What Isn’t Music?

I read an interesting definition of music today. Music is “a pattern of sounds made by musical instruments, voices, or computers, or a combination of these, intended to give pleasure to people listening to it” (Mambo entertainment). The essentials are there, namely that music is sound patterns and there is an intent attached to those patterns. (I would argue that music is not “a pattern” but many patterns, one after the other, or simultaneously.) But it was really the intent that caught my attention. The definition contains the phrase “intended to give pleasure.” Certainly, at the outset of a musical encounter we hope that we will derive pleasure from the music we are about to hear, and if we find that there is little or no pleasure in the music to which we are listening, we mail abandon it in favor ofd something more pleasureable. But must it be intended to be pleasurable in order for it to be music?

I can think of any number of musical works which I would consider unpleasant to listen to, but that is not the same as the composer intending for it to be unpleasant. However, every artist, author, dancer, and I believe composer does at times create work that is meant to do other than please us. Some art is surely meant to disturb us, or to be thought provoking. For example, Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, with sounds of war and terror, and death surrounding the survivor, can hardly be considered pleasant in a feel good sort of way, nor is it rational to suppose that Schoenberg meant it to be other than a disturbing depiction of the horrors of war. Yet to argue that this is not music would be absurd, for clearly it is music.

On the other hand, bird song is pleasant indeed, yet is made by those creatures with no intent to please people who are listening to it. Does this then, disqualify it from being considered music? Some have argued that because birds have no expressive intent, it in fact is not music, but the definition we are considering makes no mention of that kind of intent.

The definition also runs aground in stipulating that the sounds considered musical must be produced by musical instruments,voices, computers, or a combination of these. If this is so, then what of the Stomp shows which feature musicians and dancers banging on pots, pans, floors, buckets and other household objects not in anyway qualifying as musical instruments, though they are being used as such. Is their performance not music because of the absence of musical instruments?

When someone states that music is intended to please, or that music is produced only by musical instruments, computers or voices, they are confusing definition with a preference. Most people I would venture to say prefer music that gives them pleasure, but if they should happen to hear music that does not give them pleasure, it is still music, only it is music that they prefer not to listen to. Consonant music can be used to induce pleasant emotions, while dissonant music can be used to induce unpleasant emotions. Interestingly, the former results in increased emotional processing the brain, while the latter results in decreased heart rate (Sammler, Grigutsch, Fritz, & Koelsch, 2007)

So if the definition I began with is unsatisfactory, then what is music? It certainly is a sequence of patterns of sound, created with an intent to express something or to represent something. Music that is intended to express something arouses feelings of sadness, joy, excitement, fear, and so on. Music that is meant to represent something associates sounds with a vision of something, as an ocean in Debussy’s La Mer, or a painting, as in any of the movements from Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. Sometimes music is meant to represent a story, as with much ballet music, or program music such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Til Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. All of these works probably were intended to please an audience, and probably they all do. But what of Le Sacre du Printemps? It also represents a story, but in no way pleased the audience at the premier, and fails to please some even to this day. Nevertheless, it is no less music than the other works I have mentioned. So music must have an intent, but not to please, but to express or represent.

That phrase “patterns of sound” is important too. As long as the listener can make sense of the sounds by organizing them into patterns, then those sounds will be heard and recognized as music. However, if the listener cannot make sense of the sounds they are hearing, if in the sounds, in spite of the listener’s best efforts to perceive some kind of order and structure to what is being heard, no structure can be found, then the sounds cannot be considered music, in the absence of perceivable structure, they cannot to express or represent anything, since both expressing and representing require a structure be in place.

I know what I have just written will rub the avant garde crowd the wrong way, but music that does not at the very least successfully express or represent misses the point of music. There are many pieces of so-called music that are in fact organized around a very strict structure, to be sure, but those structures are not comprehensible to many listeners, and so for them that work is not music. And that raises an interesting point, namely, the ability of the listener to perceive the organizational structure of a musical work. Now I’m not talking about being able to diagram thematic development in sonata form. I’m talking about being able to organize patterns of sound into meter, motifs, themes, theme groups, sections, and movements. I’m talking about the structure, the underlying hierarchical organization of the music that, for example, allows a listener to audiate the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony into beats of quarter notes in duple meter, and at the same time into beats of measures, and those into groups of four, creating phrases.

Music, by its very nature, is not a precise communicative media; it is not like prose through which relatively concrete and even precise ideas and concepts can be communicated. The way in which music communicates is more abstract and as a result personal. Elliot (2015) and Berleant (1987, p. 252) have observed that listeners to music are participants in the making of the musical performance; that is, their emotional and physical responses to music are part of the performance, and so make each performance potentially different for each listener even though many may be hearing the same musical event.

While most listeners can manage that with most tonal music, when it comes to atonal music, a different situation arises. One listener, well schooled in 12-tone serial composition, may very well perceive the tone row and all of its variants throughout the piece, and may have certain emotions aroused within him or her. To that listener, that work is music. To another listener, a novice to serial compositions, it all sounds like noisy nonsense, and arouses nothing but frustration and a profound dislike for anything that sounds like that. For that listener, the exact same work is not music. And so, to some extent, determining whether or not a work is music depends on the ability of the listener to organize the sounds into patterns, and so becomes subjective. Webern’s Kinderstuck is an example of 12 tone serialism. Do you think it’s music? Why or why not?


Alperson, P. (1994). What is music?: An introduction to the philosophy of music. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press.

Elliott, D. J., & Silverman, M. (2015). Music matters: A philosophy of music education.

Sammler, D., Grigutsch, M., Fritz, T., & Koelsch, S. (March 01, 2007). Music and emotion: Electrophysiological correlates of the processing of pleasant and unpleasant music. Psychophysiology, 44, 2, 293-304

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