What is music? By Eugenio Trías

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Music is articulate sound, but it is so in a very different way from (double) linguistic articulation. A sui generis articulation is added, in music, to the sound matter. It reaches a semantic level when we highlight the complex multiplicity of dimensions in which that articulation is unfolded.

This leads to the analytic itemization of sound properties. The articulation consists of establishing an organization, a hierarchy, a set of decisions with respect to the way of linking and combining these sound properties.

There is, above all, a sound continuum, always in movement, circulating in time, in a continuous vibration by frequency and wavelength, with its regular and irregular harmonics. The musical art achieves determination and limit, péras, to that apéiron through the organization of the dimensions in which that material medium is noticed, dimensions which may be specified as parameters.

The differences in combination, organization and hierarchy of these dimensions of sound create the musical differentials, the different modalities which crystallize in cultural conventions, different styles and individual creative forms.

In principle it is constituted by the physical properties of sound: tone, intensity, duration… they derive from the wavelength and frequency of the sound spectrum, as well as from the harmonics promoted by the sound in its vibration. These properties are open to measurement. In this sense they may be called “dimensions” of sound.

These dimensions may be enumerated and highlighted. They are, above all, pitch (tonalities, harmonies, modes), duration (measures, rhythm), tone (relative to the source of sound or the specific “color” of the emitting instrument), intensities (piano, forte, fortísimo) attack signatures (legato, staccato), dynamism (slow/fast) and all the transitions: crescendo, diminuendo, or every gradation between largo, adagio, andante, vivace or presto; density of sound (forms of instrumental saturation, in statistical registry), stereophony (or the distribution of sound in space).

Because of this creative intervention which combines in a certain way this unique articulation -and the dimensions in which it is specified- it is given to listen a possible proposal for a sound organization from which one can draw a certain meaning.

It is a meaning which derives from these forms of determining the continuum which constitutes the phonic matter. And which doesn’t require, with the goal of signifying, or of opening itself to signifying, any linguistic mediation.

But with this we haven’t said the essential with respect to our definition of music. This is a subject constantly moving in time (foné-movement and foné-time), if we use the -conveniently shifted (corrected)- expressions from Gilles Deleuze. The creative intervention in the dimensions of this sound continuum notifies over the musical form.

There is, then, matter and shape, necessary terms, the meaning of which must be re-thought when facing the subject of sound -of foné– and music. There is this objective duplicity of music, where matter can be distinguished from shape: matter always in movement, circulating in time, and shape -shape in time- which derives from the specific organization of the dimensions of sound. This objective doublet of matter and form corresponds with the perception of listening in the receiving subject, virtually a creating one.

Eugenio Trías. La imaginación sonora. Argumentos musicales. Galaxia Gutenberg. Barcelona. 2010. 676 páginas.

Reproduced with the author’s permission.

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