Music is something that should be referred to in the plural

When you think about what music is, the answer varies from person to person. In fact, it is very difficult to define.

For example, music may literally mean to produce the “sound” first and “enjoy” it.

However, in 1952, American composer John Cage released 4’33”, a piece of music in which the pianist sits at the piano and does not play a single note during the 4 minutes and 33 seconds of performance. In other words, it is music without sound.

Of course, it has been debated whether it is music or not, but during those 4 minutes and 33 seconds, the audience listens attentively to the sounds made by chance at the spot.

For example, the sound of a chair moving, the rustling of clothes, the sound of a person breathing… John Cage showed that not only what is played, but all the sounds in a space can become music.

In this sense, music may be an expression or communication through sounds.

In fact, similar attempts have been made elsewhere. For example, in France, experimental music called musique concrète has been created since the 1940s.

This involves recording sounds of everyday life, such as human voices, animal noises, and the sounds of nature, and mechanically processing them to form music.

This technology has led to the Beatles’ active use of audio editing technology in their works and sampling in today’s hip-hop and other music.

In this sense, it is very interesting to see how attempts in contemporary music, which has a strong experimental aspect and is rarely listened to by the general public, can be applied to popular music and spread farther.

Japanese composer Takemitsu Toru also talked about how there is always music in this space, using the concept of “a river of sound.” He said that everyday life is always full of sounds and that composing music is capturing the right sounds to listen to in this river of sounds.

His idea that music is composed by grasping sounds from the river of sounds is very Japanese, as opposed to the Western idea that music is composed by reconstructing the sounds of everyday life with machines.

In this way, even if we interpret music as communication through sounds, there are various attempts and approaches.

In short, there are diverse definitions of music, and I believe that music should be referred to as having this plural sense.

On the other hand, Western music, generally known as classical music, aims to create universal music.

Western music aiming for universality is one type of musical culture

Today, when we think about music, we usually assume that there are melodies and harmonies, scores written in music sheets and that major keys sound cheerful and minor keys sound dark.

However, those are systems of Western music that the West has systematized over a long period, and it is also a culture.

For example, Japan had its own musical culture before the arrival of Western music.

However, after the Meiji era, Western music became the center of music education, and today we consider Western music to be music. In a way, it is as if we are speaking in a foreign language in music.

Of course, Western music permeates not only Japan but also the world. I think it is because Western music has aimed for universality.

Whether it is equal temperaments or chords, major keys or minor keys, it results from various trial-and-error processes. In the process, Western music has theoretically systematized the mechanism of music, including physically analyzing how sound is made. So there may be a structure of sound that people accept somewhat naturally.

But this does not mean Japanese musical culture was inferior. Rather, it has a very rich musical expression. Likewise, there is no superiority or inferiority between the English and Japanese languages.

For example, minor keys may sound dark to everyone, but this may not be so to people outside the Western culture.

That is, Western music has built up the theory that includes physical analysis, which has undoubtedly made it a highly influential musical culture, but it is by no means universal.

Therefore, there is a movement to develop a music theory different from Western music, called Lydian Chromatic Concept. This was devised by jazz musician George Russell in the 1940s and published in the early 1950s.

Jazz developed in the U.S. as African American musical culture and Western music blended. In terms of theory, it is based on Western music theory. However, George Russell pursued the construction of a new music theory that fit African American sensibilities, different from Western music theory.

For African Americans, their music has been their identity and their pride.

Music is all the more interesting because it is diverse, flexible, and changing

In fact, Takemitsu Toru sometimes felt a sense of strangeness about Western music. He said that the sonata form of Western music characterized by the confrontation of two different themes did not suit the sensibilities of Eastern people and sought a new approach.

When working on music for film, he also incorporated the sounds of the shakuhachi (Japanese vertical bamboo flute) and biwa (Japanese lute), saying that the orchestra’s sound would be odd in a samurai scene.

In addition to Takemitsu, many other Japanese musicians have worked on such efforts. On the other hand, Debussy of France, and others, paid attention to Japanese culture as well as gamelan, traditional Indonesian music, in an attempt to break free from the framework of Western music.

In short, music comes in many forms, and it may be difficult to make it universal. To put it another way, music is all the more interesting because it is diverse, flexible, and changing.

I myself compose music, and I feel that the process is similar to a journey.

For example, when I compose for an orchestra, it is essential to understand the orchestra, its performance history, etc. It is the same whether it is for composing for violins or shakuhachi.

What is important and necessary is to know the world of each instrument. Then, we can understand that the world has the cultural background, geographical characteristics, changes over time, and so on. It is like traveling to different worlds.

I sometimes collaborate on other creative activities such as film and art. Through such collaboration, I can learn things that were previously unknown to me. It feels like a journey.

I think such a journey expands and enriches my world.

Today, it has become relatively easy for people who have never been involved in music creation to compose and play music with the support of advanced ICT and AI technologies.

It enables many people to become exposed to music more often, thereby increasing the possibility of new expressions being created. In that sense, we are living in very exciting times.

Meanwhile, I believe that not only using the latest technology, but also traveling through the unique world of each type of music will also lead to expanding our world.

Even with the advanced technologies, this way of approaching music will not be lost in the future. As long as music continues to be plural.

* The information contained herein is current as of September 2021.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.