Is Melody Always Music?

2011Symposium_1_2In my post on June 26, I defined melody as a sequence of tones, each of which has pitch and duration. We saw that melody did not have to have beat, rhythm, meter or tonality, just pitch and duration. I ended that post by suggesting that birdsong qualifies as melody, but questioned whether or not it qualified as music. Is it possible to have a melody that is not music? We have already defined melody. To answer the question, we also need to define music. Over many centuries, scholars have written countless volumes investigating the question of defining music, and raising the question today still can spark debate. There certainly is not room to cover the topic thoroughly in a blog post, so let me sidestep philosophical exposition, and propose some basic precepts. First, music is created. Dorrell (2004) wrote that, “Music is something that people create and something that people respond to (p. 19). In this one statement, we can find all we need for our definition of music.

First, music is created. To create something is to bring it into existence by intentionally acting upon resources out of which a thing is made. Music does not come into existence by happenstance, or by the instinctual or pre-programmed workings of organisms. Music comes into existence through creative work that creators choose to engage in. Secondly, people create music. We could extend this statement to say people purposefully create music. The word purposefully is implied in the word create, but I add it here so that the point is not lost. When people create music they do so with a purpose. That purpose is generally to express something. Every creator of music has an expressive intent, and has a response in mind that they hope their music will evoke in others. This intent is not instinctual, or even necessarily explainable with evolutionary theories. The intent with which music is created is a uniquely human one; that of sharing emotional content with other humans through pre-meditated acts of consciously self-expressive and socializing behavior. People make music not because they biologically have to but because they emotionally want to. This separates the human invention of music from the sound making of other living creatures, and is why only people can make music.

The other half of Dorrell’s definition is that music is “something people respond to.” The human response to music is complex and fascinating. Music birdsongstimulates many areas of the human brain in both of its hemispheres. It stimulates movement centers so that even when a person is not physically moving, they are experiencing virtual movement in their brains, and brain activity is indistinguishable from when physical movement occurs. Music perception takes place in Broca’s region, exactly where language perception is perceived. Sounds are organized in the brain into structures according to Gestalt principles, which were theorized for visual perception. Researchers have observed many similarities between visual and aural perception. Once so organized, music becomes emotionally meaningful, evoking or recalling emotions that can run the gamut of human feeling, ranging from fear, to love, sadness to outright laughter.

Recalling our birdsong, if we hear a bird singing, and have an emotional reaction to it, it is because of our human capacity for responding to music, and our associations to human-created music that we so react. The bird does not sing with human-like expressive intent. We humans impose an expressive response on what the bird does instinctively for non-emotional purposes. We must therefore conclude that melody does not have to be music. There are examples in nature, such as birdsong, of melodies which are not music, because they are neither humanly created, nor responded to by other birds in a human-like way. Music is a purely human invention, and stands as one of our greatest achievements.

Beginning next week, and continuing through August, I will be posting three times per week, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Please drop in on those days throughout the summer.


Dorrell, P. (2004). What Is Music? Solving a Scientific Mystery. Accessed July 3, 2014 at


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s