What is Music?

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Hi, I’m Robert Estrin at LivingPianos.com. The question today is, “What is Music?” I’m going to focus on a defined part of this question because this is obviously a huge topic. If you look it up, the dictionary definition says, “instrumental or vocal writing that comprises of melody, harmony, textures, things of that nature”. Obviously, that is music. But the question I got from a viewer is, are nature sounds music? Are industrial sounds music? And it got me thinking, this is a really good question! So what defines music?

Is Silence Music?

John Cage has a famous piece entitled, 4′ 33″ which is silence for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. But how can silence be music? Silence is an integral part of music! Just like space, you can’t have matter without space. The same is true with music. Without the space between the notes, you don’t have anything. So yes, silence is intrinsically a part of music. So, can industrial sounds be music? If you look back to the 1930s, that’s when musique concrète originated in France. Musique concrète utilized recordings of nature and other sounds into musical compositions. So yes, nature sounds can be music, and indeed industrial sounds can be also.

Throughout history, music imitates civilization.

That’s why today you hear so much music that sounds like a factory. 20th Century music evolved to incorporate more percussive and in some ways harsh, ugly sounds because we hear that all the time – the sounds of the city, the screeching subway cars, traffic, car horns and all the rest of it. We are immersed in that soundscape and art imitates life. Go back centuries and you find the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven as well as other similarly themed works. So yes, we can still enjoy those sounds. But there’s another aspect to this, which is the technologies of the instruments that enable producing different sounds.

As technology improves, musical possibilities expand.

The French horn imitates the human voice. Blowing through a horn is very much like singing. But what about today with computer generated music; what is that about? It’s obviously going to produce sounds that couldn’t be produced with the human voice. In medieval times or the Renaissance, music could never have been imagined to encompass the kind of sounds that a piano can create! So our technology is the piano itself. And of course, the development of the symphony orchestra. The sounds and the textures that are possible with a modern symphony orchestra couldn’t have been imagined earlier. To some extent, it’s a give and take. There’s an imitation of life and its civilization, the sounds we hear around us from nature, and manmade things. But there’s also the sounds of the instruments that can imitate that. It goes back and forth! Today, we’re in a computer age and our instruments are capable of sounds that only machines can make. The piano is the epitome and the culmination of 19th century technology. What will be the culmination of 21st century technology? Only time will tell.

That’s a simple answer for you. All sounds can be incorporated into music even though the sounds themselves aren’t necessarily music. I have sat outside and listened to the sound of birds, and naturally there are many compositions based upon birdsong, but are bird songs in and of themselves music? Are nature sounds music, or industrial sounds music? I think if you’re just listening to it, technically no, because music is created by humans. Though it certainly can be musical. Music is being created by machines now. They haven’t gotten brilliant yet, but they’re becoming pretty capable. But that’s a subject for another video!

Thanks for the great questions! I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Store.