Definition of music  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

"Common sayings such as "the harmony of the spheres" and "it is music to my ears" point to the notion that music is often ordered and pleasant to listen to. However, 20th-century composer John Cage thought that any sound can be music, saying, for example, "There is no noise, only sound." Musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez summarizes the relativist, post-modern viewpoint: "The border between music and noise is always culturally defined—which implies that, even within a single society, this border does not always pass through the same place; in short, there is rarely a consensus ... By all accounts there is no single and intercultural universal concept defining what music might be.""--Sholem Stein

Related e



Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A definition of music endeavors to give an accurate and concise explanation of music's basic attributes or essential nature and it involves a process of defining what is meant by the term music. Many authorities have suggested definitions, but defining music turns out to be more difficult than might first be imagined, and there is ongoing debate. A number of explanations start with the notion of music as organized sound, but they also highlight that this is perhaps too broad a definition and cite examples of organized sound that are not defined as music, such as human speech and sounds found in both natural and industrial environments. The problem of defining music is further complicated by the influence of culture in music cognition.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines music as "the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion". However, some music genres, such as noise music and musique concrète, challenge these ideas by using sounds not widely considered as musical, beautiful or harmonius, like randomly produced electronic distortion, feedback, static, cacophony, and sounds produced using compositional processes which utilize indeterminacy).

An oft cited example of the dilemma in defining music is the work "4′33″" (1952) by the American composer John Cage (1912–1992). The written score has three movements and directs the performer(s) to appear on stage, indicate by gesture or other means when the piece begins, then make no sound throughout the duration of the piece, marking sections and the end by gesture. The audience hears only whatever ambient sounds may occur in the room. Some argue that 4'33 is not music because, among other reasons, it contains no sounds that are conventionally considered "musical" and the composer and performer(s) exert no control over the organization of the sounds heard. Others argue it is music because the conventional definitions of musical sounds are unnecessarily and arbitrarily limited, and control over the organization of the sounds is achieved by the composer and performer(s) through their gestures that divide what is heard into specific sections and a comprehensible form.



Organized sound

An often-cited definition of music is that it is "organized sound", a term originally coined by modernist composer Edgard Varèse in reference to his own musical aesthetic. Varèse's concept of music as "organized sound" fits into his vision of "sound as living matter" and of "musical space as open rather than bounded". He conceived the elements of his music in terms of "sound-masses", likening their organization to the natural phenomenon of crystallization. Varèse thought that "to stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise", and he posed the question, "what is music but organized noises?".

The fifteenth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica states that "while there are no sounds that can be described as inherently unmusical, musicians in each culture have tended to restrict the range of sounds they will admit." A human organizing element is often felt to be implicit in music (sounds produced by non-human agents, such as waterfalls or birds, are often described as "musical", but perhaps less often as "music"). The composer R. Murray states that the sound of classical music "has decays; it is granular; it has attacks; it fluctuates, swollen with impurities—and all this creates a musicality that comes before any 'cultural' musicality." However, in the view of semiologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez, "just as music is whatever people choose to recognize as such, noise is whatever is recognized as disturbing, unpleasant, or both" . (See "music as social construct" below.)


Musical language

Levi R. Bryant defines music not as a language, but as a marked-based, problem-solving method, comparable to mathematics .

Musical universals

Elements of music

Most definitions of music include a reference to sound and a list of universals of music can be generated by stating the elements (or aspects) of sound: pitch, timbre, loudness, duration, spatial location and texture. However, in terms more specifically relating to music: following Wittgenstein, cognitive psychologist Eleanor Rosch proposes that categories are not clean cut but that something may be more or less a member of a category. As such the search for musical universals would fail and would not provide one with a valid definition. This is primarily because other cultures have different understandings in relation to the sounds that English language writers refer to as music.

Social construct


Many people do, however, share a general idea of music. The Websters definition of music is a typical example: "the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity" (Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, online edition).

Subjective experience

Aesthetics of music

This approach to the definition focuses not on the construction but on the experience of music. An extreme statement of the position has been articulated by the Italian composer Luciano Berio: “Music is everything that one listens to with the intention of listening to music”. This approach permits the boundary between music and noise to change over time as the conventions of musical interpretation evolve within a culture, to be different in different cultures at any given moment, and to vary from person to person according to their experience and proclivities. It is further consistent with the subjective reality that even what would commonly be considered music is experienced as non-music if the mind is concentrating on other matters and thus not perceiving the sound's essence as music .

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Definition of music" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools