The art of music

Posted on December 9, 2012. Filed under: cultural musicology, music |

Before reading this post you may want to orient yourself: Music and Art in the Urban Dictionary. Notice there are 150+ contributions on music, and only 50+ on art. Also, the number of likes and dislikes on music runs into many thousands, whereas art gets a few hundreds.

Music

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Music is an art form whose medium is sound. Common elements of music are pitch (which governs melody and harmony), rhythm (and its associated concepts tempo, meter, and articulation), dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture. The word derives from Greek μουσική (mousike), “(art) of the Muses.”

Wikipedia is in broad company; in many encyclopedias and musicological literature the strange mistake is made to call music an art. The problem is simple. In the case of language we wouldn’t dream of calling language an art. Literature, poetry, both written and oral, perhaps, possibly, arguably. But language no way. The same should be applied to music. However, in the case of music we do not have two different words to refer to the general phenomenon and the specific one. And what makes this specific one an art? Certainly not that it is “art music”. Because art music is yet a more specific thingy. Let’s get to the bottom of this terminology:

Art (noun)

  1. the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power: “the art of the Renaissance” | “great art is concerned with moral imperfections” | “she studied art in Paris”.
    1. works produced by such skill and imagination: “his collection of modern art” | “an exhibition of Tibetan art” | [as adj. ] “an art critic”.
    2. creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture : “she’s good at art”.
  2. ( the arts) the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance: “the visual arts” | [in sing. ] “the art of photography”.
  3. ( arts) subjects of study primarily concerned with the processes and products of human creativity and social life, such as languages, literature, and history (as contrasted with scientific or technical subjects): “the belief that the arts and sciences were incompatible” | “the Faculty of Arts”.
  4. a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice : “the art of conversation”.

The apple dictionary does the same thing under 2. Music is in the same row as literature. And so are dance and painting. I spent a few days painting the bathroom walls. I’ve been dancing all night. Art? In 1 and 2 there is reference to creativity, creative activity, creative skill (what’s that?), imagination. Under 3 also there is reference to creativity but in the expression “creativity and social life” it becomes very vague. And isn’t history a bit odd here? With 4 we get a completely different turn: “a skill acquired through practice”. I’m surprised that these definitions put little stress on aesthetics. I would call music, dance, painting, photography an art when the people who practice them have a conception of aesthetics and when there is skill involved. I don’t say that this is necessarily a watertight definition, but it should play a role. The yet more specific term “art music” is a particularly narrow socio-cultural phenomenon that we find in societies with a considerable degree of labour specialization in which there are specialists who devote themselves (almost) entirely to the refining of skills within a framework of aesthetics.And evidently, with this distinction there is a lot of music (and painting, dancing, photography) that is not art and is not meant to be art. In fact, it doesn’t want to be art. Painting walls doesn’t really interest me profoundly (though the combining of colours can be art for sure), but all music interests me as a musicologist. In the same way a linguist is interested in language in a general way.

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