Definition of music

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An accurate and concise definition of music is fundamental to being able to discuss, categorize, and otherwise consider what we understand as being music. "Explications of the concept of music usually begin with the idea that music is organized sound. They go on to note that this characterization is too broad, since there are many examples of organized sound that are not music, such as human speech, and the sounds non-human animals and machines make" (Kania 2014). Many scholars have suggested definitions, but defining music turns out to be more difficult than might first be imagined. As this article will demonstrate, there is ongoing controversy about how to define music.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines music as "sounds that are sung by voices or played on musical instruments "(Merriam-Webster 2016). However, the music genres known as Noise music and Musique concrète, for instance, challenge these ideas about what constitutes music's essential attributes by using sounds not widely considered as musical, like randomly produced electronic distortion, feedback, static, cacophony, and compositional processes using indeterminacy (Priest 2013, 132) (Hagerty 2007).

A famous example of the dilemma in defining music is modern composer John Cage’s composition titled 4'33''. The written score has three movements and directs the performer(s) to appear on stage, indicate by gesture or other means when the piece begins, then make no sound and only mark sections and the end by gesture. What is heard are only whatever ambient sounds may occur in the room. Some argue this is not music because, for example, it contains no sounds that are conventionally considered "musical" and the composer and performer(s) exert no control over the organization of the sounds heard (Dodd 2013). Others argue it is music because the conventional definitions of musical sounds are unnecessarily and arbitrarily limited, and control over the organization of the sounds is achieved by the composer and performer(s) through their gestures that divide what is heard into specific sections and a comprehensible form (Gann 2010).

The problem of defining music is further complicated by different conceptions of music in different cultures.

Concepts of music

Because of differing fundamental concepts of music, the languages of many cultures do not contain a word that can be accurately translated as "music," as that word is generally understood by Western cultures (Nettl 2005). Inuit and most North American Indian languages do not have a general term for music. Among the Aztecs, the ancient Mexican theory of rhetorics, poetry, dance, and instrumental music used the Nahuatl term In xochitl-in kwikatl to refer to a complex mix of music and other poetic verbal and non-verbal elements, and reserve the word Kwikakayotl (or cuicacayotl) only for the sung expressions (Leon-Portilla 2007, 11). In Africa there is no term for music in Tiv, Yoruba, Igbo, Efik, Birom, Hausa, Idoma, Eggon or Jarawa. Many other languages have terms which only partly cover what Western culture typically means by the term music (Schafer 1996,[page needed]). The Mapuche of Argentina do not have a word for music, but they do have words for instrumental versus improvised forms (kantun), European and non-Mapuche music (kantun winka), ceremonial songs (öl), and tayil (Robertson 1976, 39).

Some languages in West Africa have no term for music but the speakers do have the concept[clarification needed] (Nettl 1989,[page needed]). Musiqi is the Persian word for the science and art of music, muzik being the sound and performance of music (Sakata 1983,[page needed]), though some things European-influenced listeners would include, such as Quran chanting, are excluded.

Music vs. noise

Ben Watson points out that Ludwig van Beethoven's Grosse Fuge (1825) "sounded like noise" to his audience at the time. Indeed, Beethoven's publishers persuaded him to remove it from its original setting as the last movement of a string quartet. He did so, replacing it with a sparkling Allegro. They subsequently published it separately (Watson 2009, 109–10).[clarification needed] Musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez considers the difference between noise and music nebulous, explaining that "The border between music and noise is always culturally defined—which implies that, even within a single society, this border does not always pass through the same place; in short, there is rarely a consensus ... By all accounts there is no single and intercultural universal concept defining what music might be" (Nattiez 1990, 48, 55).


Organized sound

An often-cited definition of music is that it is "organized sound", a term originally coined by modernist composer Edgard Varèse (Goldman 1961, 133) in reference to his own musical aesthetic. Varèse's concept of music as "organized sound" fits into his vision of "sound as living matter" and of "musical space as open rather than bounded" (Chou 1966a, 1–4). He conceived the elements of his music in terms of "sound-masses", likening their organization to the natural phenomenon of crystallization (Chou 1966b, 157). Varèse thought that "to stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise", and he posed the question, "what is music but organized noises?" (Varèse and Chou 1966, 18).

The fifteenth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica states that "while there are no sounds that can be described as inherently unmusical, musicians in each culture have tended to restrict the range of sounds they will admit." A human organizing element is often felt to be implicit in music (sounds produced by non-human agents, such as waterfalls or birds, are often described as "musical", but perhaps less often as "music"). The composer R. Murray Schafer (1968, 284) states that the sound of classical music "has decays; it is granular; it has attacks; it fluctuates, swollen with impurities—and all this creates a musicality that comes before any 'cultural' musicality." However, in the view of semiologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez, "just as music is whatever people choose to recognize as such, noise is whatever is recognized as disturbing, unpleasant, or both" (Nattiez 1990, 47–48). (See "music as social construct" below.)


Levi R. Bryant defines music not as a language, but as a marked-based, problem-solving method such as mathematics (Ashby 2004, 4).

Musical universals

Often a definition of music lists the aspects or elements that make up music under that definition. However, in addition to a lack of consensus, Jean Molino (1975, 43) also points out that "any element belonging to the total musical fact can be isolated, or taken as a strategic variable of musical production."

Following Wittgenstein, cognitive psychologist Eleanor Rosch proposes that categories are not clean cut but that something may be more or less a member of a category (Rosch 1973, 328). As such the search for musical universals would fail and would not provide one with a valid definition (Levitin 2006, 136–39).

Social construct

Many people do, however, share a general idea of music. The Websters definition of music is a typical example: "the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity" (Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, online edition).

Subjective experience

This approach to the definition focuses not on the construction but on the experience of music. An extreme statement of the position has been articulated by the Italian composer Luciano Berio: “Music is everything that one listens to with the intention of listening to music” (Berio, Dalmonte, and Varga 1985, 19). This approach permits the boundary between music and noise to change over time as the conventions of musical interpretation evolve within a culture, to be different in different cultures at any given moment, and to vary from person to person according to their experience and proclivities. It is further consistent with the subjective reality that even what would commonly be considered music is experienced as nonmusic if the mind is concentrating on other matters and thus not perceiving the sound's essence as music (Clifton 1983, 9).

Specific definitions


In his 1983 book, Music as Heard, which sets out from the phenomenological position of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Ricœur, Thomas Clifton defines music as "an ordered arrangement of sounds and silences whose meaning is presentative rather than denotative. . . . This definition distinguishes music, as an end in itself, from compositional technique, and from sounds as purely physical objects." More precisely, "music is the actualization of the possibility of any sound whatever to present to some human being a meaning which he experiences with his body—that is to say, with his mind, his feelings, his senses, his will, and his metabolism" (Clifton 1983, 1). It is therefore "a certain reciprocal relation established between a person, his behavior, and a sounding object" (Clifton 1983, 10).

Clifton accordingly differentiates music from non-music on the basis of the human behavior involved, rather than on either the nature of compositional technique or of sounds as purely physical objects. Consequently, the distinction becomes a question of what is meant by musical behavior: "a musically behaving person is one whose very being is absorbed in the significance of the sounds being experienced." However, "It is not altogether accurate to say that this person is listening to the sounds. First, the person is doing more than listening: he is perceiving, interpreting, judging, and feeling. Second, the preposition 'to' puts too much stress on the sounds as such. Thus, the musically behaving person experiences musical significance by means of, or through, the sounds" (Clifton 1983, 2).

In this framework, Clifton finds that there are two things that separate music from non-music: (1) musical meaning is presentative, and (2) music and non-music are distinguished in the idea of personal involvement. "It is the notion of personal involvement which lends significance to the word ordered in this definition of music" (Clifton 1983, 3–4). This is not to be understood, however, as a sanctification of extreme relativism, since "it is precisely the 'subjective' aspect of experience which lured many writers earlier in this century down the path of sheer opinion-mongering. Later on this trend was reversed by a renewed interest in 'objective,' scientific, or otherwise non-introspective musical analysis. But we have good reason to believe that a musical experience is not a purely private thing, like seeing pink elephants, and that reporting about such an experience need not be subjective in the sense of it being a mere matter of opinion" (Clifton 1983, 8–9).

Clifton's task, then, is to describe musical experience and the objects of this experience which, together, are called "phenomena," and the activity of describing phenomena is called "phenomenology" (Clifton 1983, 9). It is important to stress that this definition of music says nothing about aesthetic standards.

Music is not a fact or a thing in the world, but a meaning constituted by human beings. . . . To talk about such experience in a meaningful way demands several things. First, we have to be willing to let the composition speak to us, to let it reveal its own order and significance. . . . Second, we have to be willing to question our assumptions about the nature and role of musical materials. . . . Last, and perhaps most important, we have to be ready to admit that describing a meaningful experience is itself meaningful. (Clifton 1983, 5–6)


"Music, often an art/entertainment, is a total social fact whose definitions vary according to era and culture," according to Jean Molino (1975, 37). It is often contrasted with noise. According to musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez: "The border between music and noise is always culturally defined—which implies that, even within a single society, this border does not always pass through the same place; in short, there is rarely a consensus.... By all accounts there is no single and intercultural universal concept defining what music might be" (Nattiez 1990, 47–8 and 55). Given the above demonstration that "there is no limit to the number or the genre of variables that might intervene in a definition of the musical," (Molino 1975, 42) an organization of definitions and elements is necessary.

Nattiez (1990, 17) describes definitions according to a tripartite semiological scheme similar to the following:

Poietic Process Esthesic Process
Composer (Producer) Sound (Trace) Listener (Receiver)

There are three levels of description, the poietic, the neutral, and the esthesic:

  • " By 'poietic' I understand describing the link among the composer's intentions, his creative procedures, his mental schemas, and the result of this collection of strategies; that is, the components that go into the work's material embodiment. Poietic description thus also deals with a quite special form of hearing (Varese called it 'the interior ear'): what the composer hears while imagining the work's sonorous results, or while experimenting at the piano, or with tape."
  • "By 'esthesic' I understand not merely the artificially attentive hearing of a musicologist, but the description of perceptive behaviors within a given population of listeners; that is how this or that aspect of sonorous reality is captured by their perceptive strategies." (Nattiez 1990, 90)
  • The neutral level is that of the physical "trace", (Saussere's sound-image, a sonority, a score), created and interpreted by the esthesic level (which corresponds to a perceptive definition; the perceptive and/or "social" construction definitions below) and the poietic level (which corresponds to a creative, as in compositional, definition; the organizational and social construction definitions below).

Table describing types of definitions of music (Nattiez 1990, 46):

poietic level
(choice of the composer)
neutral level
(physical definition)
esthesic level
(perceptive judgment)
music musical sound sound of the
agreeable sound
non-music noise
(complex sound)

Because of this range of definitions, the study of music comes in a wide variety of forms. There is the study of sound and vibration or acoustics, the cognitive study of music, the study of music theory and performance practice or music theory and ethnomusicology and the study of the reception and history of music, generally called musicology.


Composer Iannis Xenakis in "Towards a Metamusic" (chapter 7 of Formalized Music) defined music in the following way (Xenakis 1971, 181):

  1. It is a sort of comportment necessary for whoever thinks it and makes it.
  2. It is an individual pleroma, a realization.
  3. It is a fixing in sound of imagined virtualities (cosmological, philosophical, . . ., arguments)
  4. It is normative, that is, unconsciously it is a model for being or for doing by sympathetic drive.
  5. It is catalytic: its mere presence permits internal psychic or mental transformations in the same way as the crystal ball of the hypnotist.
  6. It is the gratuitous play of a child.
  7. It is a mystical (but atheistic) asceticism. Consequently, expressions of sadness, joy, love and dramatic situations are only very limited particular instances.

See also


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  • Hegarty, Paul, 2007. Noise/Music: A History. Continuum International Publishing Group. London: 3-19
  • Ashby, Arved, ed. 2004. The Pleasure of Modernist Music: Listening, Meaning, Intention, Ideology. Eastman Studies in Music 29. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. ISBN 1-58046-143-3.
  • Berio, Luciano, Rossana Dalmonte, and Bálint András Varga. 1985. Two Interviews, translated and edited by David Osmond-Smith. New York: Marion Boyars. ISBN 0-7145-2829-3.
  • Cage, John. 1991. "An Autobiographical Statement". Southwest Review,[full citation needed]. Reprinted at Retrieved 2 December 2015.
  • Chou Wen-chung. 1966a. "Open Rather Than Bounded". Perspectives of New Music 5, no. 1 (Autumn–Winter): 1–6.
  • Chou Wen-chung. 1966b. "Varèse: A Sketch of the Man and His Music". The Musical Quarterly 52, no. 2 (April): 151–170.
  • Clifton, Thomas. 1983. Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-02091-0.
  • Dodd, Julian. 2013. "Is John Cage's 4'33 Music?". You Tube/Tedx (accessed 14 July 2014).
  • Gann, Kyle. 2010. No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33''. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300136994.
  • Goldman, Richard Franko. 1961. “Varèse: Ionisation; Density 21.5; Intégrales; Octandre; Hyperprism; Poème Electronique. Instrumentalists, cond. Robert Craft. Columbia MS 6146 (stereo)” (in Reviews of Records). Musical Quarterly 47, no. 1. (January):133–34.
  • Gutmann, P. (2015). John Cage and the Avant-Garde: The Sounds of Silence. Retrieved 2 December 2015, from
  • Kania, Andrew. 2014. "The Philosophy of Music", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2014 edition, edited by Edward N. Zalta.
  • Kennedy, Michael. 1985. The Oxford Dictionary of Music, revised and enlarged edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, third edition, 1980. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-311333-6; ISBN 978-0-19-869162-4.
  • Leon-Portilla, Miguel. 2007. "La música de los aztecas / Music Among Aztecs", Pauta, no. 103:7–19.
  • Levitin, Daniel J. 2006. This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York: Dutton. ISBN 0-525-94969-0.
  • List, George. 1985. "Hopi Melodic Concepts". Journal of the American Musicological Society 38, no. 1 (Spring): 143–52.
  • Little, William, and C. T. Onions, eds. 1965. The Oxford Universal Dictionary Illustrated: An illustrated Edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, third edition, revised, 2 vols. London: The Caxton Publishing Co.
  •,. (2015). music}
  • Molino, Jean. 1975. "Fait musical et sémiologue de la musique", Musique en Jeu, no. 17:37–62.
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. 1990. Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music, translated by Carolyn Abbate. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-09136-6.
  • Nettl, Bruno. 1989. Blackfoot Musical Thought: Comparative Perspectives. Ohio: The Kent State University Press. ISBN 0-87338-370-2.
  • Nettl, Bruno. 2001. "Music". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Nettl, Bruno. 2005. "The Art of Combining Tones: The Music Concept". The Study of Ethnomusicology. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 26–37 ISBN 0-252-07278-2.
  • Priest, Eldritch. 2013. Boring Formless Nonsense: Experimental Music and The Aesthetics of Failure. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781441122131.
  • Robertson–de Carbo, Carol Elizabeth. 1976. "Tayil as Category and Communication among the Argentine Mapuche: A Methodological Suggestion", Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council 8:35–42.
  • Rosch, Eleanor. 1973. "Natural Categories". Cognitive Psychology 4, no. 3 (May): 328–50.
  • Sakata, Lorraine. 1983. Music in the Mind, The Concepts of Music and Musicians in Afghanistan. Kent: Kent State University Press.
  • Schafer, R. Murray. 1996. "Music and the Soundscape," in Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music: A Continuing Symposium, edited by Richard Kostelanetz and Joseph Darby, with Matthew Santa,[page needed]. New York: Schirmer Books; London: Prentice Hall International. ISBN 0-02-864581-2 (pbk).
  • Varèse, Edgard, and Chou Wen-chung. 1966. "The Liberation of Sound". Perspectives of New Music 5, no. 1 (Autumn–Winter): 11–19.
  • Watson, Ben. n.d. "Noise as Permanent Revolution".[full citation needed]
  • Xenakis, Iannis. 1971. Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press.

External links

  • What is Music? A brief sketch of some definitions found throughout history by Marcel Cobussen
  • The Science of Music, a generative music theory