What is Music?

In becoming as effective as possible as a ‘musical performer’ we first of all need to figure out exactly what this is, what is it that is happening in that moment of performing music, what even is music, and what does it mean to perform it? Music at base level is sound, we hear it, and this our first point of experience with it, so lets start there; what is sound?

What constitutes a sound and importantly what is a sound made of?

As a practicing and performing musician it is likely that this is something you will have an innate understanding of but how often have you given this direct thought? Likely not often, take a moment to think about this now, what is every sound you hear; musical or non-musical made up of, what are its component parts? Try to list as many of these as you can think of before reading on

What is Sound?

I posed the question’ ‘what are the components of a sound?’ as general as it is, to several student groups and collected intriguing responses, see how they correlate with your own. Nigh on all student groups identified some factor of ‘Pitch’; the measure of how high or low the sound they would have heard is and defined this as either pitch or frequency. Some groups likened this to melody or being a part of what constitutes a melodic line and some also mentioned harmony which shows their direct correlation to all things musical, however after further discussion it was agreed that melody and harmony would not be an element to ‘a’ or every single sound heard. ‘Duration’ the length of the sound and if several sounds were to be heard this could also form a type of rhythmical pattern depending on the length of each and their relationship to one another. Some groups identified ‘Timbre’ like components, although these were not always described this way; more common was a use of tone or texture. ‘Volume’ or ‘Loudness’ was identified; sometimes this was defined in more of a musical context with terms like dynamics or amplitude. ‘Speed’ or ‘Tempo’ was hinted at, in relation to how fast they could experience a sequence of sounds and this was debated in relation to being a single component of any one sound or requiring more sounds to be apparent.

Fewer of the groups identified the component of reverberation, however with a prompt such as “If I were talking to you from down a well or within a large hall or inside a Church” would lead them all to decipher this element. ‘Spatial Location’ was missing from all of their lists but could easily be determined with a prompt, simply talking and moving around the room created the desired effect and led to the identification of this element. ‘Contour’ wasn’t present in any of their lists, and is a challenging element to describe, I used the example of a siren; to hear the sound moving up and down within one continual, sustained note or sound.

Bordering on the realm of psychoacoustics, the study of sound and how it is perceived, the 8 components of any individual sound as defined by Dr Daniel Levitin in his book, a scientific analysis of our human obsession with music ‘This is Your Brain on Music’ are;









Sounds or the components of singular sounds, somewhat understandably, blurred into musical elements however these pose more relevance to the follow up question; what can be heard in a piece of music?

What is Music?

As single elements group together, they combine and form relationships, which become higher-order concepts, something we add value to within our mind. For example the components of duration and/or speed link together with volume resulting in some beats having emphasis, because they sound louder so they stand out more than others, this is often referred to as an accent. The result of this is the creation of a groove, adding to the rhythmic pattern that in turn makes the beat more musical than functional, it’s what you’re dancing too. This creates the effect of Meter wherein the listener groups beats, notes or tones together and creates an order from that information, the setting up of an expectancy.

I posed the question ‘What can be heard in a piece of Music?’ again to students and I’d suggest taking time to ponder this question before reading on, where does this differ to the components of a sound? Try to list all your responses or draft some answers to this question now.

The responses to ‘What could be heard in a piece of music/song?’ had many overlapping elements and correlations to the first question as many of the components within sound are musical or present in music. /students identified the carrier or device for creating the music and termed this as either instruments, voices or production. Specifics relating to these included technical skill applied and emotive qualities of the performer as well as values incorporated into a mix such as dynamics, placement, use of samples, etc. The source of the sound is somewhat a functional element to identify but nonetheless a good starting point in breaking down music in this way.

Again the ‘beat’ was common, representing rhythms, and structure too was recognized in many forms from a riff or hook to a sequence or a top line tune. Sections of an overall arrangement such as verse or chorus were also evident and some included locators within the arrangement such as introduction, middle sections, repeats and elements of form such as A/B.

Lyrics and their devices were listed such as metaphor, simile, and overall the inclusion of a story or concept was hinted at with some defining qualities stating that this was perhaps based on fact, news or current cultural topics and utilizing real of fictional characters. The story could also contain emotive elements such as feelings, a sense that something was binge communicated. This offers up many questions relating to whether emotive elements in music are heard in the performance or felt in the listener as they relate the sound and possibly the content to their own interpretation and personalize the experience.

Melody or the tune was likened to a combination of notes or frequencies, usually considered to have a recurring theme or some element of repetition that would bolster its immediate sense of familiarity and therefore being what is often termed as ‘catchy’. Melody is usually the most prominent sequence of tones and usually what is sung, especially to these rock and pop musicians but it can also provide counter melodic elements, embellishments in accompaniment playing runs and fills as well as riffing and taking solos.

Harmony was likened to multiple voices singing different notes together to create harmonies, polyphonic playing and chordal work as well as the creation of a harmonious sound; pleasing on the ear. It was also attributed to being able to impart feeling, possibly where the idea of hearing emotion can be found.

The difference here between the ‘components of a sound’ and musical sounds or musical works remains but an idea, as Cage would argue all sounds are music, from traffic horns to bird song. Edgard Varese famously defined music as organised sound and it was thought processes such as these that helped to break down the heavily formalised approaches to music making of the classical ‘cannon’. Emerging from an era that dictated what was good or bad as an aesthetic according to the composer’s ability to simply follow the rules of what was deemed appropriate in composition ‘music’ found itself in a brave and interesting new realm. Texture and timbre have become ever increasingly present colours in the music maker’s palette and now superseding melody, harmony and rhythm in some styles and/or works. Students considering what music is therefore identified many non-musical or even sound based elements to what they can actually hear in songs with ideas such as feeling and emotion being prominent. A lot of this information can be transmitted within the harmony of a piece as well as the delivery of the performer and this holds a lot of relevance to the modern music student. Being able to hear ‘feel’ or listen to the ‘emotion’ in a piece begs the question where does this reside within the audio?

The use of sound in our society has become something intrinsic and much more than just functional, we tend to hear things in relation to ourselves, empathising and relating to the messages that it seeks to convey. It has become capable of communicating ideas or capturing feelings and it has the ability to alter the emotional state of the listener. So the next pertinent question we must ask is surely what is music for?

What is Music for?

How do we use music, individually and in groups? In what ways do we as a society need music and can you imagine a world without it? How often can you devote time to musing on concepts such as these as a practicing musician? More often than not we view music primarily as a form of entertainment in our current, westernised culture. It’s for dancing too, singing along with or in many cases now watching. We use it for colouring an environment, setting the scene of a social space or occasion; a party or celebration, adding ambience such as background to the bar or in the shopping complex or at the hairdressers. Imagine what these environments would be like without any music being canned in to create a soundscape; very, very, tense!

In what other ways do we utilise music, list as many as you can before reading on.

This really is a great question to ask anyone, musician or not, we all enjoy the experience of being surrounded by sound and the right music at the right time can bring us immense pleasure. We encounter songs that can cause physical sensations by way of a reaction to hearing them; the hairs on the back of the neck or arms stand on end, we get goose-bumps, heart rate heightens, and the ability of a piece to make a listener walk taller and smile or even cry. It can connect to memory, a certain piece can transport the listener back to a moment in time leaving them steeped in the emotion they were awash with. Psychologies and therapies are now embracing sound and it is becoming commonly used in well- being practices, meditations and treatments.

The student focus group had several suggestions in response to this question, some of these included; dancing, emotion, influence, creativity, communication, money, soul/religion, sharing, and expression, amongst others. All of these are valid offerings that cover a range of ideas from defining a ritual practice in a sense of worship (religious) to the functional transmission of information (communication). Music making can be fulfilling, rewarding, empowering, a form of escape and even transcendental. Music is commitment; its process requires enduring, expelling many types of energy from the physical to the spiritual and investing many resources such as time and finances.

It can pay the bills or in some cases it can purchase new Ferrari’s and provide status bestowing the title of ‘celebrity’ on the pop elite but these measures of success aren’t always outcomes of the creative process and many other elements combine to create the mega-star other than the music they make. However music is and should be a job; the product and service of music has value and should be treated as such, those who work on and within it should be afforded respect for their professional and artistic endeavours.

What do we need music for? We need it for its potential to offer a commentary on our society and culture, a means of interpreting our world, to challenge and create opportunities for change. It can raise the voice of concern louder in volume by the sound that supports it, it develops style, creates movements and scenes, and can influence other creative sectors from fashion to film.

It allow us to connect, to share a message and comprehend its meaning; to empathise with what is being said and to respond. It can unify; from football terraces to festival fields, it can aid us in retreat on the busiest of tube trains and create space for introspection as and when our body, spirit or mind so requires.

We’ll need it from the moment we’re born, or even earlier, and it will always stay with us marking key moments in our life from social interactions to celebratory occasions. Music will be there to heal, alleviating our pain, or it may accompany us as we wallow in our suffering, broken heart et al. Music will elevate our mood, setting the vibe as you dress for a big night out or calm us down on a chilled Sunday. Music will create entire environments for us to inhabit, the sounds of life affirming the very notion that to live is to sing and to dance, activities embedded in human nature for as far back as we can trace our evolutionary lineage.

Think now of which of these uses of music applies to you and the music that you play and/or make. Visualise where you, your practice and the music you make fits into this universe of audio. Ask yourself where and in what ways you are contributing to our society and culture with your creative practices. Define this as a statement ‘My music contributes to society by…’ and make this as detailed as possible. What will your music be used for, in what ways and by whom?

If we consider that this all stems from the correlation of component parts of a sound that we identified at the start as consisting of frequencies and durations but now can result in such heights as addressing and influencing thoughts and feelings, well therein is the very power of music. Something that can be dissected so small yet effects each and every person, keep this consideration to mind whilst you’re running scales; it’s a powerful perspective.