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What is Music?
From an entry in Wikipedia
Edited by Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

Music is a word whose accepted definitions vary with time, place and culture. It is said to be an art, or form of entertainment, it is also often defined by contrast with noise or speech. Some definitions of music place it explicitly within a cultural context by defining music as what people accept as musical.

Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.
Confucius (c.551-479 BC) Chinese philosopher

Definitions

The most common definition of music takes it to be self-evident: music simply is. However, what this means is the subject of wide discussion. Broadly there are three groups of definitions: those that define music as an external fact, for example "organized sound", those that label it as a social construction, and those that seek a platonic or quasi-platonic ideal of music which is not rooted in specifically physical or mental terms.

The definition of music as sound with particular characteristics is taken as a given by psycho-accoustics, and is a common one in musicology and performance. In this view, there are observable patterns to what is broadly labeled music, and while there is understandable cultural variations, the properties of music are the properties of sound as perceived and processed by people.

John Cage is the most famous advocate of the idea that music is strictly personal: "There is no noise, only sound." According to musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez: "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."

Aspects of Music

The traditional or classical European aspects of music often listed are those elements given primacy in European-influenced classical music: melody, harmony, rhythm, tone color, and form. However, a more comprehensive list is given by stating the aspects of sound: pitch, timbre, intensity, and duration. These aspects combine to create secondary aspects including structure, texture and style. Other commonly included aspects include the spatial location or the movement in space of sounds, gesture, and dance. Silence is also often considered an aspect of music, if it is considered to exist.

As mentioned above not only do the aspects included as music vary, their importance varies. For instance, melody and harmony are often considered to be given more importance in classical music at the expense of rhythm and timbre. John Cage considers duration the primary aspect of music as, being the temporal aspect of music, it is the only aspect common to both "sound" and "silence".

It is often debated whether there are aspects of music which are universal. The debate often hinges on definitions, for instance the fairly common assertion that "tonality" is a universal of all music may necessarily require an expansive definition of tonality. A pulse is sometimes taken as a universal, yet there exist solo vocal and instrumental genres with free and improvisational rhythms no regular pulse; one example is the alap section of a Hindustani music performance. According to Dane Harwood, "We must ask whether a cross-cultural musical universal is to be found in the music itself (either its structure or function) or the way in which music is made. By 'music-making,' I intend not only actual performance but also how music is heard, understood, even learned."

Common Terms

Other terms used to discuss particular pieces include note, which is an abstraction which refers to either a specific pitch and/or rhythm or the written symbol; melody, which is a succession of notes heard as some sort of unit; chord, which is a simultaneity of notes heard as some sort of unit; chord progression which is a succession of chords (simultaneity succession); harmony, which is the relationship between two or more pitches; counterpoint, which is the simultaneity and organization of different melodies; and rhythm which is the organization of the durational aspects of music.

Common Definitions

Music as organized sound: One common definition of music is to label it as 'organized sound', which is determines music according to the poetic and the neutral levels (it must be composed sonorities), or more aesthetically, 'the artful or pleasing organization of sound and silence', which determines music according to the aesthetic. This definition is widely held to from the late 19th century forward, which began to scientifically analyze the relationship between sound and perception.

Additionally, Schaeffer describes 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." Yet the definition according to the aesthetic level does not allow that the sounds of classical music are complex, are noises, rather they are regular, periodic, even, musical sounds. Nattiez: "My own position can be summarized in the following terms: just as music is whatever people choose to recognize as such, noise is whatever is recognized as disturbing, unpleasant, or both."

Music as subjective experience: Another commonly held definition of music holds that music must be 'pleasant' (determined by the aesthetic level) or 'melodic' (determined by the neutral and/or aesthetic levels). This view is often used to argue that some kinds of organized sound 'are not music', while others are, based on type of organization or its aesthetic effect. Since the range of what is accepted as music varies from culture to culture and from time to time, more elaborate versions of this definition admit some kind of cultural or social evolution of music, granting that definitions may vary but universals hold. This definition was the predominant one in the 18th century, where, for example, Mozart stated that "music must never forget itself, it must never cease to be music." One example of shifts in the music/noise dichotomy, what organization is considered musical, is the emancipation of the dissonance, while Luciano Berio (1976) describes how the Tristan chord was noise in 1859 since it was a sonority unexplainable by contemporary harmonic conventions.

This view of music is most heavily criticized by proponents of the view that music is a social construction, defined in opposition to "unpleasant" "noise".

Music as a category of perception: Less commonly held is the cognitive definition of music, which argues that music is not merely the sound, or the perception of sound, but a means by which perception, action and memory are organized. This definition is influential in the cognitive sciences, which search to locate the regions of the brain responsible for parsing or remembering different aspects of musical experience. This definition would include dance. The Boulangers established a school of thought centered around this concept which included the idea of eurhythmics, which is gesture guided by music.

Music as a social construct: Post-modern theories argue that, like all art, music is defined primarily by social context. According to this view, music is what people call music, whether it is a period of silence, found sounds, or performance. Famously John Cage's work 4' 33" is rooted in this conception of music. According to Nattiez, Cage, Kagel, Schnebel, and others, "now perceive them [certain of their pieces] (even if they do not say so publicly) as a way of "speaking" in music about music, in the second degree, as it were, to expose or denounce the institutional aspect of music's functioning."

Given the above demonstration that "there is no limit to the number or the genre of variables that might intervene in a definition of the musical," an organization of definitions and elements is necessary.

Nattiez describes definitions according to a tripartite semiological scheme similar to the following:

Poetic Process Aesthetic Process
Composer (Producer) ---> Sound (Trace) <--- Listener (Receiver)

There are three levels of description, the poetic, the neutral, and the aesthetic:

  • " By 'poetic' I understand describing the link among the composer's intentions, his creative procedures, his mental schemas, and the result of this collection of strategies; that is, the components that go into the work's material embodiment. Poetic description thus also deals with a quite special form of hearing (Varese called it 'the interior ear'): what the composer hears while imagining the work's sonorous results, or while experimenting at the piano, or with tape."
  • "By aesthetic I understand not merely the artificially attentive hearing of a musicologist, but the description of perceptive behaviors within a given population of listeners; that is how this or that aspect of sonorous reality is captured by their perceptive strategies."
  • The neutral level is that of the physical "trace", created and interpreted by the aesthetic level (which corresponds to a perceptive definition; the perceptive and/or "social" construction definitions below) and the poetic level (which corresponds to a creative, as in compositional, definition; the organizational and social construction definitions below).

Table describing types of definitions of music:

poetic level
(choice of the composer)
neutral level
(physical definition)
aesthetic level
(perceptive judgment)
music musical sound sound of the
harmonic
spectrum
agreeable sound
non music noise
(nonmusical)
noise
(complex sound)
disagreeable
noise


Because of this range of definitions, the study of music comes in a wide variety of forms. There is the study of sound and vibration or acoustics, the cognitive study of music, the study of music theory and performance practice or music theory and ethnomusicology and the study of the reception and history of music, generally called musicology.

Performance

Someone who performs, composes, or conducts music is a musician.

Solo and Ensemble

Many cultures include strong traditions of solo or soloistic performance, such as in Indian classical music, while other cultures, such as in Bali, include strong traditions of group performance. All cultures include a mixture of both, and performance may range from improvised solo playing for one's enjoyment to highly planned and organized performance rituals such as the modern classical concert or religious processions. What is called chamber music is often seen as more intimate than symphonic works. A performer is called a musician, a group being a musical ensemble such as a rock band or orchestra.

Oral Tradition and Notation

Music is often preserved in memory and performance only, handed down orally, or aurally ("by ear"), this music often may be considered "traditional" or not considered composed by individuals. Different musical traditions have different attitudes towards how and where to make changes to the original source material, from quite strict, to those which demand improvisation. If the music is written down, it is generally in some manner which attempts to capture both what should be heard by listeners, and what the musician should do to perform the music. This is referred to as musical notation, and the study of how to read notation involves music theory. Written notation varies with style and period of music, and includes scores, lead sheets, guitar tablature, among the more common notations. Generally music which is to be performed is produced as sheet music. To perform music from notation requires an understanding of both the musical style and performance practice expected or acceptable.

Improvisation, Interpretation, Composition

Most cultures use at least part of the concept of preconceiving musical material, or composition, as held in western classical music. Many but fewer cultures also include the related concept of interpretation, performing material conceived by others, and less still the contrasting concept of improvisation, material which is spontaneously thought of while performed, not pre-conceived. However, many cultures and people do not have this distinction at all, using a broader concept which incorporates both without discrimination. Improvised music virtually always follows some rules or conventions and even "fully composed" includes some freely chosen material. See also, pre-compositional. Composition does not always mean the use of notation, or the known sole authorship of one individual.

Compositional Methods

Music can also be determined by describing a "process" which may create musical sounds, examples of this range from wind chimes, through computer programs which select sounds. Music which contains elements selected by chance is called Aleatoric music, and is most famously associated with John Cage and Witold Lutoslawski.

Compositions

A musical composition is a piece of music designed for repeated performance (as opposed to strictly improvisational music, in which each performance is unique). The music may be preserved in memory, or through a written system of notation. Compositions include songs to be performed by human voices, usually including lyrics, as well as pieces written for other musical instruments.

Audition

Concerts take many different forms and may include people dressing in formal wear and sitting quietly in the rows of auditoriums, drinking and dancing in a bar, or loudly cheering and booing in an auditorium.

Deaf people can experience music by feeling the vibrations in their body; the most famous example of a deaf musician is the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who composed many famous works even after he had completely lost his hearing. In more modern times, Evelyn Glennie, who has been deaf since the age of twelve, is a highly acclaimed percussionist. Also, Chris Buck, a violinist virtuoso and New Zealander, has recently developed deafness.

Media

The music that composers make can be heard through several media; the most traditional way is to hear it live, in the presence, or as one of, the musicians. Live music can also be broadcast over the radio or television. Some musical styles focus on producing a sound for a performance, while others focus on producing a recording which mixes together sounds which were never played "live". Recording, even of styles which are essentially live often uses the ability to edit and splice to produce recordings which are considered "better" than the actual performance.

In many cultures there is less distinction between performing and listening to music, as virtually everyone is involved in some sort of musical activity, often communal. Sometime in the middle 20th century, listening to music through a recorded form, such as sound recording or watching a music video became more common than experiencing live performance. Sometimes, live performances incorporate prerecorded sounds; for example, a DJ uses disc records for scratching.

Audiences can also become performers by using Karaoke, invented by the Japanese, which uses music video and tracks without voice, so the performer can add his voice to the piece.

Training

Many people compose, perform, and improvise music with no training and feel no need for training, including entire cultures. Other cultures have traditions of rigorous formal training that may take years and serious dedication. Sometimes this training takes the form of apprenticeship, as in Indian training traditionally take more years than a college education and involves spiritual discipline and reverence for one's guru or teacher. In Bali everyone learns and practices together. It is also common for people to take music lessons, short private study sessions with an individual teacher, when they want to learn to play or compose music, usually for a fee. The most famous private composition teacher is Nadia Boulanger.

Study

Many people also study about music in the field of musicology. The earliest definitions of musicology defined three sub-disciplines: systematic musicology, historical musicology, and comparative musicology. In contemporary scholarship, one is more likely to encounter a division of the discipline into music theory, music history, and ethnomusicology. Research in musicology has often been enriched by cross-disciplinary work, for example in the field of psycho-accoustics. The study of music of non-western cultures, and the cultural study of music, is called ethnomusicology.

In Medieval times, the study of music was one of the Quadrivium of the seven Liberal Arts and considered vital to higher learning. Within the quantitative Quadrivium, music, or more accurately harmonics, was the study of rational proportions.

Zoomusicology is the study of the music of non-human animals, or the musical aspects of sounds produced by non-human animals. In the opinion of Jean-Jacques Nattiez (1990), "in the last analysis, it is a human being who decides what is and is not musical, even when the sound is not of human origin. If we acknowledge that sound is not organized and conceptualized (that is, made to form music) merely by its producer, but by the mind that perceives it, then music is uniquely human."

Theory

Music theory is the study of music, generally in a highly technical manner outside of other disciplines. More broadly it refers to any study of music, usually related in some form with compositional concerns, and may include physics, mathematics, and anthropology. What is most commonly taught in beginning music theory classes are guidelines to write in the style of the common practice period, or tonal music. Theory, even that which studies music of the common practice period, may take many other forms. Musical set theory is the application of mathematical set theory to music, first applied to atonal music. Speculative music theory is devoted to the analysis and synthesis of music materials, for example tuning systems, generally as preparation for composition.

Genres

As there are many definitions for music there are many divisions and groupings of music, many of which are as hotly contested as, and even caught up in, the argument over the definition of music. There are many musical genres. Among the larger genres are classical music, popular music or commercial music (including rock and roll) and folk music. The term world music has been applied to a wide range of music made outside of Europe and European influence, although its initial application, in the context of the World Music Program at Wesleyan University, was as a term including all possible music genres, and not excluding European traditions. In academic circles, the original term for the study of world music, "comparative musicology", was replaced in the middle of the twentieth century by "ethnomusicology", which is still an unsatisfactory definition.

Genres of music are as often determined by tradition and presentation as by the actual music. While most classical music is acoustical in nature, and meant to be performed by individuals, many works include samples, tape, or are mechanical, and yet described as "classical". Some works, for example Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, are claimed by both jazz and classical music.

As cultures of the world have been in more contact with each other, their indigenous music styles have often melded to form new styles. For example, the U.S.-American bluegrass style has elements from Anglo-Irish, Scottish, Irish, German and some African-American instrumental and vocal traditions, and can only have been a product of the 20th Century.

Sources

  • Chocholle, R. (1973). Le Bruit. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Harwood, Dane (1976). "Universals in Music: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology", Ethnomusicology 20, no. 3:521-33
  • Molino, Jean (1975). "Fait musical et sémiologue de la musique", Musique enJeu, no. 17:37-62.
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1987). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate (1990). ISBN 0691027145.
  • Owen, Harold (2000). Music Theory Resource Book. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195115392.


     
       
 
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This article is edited by Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable, and based on a longer entry first published at Wikipedia, and is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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