- Definition of music
How to define music has long been the subject of debate; philosophers, musicians, and, more recently, various social and natural scientists have argued about what constitutes music. The definition has varied through history, in different regions, and within societies. Definitions vary as music, like art, is a subjectively perceived phenomenon. Its definition has been tackled by philosophers of art, lexicographers, composers, music critics, musicians, semioticians or semiologists, linguists, sociologists, and neurologists. 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.
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 four major kinds by the fifth century philosopher, Boethius: musica universalis, musica humana, musica instrumentalis, and musica divina. Of those, only 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).
Some languages in West Africa have no term for music but the speakers do have the concept (Nettl 1989,[page needed]). Musiqi is the Persian word for the science and art of music, muzik being the sound and performance of music (Sakata 1983,[page 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.
An often-cited definition of music, coined by Edgard Varèse, is that it is "organized sound" (Goldman 1961, 133). The fifteenth edition of the Encyclopædia 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."
"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.
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)
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).
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. 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).
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.
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. 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.[vague]
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").
Often a definition of music lists the aspects or elements that make up music under that definition. 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.
Following Wittgenstein, cognitive psychologist Eleanor Rosch proposes that categories are not clean cut but that something may be more or less a member of a category (Rosch 1973, 328). As such the search for musical universals would fail and would not provide one with a valid definition (Levitin 2006, 136–39).
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. First, we have to be willing to let the composition speak to us, to let it reveal its own order and significance. . . . Second, we have to be willing to question our assumptions about the nature and role of musical materials. . . . Last, and perhaps most important, we have to be ready to admit that describing a meaningful experience is itself meaningful. (Clifton 1983, 5–6)
"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) an organization of definitions and elements is necessary.
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 (Nattiez 1990, 46):
(choice of the composer)
music musical sound sound of the
agreeable sound nonmusic noise
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.
Composer Iannis Xenakis in "Towards a Metamusic" (chapter 7 of Xenakis 1971) defined music in the following way:
- It is a sort of comportment necessary for whoever thinks it and makes it.
- It is an individual pleroma, a realization.
- It is a fixing in sound of imagined virtualities (cosmological, philosophical, . . ., arguments)
- It is normative, that is, unconsciously it is a model for being or for doing by sympathetic drive.
- It is catalytic: its mere presence permits internal psychic or mental transformations in the same way as the crystal ball of the hypnotist.
- It is the gratuitous play of a child.
- 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.
- List, George. 1985. "Hopi Melodic Concepts". Journal of the American Musicological Society 38, no. 1 (Spring): 143–52.
- 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", Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council 8:35–42.
- Rosch, Eleanor. 1973. "Natural Categories". Cognitive Psychology 4, no. 3 (May): 328–50.
- 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.
- What is Music? A brief sketch of some definitions found throughout history by Marcel Cobussen
- MusicNovatory.com The Science of Music, a generative music theory
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