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Music, artful arrangement of sounds across time. This definition is obviously very broad, but a narrower one would exclude too much. Music is part of virtually every culture on Earth, but it varies widely among cultures in style and structure. Definitions of music can change dramatically over a short time, as they have across the world during the 20th century.

Can music exist without sound? Some philosophers argue that music should be defined as a kind of “mental image” and that the physical aspects of sound are simply by-products of this image. If you think you can have a musical experience by imagining the sound of a piece of music, then you think music can exist without sound. But most musical experiences involve producing or listening to physical characteristics of sound such as pitch and timbre (quality comparable to texture or color in sight).

Is the tape-recorded sound of a large metal-stamping machine music? Are 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence music? Is the activity of reading a list of hundreds of seemingly unrelated objects, activities, and states of mind music? Each of these “works”, as well as many other sounds (or nonsounds), has been copyrighted as a musical composition, performed, and recorded in the 20th century. One of the legacies of 20th-century music is to have blurred the definition of music as never before.

Other experts argue that whether any particular pattern of sounds (or our mental image of this pattern) is or is not music hinges on the musical culture into which we were born and in which we have grown up. In other words, whether sounds are music or not has more to do with learning than with anything about the physical characteristics of the sounds or the inborn characteristics of people. An American or European, hearing for the first time a Javanese gamelan performance or singing by the Ewe people of West Africa, might feel disoriented and disappointed by the unfamiliar and seemingly meaningless sounds of these kinds of music. Similarly, Javanese or Ghanaian listeners might feel every bit as disappointed when they first hear the music of Austrian composer Franz Schubert or the songs of a popular rock group, and they might find these equally meaningless.

Like language, another arrangement of sounds, music is a uniquely human form of communication with well-developed rules of construction much like grammar. Some language experts would say that you can listen to someone speaking a language you do not understand and still know whether the speaker is excited or tired, angry or delighted. You would be making interpretations based upon the speech patterns: loud or soft, high-pitched or low-pitched, rapid and bitten off, or slow and smooth. Corresponding to these elements of speech are musical variables such as dynamics (force and volume), register (range of music or voice), mode (arrangement of a set of tones), and articulation (such as staccato, meaning abrupt and crisp; or legato, smooth and even). On the other hand, most people would agree that a meaningful conversation can only take place when both the speaker and the listener speak the same language. The conversation becomes even more meaningful when the parties are talking about something or someone they both know well.

Although there is no general agreement as to exactly what music communicates or how it communicates it, some individuals and governments have believed that music possesses great powers of communication. Most ancient Greek philosophers believed that listening to music based on certain of the modes in use at the time was beneficial to the development of a young person’s character, and warned that listening to music based on certain other modes would have harmful effects. For centuries Chinese beliefs about music were influenced by the philosophy of Confucius, whichmusic was not to entertain but to purify one’s thoughts.


It seems likely that everyday activities, such as the movements in repetitive work and in walking, were rhythmically regular enough to invite some sort of embellishment. Related breathing rhythms, chanting, or other accompaniment, such as the tapping of a walking stick while walking or the transformation of a work tool into an instrument while working, may have been early forms of music. In fact, whether sacred Native American corn-gathering songs or melodies heard in elevators or supermarkets, music still accompanies our ceremonial and everyday activities.

Scholars can only speculate about when music began or which cultures had music first. From ancient times people have told stories of its origins. The so-called music of the spheres was thought by Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras in the 6th century bc—and by later classical and medieval philosophers of the Western world—to be a perfectly harmonious music, inaudible on Earth, produced by the movement of the stars and planets. In many non-Western cultures ancient thinkers understood music as part of a system of cosmological, philosophical, or scientific thought. For instance, the musical scale of ancient China, derived through arithmetic from a basic note, reflected the ancient Chinese conception of the organization of the universe. Each degree of the scale was closely related to the cardinal points (north, south, east, west), the elements, the seasons, the planets, the months of the year, colors, materials, numbers, parts of the human
body, animals, smells, and so forth. The Chinese found in nature eight different sources of musical sound: metal, stone, silk, bamboo, calabash, terra cotta, skin, and wood.

Many of the elaborate melody patterns of India, called ragas, are believed to have magical or curative powers. Ragas are traditionally played at specific hours or during specific seasons; it is believed that to depart from this timetable would be harmful to the performer and audience. In some tribal societies, music appears to serve as a special form of communication with supernatural beings, and the prominent use of music in modern Christian and Jewish services may be a remnant of such a purpose. Music has always held an important role in religious rituals.


American jazz great Duke Ellington once stated that there were only two kinds of music—good and bad. Music is pleasing to its loyal audiences who have learned to distinguish nuances of style and may be able to identify their favorite performers by sound. It may be less than pleasing to others, who may comprehend so little of the music that they think it all sounds alike. Music can also be performed well or poorly. These judgments are made within a musical culture, according to what that culture believes about music. It is obvious how important the composer and the performer are in musical communication, but the importance of the audience’s knowledge and active participation in music is often underestimated or ignored.

Most musical cultures divide into so-called art music and music of the people, though these two categories are not always distinct. Art music demands a high level of training on the part of the performer and a relatively high level of sophistication on the part of the audience. Popular and folk styles of music can become equally sophisticated, but they tend to start out being easier to perform and more easily understood by a wider audience. Almost every musical culture has subcultures, and these subcultures often have their own subcultures. Western music is one of the clearest examples of a multi-layered musical culture.

Baroque, classical, romantic, modern, and postmodern are all recognized styles of Western art music that together span the last three centuries. But more specific musical genres, such as religious music, folk music, military music, popular music, film music, and show music, have coexisted with art music during this time period. And within any one of these broader musical styles, we can find other musical subcultures. For example, within the broad musical range of styles called popular music, we find blues; within the subculture of blues, we find field blues and urban blues, among others.

Two pieces of music within the same musical culture, and even within the same musical subculture (for example, rock music), can sound very differently and can appeal to different groups. Compare, for example, two examples of music that some people would group together as rock music, David Bowie’s “Changes” (from Hunky Dory, 1972) and “Fortunate Son” (from Willy and the Poor Boys, 1969) by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Although these two songs were recorded and released within a few years of one another, they have distinctly different styles, and they tended to attract different audiences. Creedence Clearwater Revival was one of several back-to-basics American rock groups that revisited the traditional blues and country-western musical heritage of rock. This was at least in part a reaction to the influence of British rock singers like Bowie and other groups that had gained a huge international following during the 1960s and 1970s.

Similarly, jazz styles vary not only between early forms (Dixieland, ragtime) and newer styles, but also between different schools of jazz that exist at essentially the same time. For example, the understated, classical style of the Modern Jazz Quartet differs from the spontaneous, free improvisational style of saxophonist Anthony Braxton.

Both Symphony No. 4 in G Major by Austrian composer Gustav Mahler and Suite: Pour le Piano by French composer Claude Debussy can be thought of as European art music, and both were completed in 1901. Once again, however, we find music with clearly different sounds. The most obvious difference is in performance medium: orchestra and voice in the Mahler work; piano in the Debussy composition. The two works also differ in pitch structure. The Mahler symphony is still organized around a set of harmonic relationships among pitches and would be described as tonal. It also represents a familiar distribution of notes in Western music known as major mode, based on the relationship of whole and half tones to one particular tone. Fundamentally different, the Debussy suite approaches the atonality (absence of tonality) of a whole-tone scale, a sequence in which no one tone functions as center. Although these pieces come out of the same musical culture, there is a more profound difference between the two pieces than just these characteristics. Mahler was extending the German-Austrian musical tradition, composing within a subculture that included predecessors such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner. Debussy’s so-called impressionist style was meaningful as a reaction to this same subculture.

These examples of subcultures within musical cultures also begin to suggest how a group can adopt music as a symbol of its identity. In and of themselves,
the colors green and orange are not really about anything. But in Europe these colors have been invested with strong religious and political meanings over the past several centuries. In many parts of western Europe and especially in Ireland the colors are associated with religious division: green for the Catholics, orange for the Protestants. In a similar way, music can become part of the glue of a subculture: an intangible but extremely strong identifying and binding element.

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