Timeline: Where Is Music?

Jan 22, 2018

On Timeline we’ve asked a lot of questions; what is music? How was music created? Why is music written? Here’s another interesting question I’d love for us to ponder, where is music?

Is music found in the score? Is it the notation, the written down notes and staves, preserved to be read and reinterpreted?

This is the beautiful main reading room of the Library of Congress.
Credit U.S. - Public Domain

At 101 Independence Ave in Washington DC you’ll find the Library Congress. It contains the world’s largest collection of musical scores with almost 10 million items; not just scores but manuscripts, letters, photographs, all manner of different musical items. You can access this vast library in person or online. Is that where the music is?

Perhaps music is found in the recordings we’ve made over the years. In our studios at Vermont Public Radio we have a library of thousands of CDs on racks of shelves from floor to ceiling. But that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to how much music has been recorded. There are 47 million different tracks available on iTunes alone not to mention the many other streaming services in a vast musical marketplace. In 2011 there was a conservative estimate that there are around 97 million individual recorded songs. Is that where music is?

I took a quick snapshot of our stacks of CDs at Vermont Public Radio.
Credit James Stewart

You’re probably saying no or maybe or “I don’t know”. Perhaps you think that music exists at the time of creation, at the concert in the hall, stadium or parlor or in the recording studio when the artist lays down the tracks. The musician plays the music, the listener experiences it and that’s where it is. But is that true either? Music (like film, theater and dance) is a temporal art. That means it has to be experienced over the course of time. You listen to a beginning, middle and end before you’ve heard the whole piece. So at any one point, where is it? Also, if it is only found at the moment it’s played then where is the music when a piece is read from a score or played on a recording?

What we are really talking about is a question of ontology, a mode of existence. I think we can all agree that music exists and we have useful definitions of what it is, how it is and how much of it there is. But this question of where it is in relationship to everything else is much more difficult to grasp.

So, at the risk of being completely self-serving, let me give you my answer to this question. I believe that music exists inside you. Let me explain. When you listen to a piece of music you are taking individual moments, different colors and textures of sound and building in your mind a memory of what you’ve heard. You recognize a melody. You respond to the harmony of the accompaniment. You recognize the form as ideas come back and repeat. You are constructing the work in your mind as you listen. When the music is done there is a sculpture of organized sounds, observed and catalogued. As you think about the piece you’ve just heard you don’t have to replay the whole thing, you have the important information stored and you respond all at once. You found it moving, beautiful, grotesque, repetitive, sappy, intelligent or whatever. You can instantly recall the moments that drew your attention or that you just flat out did not like. The musical work is now inside you.

We marvel at tales of composers who could hear an entire symphony in one moment of inspiration but the truth of the matter is you do this every time you listen to or remember a piece of music. The music is inside you.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Listen through the Timeline on our web app.