Is music just sounds? And what does it communicate? Alfred V. Fedak



Alfred V. Fedak, photo courtesy Selah

Composer, Organist and Minister of Music and the Arts,
Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York

Music is not just sound, it is organized sound. And composing is nothing more than the act of selecting sounds and organizing them. Even the most aleatoric compositions involve some degree of organization: decisions must be made (either by the composer or the performer) about when to begin, when to end, and what to do in between.

I think music communicates in at least three ways:

  1. A piece of music communicates itself. That is, it reveals itself as a unique organization of sounds with a particular set of characteristics.
  2. A piece of music also communicates something about its composer. At the very least, it discloses some of the decisions he or she made in working out the piece.
  3. Finally, a piece of music communicates emotion or feeling, although it’s not always easy to put into words exactly what the emotional content of a given work might be. Feelings are subjective, so that two individuals could very well experience different emotions while hearing the same piece. Moreover, the association of specific emotional states with particular types of music is to some degree a learned phenomenon, and one which varies from culture to culture. Nevertheless, the power of music to convey emotion is and has always been universally recognized.