Maybe most people have never encountered this question, at least not in a Music History class. Questions like it are often used to confuse-and-defuse a discussion in which a piece of music is being evaluated. Now one may rightly ask, "How can we evaluate this piece without a working definition of what a piece of music ought to be?" But more often the thrust of the question is, "Music is undefinable. This entire conversation is just noise." And indeed the group's reaction to this question is often rather noisy.
The problem with the question, at least in the manner it is often asked, is that it doesn't seek an answer. Someone can mean well by asking it, desiring for people to broaden their imagination of what music could be. But the question falls short of its goal if it never lifts a finger to shape the imagination. Simply tearing down our narrow conceptions leaves us hopeless. Wisdom comes through building something new on the old foundations.
What are the old foundations? They are that thing to which we ought to ascribe ultimate value and by which we evaluate all other things. Postmodern-leaning folks will deny the existence of an 'ought to' in that sentence. But they will have difficulty denying that we do in fact ascribe ultimate value to something. (If we value anything, it is a logical certainty that we value something the most.) That 'something' will determine all our definitions and value judgements, spoken and unspoken. Knowing our 'something' will give us a better handle on our conclusions once we have come to them.
To build a working definition of music I have chosen to make love the foundational 'something'. Love here means, "emptying oneself to fill the world". So, for example, a loving musician is a person utterly devoted to the musical craft but lacking any sense of ego. The self is emptied to fill the world. An unloving musician is a person for whom music and people are instruments of self-fulfillment. The world is emptied to fill the self.
What will a self-emptying, world-filling love produce in a definition of music? On the one hand, emptying ourselves of individual tastes and prejudices will cause us to embrace a definition that is broad, allowing for as much freedom and potential as possible. On the other hand, a desire to fill the world will steer us toward a definition that is personal and specific, infinitely ordered and meaningful. In short, a loving definition will be both perfectly free and perfectly ordered.
Marrying these twin perfections is rather like plotting the orbit of a planet around the sun. To keep the planet from spiraling in or out it must be placed precisely where the sun's gravity and its own momentum are most in balance. Yet even this analogy falls somewhat short. Because love is not satisfied seeking a point at which freedom and order cancel each other out. Love seeks to express them both completely and simultaneously.
Where can we find an example of freedom and order occupying the same space in this way? It doesn't seem logically possible. Order is by nature a limitation. Freedom, in the purest sense, has no limits. Yet history and experience demonstrate that these two work best when operating together. Freedom from order is chaos. Order without freedom is bondage. To lack even an ounce of freedom or order would be to allow some measure of bondage or chaos to exist at the root of our thinking and so pollute our love.
Yet to have the fullness of both would require a kind of transcendent logic that our material world does not provide. If all we have is the material, balancing freedom and order is at best a zero-sum game. This might be meagerly satisfying to some, but not to those for whom love is the ruling principle. Any crack in the foundation will risk the integrity of the entire building.
But how do we as material beings access a transcendent and spiritual logic? (I use the word 'spiritual' here to refer to something that cannot be grasped by sense or reason, and is therefore beyond the reach of science and philosophy.) The transcendent would have to reveal itself in words we could understand though never fully grasp. The spiritual would have to become material, and that somewhere we could find it.
This is not backdoor evangelism, just regular evangelism in the ancient sense of the word. John became an Evangelist, i.e. an author of one of the four Christian Gospels (Evangels), because he was an eyewitness to something he believed had solved the very question we are asking. In his Gospel John identifies Jesus Christ as the transcendent Word or Logic become human flesh, the only person in whom freedom and order are fully and simultaneously expressed.
Jesus claimed to be one with the Father, a God infinitely free and powerful. At the same time he insisted he could do nothing except what he saw his Father doing, which is an infinite limitation, however willfully self-imposed. In Jesus' mind these claims were not contradictory. Because for him it was possible to be perfectly one with the Father and perfectly himself all at once. In submitting his own potential to the Father's will, he did not abdicate the potential that was his by virtue of his union with the Father. Jesus later identified himself with the Spirit of God in a similar way. His statements are, of course, the source from which the Christian doctrine of the Trinity eventually arose.
If Jesus' statements are true as John believed they were, then we have a foundation on which to build a sufficiently free and ordered definition of music. If not, we still have the material world but not the materials we need to lay a solid foundation. Of course, we are not thereby compelled to accept Jesus' claims about himself. But a commitment to love as we have defined it will tend that way. For where on earth do we have a better example of self-emptying, world-filling love than in the work Jesus said he came to accomplish?
Provided we accept Jesus' statements as true, the foundation has already been laid. And in our next entry we may begin to build.