Defining Music ?

         François Nicolas

Translation : Octavia Haure


This is a french text translated into English, chosen from a chapter of a book on André Boucourechliev written by François Nicolas :


I will undertake to examine some of the propositions that André Boucourechliev has put forward 1. 

I first encountered André, as others have done, as a voice on the radio, then as an author writing on the music of Schumann, later through his music -  I was introduced to his work through his piece Ombres - and only finally as a face and in person when, on an the invitation of a friend, I attended a conference at his college.

In his seminars I heard him state what he considered to be a plausible definition of music – a definition later published in his book  Le Langage Musical.  By way of a reminder, in this definition he expresses music as “a system of differences using sound to structure time” 2.

Music defined by a musician? This is not as straightforward as it seems – and I shall return to this question later.

I have been equally struck by some of Boucourechliev’s other propositions. One related to the unity of the work and the role devolved to the listener. Boucourechliev, who was always fond of debate, stated, “You are the unity of the work” 3, with “you” being the listener. 

A further proposition related to the specific role of the interpreter in opening up the work. Boucourechliev could have formulated this as “He is the opening up of the work”, a variation of his previous statement, with “he” being the musician interpreting the work 4.

A final proposition related to the role of the composer and, essentially, supported the idea that the work creates the composer rather than the reverse. He wrote, “the artist emerges from his music” 5. Boucourechliev, this time adopting the vocabulary of Boris de Schloezer, expresses this as: the self of the composer is “a separate self - soaring above his commonplace identity” 6.

So, today, let us take a closer look at these four propositions:

1)    music is a system of differences using sound to structure time;

2)    You - the listener - create the unity of a work;

3)    The opening up – the unfolding - of the work is the concern of the interpreter;

4)    The self – the identity - of the composer is created by his musical composition.

My aim is to examine the relationships between these four propositions. I would like to explore their underlying cohesion rather than demonstrate their harmony by a separate discussion of each of them.

However each of these propositions does, of course, deserve individual attention.

I wholeheartedly agree with the fourth. The composer is of very little consequence when working on a piece of music.

I feel less certain of the third.  I find the concept of opening up musical works unconvincing. Nor do I feel that the value of a musical interpretation is derived from this. I am equally unsure about the second, where the listener is privileged with creating the unity of the work. However I do welcome the suggested definition of music.

These proximities or distances of thought are, after all, the terms of ordinary debate, and in no way diminished the enormous pleasure I experienced in devoting myself to these discussions with André Boucourechliev in the 1980s.

My central argument, which I feel is revealed by the coherence of Boucourechliev’s comments, is based on the very principle of his attempt to define music. By this I mean not the content of his definition, but whether defining music is relevant to a musician. So, in fact, this is not a question of investigating the definition stated, but oddly enough examining why Boucourechliev chose to define music. This choice is in many ways more pertinent than those definitions that commonly circulate concerning music, such as music being “the art of sounds” 7.

His statement is therefore one of a musician making a conscious decision to theorise about the language of music.

I find it most surprising that a musician should think it necessary to have recourse to a definition of music at the outset of his musical treatise. Even Boucourechliev seems surprised, enquiring “Supposing we were to establish a definition, what would we do with it?”  8.

André would never have dreamed of defining his Jeanne, his lifelong companion. However music cannot be considered by musicians to be this same kind of proper noun, requiring no further definition. André Boucourechliev, as we shall see, did think it necessary to define his own art – as a necessary step in his reflective theorising as a musician.

Yet I too am surprised that a musician should feel it necessary to define music.

The very idea of defining music seems paradoxical for a musician reflecting on music.

Of course one could choose a definition empirically. However, to have recourse to such preliminary definitions is unusual.  That a particular musician might conjure up a definition of music in conversation or a letter is one thing, but it is quite another to have recourse to a fully-formed definition at the outset of a theoretical venture.

Neither Boulez, nor Stockhausen, nor Pousseur – if we just look at Boucourechliev’s peers, his equals in contemporary music theory - defined music, but nor did Schoenberg, Wagner (at least to my knowledge), or Schumann. Boucourechliev’s decision to define music certainly sets him apart.

Let us consider another example from outside our field. The theory of sets, at the very heart of mathematics, never defines what a set actually is. It simply establishes an ordered operation (through principles) of a category associated by a relationship (membership) to another undefined identity - an element. Thus set theory establishes the principle of how elements belong to sets without ever defining an element, nor sets, nor what being a member means.

But then neither does mathematical reasoning define mathematics. Here again, it is not a question of there being no adequate definitions of mathematics. The worst to my mind is defining mathematical science by a definition of its supposed components – defining it as a science of numbers. The best characterises mathematics ontologically, expressing the whole in terms of itself. My main point is that these definitions, either good or bad, have no raison d’etre for a mathematician because they are irrelevant to ongoing mathematical arguments. Such definitions are unable to direct or influence mathematical thinking.

Why then does Boucourechliev, even though he thinks as a musician and not as an outsider to the field, feel it necessary to define music? Where does this lead him? Is his position connected to the other three propositions outlined earlier? Can a relationship be discerned between his stance as a musician and the roles he suggests for the listener, the interpreter and the composer?

I will now turn my attention to these ideas.

 “A system of differences using sound to structure time”   - initially this definition of music allows us to divide what music is from what it is not. This is probably the cardinal virtue of a definition. From this Boucourechliev quickly deduces that John Cage isn’t a musician - because the sounds he produces are not categorised according to a differentiating system 9 – although this is not a conclusion Cage would draw. How can we do anything but applaud a statement of such musical good sense? It explains why today Cage’s works are to be found rather more on postcard racks than performed in concert halls (for example, The Pompidou Centre…).

Definitions allow us to mark the boundaries of our subject. Definitions allow us to collect together under one word the tasks involved in discerning the nature of an entity, and then contain this entity by excluding anything that falls outside the newly defined term. 

However this manner of understanding definitions is not sufficient to grasp their relevance in the pensée of Boucourechliev.

I would like to suggest a hypothesis - that what is required is a dynamic understanding of a definition. Boucourechliev does not simply view definitions as being firm statements. It is also essential to recognize movement within definition. According to Boucourechliev a definition is greater than that which is defined, and this to the extent that a definition should be understood in terms of the process rather than the result. Just as Boucourechliev liked to recall Souris’s statement:  “musical form is of necessity a formation 10 ” we could also say that for Boucourechliev the idea of defining music is a question of process rather than result. That is to say that what matters in musical theory is less the defined than the defining.

Therefore, when Boucourechliev defines, he concentrates on the act of definition rather than settling on a solution.

So in fact, to be more exact, his definition of music needs to become “music would be a system of differences using sound to structure time” 11. “Music is”  has become “music would be”. The use of the conditional places the definition under a condition of activity yet to be undertaken. What matters is the journey of perpetual definition, without the process being reduced or limited to any of the definitions revealed by this journey. This parallels how musical creation itself cannot be quantified by a fixed set form.

This view of definition as movement, rather than what is defined, is clarified by Boucourechliev when he speaks of  “definition as a project of exploration”. Explaining further, he states “we are not aiming for concrete answers, but to create models representing the musical phenomenon as closely as possible […] these working models are judged by how well they can be employed” 12.

Boucourechliev’s thinking slanted towards emphasising expression over the importance of the statement itself. There was no such thing, in his opinion, as a statement entirely independent from its expression (I feel that this opinion was encouraged by his meeting with the French philosopher and semiotician, Roland Barthes). And although science is the domain par excellence where statements are independent of their expression, we note that Boucourechliev seemed entirely indifferent to it.

Two consequences result from favouring expression over statement, and further still, favouring the process of definition over the defined.

The first is that a pensée of definition will tend to rest on logical principles. It functions in the conditional mode “if this existed, then this would exist too”, or “if music itself existed, its definition would be…”

This pensée does not make decisions about what should exist, it doesn’t decide what counts and what doesn’t, it doesn’t distinguish between the important and the peripheral. It affirms logical outcomes, but doesn’t address the question of the validity or other of the initial premise.

In our particular context, this produces the following: “If music is truly a system of differences, then Cage does not produce music because he ignores its differentiation”. But is music really a system of differences using sound to structure time? The necessity of resolution is shortcircuited by a fluid definition process. If this is in fact the definition of music, then Cage isn’t a musician. However Cage’s status would then be the result of definition rather than conscious decision.

 Definition shortcircuits the stage of being convinced of a matter. It avoids the need to state any underpinning beliefs. The definition remains one amongst a number of possible variables without stipulating its existence. And ultimately we cannot simply perceive existence, even if this idea has gained credence in modern times, it must be decided upon. We don’t note existences, we decide on them, so that we can position our thinking under their shadow.

The second consequence of favouring the definition process over the defined is this: when thought becomes involved in dynamic definition, it tends not to be able to extricate itself, but flows from definition to definition. In this way, the process will tend to prevail over any statements that arise, and then causes this movement between musical theory definitions.

Thus several pages after having set down his definition of music Boucourechliev feels it necessary to “redefine rhythm” 13.

Even when we take up the second proposition, “You – the listener – are the unity of a work”, it seems that the correct way to understand this is again as a definition, (that is to say not as an independent statement but within the context of Boucourechliev’s writing – within his own rules of expression). His statement is not a theorem here. It is not something that can be deduced from the first definition, that of music. Nor is it a conscious decision in the form of: I decide to consider the unity of the work as being limited by what an individual, the listener,  suggests to be the whole. It is truly a new definition.

But  what then does this statement define? Unity? The work? The listener? To my mind this statement is defining what ‘unity’ means.

- In fact, if the statement “The listener is the unity of the work” were to be considered to be a definition of the listener, then the listener would be defined as the one who allows a predefined unity to emerge from a preexisting work. One can see that then the statement should have read, “The listener is he who feels the unity of the work” - not the result of any formal analysis.

- If the statement, “The listener is the unity of the work” were to be considered as a definition of the work, it would imply that the work was defined as that which the listener unifies to produce a whole. In which case, the statement should have read, “the unified entity of the work is the unity produced by the listener” rather than a unity of the listener’s self.

-In fact the statement “The listener is the unity of the work” seems to me to be a definition of what ‘unity’ means, what it means to say that a piece of music is a whole entity. It might state, rather, it does state that: the work becomes one as the listener creates it. This unity or whole can never be derived from the score, and even less from the musical notation. Nor does the unity of the work proceed from what the composer considers to be his whole or unity – the composer is in fact splintered into several selves. Nor does unity proceed from the interpreter’s role  - his task is to open up – to unfold -  the work, rather than to unify it. In Boucourechliev’s mind the unity of a musical work is, in its most critical sense, an affair of the listener – it is the listener who creates this whole. Therefore unity is defined as the exclusive product of the listener’s participation.

My comments on the second proposition could be applied equally to the third – opening up a work is the task of the interpreter. Or rather, the interpreter is the open work. I feel this statement should be considered as a definition, but only inasmuch as it defines what opening up a work means, and not as a definition of the interpreter.

And finally to the fourth proposition – “the identity of the composer is established by his work rather than by his composition of the work”. This too, I think, is a definition, and I feel is a definition of the self  - the composer’s identity. What is it that actually constitutes the alternative identity of a composer, distinct from his commonplace self ? Boucourechliev answers: It is precisely a question of what his work produces in him.

Therefore my hypothesis is that Boucourechliev travels between these four propositions as a progressive extension of his defining principle. These are capillaries of his thinking which he described as “a project of exploration”.

In fact this movement of thought is itself overtaken by a fifth proposition – which we could phrase as: “music is a language”, even though Boucourechliev never penned any such phrase 14.

It follows from this fifth proposition that a definition of music is admissable because a particular language (the afore-mentioned musical language) obliges natural language to produce such a definition. A musician, speaking of musical language in his natural language is able to define musical language because he has at his disposition both an equivalence of planes (as both the music he plays and the definition issue from language) and a hierarchy (where natural language is able to define musical language, but the inverse is not possible).

Without wishing to commit myself today, I suggest that the necessity of defining music should be established when the existence of a musical language is proven. Or expressed differently, if the above theorem were true, the defining logic which I have pointed out in Boucourechliev’s pensée would not save him entirely from making decisions on existence. Rather this theorem decides, long before a definition of music is produced, that music is a language, or to be more exact, that there is something such as “a language of music”. Therefore, now that its existence had been decided upon, it would be appropriate to define what this language was. Its differentiating elements could then be grasped through this language itself.

I don’t believe music is a language, I believe it is indefinable for the musician, I believe the unity of the work is without doubt a question of listening 15 but, despite this, not the task of the listener 16... Yet, even if my own thinking lies poles apart from André Boucourechliev’s approach, nevertheless I like to associate myself with the originality of his thinking. It will forever present me with a cohesive pattern, which I have attempted to illustrate, and above all provides echoes of his voice, his intonation, and traces of his person, his gestures. And if André - this man who adored pirouettes - were still here with us this morning as I would have wished him to be, I would address this final remark to him: “My dear André, what you are setting down at the outset of your musical theorising – this conditional which you wish were an imperative, this possibility that music exists through prior decision, that a musical language exists, your proposition: “You are the unity of the work”. And this logic of expression which cannot be reduced to mere statements – ultimately all of this is you!” And as you theorise on music, you are defining yourself!

And besides isn’t this something that we, those of us who read Boucourechliev, already know well? Our enjoyment of his writings is always a question of being a little in love with André, this man who through his work attempts to define himself as the penseur of music.

Target Text Footnotes



1. This chapter was initially delivered as a talk for Samedi d'Entretemps, (Saturdays devoted to lectures on current literature in music at IRCAM – the Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique) on the writings of André Boucourechliev, on 29 April 2000.

2. Le Langage musical, p. 21.

3. Dire la musique, p. 188. And again as: “The listener, as the principal agent of unity” (idem p. 9) ; “The audience [...] is a factor of this unity” of the work; “The listener reigns – hearing a work, is creating the work” (idem p. 21) ; «Another factor is at work in producing this unity [...] It is not to be found in the score, but within ourselves: our listening” (Essai sur Beethoven, p. 24).

4. For example: “The interpreters have become co-creators” (Regard sur Chopin, p. 17) ; “The other enters through the gap the  score has opened for him” (idem, p. 18).

5. Essai sur Beethoven, p. 151.

6. Debussy, p. 62. But also: “The creator is not the one who is experiencing the work  [...] the work creates the man in the instant the composer creates the work” (idem, p.. 23) ; “The work tells of the other self of the artist produced by the act of composition, this other self who transcends the commonplace self” (Essai sur Beethoven, p. 151) ; “Nothing or nobody has the right, to interfere with the affects and association which the music generates, not even, and above all, certainly not the composer” (Le Langage musical, p. 15).

7. I prefer a philosophical approach to the definition of music myself, one such as the “art of hearing”.

8. Le Langage musical, p. 20.

9. See Le Langage musical, p.21-22 but also: “Is Cage a musician? If we consider music to be a network of connections and relationships, then he has has instantly disqualified himself” (Dire la musique, p. 186).

10. Le Langage musical, p. 68; Debussy, p. 14.

11. Le Langage musical, p. 21.
Idem, p. 20.

13. Idem, p. 33.

14. Although the title of his reference work (Le Langage musical) accords him the right to do this.

15. Cf. “The third hearing is the good one”, Musicæ Scientiæ n° 2, 1977.

16. Listening is what produces a listener, and not the reverse.