Can we define music?

No matter how hard we try, we can’t define music. Music is a fleeting idea that all of us grasp, but no one can formalize. A myriad of musicians, scholars as well as ordinary men attempted to find a comprehensive definition of music, but no one succeeded. Every definition focuses on some aspects of music, ignoring other relevant characteristics. The results are crippled definitions that tell just a part of the entire story. So, what are the main problems with the definition of music? First, music is a very broad idea. Secondly, music works on different levels of reality. Thirdly, music is too complex to be defined in a reductionist fashion.

Music spans several disciplines and fields. Although music is a form of art, however, it’s just impossible to describe music only from the artistic point of view, without appearing at least naive. Indeed, music is strictly related to a bunch of other disciplines such as philosophy, biology, cognitive science, sociology, mathematics, physics and linguistics to name a few. Therefore, an ontological definition of music must consider all these different angles to be credible. However, the effort to harmonize all these different perspectives is simply overwhelming.

Music is a phenomenon that appears at the physical, psychological, social and cultural levels. Yet again, a thorough definition of music should be capable of harmonizing all of these different levels of reality. However, definitions of music usually focus on one of the different levels. This process leads to a problem of perspective. Rather than describing music as a multi-layered phenomenon, the definitions of music usually flatten the idea of music. On the other hand, music is a high dimensional concept that embraces several domains. This richness is what makes music a unique phenomenon within the human realm. However, this power of expression entails an overall ambiguity and fuzziness which surround the concept of music, and make it impossible to formally define.

Music is a highly complex phenomenon that can’t be reduced in a sentence or two. This issue is directly grounded within the Western mind-set. The idea of isolating deterministic behaviours which guide natural as well as cultural phenomenon is a well-established Western tradition. Although this approach paid off endless times in science, however, it can’t work for music. Indeed, music is too complex to be synthesized in a simple deterministic formula. As a consequence, all the attempts made to find an ontological definition of music are doomed to failure. The impossibility of defining music is but one of the numerous barriers nature put in front of us when we try to discover things. This is a knowledge boundary similar to the uncertainty principle by Heisenberg in physics, or the theorem of incompleteness by Godel in logic.

So, should we desist from further attempts to define music? Well…I’d say yes, but I’d also say that this is the wrong question to ask. I believe that we should focus on finding a functional description of music, rather than spending time in an effortless exercise to capture the ontological nature of music. This is a more pragmatic approach, that aims at finding a number of important features that music shows. Following this path, I propose a systemic approach to analyze music, which leads to a functional description of music. Indeed, I describe music as a recursive, complex, adaptive, living system. Since every single word in this sentence deserves a rich explanation, I’ve planned to publish some posts to cover these topics later.

How do you define music?