Musicking and Reshaping our Definition of Music


There’s this guy named Christopher Small who I’m assuming you haven’t heard of (I also had no idea who he was when I first read his name). He was this guy from New Zealand who wrote a lot about music and its function. I want to share some of his ideas with you all because I think they  are valuable for music lovers and could change what music means in a beneficial way.    

In a speech that Small gave in 1995, he says, “I realized that if music isn’t a thing but an action, then the word ‘music’ shouldn’t be a noun at all. It ought to be a verb. The verb ‘to music’. Not just to express the idea of performing — we already have verbs for that — but to express the idea  

of taking part in a musical performance.” Let’s think about this. Why is music more than a thing? As Small points out earlier, music is not just a sheet of staff paper or a vinyl recording. Music can be an arena concert or singing in the car with your friends or humming to yourself. To take part in that, you must do it actively, leading to why Small wants us to rethink music as a verb,  not a noun. Music always includes doing something.  

“This is how I have redefined it,” he says, “…To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance. That means not only to perform, but also to listen, to provide material for a  performance — what we call composing — to prepare for a performance — what we call practicing  or rehearsing — or any other activity which can affect the nature of the human encounter.” As you  can see, the new definition is broad. It’s loose and its parameters can move. That’s what I find so cool about it. Musicking, the verb Small provides, is an overarching word to capture all that (what we now call) music is and can be.  

Music as an action, to me, gives endless possibilities. This gets into some trippy territory when Small explains, “to take part in a musical performance is to take part in a ritual whose relationships mirror, and allow us to explore and celebrate, the relationships of our world as we  imagine them to be.” I would emphasize that according to Small’s ideas, musical performance means more than a concert/show, it is much greater, a place where everyone is involved. Musicking bonds people together and creates an intricate web of relationships. In my opinion, viewing music as a collective experience strips away of the power structure between performer  and listener. It brings us closer to a space where everyone is valued equally. I note this because thinking about other things (such as life maybe) through this lens of collective experience may be on the path to a positive change…  

This idea ties into The Nation of Ulysses, a 90’s DC punk band, whose first principle of live  shows was “Liberation for this room.” The point of the performance was to free the room from  the world. And that meant liberation for everyone there, not just the performers. I’d guess that  Small would be proud of that principle. If you are a performer who is reading this, next time you  perform I challenge you to keep that idea in mind. 

Asking someone what is the function of music is a difficult question. But, I do think Small is on the right path with musicking. Musical performance could all be about the collective experience  and building community. Imagine where music could go with that. Imagine where the world  could go with that. That’s why I chose to write about it and share it with you. So, next time you  are doing anything related to music, listening, seeing a concert (when it’s safe), or dancing in  your room to name a few examples, view yourself as a integral part of a larger network of  collective musicking.  

Lastly, here is a video of my favorite band Fugazi performing “Bad Mouth” in DC back in 1991.  This video is an unbeatable visual example of musicking and how sublime it could be. Notice  how the energy moves when the song picks up.  

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