What is Music?

I’ve been studying music in some way or another for such a long time now, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually asked myself the question, what exactly is music?

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of music definition is an interesting starting point:

the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.

My initial thought on this definition is that music for me doesn’t need to satisfy all of these criteria.  I think it’s possible for music to be beautiful in its own right, in a very abstract way, without needing to express a particular human emotion.  The same piece of music can also evoke very different emotions in different listeners, or in the same listener at different times, and maybe none at all in some.

Equally I think it would be hard to describe some twentieth century music as having beauty of form and harmony; some of Stockhausen’s music comes to mind (although other people would disagree).  Much of today’s pop music is so bland and repetitive to my ears that I think it also fails this test; however I would still call it music, just not good music.  The problem with this part of the definition is that beauty is fundamentally subjective.

In some ways we are continually pushing the boundaries of what people traditionally think of as music – John Cage’s composition entitled 4’33” consists only of silence and background sounds.  I struggle to match this up with my own concept of what music is and it reminds me of recent movements in the visual arts, as seen in examples such as Tracy Emin’s work ‘My Bed’ (an actual physical bed, shortlisted for the Turner prize). Such works might convey an emotion, or make a political or social point of some kind, but what is it that makes them art or music?  Perhaps we need different words.

When I think of music I tend to think of the three main building blocks – rhythm, melody and harmony (all of which are lacking in John Cage’s composition).  I think my personal definition of music requires at least one of these to be present; usually rhythm, which is a necessary precursor for melody even if it is only very simple.


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