Can Music Be Unmusical?


The term unmusical might apply to a person. It can also pertain to a sound deficient in melody, harmony, rhythm or agreeable tone. It may also apply to music that one feels is imperfect, inadequate or even lacking in emotion.

As much as I love ambient music, we could class most as unmusical. For me, that’s a large part of the appeal. I don’t have to focus on what it might tell me, and there’s no need to invent a story that connects the music to me; it simply is what it is. Much ambient music is sound which sounds like music.

A challenge for me is to provide you with what some say is unmusical music, but I’m willing to give it a go.

I guess I could start with my music. I’ve had people tell me they feel my music does not fit any known category. Now, maybe they are telling me that my music is unmusical. And, perhaps to them it is. What I’ll do is let you listen to a piece of mine and you tell me if you feel it is unmusical, because others have. Three groups I submitted my third string quartet to, said they wouldn’t play it. Here is the first movement from my 3rd String Quartet No. 3 Bb minor, you can play the rest if you want on that site.

Much of the music that came out of the twelve-tone compositional style is said to be unmusical by traditional music lovers. Austrian composer Anton Webern (1883-1945), who wrote twelve-tone music is not heard a lot in concert halls or on the radio. Langsamer Satz composed in 1905 by Webern is a beautifully sensitive piece, to me. His Five Pieces for orchestra, composed between 1911-1913 has quite a different sound to it. That said, is it unmusical?

Webern: 5 Pieces, Op. 10

Arnold Schoenberg, Webern’s mentor and colleague also has a work titled Five Pieces for orchestra, his Op. 16. Is this music or is it unmusical?

Schoenberg: 5 Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16

What is unmusical to me, maybe musical to you. Every piece mentioned so far is technically music. They all have harmony, rhythm, a melody of some sort and are all played on musical instruments.

What makes a piece of music unmusical is the personal preference of the listener.

The truth about music is different people hear music differently. We tune our ears and many other senses of our bodies to what we like, and generally, to only what we like.

Most music is repetitious, so too are our habits, and our likes and dislikes. I know I have heard certain pieces of music I love hundreds of times. I also know there is much more music in this world that I have not heard, and I’m never likely to hear because of my habits. One of my all-time favourites is the Overture from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad by Bernard Hermann. It never fails to get my blood racing; it sounds fresh every time I hear it.

It’s hard not to love what you do, and movie music is on the top of my list of musical loves. Unfortunately, for me, this means that other categories of music get pushed down, and mostly, pushed away. I assume it’s the same for most people. This creates styles and categories of music that I don’t like. This type of reaction turns music into unmusical sound in our minds.

I have not found one person who likes the music of British composer Brian Ferneyhough; I include myself in this. His music sits outside of what I am used to and what I love. All that means is that Ferneyhough’s music is not of my liking; that does not make it unmusical. Ferneyhough’s music speaks a language outside my vocabulary. His composition Colortura for piano and oboe is inventive and entertaining. It is a piece of music that most people on earth will never come across. It encompasses everything that all the music we love contains, it just says it differently. Our ears are tuned to different stations.

Ferneyhough: Coloratura

For most of us, if music does not have a melody or harmony that fits into our experience, we call this unmusical.

Music is organised sound. Colortura may sound like unorganised music to you, but, just like a foreign language, which sounds unorganised, or unfathomable until we educate ourselves in its language, it will remain jumbled or dissonant to our ears and mind.

To answer my own question, it is not music that is unmusical; it is our limited experience and prejudices that create unmusical music. Just because you or I dislike a piece of music does not make it unmusical.

Ugly may be another description of unmusical music. Here’s a TEDx talk that is fairly connected to the subject of unmusical music; it’s in the same vein. Unfortunately, it has the most ambiguous title ever, The world’s ugliest music.

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