After ten years reading and writing about, discussing, and listening to music – not to mention a lifetime practising and playing – I asked myself – ‘what is music?’. I came up with the following list:

It’s taste.

It’s thinking.

It’s training, practice and discipline.

It’s feeling, intuition and imagination.

It’s freedom and creativity.

It’s now, and the countless hours/days/years/histories before.

It’s movement.

It’s a constant challenge.

It – music – seems quite difficult, characterised by contradictory forces. At the same time, many of the ideas on this list cast music as natural, easy, and enjoyable. Perhaps in this contradiction is something intrinsic to making/listening to/remembering all music?

I realise that, ironically, the question – ‘what is music’ – isn’t musical. It’s not a musical question because it seems limiting, reifying, defining.

Joseph Cummins 2

So, what I mean is, ‘what is music to me?’

It’s newness and it’s nostalgia.

It’s fun and it’s deadly serious.

It’s playful and it’s a chore.

It’s about discovering something new and it’s about returning to old favourites.

It’s people and it’s places – (the whole world and beyond it) – and it’s also inside our heads.

It’s bodies and it’s machines.

It’s political and it’s cosmological.

It’s the everyday and it’s forever.

It’s being rooted to the spot and being blown away.

It’s horror and it’s joy.

It’s heavy and it’s light.

It’s being happy with something, and striving for something better.

It’s a mass of sounds (and silences) and it’s a single sine tone.

It’s sound and it’s the idea of sound.

It’s something to me and it’s nothing to you (but you might find your own way in!)

It’s time and it’s space.

It’s tension and release.

That’s why, to me, music is so interesting, so confounding, so fascinating. I’m not sure if that sums it all up, but at least is covers some of the force and diversity of what music is to me.

Under all of these swirling harmonies, I’ve learned that in music: relationships are central – listening is foundational – improvising is hard.

Above all: As a wise teacher once told me – when I was trying to play jazz but was learning more about everything else – Same thing, many ways (= great art)

What does music mean to you?

Joseph Cummins is an academic/performer/composer living in Melbourne. He writes about contemporary Australian literature and music, plays trumpet in a variety of improvisational and world music groups, and composes music. Joseph's latest musical project aims to fuse his varied compositional tastes with the aesthetics of contemporary electronic music, and is a collaborative project with three vocalists/friends.