What is Music? - Definition, Terminology & Characteristics

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Do you have a favorite song? Have you ever played an instrument? In this lesson, explore what music is and learn some terms and characteristics important to it.

What Is Music?

Sounds are all around us, from birds chirping and waves lapping against a coastline to cars honking in traffic. But sometimes sounds are put together in purposeful ways to create a specific atmosphere or to express ideas or emotions. Such organized sounds are called music.

Music is a collection of coordinated sound or sounds. Making music is the process of putting sounds and tones in an order, often combining them to create a unified composition. People who make music creatively organize sounds for a desired result, like a Beethoven symphony or one of Duke Ellington's jazz songs. Music is made of sounds, vibrations and silent moments, and it doesn't always have to be pleasant or pretty. It can be used to convey a whole range of experiences, environments and emotions.

Music includes works played by jazz bands
jazz band

Almost every human culture has a tradition of making music. Examples of early instruments like flutes and drums have been found dating back thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians used music in religious ceremonies. Many other African cultures have traditions related to drumming for important rituals. Today, rock and pop musicians tour and perform around the word, singing the songs that made them famous. All of these are examples of music.

Terms Related to Music

To better understand how music is made, let's discuss some important musical terms.

If you can sing the tune of a favorite song, you've experienced melody. Melody is the series of coordinated pitches that form the main line of a tune. Think about it as the primary voice in a musical work. And when we speak of 'voice' in this way, it might be a human voice or an instrumental one.

Example of a percussion ensemble from China. In this ensemble, the main voice would be performed on a percussion instrument.
Percussion ensemble

When you hear a work, the melody stands out. But sometimes other sounds or voices help support it and make the music more complex. Harmony refers to multiple lines of musical notes that are subordinate to the melody and complement it. You can hear the harmony, but it's not as prominent as the melody. Harmony is often formed by a series of chords, three or more notes played at the same time.

Another important element of music is rhythm, the repeated patterns of movement in sound. Basically, rhythm is the placement of sound in time. It involves specific units of sounds arranged as beats. Also important to rhythm is the idea of tempo, the speed at which the beats are performed.

Music also has many terms that describe how it should be played or sung. These include words like allegro, which means quick and lively, and largo, which means slow. Other terms give instructions for loud or soft or bold or calm, or even suggest how specific notes should be emphasized. All of this helps to create a desired end result.

Characteristics and Types of Music

All music tends to share certain characteristics. Most includes the elements discussed above, like melody, harmony and rhythm. Music is also often collaborative, involving more than one person in its performance. It commonly builds in tempo, volume, energy over the course of a piece. A good way to illustrate this is to think of your favorite song. Does it begin soft, low, or slow and build to a more dramatic finish? Or does it begin with a loud flourish all at once?

Music is made with endless combinations of instruments, voices, and sounds, often produced by bands or ensembles. For example, an orchestra is an instrumental group that includes large sections of string, brass, woodwind and percussion instruments. Instrumental music also includes small ensembles like brass quintets; jazz trios of piano, string bass and drums; or percussion ensembles that include a range of percussion like drums, bells, and rattles.

Example of a string ensemble
string ensemble

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