What Qualifies as Music?

Music consists of three elements: rhythm, melody and harmony. If it lacks any one of those three elements, it’s not music anymore.

Back in my high school days, the most popular kind of music (according to record sales – which I never take much stock in) were boy bands. Yes, let’s hop in the way back machine to 1999. The Backstreet Boys’ Millennium, 98 Degrees and Rising, plus self-titled albums by N*Sync, Ricky Martin and Britney Spears ruled the airwaves.

The bane of my musical existence in 1999

Personally, I avoided this sugary sweet, unfulfilling and ultimately annoying brand of music. My heros of the day were Jay-Z, OutKast, Nas, Tupac and other hip-hoppers. I held their lyrical storytelling and head-nodding beats in high regard, and similarly denounced the corporate-manufactured pop music as a product of the shameless big music business machine. I still feel the same way today.

But that’s not the point of this blog. Back in the day, my friends, who also listened to hip-hop (we were few and far between in southern Indiana), also despised boy bands and pop princesses. We often trashed them with great vitriol, dismissing them as a sham of the music industry.

One argument that we used was basically this: It wasn’t real music because they didn’t play real instruments.

It seemed to make sense, given our preconceived notion that these bands were just shills for their record companies (that part I still don’t doubt). But that raises the question: What musical ability does an entertainer need in order to be considered a musician?

If you want to look at it that way, what instrument does a rapper play? In the same way JT, Lance, Joey, JC and Chris sang prepackaged harmonies, rappers would use only their voices to convey rhythm, melody and harmony. Often times, as I would later discover, using lyrics written by others. Fundamentally, some of my favorite rappers were no different than those annoying pretty boys with their stupid frosted blonde tips (can we all agree that frosted blonde tips should never EVER come back in style?).

In reality, music, like many other art forms, is a subjective experience, one that will differ from person to person. What one person sees as trash is another person’s proverbial cup of tea. While songs like “I Want it That Way” and “Bye Bye Bye” (let’s not even get into the abomination that LFO’s “Summer Girls” was) were the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard to me, I cannot deny that a significant number of people my age adore those songs to this day (you know who you are).

This mentality is still very much alive today. Most notably, it takes the form of people criticizing the rise in popularity of DJs and producers, who often times perform on stage with merely a laptop and perhaps a pair of turntables. The exact same argument is used to discount the idea that because an artist is making music with electronic instruments that it is somehow not music.

Still very much music

While I personally prefer live instrumentation, music that is made electronically is no less worthy of the definition of music since it contains rhythm, melody and harmony. It may not speak to everyone, but it does speak. Hip-Hop itself was born out of DJs using two turntables and a microphone, which predated the modern day MC. In that sense, pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa are not too different from the Calvin Harris’, Steve Aoki’s and Mark Ronson’s of today.

With this in mind, pop music is no different than the polarizing views people hold in regards to works of art like Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, Damien Hirst’s “Mother and Child” and basically the entire realm of Modern Art. The beauty or apathy are truly in the eye of the beholder.

So while you won’t catch me with a One Direction, Skrillex or New Kids on the Block record any time soon, that doesn’t mean I don’t respect it as a work of art that connects and speaks to so many other people. If it makes others happy, that’s cool even if that’s not what I prefer. It still holds rhythm, melody and harmony, which meets my definition of music.

Now let me get some of that “Party in the USA”, that’s what I call rhythm, melody and harmony!