What is Music?

Professor Jez Moonbeam, lifelong Hawkwind aficionado and the inventor of automatic solar-powered salad tongs, explores mankind's continuing quest to understand this mystical art form.

Music comes in all shapes, sizes and colours, except green. No one has yet invented a truly environmentally friendly piece of music, even though teams of highly qualified hippies have been working on the problem for many years. And that's a real bummer.

But what we're concerned with here are the big questions. What exactly is music? How can it have the power to evoke so much emotion? Why does some of it make people sick and what is the cure for Justin Bieber? Well I can't answer the last question - not ethically, anyway - but I can enlighten you about some of the other stuff.

Something intangible

For many years it was believed that music was something intangible, something that could not be studied and quantified scientifically. Like something real cosmic, you know. But in 1742 Wolfgang Moonbeam, my ancestor and something of a dude, devised the theory that music was constructed of discrete elements, in much the same way that ordinary matter such as cheese or polystyrene is made up of individual particles of grit or fluff.

His ideas were dismissed as 'poppycock', a scientific term peculiar to the eighteenth century which was generally applied to any theory that was outlandish and thought to be incapable of being proven. In today's language we might use the term 'hokum', 'balderdash' or the standard SI unit of theoretical plausibility, 'bollocks'.

The Bollock Scale

Uncle Wolfgang's theory was seen as extremely unlikely indeed, and today would probably measure something like seven or eight on the Bollock Scale, which is a lot of bollocks indeed. Added to this there was a certain animosity directed at Wolfgang because he was essentially a trombone player (which in those days was not seen as a proper science) and as such he had no business theorising about things that didn't concern him.

And if all that wasn't enough of a drag, the year before he had performed an unauthorised experiment on a goose and the scandal had been blown out of all proportion. As indeed had the goose.

Discrete particles of music

Nevertheless, Wolfgang was cool about the whole deal and spent his remaining years - eight, in fact - trying to identify discrete particles of music by employing a special technique which he called 'listening very carefully'. He failed and died penniless and destitute, although this was less to do with his musical pursuits and more to do with his decision to invest his life savings in an outlandish scheme to breed clockwork pigs.

Wolfgang's theory would have died with him had it not been for the work of Ernest Saleri, an extremely funky physicist and quantum flute player who, in 1962, revived this long-forgotten two hundred year old theory. Based on really amazing developments in digital sound physics and his own work on the particle-wave duality of jazz, Salieri decided to see if there was any truth in this wild idea.

To this end he put a string quartet into a centrifuge and spun it up in attempt to break everything down into its component parts. What he got was a lot of smashed up instruments, some barely recognisable mushy bits and four life sentences for murder, to run concurrently.

One smart feller

But although his methods were dubious, he was one smart feller, because he was thinking along the right lines. For the last six years scientists have been trying to break music down into its component atoms by placing a saxophone into a particle accelerator and firing high velocity trumpets at it.

Using this technique they identified individual particles of melody and tone, but for a long time the long-predicted 'rhythm boson' remained elusive. However, in January of this year scientists finally declared that they had found it. And it was blue.

In fact the announcement was made on the very same day that a genetics laboratory in Aberdeen declared that it had created the world's first clockwork pig. So it seems that Uncle Wolfy was vindicated on both counts.

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