What is Music?


What is music? Is it just a series of notes and rhythms, or something more? The purpose of this entry is to provide an overview, and hopefully a new perspective on something we all interact with every day. We will examine the purpose of music, the general theories regarding the definition of music, and the personal/cultural significance of music today. However, this blog post will by no means give a definitive answer to the age-old questions regarding the origins of music. Instead, the purpose of this blog is to start an internal dialogue about why we listen to music.


Music is a very difficult idea to define. It is so abstract, with such a spectrum of genres, that the task is daunting and seemingly impossible. However, it is a simple task to identify music, as “even the least musical among us can recognize music, and if we like it or not” (Alperson, 1). This leads us to question the innateness of music; a challenging question indeed. Two different perspectives hold that music is programmed in our genes. The evolutionary perspective states that music is solely “shaped by natural selection and governed by genes”, and the creationism perspective (a wide spectrum of beliefs) attributes music to our origins by some divine entity. The other side of the spectrum holds that our “general-purpose learning capacities” allow the environment to mold us as blank slates (Peretz 2006:3). In “How the Mind Works”, Steven Pinker also suggests that music is a product of other faculties of the brain being used in ways they are not purposed to.

While these theories have some basis of validity, there are gaps in our knowledge that make it difficult to explain the link we have with music. Addressing the evolutionary perspective, the main counter argument is that music as we know it does not have a purpose in improving the fitness of a species. Darwin said himself, “as neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man in reference to his daily habits of life, they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed” (Darwin 1871:878). We could discuss the arguments for and against the innateness of music for days, with studies of the universality of emotion in music (Fritz), the response of babies to music (Trehub), and the idea that most of us are able to carry a tune and respond emotionally to music (Peretz 2003). There is no consensus, but a growing number of researchers are interested in attempting to answer these numerous questions from the perspective of linguistics, neuroscience, biology, and ethnomusicology. The big idea is that there is mounting evidence that music is encoded into our humanity, yet there are many fields of thought on the matter.


The definition of music is a difficult topic to address, because it requires defining the boundary between music and non-music. Maybe an easier discussion to have is what music is not and what is not music. Let’s start with something simple: is a single pure tone music?

Most would say that a single pure tone is not music, just a sound. I would tend to agree. Among other reasons, there is no organization to the sound. It must be man-made to be a pure tone, yet it is not music. With this working definition, we can assume for the sake of this exploratory blog post, that not all man-made sound is music (discussion of this concept later). The foundational element of music is organization. A pure tone is not music, yet a group of pure tones could be considered a musical composition by most. The question on whether this composition is enjoyable, or if the organizer is skilled is another discussion, yet we can agree that it is possible to make music out of just pure tones. Therefore we can agree there is a definite element of organization to music.

Silence is not music, because it is the lack of sound. How then, can silence be used to enhance the music? In the same way that sadness makes joy more intense, silence contributes to the experience of sound. This relationship between sound and silence can be exploited in the organizational patterns of music, and that organization can involve patterns of sound and silence, and/or changing tones (remember we decided a single pitch was not music). In more commonplace terms, the patterns of sound and silence are called rhythm, and changing tones are known as melody (changing tones have patterns of change that could be considered rhythmic as well). This is an important addition to our working definition of music. Decidedly, music is organized with rhythm and pitch. However, this is still a very broad definition.

Is birdsong music? After all, it is called birdsong. It has rhythm, with varying intervals of notes. It has a pattern, and this pattern is unique to each bird species. Birdsong fulfills the qualifications of music thus far. According to The Bulletin of the American Musicology Society, “from the purely formal point of view, there thus seems to be no reliable criterion that would establish a fundamental difference between animal and human expression in sound” (Herzog 2). The problem is, a broken machine also can fulfill our present criteria for music A slowly spinning rotor clanking on different metal parts in the unit produce patterned sounds, with varying pitch intervals depending on the composition and size of each element the rotor hits in its rotation, and organized in a loop each spin cycle. If a broken piece of machinery can be considered music, how then can we accept this definition of music? In terms of the physics of sound, there is no large difference between a bird’s call and the imitation of it by a piccolo, yet there is a difference. In the same way, a percussion section can replicate the metal sounds of the broken machine and could possibly be appreciated in the music community. If the sounds are exactly the same, what is the difference between the bird and the piccolo? The broken machine and the percussion section? The difference is in the intention behind the sound. In one case, a bird is using its call to communicate to a potential mate with the instinctual guiding of survival. In another, a human being organized the notes at specific intervals and rhythms for purposes discussed in a later section. The machine was just a metal box making some noise, yet an organizer took this noise and replicated it with purpose. Two necessary elements of music are shown through this discussion. The organization behind music must come from human beings, and there must be some purpose to the sound.

Noise is often though of as the antithesis of music, at least in my experience. My father, a fan of Scottish bagpipes, tells me to “turn that noise down” in reference to Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole. In my opinion, the bagpipes definitely sound more like noise than anything Kendrick has created. This is to say that the word “noise” is used in modern speech to define what is not music but I have to argue that music and noise are not mutually exclusive. The futurists had a similar perspective on noise and music, insisting “we must break at all cost from this restrictive circle of pure sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds” (Russolo 6). The subjectivity of music drove the futurists in the pursuit of new and emotional music. Russolo became bored with the classical music of the age, and propelled him into a new genre of music that used “noise” to evoke emotion. Music does not have to please every audience; it does not even have to be pleasing. The point the futurists were trying to make is that predictability in music severely limits the emotional reaction to music, whether negative or positive. In their eyes, the purpose of music is to evoke emotion in the audience.

Music requires a broad definition that allows for subjectivity on all fronts. After a certain point, music and non-music cannot be distinguished, and it is up to the audience and/or the organizer to decide. From this brief overview, we can determine with some certainty that music has organization involving rhythm and pitch, must come from human beings, and must have some purpose (not necessarily constrained to the organizer).


Now that we have a working definition of music, we can explore perhaps the most ambiguous element of music: its purpose. Daniel Levitin published a book entitled The World in Six Songs, which organizes music from all around the world into six categories based on its purpose. The six categories are “songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love.” I have to disagree with these categories for a number of reasons. The problem with the classifification of music is, these categories are inherently bias toward music in the style of a “song”, and therefore exclude many areas of music. Music has a duality. It requires both an organizer and a listener. Both the listener and organizer have purposes in the music, and the roles are not mutually exclusive. That is to say an organizer can also be, and often is, a listener. What the book fails to acknowledge is the process behind the music, and how both listening and organizing music are purposeful. In the next section, some observations and anecdotal evidence can be given for the cultural purposes of music.

In my opinion, three main purposes can be attributed to the act of listening to music. The first is experiencing and/or sharing emotion. This process can be a communal experience or a personal experience. Just as in any art form, music can be designed as an experience that is shared between the organizer and the listener. A perfect example of this is the Take Away Show, an intimate concert with a small crowd, about twenty people. The goal of the experience is to create a raw, emotional experience for both the listener and the musician. One of the most emotionally charged bands, Bon Iver, played a Take Away Show in Paris (shown below, go to minute 26).

A by-product of shared emotional experience is a window into the mind and soul of the organizer. This is why audiences can easily tell if music is genuine or not. In the case of Bon Iver, it is clear the Justin Vernon (lead singer) has a strong emotional connection with the music. The same concept can be seen in South African drumming. “The drum is used every morning… as an expression of gratitude for [the ancestors’] protection and guidance” (Levine 132). In this instance the organizer is sharing music for the purpose of conveying gratitude, and sharing this feeling of gratitude with his community.

The video above is not the drum of gratitude, but the same concept is present as South African children perform a song of gratitude after the Toms Company delivered shoes to their school.

The second of the three purposes of the listener is to learn. This involves mostly lyrical selections. Lyrics are required in some cases to teach and instruct, as in the ABC’s or this biology rap:

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This song takes advantage of music as a memory mechanism to help students memorize and learn information. Multiple studies state that, “text is better recalled when it is heard as a song rather than as speech”, quantitatively affirming what many cultures found through experience (Wallace).

Finally, the listener utilizes music as a means of worship. This is fundamentally different from experiencing music. Often, people of a religion worshiping a deity listen to and participate in the sharing of songs of worship as a means of glorifying that deity, not experiencing emotion. An example of this is the song “Oh How I Need You” by All Sons and Daughters.

Another example of worship is from the traditional Jewish song Sisu Vesimchu (Let Us All Rejoice) for the celebration of Simchat Torah (the removing of the Torah from the ark).

The organizer has the same purposes, just in a different context. The organizer can use music as a way to express and communicate emotion. This covers all ranges of human emotion and expresses the human condition in some way. The organizer can also have the purpose of teaching with the music. In the song “m.A.A.d city” by Kendrick Lamar, Lamar uses rap to expose the brokenness of Compton to the outside world, and shows what restoration can look like.

Finally, the organizer can use worship as a purpose of creating music.


What do I use music for in my life? At times, music can be used for any of the above purposes, and no musical composition fits neatly into just one purpose. It is possible that these purposes are not all encompassing, but from my research, these purposes are exhaustive. The key in listening to and appreciating music to a greater degree is identifying the organizational methods and purposes behind it. If the music serves to communicate emotion, absorb it and feel with the music, learn something from a rap, and worship with a choir. Music is a part of us, whether that means genetically or culturally acquired. What matters is, music is powerful, and can express the subtle emotions in ways that other language falls short. Music is (arguably) universal and unique to humans. It is (subjectively) the art of expressing what being human truly means.


Alperson, Philip, ed. 1987. What Is Music?: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music. State College: Pennsylvania University State Press.

Children of Saphinda Primary School. 2009. Traditional South African Song of Gratitude. Umlazi Township. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjK4ynYILFQ.

Fitch, Tecumseh W. 2006. “The Biology and Evolution of Music: A Comparative Perspective.” Cognition. 100: 173-215.

Fritz, Thomas and Sebastian Jentschke, Nathalie Gosselin, Daniela Sammler, Isabelle Peretz, Robert Turner, Angela D. Friederici, and Stefan Koelsch. “Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music.” Current Biology. 19(7): 573–576.

Herzog, George. 1941. “Do Animals Have Music?.” Bulletin of the American Musicological Society. 5: 3-4.

Lamar, Kendrick. 2012. M.A.A.D. City. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10yrPDf92hY.

Levine, Laura. 2005. The Drumcafe’s Traditional Music of South Africa. Jacana Media: Johannesburg.

Levitin, Daniel. 2008. The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. New York, NY: E. P. Dutton.

Peretz, Isabelle and Max Coltheart. 2003. “Modularity of Music Processing.” Nature Neuroscience. 6: 688-691.

Peretz, Isabelle. 2006. “The nature of music from a biological perspective.” Cognition. 100: 1-32.

Pinker, Steven. 1997. How the Mind Works. WW Norton & Co Inc: New York.

Russolo, Luigi. 1986. The art of noises. Pendragon Press: New York.

Sloboda, John and Juslin, Patrik. 2001. “Psychological perspectives on music and emotion” In Music and Emotion: Theory and Research, 71-104. New York, NY:       Oxford University Press.

Trehub, Sandra and Erin Hannon. 2006. “Infant music perception: Domain-general or domain-specific mechanisms?” Cognition. 100(1): 73-99.

Unknown. 2014. Sisu Vesimchu (Let Us All Rejoice) – Simchat Torah. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYZPGLuLZz4.

Vernon, Justin. 2009. Take Away Show #93 Bon Iver (full version). La Blogotheque (producer). https://vimeo.com/3382261.

Wallace, Wanda T. 1994. “Memory for music: Effect of melody on recall of text.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 20(6): 1471-1485.

Wolkenfeld, Glenn. 2012. Mitosis Rap: Mr. W’s Cell Division Song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOsAbTi9tHw.

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