A portion from the first chapter of my forthcoming book, Music: Notation and Practice in Past and Present, published by National Social Science Press.
Before discussing the seven elements [of music] in detail, it is important to think about just what constitutes a piece of music. We are all aware of the existence of songs that have been recorded multiple times by different artists, or even by the same artists. These “covers” may hold very closely to the original or may be completely different, even falling into a separate style. Are all these versions separate pieces, or species of the same piece? With a painting or a sculpture, it is possible to point to a specific object—perhaps even to pick it up and consider its physical properties. Similarly, a book or a poem has a specific text that is the work of literature, and while there may be variant editions, there is a core sense of being to a book that keeps even different versions of the same story somehow separated from each other. No one would dare suggest that a novel, its abridgement and its translation into a foreign language are all the same book, although we may study the similarities and differences.
A piece of music, though, seems somehow more mutable. Without the physical objects of the painting, the sculpture or the book, there is no art, but music can be completely without any sort of tangible representation. Even musical notation, one of the great inventions of European civilization, is not, of itself, the actual music, but rather relates to the experience of music in the way that a recipe in a cookbook is representative of actual food. Cookbooks, of course, are extremely useful, interesting and often inspiring, but they cannot sustain, cannot satisfy, cannot taste the way that even the plainest tofu or simplest piece of fruit can. A musical score is much the same. It instructs, it reminds, it inspires, it describes, and it communicates at far removes of time and space, but it is not the music itself.
The technology of sound recording, first developed in the late 19th century and advanced and marketed in ever more complexity and availability since then, also bears consideration. When a consumer purchases a recording, whether in a physical or digital format, she tends to feel that she “owns” whatever music is in the recording. But to what extent is this really the case? Recordings may have very high fidelity, but does the experience of listening to a recording equate to the experience of listening to a live performance? Listening to a recording lacks the human interaction of live performance—seeing the expressions on the faces of performers and the potential for performers to react to unique events in the audience that no recording, audio or video, can replicate.
The only conclusion, then, is that the actual existence of a piece of music lies not in written notation or in recorded performance. Music somehow has an existence beyond all these things. It is beyond notation and recording. It exists first in the human mind, and perhaps most purely there, and like a map that inevitably has to overlook some details, music cannot be fully represented except in live performance, and perhaps not then.