The Definition of Intention

May 18th, 2009

We have established that the decision of what we listen to should not only be based on what we enjoy listening to, but also how intentional the music is.  While we may agree on this, what is still unclear is what exactly intention is and how to find it.  As always, when we are looking for a clear definition of a word it is always a good idea to start with a good dictionary definition whether you think you know what the word means or not.  (Taken from dictionary.com): Intention – “An act or instance of determining mentally upon some action or result.”  Let us first focus on the words “determining mentally”.

Music is clearly a sort of presentation that is meant to be perceived by an audience.  Therefore, determining an action mentally is only part of the process since a musician must also accurately execute his intention in his selected medium.  The composer must correctly transcribe the sound in mind, the performer must place his events in exactly the place desired, etc.  So it seems then that proficiency and intention are separate.  However, since music is a presentation, intention and accurate execution are perceived as a unit.  When an unintended result comes out of good intention the result is perceived all the same; all that results is less intention.  So when mental determination is used in the context of music, we cannot say that the resulting action was intentional unless the action matches the intention.  Thus, we may as well include the resulting action in our definition of intention:

Musical intention – an act or instance of determining mentally a musical event which is supported by a result that reflects the predetermination.

Now we are left with a more difficult and more controversial question.  I will be as unbiased as possible, however some categories of music are going to be subject to harsh criticism when these ideas are applied.  The question is “How do we find intention?”  A more blunt way of putting this is “How do we determine the quality of our music?” 

An intention has to have reason behind it, because without reason intention itself has no intention.  The stronger reason the intention has, the better the intention will be.  If an entire work is written purely without reason, the intention will be considerably low.  Conversely, a work of high intention will have a wealth of reasoning for each musical event that is placed.  A trained composer will give extensive reasoning that proves intention in orchestration based on physics, melodies and harmonies based on theory, rhythm based on human nature, and aesthetic based on science, philosophy, and/or theology.  Trained performers, sound engineers, synthesizer programers, and many other types of musicians also will give the reasoning behind their desicions.  Unless there is a possibility of giving reasoning for every decision made, the musical work lacks intention.

Some may object to this statement because many outstanding musical decisions are made every day without conscious premeditation.  But this subconscious ability does not develop without an extraordinary amount of study and training.  The ability to make good subconscious decisions is only in musicians who are also able to make guided conscious decisions about everything that they do as well.  The best musicians have the ability to analyze their intuitive decisions and give them analytical reasoning, resulting in even seemingly unexplainable intention being explained.

All that now remains to be addressed is whether or not simplicity is a way to work around intention.  Obviously when something is simple it takes less intention to raise its quality to an acceptable level.  But when you have less intention, you have less reasoning.  Less reasoning means you have less to say and should take as little time to say it as possible.  (But now that I’ve attacked something, let me articulate what I am not attacking:  Simple does not necessarily mean less musical events, but rather less complexity.  For example, performing a string quartet with synthesizers reduces the work’s complexity simply because the string family’s sound is much richer than a synthesizer’s.  The music is now simpler.  So by simple music I mean music that lacks complexity in the elements of rhythm, harmony/melody, orchestration/timbre, or aesthetic.  I will expand on this in future posts.)

Quality comes from intention, intention from reasoning, and reasoning from training and study.  If a work is not capable of being defended by reason, the work is poor.  I mentioned four things that a composer must defend in order to argue a work’s quality:  Orchestration, melody/harmony, rhythm, and aesthetic.  These elements make the foundation of determining the quality of music.

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