What is music?

While we can’t pin down a statistic on this, it may be accurate to say that, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, most people on our planet hear music of some type and in some context every day. Many people choose to listen to music on a daily basis. There aren’t many other things people choose to do every day. Have you ever considered the place of music of in your life? What would your life be like without music? Have you noticed that music can match or change your mood? Do you know that engagement with music actually improves the function of your brain?




How would you describe music to someone who somehow has never experienced it?



Did you know that people who are deaf still experience music? Ludwig van Beethoven st_Lambeg2 lo-res copy(1770-1827), a great composer of “art” music, became deaf as an adult. One of the world’s most respected and prominent musicians today, Dame Evelyn Glennie, is deaf.



Watch and listen to her speak about how to really hear music:

I think music might be an element of our physical universe along the lines of fire and water. We have not yet figured out its primary purpose nor the extent of its power.

The Greeks used music to heal the body–we’re just now realizing that that ancient application was not a dreamy New Age notion; finally, music therapy is back on the books. You might have a look at the anthology of ideas about music as medicine in Music: Physician for Times to Come, compiled by Don Campbell (yes, the well-meaning “Mozart Effect” man; more of his work elsewhere) (Quest 1991, 2000). 

I’ll be posting studies here that may persuade you to consider my suggestion that music is much more than what humans have thus far discovered it to be.

 Meanwhile, here are some ideas to consider about how music functions:


Slide05Musicologist Richard Crawford has put forth descriptors of what music seems to achieve in three primary cultural functions: folk music supports continuity of a cultural group; popular music is easily accessible to much of a group’s population; and classical (or “art”) music affords a sense of transcendence–rising above and beyond limits of time and place. It’s valuable to identify other important functions as well, such as music for religious or spiritual use, and music that is designed or employed to promote a commodity.

Recognizing that different types of music serve different cultural functions helps us sort out the many types of music we typically hear in any given day; it neutralizes questions of value such as, “Why is popular music today so vacuous in comparison to, say, a Brahms symphony? Why don’t they make music like that anymore?” Today’s (or any other day’s) popular music and Brahms’s symphonies serve different functions in our culture. By definition, popular music is intended to be immediately accessible, of the moment, and reflective of social trends and current conditions; if you don’t like it, don’t worry–something else will replace it. If you prefer your music to function as fine art, then listen to compositions designed to be fine art. And, yes, composers still create fine, art music.

Sometimes a given piece of music functions in more than one category, and sometimes a given work may shift functions over time. For example, several of Stephen Foster’s songs for the minstrel stage (the most disturbing musical genre fashioned in the United States) began as popular music and have since moved into the rather noble status of folk music. 

Handel’s beloved oratorio Messiah functions as a sacred work, a classical or “art” work of the highest order, and–unfortunately–has been co-opted to sell lunchmeat. Seriously. 

So Thomas Kelly’s suggestion finds application here: music may best be defined by our response to (and use of) it.

How do you define music?

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2 thoughts on “What is music?

  1. Wow, Evelyn Glennie may be my favorite drummer/musician of all time now. I love what she said about actually feeling music within you and through every part of her body.
    I agree with you…to an extent. I agree that sound, not music, is an element of the physical universe. Deciding if something is music or not is only an individual interpretation of a sound. To some people a single drum being played or a cappella singing may not be considered “music” simply because it does not have instrumental accompaniment. To a skilled musician, such as you and Glennie, however, sound is music. So if dealing with higher educated musicians or people it could be stated that music (or sound) can be considered as an element of the universe.
    Just a fire and water stem from a combination of multiple particles, molecules, and chemical elements; music is a combination of these as well. Sound waves are caused by variations in pressure. The vibrating object (say the top of a drum or the string on a guitar) displaces the air around it and causes a vibration. This means that the elements within air are being moved, formatted, and combined to create what our brain (either by means of our cochlea or synapses within our nervous system) interpret as a sound and therefore a pitch. As such all physical elements of the universe are a combination of the chemical elements, gases, and molecules found within the atmosphere which are combined to create something beautiful and necessary. Just as hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water, different elements within the air combine, move, and change to formulate the vibration which is interpreted as sound. If music is an element of the universe it could be said that music is an essential aspect of life as well.

  2. Thanks for your comments. Evelyn Glennie is extraordinary, and she devotes much of her energy and time to education. A few years ago when I was teaching at the University of Utah and Evelyn was in town to perform with the Utah Symphony, she took time to meet with my students to talk about music and answer questions. Needless to say, this event is one I know those students will remember; she made a rather huge impression on all of us. (I got to drive her to the airport! She’s a real person even though her talent is super-human.)

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