The answer to the question, “what is music” is as multifarious as the musical material it has engendered. What we define as music is primarily culturally defined. In the West alone, our ancestors have lived within many different epistemes and therefore defined music in many ways.
With this brief survey of Western music, we intend to demonstrate at least a small sampling of what music is.
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Before a baby ever opens their eyes, they begin to hear the sounds of the world through the soft walls of their mother’s womb. As such, we’re born into a world of unceasing sound that continues until we lose the ability to hear or pass away.
As the world-renowned composer John Cage (who we will discuss in greater detail below) points out, there is no such thing as silence. A music definition, then, will by necessity be exclusive; the goal in defining what music is is really to determine what it isn’t.
Some of the earliest significant thinkers about the problem of music were the Greeks. Plato held the lofty belief that music must be a morally correct institution fashioned to sharpen the minds of the people (read: landowning men) who govern us.
In De Musica by Saint Augustine, the great Catholic patriarch defines music as that which affects the soul, making it capable of influencing the actions and ethics of humankind.
A more broadly inclusive definition, and the one which we’ll use in this article, was given to us by John Cage. Funnily enough, John Cage gave this definition when he appeared on a TV game show entitled I’ve Got A Secret. In it, he defines music as “the production of sounds.”
As our readers can assess for themselves, a broadly inclusive definition of music is suitable for this article. It will allow us to talk about music from different cultures (that is, Ancient Greek, Medieval, Renaissance, and that of the contemporary West) without getting bogged down in theoretical disputes.
For the sake of depth, this article will only cover the musical tradition of the Eurocentric West, making reference to the rich and deeply textured traditions of Asia, Africa, and South America only when these traditions intersect with those of the West.
With a broadly inclusive definition such as “the production of sounds,” the characteristics of music can be as different as the melancholy drone of a bassoon and the sharp blaring of a car alarm.
However, we can discuss the characteristics of sound and, from that point of view, elaborate into a discussion of what has characterized music for its listeners in the past.
A sound has four distinct properties: pitch (high or low), duration (long or short), timbre (quality), intensity (loud or soft). A crash on a cymbal has a relatively high pitch, short duration, tinny or metallic timbre, and a high intensity.
The combining of pleasing sounds in tandem over some time has sufficed to define it for most of music’s history. In almost all developed musical traditions, we see a propensity for variety, whether in rhythm, melody, or combinations of sounds.
Qualities like rhythm, melody, and the kinds of sounds chosen constitute much of what distinguishes different types of music from others.
Beyond general comments, we can typically separate music as an art form into two distinct categories: popular music and classical music.
Popular music, which today includes rap, rock, blues, pop—in short, most everything on the radio, has its roots in the folk traditions of primarily Europe and Africa. Classical music, played on NPR and in concert halls the world over primarily by orchestras or virtuoso instrumentalists, has its roots in the formal music tradition that began in Ancient Greece.
Popular music has historically been separated from classical music along class lines, a distinction that has allowed the two traditions to develop, until quite recently, relatively separately.
Unlike classical music, popular music has never had a theoretical framework that supports it. It is, instead, based on age-old questions of taste, passed down from one performer to the next. Popular music is ephemeral and reactive: it captures the here and the now, with no agenda for change, no grand mission for humanity.
Classical music, meanwhile, has always had its roots in the idea of edification. From Plato in Ancient Greece theorizing that music may uplift the righteous man all the way down to the present day, classical music is intellectual. Classical music is born of a structured mind; it speaks to the age-old dream that humanity may change for the better.
Music, whether popular or classical, takes place in the ears and heart. The brain is only secondary. It behooves us, then, to open our discussion to the actual songs that have excited the minds and bodies of people past and present.
How we chose: because the field of music is so vast, we’ve tried to highlight the seeds from which sometimes many different genres have emerged. We’ve also tried to strike a balance between classical music and popular music. We’ve also made the list chronological to facilitate a greater understanding of the growth of music.
The Canticles Of Ecstasy – (12th century) Hildegard von Bingen
For many people unfamiliar with the medieval ages, it is surprising to realize that the 12th and 13th centuries saw what some scholars term a “forgotten renaissance.”
This was the time when the ideas of Aristotle were first beginning to permeate the theological imagination, and thinkers like Peter Abelard were paving the way for the concept of an individual God, and with it of a personal love.
Listening to the Canticles of Ecstasy, we are struck by the simplicity of the female voice put up against the monophonic organ accompaniment. In a time dominated by male thoughts and voices (think: Gregorian chant), Hildegard von Bingen was something of an anomaly.
Also, unusually, the music feels very personal. The female vocalist in the Canticles, whose voice strikes out strongly and centrally amidst the arrangement, places the female thinker at the center of a glorious but violent cosmos.
Cello Suite No. 1 In G Major – (1717) Johann Sebastian Bach
In the above clip, we bear witness to the ever-profound musician Yo-Yo Ma playing what he once revealed as the first song he ever learned on cello. Many of our readers will instantly recognize the prelude to the Cello Suite, one of the most well-known songs in Bach’s oeuvre and, indeed, one of the most well-known songs in the world.
In this song, the rich baritone of the Cello plays an elegant, stately melody that, while jumping around from the furthest ends of the Cello’s range, nevertheless remains grounded in an Earthiness that emerges from the timbre of the Cello’s sound in colleague with the steady rocking of the melody.
Bach is no small player when discussing the question of music. He is considered one of the greatest composers of all time, such that every composer must at some point confront Bach.
Bach’s mathematically precise work in counterpoint was the centerpiece of the Baroque era’s music. His fugues feature prominently in the groundbreaking work of mathematics Gödel, Escher, and Bach by Douglas Hofstadter.
Ride Of The Valkyries – (1870) Richard Wagner
In any discussion of music, Wagner’s name bears mentioning. The Ride of the Valkyries, the name most people use to introduce Wagner’s second opera, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), is an instant classic.
Likely most of our listeners are familiar with this song from Loony Tunes or similar TV shows. For our modern sensibilities, the music of Wagner sometimes feels melodramatic. At its time, though, Wagner’s music absolutely changed the world of opera and music itself.
He conceived of a “total work”—a work that used the typically disparate parts of acting, singing, stage design, costume design, and lighting in a synchronicity that strove towards a genuinely immersive, cathartic theater experience.
Listening to this track, we feel the epicness run through our veins. The music is inherently dramatic, painting landscapes and characters, battles, death, and romance.
Minor Swing – (1937) Django Reinhardt
In our decidedly brief survey of musical history, we must now jump ahead 60 years to a post-depression Paris. Jazz, with its roots in African spirituals and American folk traditions, was exported across the Atlantic to the feverish and artistically fecund interwar Paris.
Here, brilliant minds like those of Hemingway, Joyce, and Picasso melded with the hot jazz sensibilities of the roaring 20s to create a distinct genre of music known at the time as “Gypsy Jazz.”
Listeners will immediately note the warmth of the music and the relatively fast beat, conducive to swing dancing in seedy Paris bars.
Reinhardt himself was something of a guitar prodigy who famously played with only three fingers as his hands were severely burned in a fire when he was a young guitar player. The work of Reinhardt had major implications in America, where his jazz sensibilities inspired jazz talents like Miles Davis and pop music heavy hitters like The Temptations.
4’33” – (1952) John Cage
Appropriately, the work of John Cage appears centrally on our survey of the Western music tradition. Likely no artist, whether musical, visual, or otherwise, had such a powerful influence on 20th- and 21st-century art than John cage.
4’33” is infamously remembered as John Cage’s “silent piece.” The piece, written for piano, features a pianist sitting at his piano who plays no notes. The pianist sits at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds before standing and leaving the auditorium.
4’33”, radically, can be heard at all times everywhere, for it represents the sounds of the environment. The best recommendation to listen to the above clip is to open the video and mute the computer. Listen to the environmental sounds around you for the duration of the piece.
The piece asks you, “Is this music?” It’s an affirmation of a lived life as the only true art. It is the death knell for the composer, a radically anarchic piece that aims its sights at the complete disintegration of the traditional relationship of the composer to the audience. Rather than the composer having something to say, he or she “has nothing to say and [is] saying it.”
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – (1967) The Beatles
From the works of John Cage, the Beatles may seem like a radical shift. The Beatles, who famously captured the American imagination when they came to North America in 1964, are at their most radical and imaginative with their 1967 album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The album’s first track is also the titular track, and we can immediately hear how unusual this song is even within the rock and roll tradition.
The Beatles were successful because they emphasized musical experimentation and a strong intuition for catchy melodies. Like 4’33”, Sergeant Pepper’s begins with a kind of silence: ambient noise. From there, the rock guitar and solid harmonies of The Beatles take flight.
A Natural Woman – (1971) Aretha Franklin
Leave it to author’s bias, but Aretha Franklin’s powerful musicianship, backed by the consistently excellent writing of Carol King, must be included in a review of contemporary music.
In A Natural Woman, Aretha Franklin is at her most powerful, speaking about the life of a modern black woman struggling for love and with issues of sensitivity. As Carol King and Aretha Franklin have both had a significant impact on musical theater and pop music, A Natural Woman feels like a natural fit in this list.
Rapper’s Delight (1979) The Sugarhill Gang
Whether we’re looking at rock, indie pop, or significant players like Beyonce, today’s contemporary music scene owes much of its musicality to the advent of rap. Rapper’s Delight is remembered as the “first rap song,” so it is fitting that this is where our list must end.
In this track, the Sugarhill Gang laid out the structure that would dominate both rap and pop music up until the present day. While representing a decisive break from the past with the voice acting more rhythmically and lyrically than melodically, we can also see Rapper’s Delight as a clear extension of early R&B hits, where a refrain is broken down and riffed upon by the individual singers of a group.
When discussing the top five musicians of all of music, it is not clear how to decide who goes where. For the sake of ease, we’ll talk about the top five musicians based on sales.
Ranking number one on our list, it may be no big surprise that The Beatles come out on top.
Founded in 1960 by John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, the Beatles have taken on a kind of cult status. Even today, their profound influence is felt when an entire movie, Yesterday, can be made about the scary world where The Beatles never existed.
The Beatles’ career spanned many years and styles, and following the famous break-up of the band, John Lennon and Paul McCartney both launched highly successful solo careers. John Lennon was also famously shot outside his Manhattan apartment by obsessed fan Mark David Chapman, an event intricately detailed in the ‘Who Killed John Lennon?' book.
Born in 1962 in Oklahoma, Garth Brooks is one of the most transcendental country artists of all time. His genre-bending work, with elements of rock and pop, has seen his name and music skyrocket since he first released his album Hungry Years in 1986.
The “King of Rock,” Elvis Presley’s distinctive music, dance moves, and outfits make him one of the most recognized American icons of all time.
With hits like Blue Suede Shoes, Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog, and Can’t Help Falling In Love, Elvis Presley transformed the musical sensibilities of Americans and paved the way for all of rock’s branches, from punk to heavy metal.
Elvis Presley famously died at the young age of 42 from a heart attack, an unusual complication for someone so young but likely brought on due to the young star’s long-standing addiction to barbiturates and opiates.
From 1971 Los Angeles, the Eagles formed with key members Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon, and Randy Meisner. Today, their most well-known track is likely Hotel California. This nearly six-and-a-half-minute song is iconic in karaoke bars everywhere, and many people believe the extended guitar solo is one of the best rock guitar solos of all time.
With major hits like Stairway to Heaven and Rock and Roll, Led Zeppelin’s name is in some cases more recognizable than much of their music.
The band, founded in London, named itself after the 1930s explosion of the Hindenburg. This Zeppelin balloon reportedly represented the perfect combination of massiveness and grace; combustibility and power to the founding members.
The earliest notion we have of a musical tradition in the West began in Ancient Greece. In the plays and entertainments of Greece, music played a central part. It helped to convey the action of the piece, and, as we mentioned, Plato wrote extensively about music’s use as an ethical institution.
Following the Roman empire’s collapse, the primary authority for musical values was the Roman Catholic church. St. Gregory, specifically, whose name is primarily remembered for his work in monophonic Catholic choral singing (Gregorian Chant), helped to establish a strongly melodic musical tradition with a heavy emphasis on rhythm.
The Middle Ages are generally agreed to have fallen sometime around the year 1600 when demands for a reformation of the Catholic Church led to the chasm now known simply as “The Reformation,” the time in which Protestantism rose and split a formerly unified Europe into disparate states.
With the Reformation, the Enlightenment brought a multitude of scientific thought to the continent, replacing faith with knowledge and body with mind.
The emphasis of the individual led to the prolific growth of the institution of Classical music, with the Baroque Era giving way to the Classical, which subsequently gave way to the Romantic in the 19th century and, eventually, Modern music of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Meanwhile, a popular music tradition that was hitherto quite peripheral has emerged as the central music of our century.
Names like Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Justin Bieber, and Mariah Carey are the musicians most think of today when they think of musicians. This is likely due to the tremendous expansion of the middle class following the Industrial Revolution and the easy proliferation of music via streaming services like Spotify.
As music continues to evolve, we shall see how the formerly disparate realms of classical and popular music continue to merge, as our favorite artists begin to draw both on the work of Bach and on the work of Beyonce.
More than ever, the individual is in control of their music experience, and “bedroom producers” like Finneas O’Connell and Clairo are pointing to a future musical production model that is truly horizontal.
Furthermore, with Taylor Swift’s recent crusade against her old recording company and well-known stories like Chance the Rapper’s labelless rise, music is more Democratic than ever.
Classical music, meanwhile, persists in being played. In virtually every city today, we can hear a concert of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart.
Meanwhile, formal experimentation is in the hands of minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, whose work continues to deemphasize the composer as someone “with something to say” and instead promotes music as the pleasure of listening.
We’ve covered music’s rise from Ancient Greece to the snappy pop of the present day.
However, what music is will likely always be debated by people in society. It is based on taste and cultural dialogues, not on objective assessment or some universal ideal of beauty.
The best way to finish the discussion is with the subject material itself (pick your poison: classical or popular). Listen and relax. Thanks for reading!