In my first year of grad school, I had the misfortune of enrolling in three courses whose professors all had a similar idea on how to start a class. On the first day, all three of them began with the question, “How would you define music?” Then they went around the room, giving each student a chance to answer.

Once all of us had been given an opportunity to fumble for a definition, the teachers demonstrated their boundless wisdom by asserting that music had to have personal expression, which of course is nothing like a definition, and is even tough to defend as a thesis. In a nutshell, Beethoven is music, what is piped into the grocery store is not.

In the first class, when my turn came to define music, I gave a standard avant-gardist’s reply for the time: “Organized sound.” But I knew that was a poor substitute for real thought. In the second class, I said, “I don’t know,” which was more accurate, but left the professor thinking I didn’t care, which isn’t the same thing at all.

By the third class, I had had enough. When my turn came to answer, I said, “What are we trying to achieve with a definition? Are we trying to separate out those things that are worthy of our attention by calling them Music? We can’t simply say that what we like is music and anything we don’t like is something else. Or, to put it another way, if we prove that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is not music, what have we accomplished? Does that give us an excuse to ignore it?”

The teacher smiled, and nodded, and went on to the next student, who said something about melody and harmony. When all the students had taken their turn, he proceeded to expound on his belief that music was all about personal expression, or some such nonsense.

I remember my frustration from that day long ago every time a student says something I’m not quite following. It helps me empathize with students who feel like they are not being heard, and reminds me to make sure I’m listening to everything they say.

Of course, that excludes the mutterings under their breath that they don’t want me to hear.

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