What is Music?


What is music? A usual response would be a pleasant melody...but to the tortured philosopher like myself, one has to dig deeper and ask, when is a collection of notes a "melody", and what is it about music, that actually defines it as "music" as opposed to any other type of sound? This is the nature of philosophical inquiry - digging away at a deeper level to discover what may be the actual raw concept of whatever topic is being subjected to the rigours of philosophical investigation!

The way this refining nature of philosophical analysis has been done since the days of Plato & Socrates, is that of argument and counter-argument, until a core of truth may finally be revealed...

Using these methods, then, I shall ask again, what is music?

Music certainly consists of sound, but not every sound could be classed as music, so should we say that only pleasant sounds are musical? Not necessarily - the sound of a flowing brook is very pleasant and soothing to the ear, yet this still does not constitute music, so there must be another few essential ingredients missing in my attempt to define the concept...

A combination of pleasant sounds with structure, perhaps? However, there are examples of structured pleasant sounds which are still not strictly "music" - bird song is a classic example. Although there can often be an underlying structure, and the sound is pleasant, I would still hesitate to call bird song music composed by birds... 

is also another really important ingredient into the mix - it is the sound of harmonious intervals which, (presumably due to the human mind's predisposition to value order in contrast to disorder in it's perception of the world), brings a sense of appreciation for the symmetry of sound and how this in turn, can bring harmony to the Soul of the listener.

Contrary to the prevailing prejudice in Western thought that harmony was somehow magically 'invented' by Western composers towards the end of the Middle Ages, as my other detailed blog demonstrates, there is ample evidence for the use of harmony in music from before the age of the pyramids in Egypt and indeed, as also was noted by the eminent early 20th century musicologist, Curt Sachs, there is not one aboriginal population on any continent on  the planet, who do not have at least a rudimentary use of harmony in their ancient musical traditions, despite never having had any contact with the Western world! A classic example of this, is the intricate polyphonic singing of the Aka Pygmies of Central Africa. 

Harmony was not 'invented' by elite Western composers such as Monteverdi at the start of the Renaissance - harmony is quite simply, the timeless symmetry of how two or more sound waves interact! Just as in the apriori, timeless laws of mathematical geometry, the angles of a triangle will always add up to 180 degrees, in the apriori, timeless,  geometry of harmony, the interval of a 5th has and always will sound consonant...

However, harmony in isolation, is not music - as I learnt the hard way, after the living torture of teaching absolute beginners piano lessons to the mostly 'terminally tone deaf' for 10 miserable years between 1992 - 2002, if I listen continuously to a young child bashing out a 3 note triad played repeatedly on the piano, this very soon brought deluges of disharmony to my Soul! 

Also, some of the best folk melodies sound best when sung without any accompanying harmony, yet these are still very much music - harmony by itself, then, is not at the core of what makes music, into music...

A combination of pleasant sounds, with structure, harmony and rhythm, perhaps? However, imagine I am aboard a steam train listening to birdsong whilst passing leisurely through the countryside - I have both the regular rhythm of the steam engine and the background of birdsong to provide the structure, yet still, this is not music!

Like harmony, though, rhythm certainly is a core ingredient of the 'musical cake mixture' - maybe it is how rhythm mirrors the rhythm of our heart beats, so that a faster beat literally makes us feel like our heart is beating faster, or a regular beat reminds us of the natural rhythm of our footsteps during walking, running or marching, depending on the speed of the beat (or even on a more erotic level, how rhythms of ever increasing speed mirror those of the sexual act!) ...and from these natural psychological responses to the sound and feel of rhythms, maybe this is how dance started off - a consequence  of the literal feelings of movement, vitality, and even eroticism, which can be directly communicated by the rhythmic component of music? 


The essential component missing from all the other ingredients of the 'musical cake mixture' which I have so far been attempting to analyse, is that in music, there is also the expression of emotion through the pleasant sounds and melodic structure of music, which is further emphasized by the use of rhythm & harmony. Throughout all these different ingredients of music, it is the expression of emotion from the performer to to the listener which seems to be the first real definition of what is at the very core of what music actually is? In my opinion, the expression of emotion is the 'egg' component of the 'musical cake mix' - which binds all the other ingredients together, to transform them into what we commonly know as "music"!

Indeed, when only one or 2 of the other 'ingredients' of the 'musical cake mix' are played with the communication of emotion, very often, we would still consider the result as music - for example, the intricacies of a jazz percussion solo, or the entrancing polyrhythms of traditional African music, are played with such spirit and vitality, that it would be impossible not to call them music, despite the fact that there is no melodic line or harmony.

However, crying or sighing and laughter are all sounds which express emotion through sound, yet these are not music! The essential difference between the sounds associated with raw human emotion and the expression of emotion through music, then, would seem to be that the emotion communicated through music is the communication of aesthetic emotion - but what exactly is aesthetic emotion? To answer this question is to really get finally get to the root of the concept of music...

The whole notion of the aesthetics of music has puzzled me since the age of 16 - whilst walking through the countryside, I was listening to an old cassette tape of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony on my Sony Walkman, when it occurred to me...why bother listening to music which is about the feelings of being in the countryside, when I am actually in the countryside? Just what was it about the feelings communicated through Beethoven's magnificent music about being in the countryside which was so enticing and so much more immediate than my direct experience of actually being in the countryside?

30 years after first becoming so perplexed by this issue and a degree in philosophy later, I now finally feel able to answer this intriguing question! I have come to the conclusion, that the essential difference between the feelings of my raw, direct experience of actually being in the countryside and my the feelings invoked by the aesthetic experience of hearing Beethoven's beautiful music about being in the countryside, is like the difference between the taste of raw grape juice and the refined bouquet of flavours to be discovered and appreciated in a fine, mature wine - music has the uncanny ability to elevate our raw emotions, by a process of communicating directly to our higher level cognitive faculties, a sort of refined, distilled "essence" of the particular emotion - this is what I would call aesthetic emotion.

The detached nature of aesthetic emotion in all the arts, can probably be best understood in my gory appreciation of the suspense and roller coaster ride of horror so brilliantly conveyed in the "Saw" movies - I certainly would feel utter revulsion if I were to witness all the gory scenes in these movies for real! 

To sum up, in the context of philosophically analysing music again, we are we are able to intellectually appreciate the more detached, "distilled" aesthetic emotion communicated so directly through music, whereas the simple, raw emotion we feel from actual, physical experience does not engage our higher cognitive faculties in such a similar fashion. It is this intellectual elevation of emotion which creates aesthetic appreciation of the emotions communicated through music - which is to me, the answer to my 30 year old riddle, of why hearing Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony about the feelings of being in the countryside is like savouring a fine wine, whilst in comparison, our raw experience of actually being in the countryside is like drinking raw grape juice! 


Having established that music is the direct communication of aesthetic emotion, it must now be asked, why is it, that the organized tones of music communicate emotion so directly to the listener?

The answer to this question, I think this has something to do with the fact that during the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, even before we communicated through the means of language, we still communicated all our emotions and needs through sounds! For example, any person from any culture of any age, knows instinctively that the sound of crying is associated with feelings of sadness, the sound of laughter and exclamations of elation are associated with feelings of joy, whereas screams and grunts are associated with anger. The origins of music, therefore, would seem to predate our use of language. This is why music has such a direct effect on the listener - humans are "hard-wired" to associate specific combinations of sounds with specific emotional feelings!

This would possibly explain why notes a minor 3rd apart instantly sounds sad to the human listener, as it mirrors the sound of a sigh, whereas notes a major 3rd apart is associated with happiness, as it mirrors a primitive exclamation of elation...


As noted by Curt Sach in his book, "The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West", music almost certainly started with singing. Sachs was one of the first musicologists of the earlier part of the 20th century to actually record the sounds of music from every corner of the world and from virtually every culture, (as well as recording the spontaneous singing of very young children, who significantly, have had no influence from anyone else in creating their simple, spontaneous, melodies of usually 2 or more notes) - there is quite literally, no human culture on the planet, no matter how remote, that does not have at some tradition of rudimentary musical practice!

Indeed, human vocal cords, like any form of musical string, are and have always been, subject to the laws of the harmonic series and depending on the tension applied to them by the particular individual who happens to owns them, will, like any natural trumpet, usually generate combinations of the intervals of the harmonic series which form what the notes of a major chord (Doh, Mi, Sol etc) Therefore, the foundation for musical expression is quite literally "built in" to us as human beings!

It would not have needed much of a further imaginative spark for our very early ancestors to realize that certain combinations of notes created certain emotional effects, due to how they mirrored the sounds of our basic prelinguistic emotional communication (for example, the way a minor 3rd mirrors the sound of a sigh of sorrow).

From this, it may be reasonable to infer at least, that either the regular major heptatonic scale or its associated intervals which form the natural notes of the harmonic series, may have been the oldest musical scales used. Notes in the harmonic series naturally form the intervals which make up this scale when any vibrating strings length is shortened by specific ratios and a natural trumpet will automatically generate the intervals in the harmonic series which form a major chord.

Assuming this was the case, once the first string instruments developed, the harp and later the lyre, the other musical modes would have been discovered, simply by moving the starting note of a melody to the next string, then the next string up - the creative musicians of antiquity would have soon realized that each musical mode had its own unique emotional effect on the listener. 

It was this aesthetic insight which led to the development of the ancient Greek modes, their exotic chromatic variations used throughout the ancient Near East - and eventually, to the dull and monotonously standardized palette of either major or minor scales used in Western music today!


From this brief conceptual analysis, music can best be described as the direct communication of aesthetic emotion from the musician to the listener, with aesthetic emotion being defined as a more detached, refined and 'concentrated' form of raw emotion, which has the aesthetic property of being able to elevate the original raw emotion by the direct stimulation of our intellect -  only through music, (due to our evolutionary predisposition to associate specific sounds with specific emotions) can these emotions be so directly communicated to our higher cognitive faculties, where the finer points of these aesthetic emotions can be artistically appreciated by the listener...

Music can then literally 'heal the Soul', because due to our truly archaic, pre-linguistic ability to express emotion through specific sounds, it follows that music is the only artistic medium which communicates the beauty of aesthetic emotion, directly to our higher cognitive faculties - which is certainly what seems to account for the 'transporting' quality we often find in the very best music.

In this way, like a magic carpet, music can transport us from our own inner sufferings and take us on a fantastic journey of inspiration and imagination whilst simultaneously instilling in us, an appreciation of the timeless geometrical symmetry of harmonious musical intervals and in doing so, music can in time, (just as in the Biblical account of how David's lyre could sooth the troubles and tribulations of King Saul), restore the inner harmony of our very own Souls once more...


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