The Definition of Music

April 28th, 2009

There are many words that we use on a daily basis that we all think we know the meaning of, but then when we’re asked to define it we don’t know where to start.  For instance, to define wisdom the average person would have a difficult time finding the words to describe it.  The same goes for many virtues and arguably intangible things in general:  Truth, hope, love, joy, emotion, justice…some may say that they have good definitions for all of these words and spout off a stream of examples that are supposed to lead us in the right direction.  But an example of something does not really tell us what something is.  When you give an example rather than a definition, you’re not answering the question.

I find that music is another one of those words that people give examples of rather than definitions.  I ask people what they think music is and a common reply is, ‘melody, rhythm, and harmony.’  Very good, you’ve given me the three components of music, but you still lack the definition.  Answer what melody, rhythm, and harmony are and you’ll begin to come closer to defining music.  ‘Melody is linear activity, harmony is the sound perceived at any given moment, and rhythm is the points in time in which these elements occur.’  Some would disagree with these definitions because people’s presuppositions are that these three elements must meet our western standards.  But the western world is small, and if we are to go by certain western dictionary definitions, we are required to say that the music of non-western cultures is not music.  Well then I ask you, what else could their form of sonic art be?  Is it noise?  Apparently not to them, but only to you.  Is your opinion right and theirs not?  Certainly not!  Our definitions of these musical elements must be broad or else we are in danger of offending our foreign friends.  And they would have good reason to be offended if we say our art is better when their people have poured their hearts and souls into their version of this craft.

A good place to look for definitions is always an up-to-date dictionary , because a good dictionary (some are bad) will tell us what something is rather than only giving us examples.  Let’s look at each of the three elements using dictionary.com:

Melody:  “The succession of single tones in musical compositions, as distinguished from harmony and rhythm.”
Harmony:  “Any simultaneous combination of tones.”
Rhythm:  “The pattern of regular or irregular pulses caused in music by the occurrence of strong and weak melodic and harmonic beats.” (The only flaw I find in this definition is that I think “strong and weak” should be changed to ‘strong and/or weak’.
Music:  “An art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color.”

Without these broad definitions we discredit the work of other cultures.  I propose that music is simply the definitions of our three elements put together.  My personal (and therefore arguable) definition would then be, ‘Music is sonic events occurring linearly at specific points in time.’  I implore you then to identify all organized sound as musical expression.  This is not to say that I think you should appreciate all music as well crafted art.  I will address this in later posts.

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