Is it Music?

Even if an artist defies labeling, her output cannot avoid one categorization. That is the label of ‘music’. One of the most stinging critiques of a musician’s work is the denial of this identity: “That isn’t even music”. Pieces like John Cage’s 4’33 and techniques like sampling have received such remarks.

How do we try to come to the aid of 4’33 and sampling? By what means do we try to legitimize something as ‘music’ or ‘musical’?

Paul Spencer Sternberger explores such strategies with photography in Between Amateur & Aesthete: The Legitimization of Photography as Art in America. 

Many photographers took to the work of John Burnet, a classicist at the time who wrote extensively on the theory of art and composition. For photographers, many looked down on the camera. What they were doing was not considered art by many. Burnet’s ideas served as a lens for which photographers could see what they were doing as art:

“There were rules that made art, rules that reflected the operation of the mind. If the aesthetic could lie in the reference to tradition, then the thoughtful, educated photographer could speak the language of art and thus create photographic art”.

It is the language of art that makes the art. Sternberger mentions this earlier, stating that “[a]rt, these writers insisted, was measured not by the mode of representation but by the established standards that guided the creative process”.

Whether one is using turntables and old records to create is a non-issue. What matters is whether this DJ is aware of and knowledgeable of working within”the established standards that [guide] the creative process”. If this appeal can be made, legitimacy follows.

The question then is what are the “established standards” of music? To know why one cannot open the door, a knowledge of the door is the key. If we can understand the standards of music and how they work, we can better understand why something might be labeled as ‘not music’.


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