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Definition of music

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Definition of music

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This article discusses the definition of music. Music is an art, entertainment, or other human activity which involves organized and audible sound, though definitions may vary.

Defining music is as difficult as defining art or any other subjective phenomenon. It is a problem that has been tackled at various times by philosophers, lexicographers, composers, teachers, semioticians or semiologists, linguists and other scientists, students, and various other musicians.

The elements of music often have an implicit concept of time, pitch, and energy. The presence or lack of these elements can be used to classify music. They can be organized into units with interrelated rhythm, harmony, and melody. Organizing musical sound is part of composition and improvisation. Music can invoke or convey a sense of motion in time.



The word itself 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 what we now think of as music. Our current understanding of music as being something which is abstract and has nothing to do with language (but something which may be combined with it in song) is relatively modern.

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: musica universalis, musica mundana, musica instrumentalis. Of those, only the last - musica instrumentalis - referred to music as performed sound.

Musica universalis 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 mundana 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.

Music in other languages

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, and 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).

Musiqi is the Persian word for the science and art of music, muzik being the sound and performance of music (Sakata 1983), though some things European influenced listeners would include, such as Koran chanting, are excluded. Actually, there are varying degrees of "musicness"; Koran 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, Koran chanting is structurally similar to classical singing (Nettl, 1989).

Music as organized sound

An oft cited definition of music, made by Wynton Marsalis among others, is that it is "sound organized in time." Apart from objections that "organization" is not required, this definition is seen by many as being too broad. The fifteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica pinpoints the problem by saying 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." Organization would seem to be a crucial restricting criterion in this context, after all.

"Organization" also seems necessary because it implies 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".

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, p.47-8): "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)

Music as subjective experience

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). 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." One example of shifts in the music/noise dichotomy, what organization is considered musical, is the emancipation of the dissonance, while Luciano Berio (1976) 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." 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 noise if the mind is concentrating on other matters and thus not consuming the sound as music.

Music as social construct

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. Famously John Cage's work 4'33" is rooted in this conception of music. According to Nattiez, Cage, Kagel, Schnebel, and others, "now perceive them[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." (p.43)

Cultural background factors 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 breast" (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. Some also consider to be part of the music the potential differences in the collection of sounds present if the piece had been only four minutes, or if it had been five, although Cage may have never intended this interpretation.

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). The total time of silence is 273 seconds, which has a parallel in the temperature -273 degrees Celsius, absolute zero. This is pure coincidence, however.

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? 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).

Music as a category of perception

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.

Music as language

Many definitions of music implicitly hold that music is a communicative activity which conveys to the listener moods, emotions, thoughts, impressions, or philisophical, 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, p.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'.


Musical change, stylistically, is thought of both as inevitable and necessary, or at least beneficiary in European influenced classical music and much popular music, while in classical Iranian culture music is thought to be complete, new creations are variations and rearrangements of old ones or parts of. Some classical composers seek to create innovative works in prexisting genres and forms, while other seek to break the mold. Indian classical is thought to change little and valued for that quality, while great changes between different improvised performances are equally valued. In folk, jazz, and some popular music variation and reinterpretation of traditional or received materials is valued, while in some popular music, such as progressive rock, for example, inspired individual or group innovation is sought for. The European classical canon is valued for its unchanging timeless, ahistorical, nature.(Nettl, 1989)

Tripartite definition

"Music, often an art/entertainment, is a total social fact whose definitions vary according to era and culture," according to Jean Molino.1 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."2

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,"3 an organization of definitions and elements is necessary.

Nattiez4 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
agreeable sound
nonmusic noise
(complex sound)
(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.


  1. Molino, 1975: 37
  2. Nattiez, 1990: p.47-8,55
  3. Molino, 1987: 42
  4. derived from Nattiez, 1990: p. 17;


  • Molino, Jean (1975). "Fait musical et sémiologue de la musique", Musique en Jeu, no. 17:37-62.
  • Nettl, Bruno (1989). Blackfoot Musical Thought: Comparative Perspectives. Ohio: The Kent State University Press. ISBN 0873383702
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1987). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate (1990). ISBN 0691027145.
    • 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.
  • R. Murray Schafer. "Music and the Soundscape," included in Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music, ISBN 0028645812.
  • Ashby, Arved, ed. (2004). "Introduction", The Pleasure of Modernist Music. ISBN 1580461433.

See also

External links

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