Saturday, March 5, 2011

What is Music?

Music is a difficult thing to define. Music falls in an abstract realm of understanding. Music is ultimately undefinable.

There are multitudes of "agreed upon" definitions for music, and with that said, I will take my subjective stab at defining music.

My stubby golf-shorts wearing professor of Rock and Roll History defined music as such:
Music -- The Organization of Sound and Silence
Fairly agreeable definitions of music upon first glance. I had been using this as my go-to definition for a few years.

Recently though, my World Music teacher asked our class to define music. I responded with my reserved definition which I presumed would satiate her curiosity.

Well, she actually peaked mine by telling me "Yes, but no."

She then introduced the class to the idea of a Soundscape. If a landscape is your "visual surroundings" then a soundscape is your "auditory surroundings." It is everything you hear around you at all times.

She then proposed a construction site. Imagine that there was metallic clanking and machines roaring, but in rhythm. I've certainly heard this in my life. I had not considered it music until that moment though, but it absolutely is music.

The construction workers most likely did not organize their equipment to clank in rhythm, but if we consider that music, then my definition has lost its viability.

"But Zac, the metal orchestra is technically organized sound and silence regardless!" True. The organization definition implies human intention it behind it though -- as if it was actively organized by someone. Which leads to the question, "how do we tailor our definition to match hap-haphazardly spawned music?"

To understand my definition, I'll first need to explain the five fundamentals of music.
  1. Pitch - This is the frequency of the sound wave. When you think a note is "high" or "low" you are thinking about pitch.
  2. Timbre - Pronounced TAM-bur, this is the specific sound of what you are hearing. Timbre is what makes a trumpet sound like a trumpet, and a piano sound like a piano. If we consider pitch "tone" then timbre is "tone color."
  3. Tempo - Tempo is the speed of music. If we call a song "fast-paced" or a "slow-dance" we are referring to tempo. Tempo does not have to be consistent throughout a piece.
  4. Rhythm - This is the cyclical occurrence of sound. Rhythm is the pattern at which sounds occur over time. 
  5. Meter - the structural foundation of a piece. Western music has "four beats every measure" and we call this 4/4 meter, or quadruple meter. Meter, like tempo, does not have to be consistent throughout a piece.
With any given sound, any specific aural instance, there exists a frequency of the sound wave heard (Pitch) and the kind of sound heard (Timbre). This is completely unavoidable (even percussion instruments have pitch).

Given the other constraints (rhythm, meter, and tempo), it occurs to me that only one of these really turns "sound" into "music."


Tempo and Meter are, in my opinion, consequences of rhythm. They are just a manner of describing qualities of rhythm.

With any one instance of auditory sensation, we have pitch and timbre. Once pitch and timbre start recurring (rhythm) we now have music.

Music - The cyclical occurrence of patterned Pitch and Timbre over a period of time.

Musicologists, please enter the arena. Gladiators, equip your spear and shield. Organize your phalanx and defeat my definition.

I dare you.

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