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Phenomenon of Music: What is Music? Part I

As far as I know, every society has some form of music. Music is universal, however its meaning is not. Music, through a Universal phenomenon, gets its meaning from culture. Different cultures interpret it differently. With the term culture, I connote the whole way of life of that specific group of people, learned and transmitted from one generation to the next. We call ‘music’ music, however not all cultures have a word for it.

My interest in this article is not directed towards the distinctions that people make between – lets say – a major and minor chords, but rather towards what the Nature of music is, how it fits into societies worldwide, and how it is arranged conceptually by the people who use and organize it – music as a form of organized sound.

Noise or non-music
One of the most important concepts is the distinction between music on one hand and noise, or non-music on the other hand. This is fundamental to the understanding of music in any society.

Furthermore, what is considered to be music or non-music, determined the nature of music in any given society. If one group considers the sound of the wind in the trees as music and another does not, it is evident that the concepts of what music is or is not must differ widely. If we observe the Basonge people of the Congo for instance, they have this saying that ” When you are happy you sing. When you are angry you make noise”. Should we associate this saying with an angry heavy metal singer? For the Basonge music always involved human beings. The sounds that emanate or originate from non-human sources are not considered music. A good example is the above-mentioned singing of the birds, or the wind singing in the trees.

Language and Music
A special problem presents itself in the relationship between language and music. In language sounds are arranged too. For the western ear a distinction is often difficult or even impossible to make, especially with sounds produced by people that have tonal languages, spoken by a great number of people around the world.

Is the boundary between language and music blurred? Rap the heart of hip-hop culture is widely used in classical music under a different name. Sprechgesang is an expressionist vocal technique between singing and speaking. Though sometimes used interchangeably, sprechgesang is a term directly related to the operatic recitative manner of singing (in which pitches are sung, but the articulation is rapid and loose like speech), whereas sprechstimme is closer to speech itself (because it does not emphasize any particular pitches). Both of these different styles of music provide examples that show that the precincts between language and music are unclear as well as imprecise.

Is this Music?
Not many people will deny the fact that the Kunst der Fuge by JS Bach is music. Nonetheless, there is something very out of the ordinary about this piece of music. Firstly, we cannot find one single clue from Bach, indicating that he wrote this in order to be performed. If you observe the original score, there are not tempo markings, instrumentation instructions etc. Should we assume that Bach, just for his own amusement tried out various possibilities of one single theme as a kind of musical challenge? Should we assume that it is just “paper music” that was never intended to be performed or sound at all? Is it really music then? Is it only music in the head of the composer, the person who reads it, who “thinks” this as music?

What is Music?
It is very difficult to define music. Should we say that music is a form of organized sound and is everything that is perceived as music by a person in a given culture? Always keep in mind that Jaco heard music as the train passed through.

Feel free to comment and discuss.



  1. Philippe

    June 1, 2011 at 4:38 am


    Thanks for the great read… like you say, trying to define what we do and hear is quite an issue to tackle. A personal thought: I find that an accurate definition (if possible) is that music is the meeting point of sound and our aesthetic intentions, whether they be from the creator of sound or the receiver. This definition concurs with any who may find music in things meant to be void of musical meaning (sirens, trains) because although the creator (if there is one) may mean to summon other senses – in this case, sound as a means to trigger reflexes – such sound may still appeal to the receiver as carrying musical value. Of course, this definition is a bit faulty because it excludes more contemporary forms of music that rely on other means than aesthetics (and sometimes sound) in order to create meaning. Perhaps a more general way to define music may be the place reserved for it in societies – in concerts halls, on radio, in church, in everyday relations… just a few possibilities of defining music among millions, most likely.

    A random though – why do car horns almost always honk at the same Ab-B or Ab-C thirds, regardless of country or brand? That likely says something about the standards of car manufacturing, and about people. Regardless, I’m pretty sure what I hear there is music as well!

  2. andreas farmakalidis

    andreas farmakalidis

    June 1, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Hi Philip,

    Thank you for your comment

    I couldnt agree more with everything you said. This subject in general can be very ambiguous and needs hours of discussions, however more issues will be addressed next month.

    The ubiquitous use of the Third interval is found in car horns and the interval is between a major and minor third. you are right about that. I guess it sounds happy enough 🙂 A car is also in motion therefore the doppler effect shift will bend the pitch as it passes by

    It is possible a pleasing as well as “happy” interval was chosen for the car horn to help “sooth” the savage motorists road-rage 🙂

    I hear music there as well! I guess Michael Jackson was hearing that musical interval thats why he used it in the intro of his “She drives me Wild” track found on Dangerous 🙂

    Random thought: Every time you walk into a convenience store you hear a major third as well 🙂

    this conversation about major and minor thirds reminded me of the tune “Purple Haze”. If you listen to the intro chord its a major and a minor third sounding together. Of course you can say that it is an E7 with a #9 but Hendrix saw the whole thing as a Blues scale played all together.

    Again thanks for your insightful comments. keep em coming!

  3. Igor Saavedra

    Igor Saavedra

    June 3, 2011 at 2:05 am

    Great and deep article Andreas..!!

    In my opinion we can define precisely what is music just respecting two aspects.

    1) The cultural context
    2) The historical context



  4. andreas farmakalidis

    andreas farmakalidis

    June 10, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Thank you for your input igor. It is a very broad and deep subject.
    I agree we can reach a definition if we take into considerration the cultural as well as the historical context. I would add the spiritual aspect to that as well. Next month on part two i will be analyzing taking into consideration my own personal experiences.

  5. Jean-Baptiste Collinet

    June 13, 2011 at 6:49 am

    Amazing article. Right when I am developing a fretless controller on the iPad, it deepens my understanding of music.
    I’m not boasting in any way, but even with a doctorate in ethnomusicology, it shook me.
    The fact of mentioning the Basonge is a very clever and relevant inclusion in your article.

    Concerning Bach’s Kunst der Fuge, (misnomer: Bach named it “Contrapunctus”), forget tempi, nuances or phrasing indications(even though the cello suites have bowing indications). This piece was not meant to be played by any given instrument or ensemble, and it was in use in Bach’s era to leave the interpretation to the performer. Very few Baroque works have any fingerings or any indications. It assumes that the performer is accustomed to such practice. Seen this way, it is both historical and contextual.

    Cheers, and congratulations!


  6. Andreas Farmakalidis

    Andreas Farmakalidis

    June 13, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Thank you for your input JB.
    The second part will be up next month. I hope you will enjoy it as much as this one.
    Since you are a musician and an ethnomusicologist I would appreciate any comments and/or suggestions.
    Again thank you for your nice comment.
    I know it is a very broad subject and we could discuss it for years. 🙂


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