What Makes Music Music?

Music is all around us, in the background of a shopping mall, people whistling as they walk down a street, live performers at your favourite cafe, or the chirping of birds in the middle of a forest.

Wait a minute, can animals make music? In fact, where do you draw the line between music and noise? Can the constant rattling of a loose bicycle chain be music? Or the hum of an air conditioner? They do have some rhythm in them after all. It’s important to draw a distinction between music and non-music, for if we can’t differentiate the two, then there can’t be music at all. Let’s have a conversation about this and see what we end up with.

What Is Music?

To answer the question of ‘what is music?’, we first have to define music. But this task proves more difficult than you might think. A good starting point would be to define music as organised sound. While helpful, such a definition proves insufficient, for two people knocking their knuckles on a table at the same time would then immediately be considered music. So the next part of our definition must answer the question: music is sound organised in terms of what?

I’m not going to give you a direct answer, for I don’t have one. But let me give you three possible parameters by which sound can be organised to produce music:

  1. Music is sound organised in time

  2. Music is sound organised in an aesthetic manner

  3. Music is sound organised by human beings

1) Music is Sound Organised in Time

To me, this is a great step in the right direction. When we think of music, we’re not thinking of a snapshot in time, like how you’d think of a photograph or sculpture. Music exists as a series of sounds over time. I can’t think of any sound that happens in an instant that I’d consider music. If you can, do let me know.

But this still means that our rhythmically rattling bicycle chain is music. I hate that sound, so I’m going further in my definition to eliminate it as music.

2) Music is Sound Organised in an Aesthetic Manner

There we go, music has to sound good. It has to have an aesthetic quality, it has to be beautiful. That bicycle chain sounds horrible. It isn’t music.

Hold on…

I want you to think of that one song you find absolutely revolting. That one song that you can’t imagine why anyone would ever listen to, that one song you wonder why anyone would dare call music.

Unfortunately, as much as we dislike certain forms of music, we know deep down that we can’t simply decry them as music. As one man’s meat is another man’s poison, there’s bound to be at least one person whose favourite song is that very song you hate so much.

Well, although we just refuted our own claim that music has to be aesthetic, we actually ended up at something else very important. We’ve come to realise that what defines music is subjective. There isn’t one fixed definition of what music is, but rather what constitutes music differs from community to community, from person to person.

Alright it’s subjective, sure… but there’s just no way anyone thinks of that dumb bicycle chain as music, right?

Well, let’s look at our last proposed parameter to find out.

3) Music is Sound Organised by Human Beings

We’re going back to the birds chirping in the middle of the forest. What music to my ears! Surely not only human beings can produce music. I mean, there have been full-length albums produced of birdsongs and whale calls.

Well, as we’ve already discussed, music is not necessarily defined in terms of aesthetics. There is a particular African community in which it is accepted that music cannot be produced by anything other than a human. In Timor-Leste there is a particular singing tradition called vaihoho, where two similar melodies are sung at such a dissonant interval apart that it sounds so jarring and unmusical to ears accustomed to Western music.

What I’m saying is that we have to be careful not to jump to conclusions when it comes to defining music, for often we are unknowingly shaped by our own cultures and upbringings. Perhaps you’ve decided that birdsongs and whale calls sound pleasing to you, and you and the people around you have accepted it as music. That’s perfectly fine!

But here’s a fun thought:

Do the birds think of their own chirping as music? If we think about it, it’s literally just how they communicate to each other. Imagine if birds recorded humans talking to one another, turned it into an album titled ‘human calls’, and listened to it while sleeping. That’s weird, and it’s a whole can of worms I’m not going to open!

But I think I can admit, that rattling bicycle chain could be musical to someone else. But it certainly isn’t to me, and that’s perfectly fine.

Written by Neil Chan

(This piece is inspired by 'The Anthropology of Music' by Alan P. Merriam)