definitions of music


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
what is meant by the term ''
music Music is the of arranging s in time through the of melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre. It is one of the aspects of all human societies. General include common elements such as (which governs and ), (and its associated concepts , , and ...

''. 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 Speech is human vocal communication Communication (from Latin ''communicare'', meaning "to share" or "to be in relation with") is "an apparent answer to the painful divisions between self and other, private and public, and inner thought and ...

and sounds found in both
natural Nature, in the broadest sense, is the natural, physical, material world or universe The universe ( la, universus) is all of space and time and their contents, including planets, stars, galaxies, and all other forms of matter and ...

industrial Industrial may also refer to: Industry * Industrial archaeology, the study of the history of the industry * Industrial engineering, engineering dealing with the optimization of complex industrial processes or systems * Industrial loan company, a f ...
environments . The problem of defining music is further complicated by the influence of
culture in music cognitionCulture in music cognition refers to the impact that a person's culture Culture () is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior and Norm (social), norms found in human Society, societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, law ...
. The ''
Concise Oxford Dictionary The ''Concise Oxford English Dictionary'' (officially titled ''The Concise Oxford Dictionary'' until 2002, and widely abbreviated ''COD'' or ''COED'') is probably the best-known of the 'smaller' Oxford dictionaries A dictionary is a listi ...
'' 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 Noise music is a genre of music that is characterised by the expressive use of noise Noise is unwanted sound considered unpleasant, loud or disruptive to hearing. From a physics standpoint, noise is indistinguishable from desired sound, as bo ...

noise music
musique concrète Musique concrète (; ): " problem for any translator of an academic work in French is that the language is relatively abstract and theoretical compared to English; one might even say that the mode of thinking itself tends to be more schematic, with ...
, challenge these ideas by using sounds not widely considered as musical, beautiful or harmonious, like randomly produced electronic
distortion Distortion is the alteration of the original shape (or other characteristic) of something. In communications Communication (from Latin ''communicare'', meaning "to share") is the act of developing meaning among entities or groups through t ...
feedback Feedback occurs when outputs of a system are routed back as inputs as part of a chain Image:Kettenvergleich.jpg, Roller chains A chain is a wikt:series#Noun, serial assembly of connected pieces, called links, typically made of metal, with ...
, static,
cacophony Phonaesthetics (also spelled phonesthetics in North America North America is a continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere. It can also be described as the northern subcontinent of the A ...
, and sounds produced using compositional processes which utilize
indeterminacy Indeterminacy or underdeterminacy may refer to: * Indeterminacy in computation (disambiguation) * Aleatoric music and indeterminacy in music. * Statically indeterminate *Indeterminacy (literature) a literary term * In set theory and game theory, the ...
.). 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.

Concepts of music

Because of differing fundamental concepts of music, the languages of many cultures do not contain a word that can be accurately translated as "music" as that word is generally understood by Western cultures. Inuit and most North American Indian languages do not have a general term for music. Among the Aztecs, the ancient Mexico, Mexican theory of rhetoric, poetry, dance, and instrumental music used the Nahuatl term ''In xochitl-in kwikatl'' to refer to a complex mix of music and other poetic verbal and non-verbal elements, and reserved the word ''Kwikakayotl'' (or cuicacayotl) only for the sung expressions. There is no term for music in Nigerian languages Tiv language, Tiv, Yoruba language, Yoruba, Igbo language, Igbo, Efik language, Efik, Berom language, Birom, Hausa language, Hausa, Idoma language, Idoma, Eggon language, Eggon or Jarawa language (Nigeria), Jarawa. Many other languages have terms which only partly cover what Western culture typically means by the term ''music''.() The Mapuche of Argentina do not have a word for ''music'', but they do have words for instrumental versus improvised forms (''kantun''), European and non-Mapuche music (''kantun winka''), ceremonial songs (''öl''), and ''tayil''. While some languages in West Africa have no term for music, some West African languages accept the general concepts of music.() ''Musiqi'' is the Persian language, Persian word for the science and art of music, ''muzik'' being the sound and performance of music,() though some things European-influenced listeners would include, such as Quran chanting, are excluded.

Music vs. noise

Ben Watson (music writer), Ben Watson points out that Ludwig van Beethoven's ''Große Fuge'' (1825) "sounded like noise" to his audience at the time. Indeed, Beethoven's publishers persuaded him to remove it from its original setting as the last movement of a string quartet. He did so, replacing it with a sparkling ''Allegro''. They subsequently published it separately. Musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez considers the difference between noise and music nebulous, explaining that "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".


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 in music, 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 Schafer, 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 "#Social construct, music as social construct" below.)


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

Musical universals

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 (music), pitch, timbre, loudness, duration (music), duration, spatial location and Texture (music), texture.). However, in terms more specifically relating to music: following Ludwig Wittgenstein, 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

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''.

Specific definitions


In his 1983 book, ''Music as Heard'', which sets out from the Phenomenology (philosophy), phenomenological position of Edmund Husserl, Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Merleau-Ponty, and Paul Ricœur, Ricœur, Thomas Clifton defines music as "an ordered arrangement of sounds and silences whose meaning is Presentationism, presentative rather than Denotation, denotative ... This definition distinguishes music, as an end in itself, from compositional technique, and from sounds as purely physical objects." More precisely, "music is the actualization of the possibility of any sound whatever to present to some human being a meaning which he experiences with his body—that is to say, with his mind, his feelings, his senses, his will, and his metabolism". It is therefore "a certain reciprocal relation established between a person, his behavior, and a sounding object". Clifton accordingly differentiates music from non-music on the basis of the human behavior involved, rather than on either the nature of compositional technique or of sounds as purely physical objects. Consequently, the distinction becomes a question of what is meant by musical behavior: "a musically behaving person is one whose very being is absorbed in the significance of the sounds being experienced." However, "It is not altogether accurate to say that this person is listening ''to'' the sounds. First, the person is doing more than listening: he is perceiving, interpreting, judging, and feeling. Second, the preposition 'to' puts too much stress on the sounds as such. Thus, the musically behaving person experiences musical significance by means of, or through, the sounds". In this framework, Clifton finds that there are two things that separate music from non-music: (1) musical meaning is presentative, and (2) music and non-music are distinguished in the idea of personal involvement. "It is the notion of personal involvement which lends significance to the word ''ordered'' in this definition of music".. This is not to be understood, however, as a sanctification of extreme relativism, since "it is precisely the 'subjective' aspect of experience which lured many writers earlier in this century down the path of sheer opinion-mongering. Later on this trend was reversed by a renewed interest in 'objective,' scientific, or otherwise non-introspective musical analysis. But we have good reason to believe that a musical experience is not a purely private thing, like seeing pink elephants, and that reporting about such an experience need not be Subject (philosophy), subjective in the sense of it being a mere matter of opinion". Clifton's task, then, is to describe musical experience and the objects of this experience which, together, are called "phenomena", and the activity of describing phenomena is called "phenomenology".. It is important to stress that this definition of music says nothing about aesthetic standards.
Music is not a fact or a thing in the world, but a meaning constituted by human beings. ... To talk about such experience in a meaningful way demands several things. First, we have to be willing to let the composition speak to us, to let it reveal its own order and significance. ... Second, we have to be willing to question our assumptions about the nature and role of musical materials. ... Last, and perhaps most important, we have to be ready to admit that describing a meaningful experience is itself meaningful.


"Music, often an art/entertainment, is a total social fact whose definitions vary according to era and culture", according to Jean Molino, Jean. It is often contrasted with noise (environmental), noise. 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". 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 (1990, 17) describes definitions according to a wikt:tripartite, tripartite semiological scheme similar to the following: There are three levels of description, the poietic, 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 reality is captured by their perceptive strategies". *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: Because of this range of definitions, the study of music comes in a wide variety of forms. There is the study of sound and oscillation, 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.


Composer Iannis Xenakis in "Towards a Metamusic" (chapter 7 of ''Formalized Music'') defined music in the following way: #It is a sort of comportment necessary for whoever thinks it and makes it. #It is an individual pleroma, a realization. #It is a fixing in sound of imagined virtualities (cosmological, philosophical, ..., arguments) #It is normative, that is, unconsciously it is a model for being or for doing by sympathetic drive. #It is catalytic: its mere presence permits internal psychic or mental transformations in the same way as the crystal ball of the hypnotist. #It is the gratuitous play of a child. #It is a mystical (but atheistic) asceticism. Consequently, expressions of sadness, joy, love and dramatic situations are only very limited particular instances.

See also

* Zoomusicology * Sound art


Sources * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Further reading

* Originally published in ''Southwest Review'', 1991. * Gutmann, P. (2015)
"John Cage and the Avant-Garde: The Sounds of Silence}, Retrieved 2 December 2015. * Michael Kennedy (music critic), Kennedy, Michael
. 1985. ''The Oxford Dictionary of Music'', revised and enlarged edition of ''The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music'', third edition, 1980. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ; . * List, George. 1985. "Hopi Melodic Concepts". ''Journal of the American Musicological Society'' 38, no. 1 (Spring): 143–152. * Little, William, and C. T. Onions, eds. 1965. ''The Oxford Universal Dictionary Illustrated: An illustrated Edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary'', third edition, revised, 2 vols. London: The Caxton Publishing Co. *,. (2015)
"sounds that are sung by voices or played on musical instruments." Retrieved 1 December 2015.} * Nettl, Bruno. 2001. "Music". ''The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians'', second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (musicologist), John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.

External links

What is Music?
A brief sketch of some definitions found throughout history by Marcel Cobussen
The Science of Music, a generative music theory {{DEFAULTSORT:Definition Of Music Philosophy of music Definitions, Music