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What Is the Definition of Music?

Kevin Ott
Piano keys and sheet music

Music is an ordered combination of sound and silence. It is shaped by a governing system of rules agreed upon by the composer and performers. This system, from written notes to verbal communication between musicians, determines how the sound and silence is shaped. Music shares the nature of language because when two or more people learn it, they can communicate to one another with that language using music notation and instruments.

Common Elements of Music

In the genres of music familiar to most people such as chart-topping popular music or well-known classical music, the elements that define music are easy to spot, and they include the following:

  • Notes: Music contains sound, also called a note or a pitch in musical terms. A note or pitch is caused by musicians who pluck, blow, or strike instruments to cause vibrations, which produce the sound.
  • Rests: Music contains silence, also called rests. In music notation, special marks indicate where and for how long a musician should stop playing. This ensures the composer can carefully order both sound and silence.
  • Rhythm: Music follows a consistent pulse that is agreed upon by the composer and musicians beforehand. The speed of this beat (also known as tempo) is organized into numbers (i.e. 120 beats per minute) that tells the musicians how fast to play the notes and rests organized by the songwriter.
  • Harmony: When multiple notes are played at the same time on top of each other, this creates harmony. The term simply means that more than one note is playing at once. It does not necessarily mean it is a "pleasing" sound.
  • Melody: When a single sequence of notes are played one after another, it is a melody. It means you are not hearing multiple notes being played at the same time, but one note at a time in an orderly line or "shape" where the melody usually rises and falls according to how the songwriter has organized the notes.
  • Consonant harmony: When two or more notes played together produce simple ratios between the frequencies, meaning the speed of the vibrations are in simple ratios such as 3:2, it is a pleasant sound to the average listener. It's what people call a nice harmony or a lovely chord progression. Whether major or minor, the harmony feels smooth and easy to discern for the brain as it is processing the sound.
  • Dissonant harmony: When two or more notes played together produce complex ratios between the sound wave frequencies, such as 3.45:7.89 (not the nice, clean whole ratios like 3:2), this creates dissonant harmony. When two singers are painfully out of tune or they hit the wrong notes, it makes you wince, and that is your brain telling you that it heard dissonant harmony. Complex ratios are more difficult for the brain to process.

Although not very common in Western culture, it is possible to develop an acquired taste for dissonance. Many serious composers in recent decades have moved away from the popular consonance found in Western music and explored dissonance as a way to organize sound and silence.

Uncommon Elements of Music

Composers in the 20th and 21st centuries have stretched the definition of music to include experimental, unusual combinations of sound and silence. These composers have gone beyond what the mainstream audiences have generally preferred, even inventing new forms of music notation. The following examples of styles demonstrate the more uncommon elements of music:

  • 12-Tone Technique: Some composers, such as Schoenberg, take an extremely mathematical approach to music. They assign numbers to each of the 12 tones in Western music, and then write complex series of numbers without any special regard to retaining consonant chord structures popular in Western music. Even though it is very dissonant to the unaccustomed ear, it is still organized sound and silence, thus it is still music.
  • Microtonal: Other composers, such as Gyorty Ligeti, created microtonal music. In this style, the composer takes large numbers of instruments or singers and places their notes very close together with only tiny fluctuations of change over time. The sensation is like listening to swarms and clusters of micro-notes fluttering in and out of one another. It is dizzying, hypnotic, and astonishing to experience, especially in a live setting.
  • Tone Color Composition: Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu became known for his use of tone colors. The term is used by people who often see or imagine sounds as colors. He focused on the colors and shades of timbre that are created when a composer combines instruments in unusual ways. For example, he might take the sound of a silvery blue tone of a French Horn and combine it with the robust buzzing brown tone of a cello. He was less concerned about creating traditional structures of music or using traditional rhythms. For this reason, his music often churns and fades in and out as he plays with different combinations of instruments to paint different sonic colors.

The Many Faces of Music

When anyone organizes sound and silence intentionally, that person has created music. Some forms of music are easy to digest and enjoy the moment you hear it while others require more effort to understand. These latter styles, though an acquired taste, can be richly rewarding as you discover the intricate order and thought that lie behind them.

What Is the Definition of Music?