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"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 called total social fact by Jean Molino (1975: 37), it is also often defined by contrast contrasted with noise or speech. Some definitions of music place it explicitly within a cultural context by defining music as what people accept as musical.



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 (See: definitions of music). 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 labelled 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 (1990 p.47-8,55): "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."

In support of the view that music is a label for a totality of different aspects which are culturally construted. Often a definition of music lists the aspects or elements that make up music. Molino (1975: 43) argues that,in addition to a lack of consensus, also points out that "any element belonging to the total musical fact can be isolated, or taken as a strategic variable of musical production." Nattiez gives as examples Mauricio Kagel's Con Voce [with voice], where a masked trio silently mimes playing instruments. In this example sound, a common element, is excluded, while gesture, a less common element, is given primacy.

The platonic ideal of music is currently the least fashionable in the philosophy of criticism and music, because it is crowded on one side by the physical view - what is the metasubstance of music made of, if not sound? - and on the other hand by the constructed view of music - how can one tell the difference between any metanarrative of music and one which is merely intersubjective? However, its appeal, finding unexpected mathematical relationships in music, and finding analogies between music and physics, for example string theory, means that this view continues to find adherents, including such critics and performers as Charles Rosen and Edward Rothstein.

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. 4 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;5 one example is the alap section of an Indian classical 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." 6

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.

For a more comprehensive list of terms see: List of musical topics

Types of definitions

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,"7 an organization of definitions and elements is necessary.

Nattiez8 describes definitions according to a tripartite semiological scheme similar to the following:

Poietic Process Esthesic Process
Composer (Producer) ---> Sound (Trace) <--- Listener (Receiver)

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

  • " By 'poietic' 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. Poietic 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 'esthesic' 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 relatiy is captured by their perceptive strategies." (Nattiez 1990:90)
  • The neutral level is that of the physical "trace", (Saussere's sound-image, a sonority, a score), created and interpreted by the esthesic level (which corresponds to a perceptive definition; the perceptive and/or "social" construction definitions below) and the poietic level (which corresponds to a creative, as in compositional, definition; the organizational and social construction definitions below).

Table describing types of definitions of music:

poietic level
(choice of the composer)
neutral level
(physical definition)
esthesic level
(perceptive judgment)
music musical sound sound of the
agreeable sound
nonmusic noise
(complex sound)
(Nattiez 1990, p.46)

Common definitions

Music as organized sound: One common definition of music is to label it as 'Sound" title ="Sound">sound', which is determines music according to the poetic and the neutral levels (it must be composed sonorities), or more aesthetically, 'Art" title ="Art">artful or pleasing organization of sound and silence'19th_century" title ="19th century">19th century forward, which began to scientifically analyze the relationship between sound and perception. Nattiez argues that "one might expect that any concept of music would (at the very least) always include sound as a variable...special cases [Kagel, John Cage (see below), Dieter Schnebel ] show--paradoxically--is that we would not know how to speak of music without referring to sonority, even when the reference is only implied. We can, then, allow (without too much soul-searching) that sound is a minimal condition of the musical fact."

However, sound may be defined in opposition to noise, according to the esthetic level (sound is musical and/or pleasing, noise is unmusical and/or disagreeable), or according to the neutral level (acoustically, sound being the harmonic spectrum, noise being complex spectra), as does Pierre Schaeffer in his Traité des objets musicaux (1966). Though in France the official physical definition of noise is "an erratic, intermittent or statistically random vibration," (Nattiez 1990) noise is "any sound that we consider as having a disagreeable affective character, something unacceptable, no matter what this character may also be...the notion of noise is first and foremost a subjective notion." (Chocholle 1973: 38) Additionally, Schaeffer (1968: 284) 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 musically that comes before any 'cultural' musicality." Yet the definition according to the esthesic level does not allow that the sounds of classical music are complex, are noises, rather they are regular, periodic, even, musical sounds. Nattiez (1990, p.47-8): "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." (see "music as social construct" below)

Music as subjective experience: Another commonly held definition of music holds that music must be 'pleasant' (determined by the esthesic level) or 'Melodic" title ="Melodic">melodic' (determined by the neutral and/or esthesic levels). This view is often used to argue that some kinds of organized sound 'are not music'18th_century" title ="18th century">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.

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'Four_Minutes_Thirty_Three_Seconds" title ="Four Minutes Thirty Three Seconds">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." (p.43)

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.



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'Concert" title ="Concert">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, precompositional. 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. See: precompositional, form (music), modulation, twelve tone technique, serialism, and process music.


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.



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. See: Baschet Brothers. See: psychoacoustics.


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.

See: sound sculpture.



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'Guru" title ="Guru">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.

Secondary education

The incorporation of music performance and theory into a general liberal arts curriculum, from pre-school to postsecondary education, is relatively common. Western style secondary schooling is increasingly common around the world, such as STSI in Bali. Meanwhile, western schools are increasingly including the study of the music of other cultures such as the Balinese gamelan, of which there are currently more than 200 in America.


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 psychoacoustics. 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. As George Herzog (1941) asked, "do animals have music?" François-Bernard Mâche's Musique, mythe, nature, ou les Dauphins d'Arion (1983), a study of "ornitho-musicology" using a technique of Ruwet's Language, musique, poésie (1972) paradigmatic segmentation analysis, shows that birdsongs are organized according to a repetition-transformation principle. 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."


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. See "Common Terms" above.


Main article: Musical genre

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 is 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 musics, 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'Rhapsody_in_Blue" title ="Rhapsody in Blue">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.

Many music festivals exist these days celebrating a particular music genre.

See: List of genres of music


  • 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 en Jeu, 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.


  1. Molino, 1975: 37
  2. Nattiez, 1990: p.47-8,55
  3. Molino, 1975: 43
  4. Owen, 2000: 6
  5. Johnson, 2002
  6. Harwood, 1976: 522
  7. Molino, 1987: 42
  8. derived from Nattiez, 1990: p. 17; see sign (semiotics)

See also

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about Music.

Wikiversity, is developing courses on Music.

Music and math

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