What is Music?
music, art concerned with combining vocal or instrumental sounds for beauty of form or emotional expression, usually according to cultural standards of rhythm, melody, and, in most Western music, harmony. Both the simple folk song and the complex electronic composition belong to the same activity, music. Both are humanly engineered; both are conceptual and auditory, and these factors have been present in music of all styles and in all periods of history, throughout the world.
Music is an art that, in one guise or another, permeates every human society. Modern music is heard in a bewildering profusion of styles, many of them contemporary, others engendered in past eras. Music is a protean art; it lends itself easily to alliances with words, as in song, and with physical movement, as in dance. Throughout history, music has been an important adjunct to ritual and drama and has been credited with the capacity to reflect and influence human emotion. Popular culture has consistently exploited these possibilities, most conspicuously today by means of radio, film, television, musical theatre, and the Internet. The implications of the uses of music in psychotherapy, geriatrics, and advertising testify to a faith in its power to affect human behaviour. Publications and recordings have effectively internationalized music in its most significant, as well as its most trivial, manifestations. Beyond all this, the teaching of music in primary and secondary schools has now attained virtually worldwide acceptance.
the prevalence of music is nothing new, and its human importance has often been acknowledged. What seems curious is that, despite the universality of the art, no one until recent times has argued for its necessity. The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus explicitly denied any fundamental need for music: “For it was not necessity that separated it off, but it arose from the existing superfluity.” The view that music and the other arts are mere graces is still widespread, although the growth of psychological understanding of play and other symbolic activities has begun to weaken this tenacious belief.
Music is everywhere to be heard. But what is music? Commentators have spoken of “the relationship of music to the human senses and intellect,” thus affirming a world of human discourse as the necessary setting for the art. A definition of music itself will take longer. As Aristotle said, “It is not easy to determine the nature of music or why anyone should have a knowledge of it.”
Early in the 20th century, it was regarded as a commonplace that a musical tone was characterized by the regularity of its vibrations; this uniformity gave it a fixed pitch and distinguished its sounds from “noise.” Although that view may have been supported by traditional music, by the latter half of the 20th century it was recognized as an unacceptable yardstick. Indeed, “noise” itself and silence became elements in composition, and random sounds were used (without prior knowledge of what they would be) by composers, such as the American John Cage, and others in works having aleatory (chance) or impromptu features. Tone, moreover, is only one component in music, others being rhythm, timbre (tone colour), and texture. Electronic machinery enabled some composers to create works in which the traditional role of the interpreter is abolished and to record, directly on tape or into a digital file, sounds that were formerly beyond human ability to produce, if not to imagine.
From historical accounts it is clear that the power to move people has always been attributed to music; its ecstatic possibilities have been recognized in all cultures and have usually been admitted in practice under particular conditions, sometimes stringent ones. In India, music has been put into the service of religion from earliest times; Vedic hymns stand at the beginning of the record. As the art developed over many centuries into a music of profound melodic and rhythmic intricacy, the discipline of a religious text or the guideline of a story determined the structure. In the 21st century the narrator remains central to the performance of much Indian traditional music, and the virtuosity of a skillful singer rivals that of the instrumentalists. There is very little concept of vocal or instrumental idiom in the Western sense. The vertical dimension of chord structure—that is, the effects created by sounding tones simultaneously—is not a part of South Asian classical music; the divisions of an octave (intervals) are more numerous than in Western music, and the melodic complexity of the music goes far beyond that of its Western counterpart. Moreover, an element of improvisation is retained that is vital to the success of a performance. The spontaneous imitation carried on between an instrumentalist and narrator, against the insistent rhythmic subtleties of the drums, can be a source of the greatest excitement, which in large measure is because of the faithful adherence to the rigid rules that govern the rendition of ragas—the ancient melodic patterns of Indian music.
Chinese music, like the music of India, has traditionally been an adjunct to ceremony or narrative. Confucius (551–479 BCE) assigned an important place to music in the service of a well-ordered moral universe. He saw music and government as reflecting one another and believed that only the superior man who can understand music is equipped to govern. Music, he thought, reveals character through the six emotions that it can portray: sorrow, satisfaction, joy, anger, piety, love. According to Confucius, great music is in harmony with the universe, restoring order to the physical world through that harmony. Music, as a true mirror of character, makes pretense or deception impossible.
Yet Plato, in treating earthly music as a shadow of the ideal, saw a symbolic significance in the art. Aristotle carried forward the concept of the art as imitation, but music could express the universal as well. His idea that works of art could contain a measure of truth in themselves—an idea voiced more explicitly by Plotinus in the 3rd century CE—gave added strength to the symbolic view. Aristotle, following Plato, thought that music has power to mold human character, but he would admit all the modes, recognizing happiness and pleasure as values to both the individual and the state. He advocated a rich musical diet. Aristotle made a distinction between those who have only theoretical knowledge and those who produce music, maintaining that persons who do not perform cannot be good judges of the performances of others.