Just what is music? — Hugh Wetmore

At our weekly “Chat” session here at Glenhaven Retirement Centre, the general manager Rene gave her usual announcements. One was this: “We will play background music during mealtimes in the dining room. There will music — not noise”

“Music, not noise!”. This was a not-so-subtle commentary on the current sound that passes for music, on radio stations and other media. If you don’t know what I mean, simply tune in to the SAfm talk-shows (Jet-set Breakfast, etc. 07h05 on weekends).  My ears can’t stand the screeching cacophony of many of the pop songs they play..

I wondered: “What is the basic definition of music?” 

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On my bookshelf is the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, 1996 Edition. But nowhere in its 815 pages does it have an entry “music”!  That surprised me.  But on reflection I mused that in a dictionary of music it is assumed everyone knows what music is.

I looked up the big-daddy book The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1444 pages). This is how it defines music: “Art of combining sounds with a view to beauty of form & expression of emotion; pleasant sound …”  That’s what I’ve always thought. That’s music”. Chambers Dictionary (694 pages) is a more down-to-earth authority on words, and it simply says: “Melody or harmony; the art of combining sounds so as to please the ear.”

By contrast, “noise” is defined as “Loud outcry, clamour, shouting. din; a loud or harsh sound”.

Why is “noise” paraded as “music”? The only parallel I can think of is this: these days many women have been conditioned to accept gender-based violence as normal, and call it “love”. It has become so common, so widespread, they accept it as normal. They don’t imagine there is another way of living with their partner.

In the same way, people’s ears have been so bombarded with noise that they can’t imagine there is any other kind of music.  Their sensitivities to “beautiful, pleasant sounds” have been so desensitised that they can’t imagine there is another sound called music.

It is into this twisted context that we Christians try to promote beautiful praise and worship songs, psalms and hymns in our churches. For six days of the week many of us are being brain-washed to think of noise as music. On the seventh day we are exposed to the beautiful, pleasant melodies and harmonies of true music. 

Let’s tackle this daunting task with imagination and courage!

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  1. I totally agree. Please cut down on the noise in the background, in church and other places.
    I’ve developed a condition called hyperacusis, which makes my hearing super-sensitive to high-pitched tones, loud drumming, etc.
    Also, worship music is not for entertainment but for drawing into His presence, where God is the focus and not the musicians.

  2. I agree with Hugh Whetmore.
    This is why I’m also not a fan of Schoenberg and Bartok’s discordant compositions (I won’t call them music). Recently, the KZNPO featured avant garde SA composer Roelof Temmingh’s piano concerto, very well played by his son, but it didn’t gel with me.
    I call dodecaphony (the 12-note system) dodecacophony! I’ve also wondered whether the veneration of such avant garde pioneers isn’t another case of the “the king has no clothes”!

  3. I trust that this wonderful account by Hugh is not misconstrued as a ‘dig’ at what is referred to as contemporary christian praise & worship music.

    Praise & Worship music from the throne of heaven that bears fruit can be discerned and recognised on the following biblical grounds:
    Gal 5:22 – 23 ESV “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”.