Tacet” movements of Cage’s work.
Indeed, many of my students would jump in saying that even the light fixture buzz could probably be notated. Indeed, we can observe notation innovations (take the addition of clock times or feathered beaming) to facilitate the notation of emergent sounds in composition.
It’s a worthwhile debate, and while I did push students to reconsider their positions (on both sides) as part of the dialectic, I know that I do have a position. I have respect for and great love for noise artists. I did a little noise in college as part of some industrial installation projects I did in Manhattan, but I’d never claim to have any real talent for it. However, I do recognize that many artists prefer a bright line test between noise and music, and stridently differentiate between the two. I accept this.
In the Ear of the Beholder
But I’m a musician, and I know my bias. I think practically everything is music. I think any sound or the lack thereof can be, to someone, music.
I recently watched a YouTube video, the audio of which is Hornheads saxophonist Kathy Jensen cracking up laughing, and the video of which is a transcription of the laugh in traditional jazz-influenced Western notation.
This is an excellent example of where I fall on the issue. I’m not sure someone more adept with language than I would describe Jensen’s laugh as “musical,” but it certainly can be to the beholder.
As a composer, I naturally and deeply feel that if I hear a sound, I can attempt to recreate that sound, adding it to the pantheon of aural artifacts with which I can create. While those sounds may themselves be forms of what could reasonably be considered noise, can they not also simultaneously be music?
In Movement IV (“War”) of my Symphony No. 1, I wrote a large watermelon to be dropped from a height into a metal garbage can. Taken in and of itself, this entire section of the movement could be reasonably interpreted as “noise,” and I would enthusiastically accept the compliment. However, I did notate it using traditional(ish) notation, and it was in the context of my music, albeit an atonal poetic soundscape in that particular section. Is this not music?
My friend and Ithaca classmate Bora Yoon—truly one of the most gifted and inspiring artists I’ve ever known—has achieved near-universal acclaim for her innovative aural experimentation in composition. While I do indeed know fellow artists who say she trends toward “noise art,” I am unabashedly biased when I call what she does “music,” fully and without exception. Is this not music?
Again, as a theory teacher, I would share Cage’s now-storied experience of visiting an anechoic chamber in 1951, during which he heard his own nervous and circulatory systems in operation such was the lack of other sound.
Could one not notate these two distinct pitches? If so, could they not be considered music? Indeed, are we not constantly creating sound-music merely by virtue of being alive? What implications does that have for us, if any, as artists by trade if not artists by nature?
I mean, if falling fruit-as-caved cabeza can be music, I’m not sure the light fixture in my original example can get a pass!
Toward More Creative Student Composition
As we teach our students to be thoughtful experiencers and creators of music, it is my contention that we have an obligation, from our admitted and proudly-proclaimed position of bias, to encourage considering all sound musically. While far more articulate noise artists will take me to task for this blasphemy from their admitted and proudly-proclaimed biases, I must advocate for that which I know best.
I will go so far as to say that when we teach music—again, having taught that “dumping ground” class as well as the recommendation-only theory course, and speaking to the entire curricular spectrum—that we should actively include opportunities for students to create noise and sound, and integrate those innovations, explorations, and concepts into student composition.
It is certainly appropriate to have music theory students studying four-part harmony and voice leading, but I caution my colleagues against being over-traditional and, by extension, unintentionally limited in their explorations of contemporary and innovative writing. While there is some value in “learning the rules so you can break them,” I do concern myself with the over-restriction of innovation early on.
One can learn the reasons parallel fifths are often undesirable in traditional voice leading at the same time one explores the boundaries of the definitions of music. It was the very first conversation I had with my students, and we frequently revisited it. I encourage you to consider a variety of nontraditional examples in your explorations with your students at all levels, even in what we may consider traditional courses of rigor like Theory or Composition.
I make no apologies for being a creature of music, and I believe it is because I was given so many opportunities to explore a wide variety of artistic experiences in sound, silence, and space. Giving your students those experiences can only enhance their exploration of even the most traditional roots of our craft.
About the Author:
Music educator and composer KEITH DAVID REEVES has taught every grade level, K through 12, in underprivileged and affluent schools in both rural and urban settings, as well as educational methods at the university level. He is author of “Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children” and co-author of “Paperless Research Writing: Effective Digital Scaffolding for Academic Writing.” In 2015, he was the keynote speaker at the Connecticut Music Educators Association In-Service Conference in Hartford.
As a composer, Reeves writes tonal music, often with dense chordal elements and layered melodic lines. Primarily a middle and high school band director, he went into educational technology and school leadership to extend the pedagogical, assessment, organizational, and child-centered skills of music teachers to others. He has been a director, visual coordinator, staff arranger, and adjudicator for marching bands throughout the east coast, and the musical and choral director for several high school musical productions over the course of his 15-year career. He is a 2001 graduate of the Ithaca College School of Music
Now, as a school leader and avowed public school revolutionary, Mr. Reeves seeks to ensure children and their learning are first and foremost in everything we do in education. A vocal advocate for kids and a vocal opponent of high-stakes standardized testing, his message has been carried on NPR, the Huffington Post, and various print media outlets.
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