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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
"What is music?"
This question is usually asked in a classroom setting full of musicians who have never thought about it. (To be honest, it is kind of cruel.) After about an hour of discussion, which turns into an argument, which turns into "apathy," tears, frustration, etc. the class is over. Everyone leaves in a bad mood and the question never received a satisfactory answer. Interestingly enough, almost everyone returns next class.

Recently, I read/heard 2 answers to the "What is music?" question that came from unlikely sources. The answers were more like explanations because the question was never asked, but to serve their purposes, music needed some explanation. Here they are:

Now, what is "music"- a sequence of vibrations in the air, or a succession of emotional responses in a brain? It is both.
- Douglas R. Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach (1969), Professor of Cognative Science and Comparative Literature

What's interesting about (recorded) music is it's really a form of software. It's digital, bit and bytes, the same as software. And it followed a similar trajectory, right? First, you had a physical product - in the old days, you would buy a box of Microsoft Windows and take it home. Then you had software you could download off the internet. Then you went to a software-as-a-service model where companies transformed from these sort of downloaded one-time purchases to annuity-like subscriptions. And music is following a very similar path. In fact, you can think of UMG (Universal Music Group) as a music-as-a-service company, call it MaaS as opposed to SaaS. (June 2021)
- Bill Ackman, investor/hedge fund manager

Hofstadter's explanation is not wrong and he admits a more thorough explanation could be given. However, that short sentence lays a really solid foundation in the science of music.

Ackman's explanation is not wrong either. (I added the word "recorded" because recorded music is really what he is talking about. The context being streaming.) In fact, I think this is one of the most "thinking outside the box" explanations that makes sense I've ever heard. I'm not particularly happy about it but it gave me a new perspective that could be useful.

If I were asked, "What is Music?" My answer would be:

Music is structurally organized sound (tones, noise) and silence...
-Given To Fly, musician

My answer is by no means complete hence the... at the end. There are artworks called sound sculptures that use sound as the primary medium but are not music. The artists that make them call them sound sculptures so there is no ambiguity between the two. They are different. This contrast allows the mind to think about "what music isn't" which can be helpful.

If you have ideas on "What is music?" I would be interested to hear them.
 

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If you think about it most things we think of as important in life are just shared stories.
Money, laws, politics, language, nations..
All just shared stories that only exist because we all believe them.

There are some things that are more fundamental. Math I think exists, although the way we choose to describe it is just another shared story.

Music? Somewhere in between the two.
Music is an emergent property of math. Some of which is organised through those shared stories. If you grew up in the west we all gravitate to 4/4, 12 note, major scale stuff as that's the story of music we've all told each other and we believe.

But there also seems to be something fundamental beneath that about pitch and rhythm. My pet bird definitely sings to us. it understands music too. But without the social construct something like minor = sad doesn't exist.
 

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Elements of Music
Melody
Harmony
Timbre
Dynamics
Rythum
Texture
Form

This is what I learned makes music... Music. I remember my first day of music theory in high school. And a my teacher said "Rap is NOT music" and a few kids got all bent out of shape. One kid asked "well what is it then?" He responded with "a form of entertainment" it was a big debate while I sat there sort of laughing inside... Because well... I think rap is awful. But any ways...

I see it as form of expression, a way of universally expressing an emotional context through sound. It's the only form of expression that is completely primal because we all experience similar emotions when exposed to melody that is arranged in a particular pattern.
 

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You can get very technical, with standardized criteria, especially within Western music (or what would be considered such to musician and non musician audiences alike), but the science of music is perhaps not the direction your question is really going, forgive the assumption.

To put it simply, music is any sonic art form that when heard causes/inspires a cerebral and/or emotive response in the subject (e.g. instruments, voices, drumming, simple rain sounds perhaps in a rhythmic pattern, and yes, i must admit, even rap [with a shrug] is as well in that sense).
 

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That's fine I suppose. Though the elements that make music what it is are those listed. Rap does not include melody, dynamics, harmony... Which to me doesn't make it music. It is an art form for sure.
 

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That's fine I suppose. Though the elements that make music what it is are those listed. Rap does not include melody, dynamics, harmony... Which to me doesn't make it music. It is an art form for sure.
Your right - technically, (and I agreed implicitly if you didn’t catch the :🤷:)

my standards for music are actually much higher than what I stated for general consumption (besides Classical and (non Free) Jazz, I discount almost all other genres[not including sub or parent genres like blues::jazz or blues::rock and most of all, what I consider the greatest of genres NeoClassical Metal[since it’s majority European classical infused with the American metal and rock, like Yngwie to me is god, maybe the Beethoven of our time, seriously like I mean that…so unless you know Arabic classical or Indian classical, I pretty much don’t even think of it.)

PS I’m not a snob or arrogant or anything, despite my classical training and metal guitar, like I admit, rap is music as a sonic art form, but I agree it lacks the technical musicality and criteria as music [sampling a loop and reciting verse over it is actually more performance poetry art than anything ], but I keep an open mind - especially because as a former rap artist and producer, I wrote, played, performed and recorded the instrumentals for the rap and then I did verse, so the musical aspect was indeed music, at least to me….which is an exception so I agree mostly with your point but I keep an open mind to other irreverent artists like myself ]
 

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That's fine I suppose. Though the elements that make music what it is are those listed. Rap does not include melody, dynamics, harmony... Which to me doesn't make it music. It is an art form for sure.
Does every piece of music for a solo instrument have to have harmony?

How many tones does a line have to have before it becomes melody?

If some thing is purposefully controlled so that the volume remains constant, at what point does it lack sufficient dynamics as to stop being music?

Music could be as many things as there are people who care to define it.
 

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I agree, this is true. Musical ideas are definitely "music" but melody has to be something that the brain can remember. At least 2 notes. The jaws theme for example. Everyone that hears the route then the minor second... A pause and repeat, thinks JAWS! A lot of rock music has no dynamics... A LOT lol. So I suppose my music theory teacher had some explaining to do 👉. As for harmony... Any chord has harmony. So most music has it. But some, where there is simply melody... I suppose doesn't have harmony... At least not playing simultaneously.
 

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Nietzche said, music is the highest of all forms of art , and he’s right

nothing does what music does to an animal or a plant - nada
 

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Discussion Starter · #13 ·
Music is fragile.
- The way music is presented (venue, playback setup, etc.) makes a big difference in how the music is percieved. In other words, not everything can be played anywhere and yield positive results.

Music is measurable.
- In ancient Greece, music was part of the quadrivium which was the secondary part of the curriculum outlined by Plato in Book VI of The Republic. The four subjects of the quadrivium were arthimetic, geometry, music, and astronomy with the common element being their could be measured in either quantity or magnitude.

Music is inherently linked with technology.
- Technology in this case should be understood as "the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes." Some examples:
- the keyboard mechanism used in the piano
- the material used for guitar strings and frets
- the electric guitar in general
- Equal Temperment

These ideas do not explain music, but they describe very small facets of the whole. It is just a different way to interpret the question "What is music?"
 

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Music is fragile.
- The way music is presented (venue, playback setup, etc.) makes a big difference in how the music is percieved. In other words, not everything can be played anywhere and yield positive results.

Music is measurable.
- In ancient Greece, music was part of the quadrivium which was the secondary part of the curriculum outlined by Plato in Book VI of The Republic. The four subjects of the quadrivium were arthimetic, geometry, music, and astronomy with the common element being their could be measured in either quantity or magnitude.

Music is inherently linked with technology.
- Technology in this case should be understood as "the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes." Some examples:
- the keyboard mechanism used in the piano
- the material used for guitar strings and frets
- the electric guitar in general
- Equal Temperment

These ideas do not explain music, but they describe very small facets of the whole. It is just a different way to interpret the question "What is music?"

And that is part of the mystique of music. Music is ALL of those things.... And yet,

Music is robust.
- Whilst the definition and volume may drop, music is music even when heard from far away. (I used to work at a place where I could hear Download from my office)

Music is immeasurable.
- whilst volume, and tempo can be measured, you can measure the same on a construction site when they're using heavy equipment. So are those actually aspects of what makes "sound", "music"? Or is that differentiation something more intangible?

Music is separate from technology.
- I can stamp my foot and clap my hands and sing a melody....
 

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
And that is part of the mystique of music. Music is ALL of those things.... And yet,

Music is robust.
- Whilst the definition and volume may drop, music is music even when heard from far away. (I used to work at a place where I could hear Download from my office)

Music is immeasurable.
- whilst volume, and tempo can be measured, you can measure the same on a construction site when they're using heavy equipment. So are those actually aspects of what makes "sound", "music"? Or is that differentiation something more intangible?

Music is separate from technology.
- I can stamp my foot and clap my hands and sing a melody....
I'm slightly confused regarding your first 2 counter statements. This is what I was talking about regarding measuring music: Monochord - Wikipedia

Your 3rd counter-statement is true. If someone chooses not to follow that path, they will find technology from the past 1,000 years incorporated in musical instruments, concert halls, recording equipment, etc. When I say "technology," I am not referring to "Big Tech" in case there was confusion about that.
 

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Technology is fundamentally defined as the use of tools, with which music has been associated with (in the form of sound-producing instruments) for up to 50,000 years, depending on the dating. Certainly no less than 30,000 at a minimum. Past archaeological proof of simple instruments, which likely don't meet the accepted definition of "music" in terms of containing the several elements of music (rather, likely only being used to produce very primitive drone), there's cuneiform tablet "songs" proving that over 3,000 years ago, the ancient cultures of the Fertile Crescent were producing actual songs and employing technology to record and play that music.

tldr; music and technology have been a part of human evolution since the dawn of what we consider civilization, and likely predate even that by tens of thousands of years--possibly even playing a role in the development of speech.
 

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^^ The lyres from the royal cemetery of Ur are pretty impressive, at over 5k old. I think they're among the oldest surviving musical instruments we have. Pity we don't have any notation or writings about music from this period - maybe unrecorded in some dusty tablet stash or out there somewhere waiting to be found.

I suspect that, with the increase in social complexity, music played a prominent role therein. Because humans lived in non-state societies for several millennia from just before the onset of the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, communities needed various apparatus to maintain a level of social cohesion, and between ideology and narrative mythmaking, music would've played a strong role in reinforcing ritual acts. Because of this, it would have been subject to some level of formal structure. As such, music was less proliferated in 'secular' sphere, as we'd think of it these days.
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
^^ The lyres from the royal cemetery of Ur are pretty impressive, at over 5k old. I think they're among the oldest surviving musical instruments we have. Pity we don't have any notation or writings about music from this period - maybe unrecorded in some dusty tablet stash or out there somewhere waiting to be found.

I suspect that, with the increase in social complexity, music played a prominent role therein. Because humans lived in non-state societies for several millennia from just before the onset of the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, communities needed various apparatus to maintain a level of social cohesion, and between ideology and narrative mythmaking, music would've played a strong role in reinforcing ritual acts. Because of this, it would have been subject to some level of formal structure. As such, music was less proliferated in 'secular' sphere, as we'd think of it these days.
This is a really good post! The ideas you present shed light on how and why music is used which is helpful. In order for the "how and why" to be meaningful or effective the "what" needs to be accommodative. Notation really helps out with this as you suggested In the case of the lyres of Ur.
 
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