On a Monday morning a few weeks ago, on one of the first beautiful spring days this year, I went out for a walk. I was passing by the rather empty mall when I saw a car being loaded onto a trailer down the street. Something was obviously wrong with the car, because its alarm kept triggering at odd moments. It would sound a few times, then it would stop for a moment; then it would start again. Normally, something like this would hardly catch my attention. The thing is, this car alarm was unusual. It wasn’t that annoying HONK of jarring, dissonant notes that is fairly standard. Nor was it like the one by my apartment that varies, cycling through its many alarms. The changes make it somehow more annoying, when it goes from BEEP BEEP BEEP to HONK HONK to WHOOOOP WHOOOOP WHOOOOP to EEOOEEEOOEEOO and then loops back to BEEP BEEP BEEP until the owner finds his remote and finally silences the silly thing. No, this alarm honked, in steady, moderate rhythm, a chord: a major seventh, to be exact. For a car alarm, it was quite pleasant, almost, dare I say, musical. As it started going off, yet again, while I was walking away, the thought struck me how nice it is to find music in places you wouldn’t expect.
Yes, there are the times when you hear intentional music at an unexpected moment, like when you’re lying in the sun and you just barely catch strains of music floating gently on the breeze — from a passing ice cream truck, or perhaps your neighbor’s house. When you’re in the library, focused on your book, and someone’s cell phone starts playing vaguely familiar music. Suddenly recognizing the song playing in the car next to you as you wait at a red light.
However, there are also the times when I hear musical elements where there were none intended. Sure, the car alarm probably was designed to be tolerable rather than the borderline painful sound that so many are, but the combination of rhythm and tone sounded like some sort of jazz music to me, a passer-by, where it was probably just noise, very annoying noise, to the two guys trying to load the car onto the back of the tow truck.
To me, mechanical tapping, if it is constant, starts to sound like the backdrop rhythm drumbeat of a song, so I start tapping along on whatever I have at hand. I hear the hum of a computer or a fan and I find the nearest note to it and I sing along. In middle school, when we got a new school building, we had bells! It was completely foreign. Well, it took about two bells for me to ask myself, “I wonder what note that is.” Two band classes later, armed with my flute at the start of class, I discovered that it played a G5. From then on, I and a couple of my fellow flautists would race to play along with the opening bell to signal the start of band class. Or take fire alarms as another example. So many I have heard use a “beep-beep-beep-pause” pattern. Ever since we had that first fire drill in the new school building, I started jamming out to it. Granted it is difficult to jam out to something that warns of impending doom while simultaneously making your ears bleed, but I still did. Years of music, and maybe some quirk of my brain, compels me to discover the music in whatever sounds I hear.
Once, in a college music class, the conversation turned to determining what makes something “art”. Is birdsong “music”, or is it noise? Why do we commonly call a real flower “natural”, but a painting of a flower is “artwork”? What is the defining characteristic that makes something art?
The conversation went around and around for half an hour. Is this art? Is that art? Why? Bob, the teacher, played devil’s advocate, turning our definitions on their heads and inciting us to debate with each other. Finally, when us students had run out of ideas and stopped talking from confusion, Bob gave us a way to answer, “Is it art?” that has satisfied me most.
Art requires an artist.
Birdsong is music if, and only if, one considers the bird the artist of the song. A flower is art if you consider nature, or God, or whomever, as the artist. Without an artist, an object of beauty is just an everyday object, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The reverse is also true — what looks like a random happening becomes art when it was created by an artist. As much as some may say, “That looks like I spilled my coffee,” or “It’s a lightbulb, so what?” or “How is that music if he’s not playing anything?” that is the qualification. The artist created it to be art, so it is art.
Art is intentional. And so it is with music.
Find something beautiful, put a frame around it, and you have made art. By recognizing existing beauty and declaring it art, you have taken that thing from being a chance occurrence to being a masterpiece. By taking an ordinary set of sounds and listening with the right ears, you can change noise into music.
Music and Perception was about recognizing the intentional art that has been taken out of context, out of the gilded frame, and put into an unexpected place. This time, I want you to see the not-music around you that becomes music when put into the right context, when seen in the right Frame of Mind.
The silhouettes created by sunlight filtering through the trees.
The contrast of having a cigarette can next to a pot of flowers.
The changing notes of the attic fan as it powers up.
The call-and-response of the birds outside.
The shape of words on a page.
The repetitive clanks of your car when it is dying.
The subtly different pitches of the floor as it squeaks with each step.
The music of the everyday is all around you.
Keep an ear open for it.