Music Basics part 1: What *Is* Music Anyway?

A couple of days ago, on Twitter, Tilt Araiza asked me “did you once do a “what music is” post? I was trying to explain what harmony is to a friend and, well, I’m a drummer,” and when I said that I hadn’t, he said he thought I could do a good job.
Another friend has, in the past, asked me to explain some of the very basics of music to her, so on the basis that at least two people think I could explain this well, I’m going to do a few posts this week just looking at the fundamentals.
There’ll be, probably, four posts on this, and they’ll be what Terry Pratchett called “lies-to-children” — oversimplifications and outright lies, but ones that give you the right sort of idea (like “the world is round like a ball, and goes round the sun in a circle”). I hope that, after four posts, anyone who didn’t previously know anything about music will come away at least with a general understanding of the shape of what it is they don’t know, which is all one can hope for most of the time.

So, what *is* music?

At the most basic level, music is what the composer Edgard Varèse called “organised sound”. Frank Zappa, who was an admirer of Varèse, expanded on this in The Real Frank Zappa Book, in a passage which, when I read it as a teenager, was the beginning of my own understanding of what music is on an intellectual, rather than visceral, sense:

The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively — because, without this humble appliance, you can’t know where The Art stops and The Real World begins.
You have to put a ‘box’ around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?
If John Cage, for instance, says, “I’m putting a contact microphone on my throat, and I’m going to drink carrot juice, and that’s my composition,” then his gurgling qualifies as his composition because he put a frame around it and said so. “Take it or leave it, I now will this to be music.” After that it’s a matter of taste. Without the frame-as-announced, it’s a guy swallowing carrot juice.

(Typographical idiosyncracies Zappa’s).

This kind of definition seems, to me, to be the only useful one — music is *any sound which someone has chosen to perceive, or to ask others to perceive, as music*.

This is important to note at the beginning of these posts, because I am immediately going to start acting as if music is much more limited than it is. All my examples in these posts will come from British or American popular song, usually from the twentieth century, maybe with a little folk music as well. All the theory I talk about will be theory that was developed to analyse Western “art music” (a term that encompasses what people refer to as “classical music” and jazz), and that can be applied to Western popular music.

Basically, the further we get from the Beatles’ Rubber Soul or the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, sonically, temporally, or culturally, the less applicable this will be. But I think it’ll be a good start. Much of it will apply to other forms of music — for example, when I talk about the pentatonic scale, that applies to many forms of music around the world, from Indian classical music to Irish folk — but I’ll be generalising far more than is strictly accurate, so it’s worth asking yourself about everything “does this apply to both the third Brandenburg Concerto and a man gargling carrot juice with a microphone attached to his throat?”

With that out of the way, what interesting ways do people often organise sound?

Well, traditionally, we can look at music in terms of four aspects — melody, harmony, timbre, and rhythm (there’s also counterpoint, which is sort of a halfway house between melody and harmony).

Melody is “the tune” — the bit you can whistle or hum along to, whether sung by a human or played by an instrument. A melody is a sequence of individual notes, one after the other. If you can sing it on your own (and you’re not a Tuvan throat singer) it’s a melody.

Harmony is what happens when you have two or more different notes played or sung at the same time. When the Everly Brothers sang together, with Phil singing a high note and Don a low one, they were singing in harmony. When you strum a chord on a guitar, or play one on the piano, that’s also harmony.

Timbre is everything about a sound that *isn’t* the note. If I sing a high F, I sound very different from Brian Wilson singing the same note on Wouldn’t It Be Nice, and we both sound very different from the same note played on a piano, or organ, or harmonica, or violin, or electric guitar. Those differences are what we call timbre.

And rhythm is the beat of the music, the way the music is subdivided into regular, repeating or similar, phrases. If you tap your feet to a song, that’s the rhythm you’re responding to.

In the next few posts, I’ll look at these in turn. The interesting thing to note, though, is that three of these four aspects all come from one thing — the properties one finds in a sound wave.

I’ll go into this in more detail tomorrow, but sound waves are vibrations in the air, and they have a frequency (measured in Herz, a measurement of number of vibrations a second). What that frequency is, more than anything else, determines how something sounds. The higher the frequency, the higher the note.

But sounds in nature aren’t usually one pure wave. And tomorrow, we’ll look at how things in nature vibrate, and at resonation, and at why that makes some notes sound good together.

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14 Responses to Music Basics part 1: What *Is* Music Anyway?

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    “This kind of definition seems, to me, to be the only useful one — music is *any sound which someone has chosen to perceive, or to ask others to perceive, as music*.”

    I would scarcely call that definition useful: “music is whatever we call music”. You could say it’s the only unarguable definition, I suppose, but it doesn’t really get you anywhere.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      It’s not saying, quite, “music is whatever we call music”. Rather it’s “music is whatever *we choose* to call music”. The act of making the choice is, itself, the most important part — the creative act that separates “sound” and “music”.
      I think , which I coincidentally just saw, might help get my meaning across.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        OK, that is an important distinction. (I still think it’s a pretty uninformative definition, but it’s better that I’d given it credit for.)

      • gavinburrows says:

        …whereas I find this definition too restrictive! Though the problem’s more with what Zappa said than you. I don’t think Cage’s point was that he could go around pronouncing things music. I think he imagined music goes on all the time, and sometimes we tune in and sometimes we don’t. That’s the point of the infamous “silent” piece. The frame concept still applies, but I can place that frame as a listener, I don’t need to wait around for a composer. I might place it over Cage gargling carrot juice, or workmen digging up my road, or the wind rustling through the trees. If I listen to it as music then it is music.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Yep, which is why I said my own definition was “any sound which someone has chosen to perceive, or to ask others to perceive, as music”. Zappa was talking specifically about the role of the composer — I was attempting to broaden that out in my own definition after the Zappa quote to include the role of the listener.

          • I must admit that I can understand the idea that “art is anything the artist says is art” much better than “music is anything the composer says is music”. I can see what is meant by putting a pile of bricks, a urinal or a dead cow in an art gallery and saying “this is a work of art”. It has form, shape, colour even though the artist didn’t create them; and the act of looking them in the way you look at a painting (as opposed to the way you look at a utilitarian object) might be quite rewarding.

            I can perfectly imagine why someone would listen to a CD of whale song, or the weather, or sound effects or someone gargling –as background sounds, as “wall paper” or maybe because you just think they sound nice. But the person who says “But that isn’t music” is saying something more meaningful (I think) than the person who looks at the abstract canvass or the “found piece” and says “but that isn’t art”. They mean that music is sound with a pattern and a structure; which could be repeated or at any rate (if it’s an improvisation) where it would make a difference if the note were in a different place. Spending a couple of minute listening to John Cage gargling, or exactly four minutes and thirty three seconds listening to the sounds in a room when it’s supposedly silent” might be perfectly interesting exercises. But “music”? Remain to be convinced.

            • gavinburrows says:

              Yet there’s such a huge overlap in practice that it makes it hard for me to coneive there must be one in theory. Cage painted, using exactly the same random processes as he did with his music. The Surrealists were almost obsessed with devices to induce automatism, largely to get away from artistic intent. Kandinsky deliberately used musical terms to describe his paintings, among them ‘improvisation’ for when he threw up a painting without preparation or thought to structure.

              “A pattern or a structure” may describe perfectly well some forms of music, such as songs. You may graviate towards this because you have a preference towards song form, which is a perfectly fine thing to do. (Dylan sometimes sounded like he needed to do a bit of gargling, but didn’t release many recordings of himself doing it.) But those forms are not the limits of music.

              • Mike Taylor says:

                I suppose my problem with this kind of definition is that it doesn’t get you anywhere. If music merely means sound that we choose to call music, then we might as well just call it sound and have done. If we want the word “music” to mean anything useful or actionable, then we need to define it in a way that includes some sounds and excludes others, however much such discrimination may offend our liberal principles.

                • gavinburrows says:

                  Try looking at it the other way up, where music is a form of listening. In the ear of the beholder rather than there being something intrinsically ‘musical’ inside it. (Not quite sure what the correct equivalent of ‘beholder’ would be there…)

                  • Mike Taylor says:

                    I’m not sure that helps. Changing “music is whatever the performer says is music” to “Music is whatever the listener says is music” still doesn’t give us anything we can actually use. It doesn’t tell us how to make sounds that a listener will construe as music.

  2. Gosh. If the other three pieces are as helpful as that one, my music commentaries are going to improve noticeably.

  3. Tilt Araiza says:

    I grew up with this LP that put forward the theory “When a blackbird sings, it’s music/When a telephone rings, it’s music/When you hear the rain on a window pane, it’s a happy melody/Music is all around, whatever the sound may be”.

  4. plok says:

    It’s a bit above my pay grade, but…

    I would definitely agree that saying “that isn’t music” and “that isn’t art” are different kinds of negation, but damned if I can track what the distinction exactly is, there. I’m not so sure it really is “pattern” or “structure” — you could easily get just as loose with defining those things, as Andrew has gotten with the “ear of the beholder” thing. Couldn’t you? All through human history we’ve hit things with sticks and called it “drumming”, but I don’t know what the minimum level of complexity is, for something to be considered drumming — by anyone — instead of mere vandalism. Property damage!

    Destruction of the commons!

    But why do we hear “pattern” as music anyway, you know? Why don’t we just appreciate it as “mathematically-interesting”, or something? The subjective register of music seems like something we can’t easily peel away to reveal a simple mechanics…I mean, we might do so, but we’d probably have to make it a pretty seriously interdisciplinary project, have to bring in evolutionary biology and epistemology and God knows what else. Meantime, in practical terms (and shouldn’t what’s true in fact, be what’s true in law?), how on earth would you convince someone that what they consider musical really isn’t musical? Meanings are made by word-users, so…if you don’t think my thing is music, you’re still going to have to explain to me why I like it as though it were “music”, explain my category error or whatever in a way that accounts for my subjective response and my own choice of term for it. And even then, I don’t see how you could use it to “engineer” music…or, well, I do, because people do that all the time…nevertheless, there are many chart-topping bands that I think make anti- music — not just “bad” music! — and they certainly aren’t lacking for pattern and structure and rhythm…

    (By the way, there’s this young Inuit guy in Canada, I just heard him the other day, he’s a hip-hop artist who BEATBOXES BY THROATSINGING…if I recall his name I will pass it along: mindblowing stuff)

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