Is “Conceptual Art” Music?


There’s a large chance that most of you reading this blog know something about conceptual art.  For example, “perform a disciplined action” or “draw a straight line and follow it” focus on concept–an abstract idea or formulation of the mind.  Some of these concepts are quite interesting, and many are provocative or even controversial.

I don’t doubt that these are art.  After all, anything can be art.  That’s right; I said it.  Anything presented as something created, something newly organized, can be art.  But, are these conceptual pieces music?

I think that after all is said and done, anything that sounds–anything that makes a sound–can be considered music.  The days of controversy that Cage introduced are gone, and the battle is over.  The debate over what sounds are music and what aren’t is futile and comes down to silly semantics, so I think it’s obvious that the day is won for those claiming that any sound can be music.

But, to return to the question at hand, since conceptual pieces don’t always make sound, I don’t think they’re necessarily music.  For example, let’s say your conceptual piece is the famous slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”.  You decide to perform it by tossing empty soup cans from last night’s dinner into your recycling bin like a basketball player.  Whether you do this in your driveway or in a concert hall, the cans are going to make a clamor and roll around, creating a ruckus of a sound.  This is conceptual art that is music.  However, if you decided the night before to perform this piece, you might decide to reduce your soup consumption by not opening another can of soup after you’ve already poured two into the pot on the stove.  You’re still performing the piece (by reducing), but you haven’t created any sound.

I think that silence alone shouldn’t be considered music; silence with sound is music, but silence with no sound is nothing musical.  So, in my view conceptual art that results in the creation of a sound is music, but conceptual art that does not result in the creation of a sound is not music.

To conclude, it is indeed possible for conceptual art to be musical.  But, it is still very possible for it to not be musical.  It depends on the piece (and very often with conceptual pieces) the performance.  While there is no doubt that it is art, take heed–not all art is music.

What do you think?  Do you think this is a valid assessment?

Thanks for reading,

Dan

4 thoughts on “Is “Conceptual Art” Music?

  1. Daniel Davis

    I have always struggled with this, and I wanted to thank you for your clarity. On the whole I agree with your perspective. That said, Cage’s 4’33” is (or can be) musical… but it all depends on random outside events that have nothing to do with the performance other than that they happened within ear shot during the time designated as Cage’s 4’33” – the best performance of this that I have experienced was when a single engine plane flew directly over the building of the performance, the whole sequence starting with the distant plane getting closer and closer-louder and louder, the slight pitch bend effect as it passed overhead and then the ever decreasing sound that finally ended in silence. That is the only “musical” experience I have had with the piece.

    1. Hi Daniel,
      That is a good issue to bring up of unintended sounds, and I like your assessment of how they can cause silence to be musical too. One of my favorite concert experiences was when an ambulance passed outside a church I was in while listening to a colleague perform an organ recital. It passed by during some Messiaen, and the siren fit perfectly into the piece, but it makes me wonder if the ambulance became part of the piece, even if only for that one concert.

  2. Interesting article and views. (Sorry for being a little late to the party) I have a thought, though: what do you think about imagined sound? Perhaps physical actions, static images, or video which convey the presence of sound without actually creating any sonic (manipulation/agitation of the air) results, or which create sound in the imagination should be considered music? After all, art and music is created in/by the mind…

    Is this art which can be considered music?

    1. Hi James, Thank you for this. That is a great point you bring up. I would argue that since anything can be imagined, and since it matters what we bring into actual existence more than what we imagine, imagined sounds, while valid, are not music since they are not physical objects. But, your point is valid–what we perceive is just as much the music as what exists, because what it exists as to us is what we think of when we refer to the music. Thank you for furthering this discussion! Dan

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