When we listen, we do not feel an isolated sound event as musical. I mean, maybe because I am a guitarist and we cannot produce loooong sounds, an event of relatively short duration. Obviously, a single sound that lasts ten minutes or ten seconds, and changes of colour and intensity may very well be felt as musical – in this sense, the wind is music, or the rain, or the sea. An infinite number of poets had felt and said this since the world exists.
The problem is that neither the wind nor the rain nor tha sea have any particular intention of structuring the sound, of leading things in a certain direction (in the short run) and govern the general shape of things while the wind or the rain or the waves of the sea last. Rain at least has a definite form. It always begins by dots, densifies until being continuous, and ends with a diminuendo and rallentando, maybe irregular but clearly perceived as such). The noise the waves make has peaks, more or less irregular, but always with a certain rythmic surprise. The wind is unstable by nature, but microstructures can be fascinating. But, without the intention of structuring, the feeling of hearing music in a natural phenomenon lasts only as long as our concentration. (See below about Cage, in case you think it is an exception).
I propose that we simplify things a little bit in order to understand what is happening when we listen to music.
Let’s imagine I hit a table with a stick. This would be just somebody making noise, hitting a table, a meaningless noise. KONCK.. If I repeat it but softer, KNOCK knock, it is already an echo. If I make it louder the second time, knock KNOCK, then it has a different meaning: it is ominous, an announcement or a threat – however, it makes me pay attention. If I do a rallentando knock knock knock knock knock knock … or a diminuendo KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK knock .... or an accelerando or a crescendo (I spare you the visuals ) then I would say that I perceive these undoubtedly as musical. Because I think I detect an intention in these sound events.
Then music is not what the sounds make, but what lies in between sounds. Its meaning comes from this relationship between sounds, and only from it. It is us listeners who are really making music, relating sound events and attributing intention to them.
This is because we are animals of meaning.
A composer governs this intention, or tries to – sometimes this intent overwhelms him, and the interpreter, who realizes the work in actual sounds, does exactly the same, with the only difference of trying to discover the intent of the composer. The awesome thing is that the intention is there, even if the composer did not have it. Every composition student learns this early in the game.
So: we relate the pitches and call this relationship intervals, we relate the dynamics and call them crescendi or diminuendi (I’m simplifying of course), we relate the durations and call them rhythm. With timbres (sound colour), we have more problems, and unless the other parameters are neutralized (because they are stronger) we cannot really follow a melody of colours, a coherent sequence of sound colours – the famous Klangfarbenmelodie which Schoenberg invented (he liked to invent things, not only in music) and used for the first time ever in one of the “Five Pieces for Orchestra”. This is why Schoenberg limited himself to one chord, and Ligeti to clusters in Atmosphères. To avoid distraction from the main thing.
Composer, interpreter and listener are all connected by something that cannot be detected unless you have already made the connection yourself. Music is the ultimate “do it yourself”. What is between the sounds, from a material, physical, point of view, does not exist. Of course the sounds do exist, but not the connection between them. When Cage or whoever chooses his sound events with aleatory methods he is giving us a Rorschach blot that, want it or not, we interpret, relate to, structure, and make sense of – that is, music.
Exactly like the case of natural phenomena. If we find music in them, it is also ourselves making it.
Then: music does not exist. But we make it nonetheless. Maybe we are not so solid either.