Formalists contend that animals cannot make music. They say that although the animals may create interesting and even pleasing sounds, such as songbirds and whales, music is an art form. A work of art must be intentionally created and only humans are capable of this level of intentionality. The theory is attractive in that it is concise and elevates humans above the other species. Furthermore, it imbues the Formalist with discriminating judgement and a sense of guardianship of the integrity of music. Beyond that, the Formalist theory has little going for it.
The Conceptualist asks, does not the nightingale’s song constitute music? No, says the Formalist. It is a dumb animal reflexively making sounds. The Conceptualist mentions the fact that the nightingale’s sounds have all the characteristics of melody, a succession of connected tones that vary in pitch and duration. There is rhythm, a beginning and an end and the sounds are repeatable. Here the Formalist pauses, impressed by the formal considerations of the argument.
It is too simple and too brief to qualify as a work of art, insists the Formalist. The Conceptualist counters that the bird’s song was never intended to be an extended piece. Instead, the nightingale’s song is a miniature, a form common to music and the visual arts. The Formalist’s nervousness is noticeable.
Hastily, the clever Formalist concedes the bird’s song is musical but not music. The Conceptualist patiently points out that “musical” is defined as “of music,” dashing the Formalist hopes of slipping in a mere semantic contusion.
Desperately, the Formalist decides to make the strongest case. The bird has no knowledge of art and therefore could have no intention of producing art, a necessary condition for a work of art. In a kindly manner, the Conceptualist points out the fallacy of the argument. Consider the first recital performance by a beginning violin student. It is a formal concert, printed programs, dressed-up performers and the compositions are from the standard classical repertoire. There is every intention to create music but the result is the most awful screeching imaginable. The poor Formalist is forced to contend that more music was made by the highly objectionable sounds of the violinist than the beautiful, confident, and expressive melody of a healthy nightingale, a most untenable position.
Dejected and defeated, the Formalist admits the error and concedes that animals may actually make music. Striking as compassionate a tone as possible, the Conceptualist points out that the discussion must now turn to a babbling brook, the oceans’ surf, a dramatic thunderclap, and the wind rustling through autumn leaves.