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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