-by Jared Adamson-
Once upon a time, I had a padawan. He was a young man from my local congregation who came to me and said, “I want to do music.” His name was John. (Actually, that’s still his name.) His statement seemed innocent enough, but as I probed what he really meant, I discovered it was much greater than initial appearance. Did he want to play music? Compose music? Record music? Teach music? Ethnomusicology? What did he mean, “do” music? And we thus embarked upon a journey to discover what it was, exactly, that John wanted to do.
In my teaching times with John (which became a combination of piano lessons, voice lessons, music theory, mentoring & life-coaching), we had one philosophic question that continued to color every answer to every topic discussed: Is all sound, music? I knew John was serious about doing music when I witnessed him processing the possibilities of this question.
There are melodic elements in a birdsong, but is it actually a song? (To the bird, it’s just talking). There are rhythmic elements in the various gadgets and gizmos of an office environment, but is it actually musical? (In the equipment, it’s likely just a repeated mechanism.) So, whaddya think? Is all sound, music?
In my opinion, and you’re free to disagree, a working definition of music requires an intentionality of composition or performance. A bird’s song is lovely, but doesn’t include a factor of human intentionality to create a song. Of course, I could listen to the song and transcribe bird language using our current system of musical notation. And then, I could take that melody and expand it into a grand symphonic statement. But at that point, I’ve moved beyond just birds and beaks.
I could find a repeated rhythmic statement from the office copy machine and again, notate it using Finale® and teach it to a drummer and take it to the studio and record the greatest rock anthem of the ages. But to my point, I have moved beyond the capacity of the copier to create a coherent collection of crescendos and clefs.
Of course, we could transpose this question to other art forms. Is all color, art? Is all movement, dance? But for me, the answer is the same. Flowers are beautiful, but they lack human intentionality to grow (we can plant, fertilize, water, etc. but we can’t make them grow or produce blooms). And if you’ve ever seen my oldest kid, you would know beyond any reasonable doubt that not all movement is dance—she can trip on air and create a comedic cacophony of contortions before crash-landing (without serious injury).
But to clarify further, elemental encounters can most assuredly inspire art. To see beauty in nature can inspire creation of art. Still life paintings are still a visual marvel to me. The stylings of Bob Ross have moved into popular culture cult status. Happy little trees! And not just natural inspirations. Mussorgsky’s “Pictures on an Exhibition” is a suite of 10 pieces written from inspiration based on paintings in a gallery. Even Jackson Pollack’s abstract expressionism has deliberatecy.
Or maybe I’m wrong. But I’m choosing my definition for a reason.
Jared Adamson 10/16/2017
Jared Adamson is the Minister of Worship and Creative Arts at Centerville Christian Church in Centerville, IN. Studying voice, composition, organ and improv, he has a Bachelor of Music in Church Music with a double major in Bible and piano from Cincinnati Christian University where he later served as an adjunct professor in the music and worship department.