Knowledge Bank

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Definition of Music


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The definition of music is a contested evaluation of what constitutes music and varies through history, geography, and within societies. Definitions vary as music, like art, is a subjectively perceived phenomenon. Its definition has been tackled by philosophers, lexicographers, composers, teachers, semioticians or semiologists, linguists, scientists, and musicians.

Music may be defined according to various criteria including organization, pleasantness, intent, social construction, perceptual processes and engagement, universal aspects or family resemblances, and through contrast or negative definition.

* 1 The term “music”
o 1.1 Etymology
o 1.2 Translations
* 2 Definitions
o 2.1 As organized sound
+ 2.1.1 As language
o 2.2 As subjective experience
o 2.3 As social construct
o 2.4 As a category of perception
o 2.5 As musical universals
* 3 Specific definitions
o 3.1 Clifton’s phenomenological definition
o 3.2 Nattiez’s tripartite definition
o 3.3 Xenakis’s definition
* 4 Sources
* 5 See also
* 6 External links

The term “music”


The word music comes from the Greek mousikê (tekhnê) by way of the Latin musica. It is ultimately derived from mousa, the Greek word for muse. In ancient Greece, the word mousike was used to mean any of the arts or sciences governed by the Muses. Later, in Rome, ars musica embraced poetry as well as instrument-oriented music. In the European Middle Ages, musica was part of the mathematical quadrivium – arithmetics, geometry, astronomy and musica. The concept of musica was split into three major kinds by the fifth century philosopher, Boethius: musica universalis, musica humana, and musica instrumentalis. Of those, only the last – musica instrumentalis – referred to music as performed sound.

Musica universalis]or[musica mundana] referred to the order of the universe, as God had created it in “measure, number and weight”. The proportions of the spheres of the planets and stars (which at the time were still thought to revolve around the earth) were perceived as a form of music, without necessarily implying that any sound would be heard – music refers strictly to the mathematical proportions. From this concept later resulted the romantic idea of a music of the spheres.

Musica humana ,designated the proportions of the human body. These were thought to reflect the proportions of the Heavens and as such, to be an expression of God’s greatness. To Medieval thinking, all things were connected with each other – a mode of thought that finds its traces today in the occult sciences or esoteric thought – ranging from astrology to believing certain minerals have certain beneficiary effects.

Musica instrumentalis, finally, was the lowliest of the three disciplines and referred to the manifestation of those same mathematical proportions in sound – be it sung or played on instruments. The polyphonic organization of different melodies to sound at the same time was still a relatively new invention then, and it is understandable that the mathematical or physical relationships in frequency that give rise to the musical intervals as we hear them, should be foremost among the preoccupations of Medieval musicians.


The languages of many cultures do not include a word for or that would be translated as music. Inuit and most North American Indian languages do not have a general term for music. Among the Aztecs, the ancient Mexican theory of rhetorics, poetry, dance, and instrumental music, used the Nahuatl term In xochitl-in kwikatl to refer a complex mix of music and other poetic verbal and non-verbal elements, and reserve the word Kwikakayotl (or cuicacayotl) only for the sung expressions (Leon-Portilla 2007, 11).

In Africa there is no term for music in Tiv, Yoruba, Igbo, Efik, Birom, Hausa, Idoma, Eggon or Jarawa. Many other languages have terms which only partly cover what Europeans mean by the term music (Schafer). 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 (Robertson 1976, 39).

In Czech, hudba is instrumental music and only by implication vocal music. Some languages in West Africa have no term for music but the speakers do have the concept (Nettl 1989,[citation needed]).

Musiqi is the Persian word for the science and art of music, muzik being the sound and performance of music (Sakata 1983,[citation needed]), though some things European influenced listeners would include, such as Quran chanting, are excluded. Actually, there are varying degrees of “musicness”; Quran chanting and Adhan is not considered music, but classical improvised song, classical instrumental metric composition, and popular dance music are. However, from a European influenced musicological analysis, or from the standpoint of an untrained European influenced listener, Quran chanting is structurally similar to classical singing (Nettl 1989,[citation needed]).


As organized sound

An often-cited definition of music, coined by Edgard Varèse, is that it is “organized sound” (Goldman 1961, 133). The fifteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes 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.” Michael Linton, took the definition a step further to add that the form in which music is organized is an important element of the music itself. His definition of music is “the organization of sound and silence into forms that carry culturally derived meanings, cultivated for aesthetic or utilitarian purposes”.

“Organization” also seems necessary because it implies purposeful and thus human organization. This human organizing element seems crucial to the common understanding of music. Sounds produced by non-human agents, such as waterfalls or birds, are often described as “musical”, but rarely as “music”. See zoomusicology.

This definition 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 esthesic. 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 (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 musicality 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, 47-48): “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)

As language

Many definitions of music implicitly hold that music is a communicative activity which conveys to the listener moods, emotions, thoughts, impressions, or philosophical, sexual, or political concepts or positions. “Musical language” may be used to mean style or genre, while music may be treated as language without being called such, as in Fred Lerdahl or others’ analysis of musical grammar. Levi R. Bryant defines music not as a language, but as a marked-based, problem-solving method such as mathematics (Ashby 2004, 4).

Because of its ability to communicate, music is sometimes described as the “universal language”. Yet the “meaning” of music is obviously culturally mediated. For example, in Western society, minor chords are often perceived as “sad”, an understanding other cultures rarely share.

There is significant complexity in the structural elements of music which warrant the perception of music as a language. For example, genres of music can be characterized by the manner in which sound and silence are articulated, organized, and disseminated. The composition of these elements gives rise to a system which is on par with the complexities and subtleties of ‘language’.

See also: Musical language

As subjective experience

Main article: Aesthetics of music

Another commonly held definition of music holds that music must be ‘pleasant’ (determined by the esthesic level) or ‘melodic’ (determined by the neutral and/or esthesic levels).[citation needed] 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.”[citation needed] One example of shifts in the music/noise dichotomy, what organization is considered musical, is the emancipation of the dissonance, while Luciano Berio (1976[citation needed]) 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 (directly below), defined in opposition to “unpleasant” “noise”, though this view may be subsumed in the one below in that a listener’s idea of pleasant sounds may be considered socially constructed.

A subjective definition of music need not, however, be limited to traditional ideas of music as pleasant or melodious. Luciano Berio defined music as, “everything one listens to with the intention of listening to music.”[citation needed] This approach to the definition focuses not on the construction but on the experience of music. Thus, music could include “found” sound structures—produced by natural phenomena or algorithms—as long as they are interpreted by means of the aesthetic cognitive processes involved in music appreciation. 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 nonmusic if the mind is concentrating on other matters and thus not perceiving the sound’s essence as music (Clifton 1983, 9).

See also: extreme music.

As social construct

Main article: Ethnomusicology

Post-modern and other 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. Cage, Kagel, Schnebel, and others, according to Nattiez (1987, 43), “perceive [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.”

Cultural background is a factor in determining music from noise or unpleasant experiences. The experience of only being exposed to a particular type of music influences perception of any music. Cultures of European descent are largely influenced by music making use of the Diatonic scale. Most modern music still uses this scale and due to constant exposure, the music of other cultures is not held with the same regard. What would be accepted as music in Indonesia may be dismissed by many westerners as just “a din.”

It might be added that as well as cultural background, historical era is also a determining factor in what is regarded as music. What would today be accepted as music in the west without the blinking of an eye, would have been ridiculed in the 17th century. And what would be music to The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious, who is said to have commented, “you just pick a chord, go twang, and you’ve got music,” would almost certainly not have been music to William Congreve, who wrote that, “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Beast” (The Mourning Bride, 1697). All of which is to say that there can be no absolute definition of music that will be accepted by everybody.

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). There are a number of potential objections to such a definition.

While some may find this definition too restrictive, arguing that “unity” and “continuity” are unnecessary, it is likely that more will find it too broad, thinking of music as being made of pitched sounds, and containing melody, harmony and rhythm. The idea that music must contain these elements is widespread, but there are several examples of what would be widely regarded as music, which lack one or more of them. Plainsong for instance, or monophonic music in general, has no harmony. Much percussion music lacks both harmony and melody; it is true that drums are tuned, but their pitches are indefinite, and they cannot be said to produce a melody in the traditional sense. If one takes rhythm to mean a regular pulse underpinning music, then many kinds of modern electronic music can be said to lack rhythm.

Some attempts to define music concentrate on the method of producing it. Even though some of the first “instruments” in prehistory must have been rocks and bits of wood, it is only in the past one hundred years or so that the idea that music could only be produced by a singer or a traditional musical instrument (such as a violin in Europe, a sitar in India or a koto in Japan) has been challenged. Erik Satie challenged what constituted a musical instrument, and therefore a musical sound, when he wrote the ballet Parade which included a part for a typewriter. His justification was that since the typewriter made a noise, it was a musical instrument. In a lighter vein, Leroy Anderson also wrote music that included a manual typewriter, played with strict rhythm.

The composer John Cage challenged traditional ideas about music in his 4’ 33″, which is notated as three movements, each marked Tacet (that is, “do not play”). The implication, as expanded upon by Cage himself, is that the background noises which are normally a distraction from the music (the humming of the lights, the shuffling of the audience, the sound of traffic outside) are to be regarded as the actual music in this case.

This is contrary to the usual view that music is, if nothing else, deliberate. Furthermore, Cage does not state the length of the piece – the duration of the first performance (given by David Tudor seated at a piano) was arrived at by consulting the I Ching, but it is not stated in the score (although whenever the piece is performed nowadays, the original duration is usually maintained). Some people deal with the challenges posed by 4’ 33″ by simply refusing to consider it as music.

Of course, even in conventional music, the “silent” gaps between notes are part of the music. The pianist Artur Schnabel, when asked what made him a great pianist, said “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes? Ah, that is where the art resides!” In Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, Farewell, the entire composition anticipates the silence at the end as the musicians one by one stop playing and walk from the stage.

The American composer La Monte Young took this line of thought to an extreme by suggesting that even sound itself was not necessary for a piece of music to exist. In Composition 1960 #5, one of a series of similar pieces, he instructed the performer to “Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area,” the piece being considered complete when the butterflies have flown away. The choice of a butterfly is significant in that it is perceived as a silent animal. During the performance, there will be background noises, just as there are in a performance of 4’ 33″, but this is not the thrust of the piece. Rather, Young is interested in the theatrical element of music.

Young’s point in this instance is that when one goes to a performance of a piece of music, seeing the musicians perform is as much a part of the music as hearing them, so why not remove the hearing element altogether?[citation needed] In this sense, his interest is similar to that of Mauricio Kagel, who carefully notates the theatrical element of performance in his works (although he usually maintains a significant sonic element also).[citation needed]

As a category of perception

Main articles: Music cognition and Music psychology

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.

As musical universals

Main article: Aspect of music

Often a definition of music lists the aspects or elements that make up music under that definition (see Definition of music#As musical universals). However, in addition to a lack of consensus, Jean Molino (1975, 43) 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. In classical music of the common practice period, for instance, melody and harmony are often considered to be given more importance 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”.

The categorization of what is and isn’t music through definition or universal aspects dates back to Aristotle. Anything up for consideration as music is compared to the category definition of music through analysis of and comparison of their properties. Ludwig Wittgenstein however questioned this hypothesis for category formation by noting that for any universal aspect proposed for the category “game” an example which does not share that aspect may be found. He proposed that categorization is by family resemblance and not definition. Turned, by Wittgenstein, from philosophy to cognitive psychiatry 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 (Levitin 2006, 136–39).

Specific definitions

Clifton’s phenomenological definition

In his 1983 book, Music as Heard, which sets out from the phenomenological position of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Ricœur, Thomas Clifton defines music as “an ordered arrangement of sounds and silences whose meaning is presentative rather than 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” (Clifton 1983, 1). It is therefore “a certain reciprocal relation established between a person, his behavior, and a sounding object” (Clifton 1983, 10).

Clifton accordingly differentiates music from nonmusic 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” (Clifton 1983, 2).

In this framework, Clifton finds that there are two things that separate music from nonmusic: (1) musical meaning is presentative, and (2) music and nonmusic 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” (Clifton 1983, 3–4).

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 nonintrospective 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 subjective in the sense of it being a mere matter of opinion” (Clifton 1983, 8–9).

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”. (Clifton 1983, 9).

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“:

1. “we have to be willing to let the composition speak to us, to let it reveal its own order and significance”
2. “we have to be willing to question our assumptions about the nature and role of musical materials.”
3. “we have to be ready to admit that describing a meaningful experience is itself meaningful.”

(Clifton 1983, 5–6)

Nattiez’s tripartite definition

“Music, often an art/entertainment, is a total social fact whose definitions vary according to era and culture,” according to Jean Molino (1975, 37). It is often contrasted with 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” (Nattiez 1990, 47-8 and 55).

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,” (Molino, 1987, 42)[citation needed] an organization of definitions and elements is necessary.

Nattiez (1990, 17; see sign (semiotics)) 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 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.” (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
spectrum     agreeable sound
nonmusic     noise
(nonmusical)     noise
(complex sound)     disagreeable

(Nattiez 1990, p.46)

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.

[edit] Xenakis’s definition

Composer Iannis Xenakis in “Towards a Metamusic” (chapter 7 of Xenakis 1971) defined music in the following way:

1. It is a sort of comportment necessary for whoever thinks it and makes it.
2. It is an individual plemora, a realization.
3. It is a fixing in sound of imagined virtualities (cosmological, philosophical, . . . , arguments)
4. It is normative, that is, unconsciously it is a model for being or for doing by sympathetic drive.
5. It is catalytic: its mere presence permits internal psychic or mental transformations in the same way as the crystal ball of the hypnotist.
6. It is the gratuitous play of a child.
7. It is a mystical (but atheistic) asceticism. Consequently expressions of sadness, joy, love and dramatic situations are only very limited particular instances.

(Xenakis 1971, 181)


* Ashby, Arved, ed. 2004. The Pleasure of Modernist Music: Listening, Meaning, Intention, Ideology. Eastman Studies in Music 29. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. ISBN 1-58046-143-3.
* Clifton, Thomas. 1983. Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-02091-0
* Goldman, Richard Franko. 1961. “Varèse: Ionisation; Density 21.5; Intégrales; Octandre; Hyperprism; Poème Electronique. Instrumentalists, cond. Robert Craft. Columbia MS 6146 (stereeo)” (in Reviews of Records). Musical Quarterly 47, no. 1. (January):133–34.
* Leon-Portilla, Miguel. 2007. “La música de los aztecas / Music Among Aztecs”, Pauta, no. 103:7–19.
* Levitin, Daniel J. (2006). This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York: Dutton. ISBN 0525949690.
* Molino, Jean (1975). “Fait musical et sémiologue de la musique”, Musique en Jeu, no. 17:37-62.
* Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. 1990. Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music . Translated by Carolyn Abbate. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-09136-6.
* Nettl, Bruno (1989). Blackfoot Musical Thought: Comparative Perspectives. Ohio: The Kent State University Press. ISBN 0-87338-370-2
* Robertson-De Carbo, C. E. 1976. “Tayil as Category and Communication among the Argentine Mapuche: A Methodological Suggestion”, 1976 Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council, 8, p.35-42.
* Sakata, Lorraine. 1983. Music in the Mind, The Concepts of Music and Musicians in Afghanistan. Kent: Kent State University Press.
* Schafer, R. Murray. 1996. “Music and the Soundscape,” in Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music: A Continuing Symposium, edited by Richard Kostelanetz and Joseph Darby, with Matthew Santa. New York: Schirmer Books; London: Prentice Hall International. ISBN 0-02-864581-2 (pbk)
* Xenakis, Iannis. 1971. Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press.