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.
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.
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).
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 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, ).
"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)'
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'.
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 nonmusic if the mind is concentrating on other matters and thus not perceiving the sound's essence as music (Clifton 1983, 9).
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.
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).
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)
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:
Table describing types of definitions of music (Nattiez 1990, 46):
| poietic level|
(choice of the composer)
| neutral level|
| esthesic level|
|music||musical sound|| sound of the|
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.
(Xenakis 1971, 181)