Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

What is music?

  1. Dec 9, 2009 #1

    Char. Limit

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    What differentiates the sound of a tree falling from the sound of a piano playing? What differentiates the sound of a piano (near-universally classified as music) from the sound of a rapper (still argument about naming that music)?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 9, 2009 #2
    I guess you could say it's just vibrations in the air that evoke some sort of phenomenal response in a sentient being's supposed consciousness (generated by debatable phenomenon as well.)

    A tree falling could be composed to sound like music, the quality of the music however will be up to opinion and interpretation, highly dependent on individual perception... because what is any sound, with no one there to hear it?

    Vibrations my boy... vibrations... meaningless vibrations...
  4. Dec 9, 2009 #3
    The definition of music is very open; it is usually defined as the intentional ordering of sound and lack thereof in time. Ie., some pieces draw upon incidental sound as part of the composition, making them uncontrollably different each time they are performed.
    At another extreme, we have math rock, which tries to continually unsettle the listener by intentionally breaking standard compositional practices for pleasing intervals and timings.
    Last edited: Dec 9, 2009
  5. Dec 9, 2009 #4


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    music is highly ordered, most of nature's sounds are not.

    In the rare cases where they are, you may have found a potential source that inspired music.
  6. Dec 10, 2009 #5
    Music may have started out highly ordered, but nowadays there is so much different stuff released, there's practically no way to differentiate sounds from music.
    So in essence, all sound is music, if interpreted to be.
  7. Dec 10, 2009 #6


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    All music I hear follows the standard western scaling (12 notes based on the harmonic series) and is still heavily centered around the 7 note major scale (or one of its six modes).

    Indian music utilizes a 24 note scale, but its still highly ordered

    The beats are still consistent, most people still use measures regardless of the odd timings.

    Show me a couple examples of unordered music...
  8. Dec 10, 2009 #7
    There are many avantgarde, electronic and ambient artists that utilize noise and found sounds as the basis for their music..
    There is a ton of music that is not musical per se.
  9. Dec 10, 2009 #8
    The definition of music according to Dictionary.com:

    But the idea of music, like art or poetry, is a very subjective idea. What someone considers music may be drastically different than someone else's opinion on the matter. Many cultures encourage the interpretation of natural events, like the falling tree you mentioned, to be rhythmic, melodical, or otherwise a very musical thing. And it is certainly arguable that it is indeed music. The music of nature, so to speak.

    To define music in a few words isn't, in my opinion, possible, but only in the narrow minded sense. I don't think a simple defintion of such a broad art form would do it justice.
  10. Dec 10, 2009 #9


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Yes, but I'm asking for a specific example. I am a musician with a broad musical interest. I used to love making music with non-instrumental objects when I was in the experimental phase.

    I can name a few avante-garde musicians myself, but they are still highly ordered in their composition: Kitaro, Stomp, John Cage, Pink Floyd. (By the way, none of the Pink Floyd you hear on the radio is their experimental avant-garde stuff).

    There's one exception. I don't consider John Cage's 4'33" to be music. I'd hope most people would agree:

    In my opinion, it was kind of joke. John Cage had a knack for trying to push the boundaries of music, and I think in this case, he ended up on the other side of the boundary. And no, I'm not missing his point.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  11. Dec 10, 2009 #10
    Well actually, let's define the word 'ordered' in this case.
    I thought you meant harmony, melody and rhythm, but it appears it can also include noise sounds.
    Basically the other spectrum of the musical scale goes from melody to noise (for this debate anyway)

    All music which is created will by default be ordered, in one way or another.
    My whole point was that music consisting solely of noise sounds is also to be considered music, but that noise can also be ordered.
    Many people do not consider such sounds as music, just pling plong clang sounds.

    An example of noise sounds is Stockhausen's work.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  12. Dec 10, 2009 #11
    Is trash metal music or not? If we all can agree on this question, we can agree on what music is.
  13. Dec 10, 2009 #12


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Harmony is not required. The monophonic age of music proves this. All that's required is rhythm and melody. Believe it or not "noise sounds" can still contain melody and rhythm if you arrange them properly. Listening to Stockhausen now... update coming.


    Yup, it's music, it even has elements of harmony in it. It's music that I don't find to be very good, personally.


    Give me an example of Thrash. I've heard lots of different genres called thrash. All of the examples I've heard are still music. They have rhythm, melody, and harmony. They're probably even more interesting music than the Stockhausen example above.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  14. Dec 10, 2009 #13


    Band's name is "Shame & Disgrace" and i am afraid they are worthy of their name. They had a local event a few years ago where i live and made so much noise, the police had to disperse them with German Sheppard dogs. I was told it was quite a scene. Definitely not the usual ending for a musical performance.

    Hope the vid is visible from outside Bulgaria.
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2009
  15. Dec 10, 2009 #14
    I would say that the perception of sound as musical is concerned with our perception of order, as I would illustrate in the case of harmony.

    A sound is a pressure wave. A series of pressure waves may be propogated at a regular interval, giving it a frequency.

    When we consider the sources of multiple series of pressure waves, their frequencies may be related by simple numerical relationships causing them to concatenate to form a regular wavecrest signature, leading us to perceive the combination of sounds as "harmonious".

    For example, the most recognisable harmony is that existing between a note and the note an octave above. This occurs when one note is exactly twice the frequency of the other, causing them to form a very regular pattern (a ratio of 1:2).

    Other simple relationships between notes are a ratio of 2:3 (a fifth) 3:4 (a fourth) and 4:5 (a major third). We perceive the combinations of these intervals to be the most harmonious because they are mathematically the simplest, and therefore produce the most regular pattern of wavecrests.

    By a happy mathematical coincidence the 12-tone chromatic scale is able to very nearly express all of these ratios in a scale which also allows us to change keys without re-tuning our instruments by using the special algebraic properties of exponentials. Each note is equal to the frequency of the one below it, multiplied by (2 ^ 1/12).

    This works to produce regular ratios as follows. Say that middle C has a frequency of 1. Then E natural has a frequency of 2 ^ 4/12 = 1.25992105 (fairly close to 1.25, to give a ratio of 4:5). F natural has a frequency of 2 ^ 5/12 = 1.334839854 (very close to 1.33 to give a ratio of 3:4) and G natural has a frequency of 2 ^ 7/12 = 1.498307077 (very close to 1.5, to give a ratio of 2:3). And the C above has a frequency of 2 ^ (12/12) = 2 ^ 1 = 2, to give a ratio of exactly 1:2.
  16. Dec 11, 2009 #15


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Naw, didn't work out. :/

    And it's no surprise that the most popular music has a progression that is some recursive combinations of the I, the IV, and the V, the first and simplest ratios you named. And all the standard chords are I, III, V.

    hey, that's neat, never noticed that! This is a good relationship to know for a physicist musician.
  17. Dec 11, 2009 #16
    What about completely abstract music with sounds that have no melody, rhythm or harmony?

    I like music like this. I can show more examples but as downloadable .mp3 files.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  18. Dec 11, 2009 #17


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    But that does have rhythm, melody, and harmony. You're hearing different frequencies (pitches) which is melody, and there's definitely consistency in the rhythm. The rhythm doesn't have to be constant as long as it follows a theme. In fact, there's words for changing your rhythm:

    Like the Stockhausen example, it's not very rich musically, so it's very boring music to me, personally, but it's still music. The instrument being used has a tight timbre, as opposed to say, a violin which has a very rich timbre.

    Even a train can be considered musical (and indeed, inspired the rhythm in a lot of blues). Hell, I hear crazy industrial jazz in the engine rooms of the boats I work on.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  19. Dec 13, 2009 #18
    Well then there is no argument from my side..
  20. Jan 6, 2010 #19
    I am confused by this discussion because I don't see a definition of music other than any ordered sequence of sounds. This to me is a reduction ad absurdum of the original question. In fact, any sequence is ordered - even total silence is ordered.

    this reminds me of Marcel DuChamp's claim that a urinal, if viewed as art - is art. Any sequence of sounds, if viewed as music - is music.
  21. Jan 7, 2010 #20


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    [wild speculation alert]

    From the evolutionary perspective, music is an astonishing thing. Just like the first use of material objects as tools was a turning point in the evolution of man, just like the first fish were emerging from the seas onto the land, I think music is a turning point of great significance from the evolutionary perspective. In particular, I think that it points toward a kind of super-language. We all know that music evokes emotion, and emotion can be expressed in music. Emotions are a very significant part of the inner life of a human, but our language is not properly equipped to be able to describe or communicate this very effectively. I think our language is gradually being augmented or maybe even replaced by music.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Similar Threads - music Date
Music for Christmas Dec 24, 2017
Favorite songs (new thread) Dec 9, 2017
News R.I.P. Tom Petty Oct 3, 2017
Some street music ... this guy is awesome! Jul 7, 2017
Sabine's Music Videos -- The Cat is Dead... Jun 19, 2017