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What is Music?

Rachel Becker, Stephanie Przybylek, Sasha Blakeley
  • Author
    Rachel Becker

    Rachel Becker is a freelance writer in the Pacific NW of the USA. She has a background of twelve years as an elementary educator working in public schools. She earned both her Bachelor of Arts and Letters and Masters in Education degrees at Portland State University. She holds a teaching certificate for the state of Oregon and is endorsed for multiple subjects Grades K-8. Twelve years of teaching grades K-5 in Title 1 schools provided her with ample experience in meeting diverse student needs and building community for connection with all students.

  • 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.

  • Expert Contributor
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

What is Music? Understand the history of music and the characteristics of music with examples. Learn about the elements of music and how music is made. Updated: 10/29/2021

Table of Contents


Definition of Music

What is music? Music is an art form that combines either vocal or instrumental sounds, sometimes both, using form, harmony, and expression of emotion to convey an idea. Music represents many different forms that play key factors in cultures around the world. A description of music, when asked by musicians, is quite challenging for them to put into a words. There is something unique, unto each artist, which music makes people feel a specific way in the world. John Coltrane described his music as, ''My music is the spiritual expression of what I am my faith, my knowledge, my being. When you begin to see the possibilities of music, your desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang ups. I want to speak to their souls.''

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  • 0:04 What is Music?
  • 1:20 Terms Related to Music
  • 2:49 Characteristics and Types
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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Description of Music

Music is the art form that combines rhythm and sound to form a functional melodic line. Music itself transcends time, space, and cultures. Music can carry a mood without speaking any specific words. It can also be captured and recorded in a written universal language unique unto any other art form.

The history of music is a lengthy topic which requires much depth and time. Music is an ancient art form that began during prehistoric times. It carries with it a history for each human culture throughout time. Although there are many varied definitions of music, it is a cultural universal because every culture throughout time and history has made music a primary component of life. For ages, music was passed down through oral tradition on a fundamental level; but for formal purposes, recorded music began with the written tradition by medieval monks during 500 AD to 1400.

Monks used a written number system based on neumes which is a predecessor for modern musical notation today. This was also the time period when polyphony was developed, which means the usage of multiple sounds coming together to form a melody and harmony. The birth of music, as it is today, truly emerged out of the Renaissance time period. In the sixteenth century, a time period known as the golden age, began. The art of vocal polyphony in both sacred and secular music began to emerge and the theories on music were formulated. Gioseffo Zarlino was the Master of the Chapel at St. Marks in Venice, Italy. His work on proportion in voice and music formulated a harmony on the whole. The idea of balance in both the world and in music gave way to writing music with balance in mind. The word music is derived from a word in the Greek language, "mousike" which translates to, ''art of the muses.''

This depicts the visual system of neumes which was the predecessor to modern musical notation.

Photograph of early musical notation work.

There are millions of human beings around the world. As such, humans have formed culture groups within society and each one expresses characteristics through a form of music. On a whole, there are roughly fourteen basic genres of music that are recorded widely from around the world. These include but are not limited to: Classical, Country, EDM or Electronic Dance Music, Jazz, Indie-Rock, Hip Hop, Pop, Rap, Oldies, Metal, K-pop, R&B or Rhythm and Blues, and Rock. It would be impossible to note every single type of music that is known and recorded around the world, however there are many ways in which to investigate this in terms of each Earth's continents basic cultures and their music.

In Africa, there are common instruments that include drum, musical bow, xylophone, and rattles. A list of genres in Africa would include but not be limited to: Afrobeats, Benga, Chimurenga, Ethio-jazz, Gnawa/Ethno-pop/Gwani Blues, Highlife, Hiplife, Inkiranya, Juju, Majika, Mbalax, Ndombolo, Palm Wine, Rababah, Shaabi, Somali Jazz, Soukou/Congolese Rumba, Ubongo, Zilin, and Zouglou.

In traditional Asian culture, the instruments used were flutes and pipes, stringed instruments, and drums. The traditional approach towards music in Asia was through a methodological or mathematical terms of approach to writing and recording music. Throughout the passage of time, with the evolution of K-Pop music, this approach is still utilized in a more modern way. Some of the genres of Asian music include but are not limited to: Chinese traditional opera, C-Pop, Dangdut, Gagaku court music, Goa trance, Hindustani, Baila, Bollywood, Carnatic, Chinese folk, V-pop, Rafi, Raga rock, Punjabi, K-trot, J-pop, and Japanese folk music.

In regards to the music of the Caribbean, it is a mixture of African and European styles combined. The music of the Caribbean is a combination of music and dance because they work together simultaneously for this culture, which is why drums and percussion instruments are an essential part of the music. Some of the genres of the Caribbean music include: Calypso, Reggae, Merengue, Mento, Dancehall, and Mambo. Zouk, Soca, Ska, Salsa, Rocksteady, and Steel band music/Pan music.

Moving into European music, it is best demonstrated through classical music as a genre. Many notable classical musicians were from Europe and as such, the influences of their work penetrated into the culture. Music of Europe today is greatly influenced by it's peoples who have brought and appreciate music from around the world. Genres of European music include, but are not limited to: A capella, Celtic chant, Drum and Bass, Flamenco, Euro-disco, Trance, Polka, Grime, Opera, and Glitch pop.

Latin and South American music is often referred to as Latin music overall. However, there are many influences upon the music that influenced its melodies, rhythmic bass and rhythms. Some of the genres of Latin music include: Cumbia, Compas, Balada, Bachata, Bossa nova, Mariachi, Vallenatto, Samba, Tango, Reggaeton, Mesitzo, Mexian, and Ranchera.

Music of North American incorporates traditional American music and Canadian music. There are a wide variety of cultures that have influenced the music genres of this region. These genres include: Blues, Canadian folk, Gospel, Bluegrass, American folk, Industrial, Zydeco, Tejano, and Swing.

Characteristics of Music

Music is made up of many components. These components could be classified as characteristics of the concept itself. The characteristics of music can be explained by organizing them into categories.

  • Sound (timbre, pitch, duration, amplitude, overtone): Sound itself is defined as the ability to hear or feel a vibration of movement from a voice or instrument. The sounds heard can be articulated by high or low pitches; how long they are played for, meaning the duration; the volume at which they are played or amplitude; the way in which they are played and distinguished, meaning the timbre; and the layers of sound or overtones that can occur when multiple tones are played at once.
  • Melody: Melody is the line in which a musical piece is defined by. A melody is the central theme that is played in a piece of music and that is repeated throughout the song.
  • Harmony: Harmony provides music as a secondary line of music that compliments the melody. It is what provides the song with: color or enhancement.
  • Rhythm: Rhythm is the driving beat or pulse of a song that defines the movement of the piece of music.
  • Structure or Form: Structure or form in music means the order of each part or section within the piece of music itself. The structure of a piece of music communicates which section is played, how many times, and where music is repeated.
  • Texture: Texture in music refers to the melody, rhythm, and harmony that are combined in a piece which demonstrates the sound and quality of the individual work.
  • Expression (dynamics, tempo, articulation): Expression in music is the way that a piece is conveyed through playing it completely. It could be classically defined as the specific notes, the markings above each note or stanza of notes telling the singer or instrumentalist exactly how fast, slow, loud, soft, bright, or flat something should be played.

Music is also clearly defined by elements of the sound itself. Music can be demonstrated through speed or tempo, the volume at which it is played, tempo modifiers, and instrumentation instructions. The Italian language is the language of choice when reading written musical markings. A handful of of these markings are helpful to know when looking at a piece of music. Some of these markings include the following, but are not limited to this list below. All of the words listed are written in the Italian language and defined in terms of musical meaning.

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  • Activities
  • FAQs

Understanding Music

This lesson explained many important terms and concepts surrounding music. It's a concept that most people in the world can relate to. Now it's your turn to think about what you've just learned in new ways using the following activities.

Music Around the World

As this lesson mentioned, all human cultures have musical traditions. Choose just one musical tradition and write a paragraph about it. What does this kind of music sound like? What terms from this lesson can you apply to it? What is the history of this musical tradition? Make sure you listen to examples of whatever music you choose!

Examples: You can write about any music, but here are some ideas to get you started: Inuit throat singing; Chinese opera; Yoruba drumming; Indian Raga music; Cape Jazz from South Africa.

Thinking Outside the Box

This lesson gave you several elements that make up what we typically think of as music. But can music go beyond these definitions? Look at the examples below and write a journal response explaining which, if any, you consider to be music. If they are not music, what are they?

Examples: Birds singing; 4'33" by John Cage; As Slow As Possible by John Cage; the Zadar Sea Organ; the Singing Ringing Tree.

Your Musical Traditions

What kinds of music are popular where you live? When did those kinds of music originate? What kinds of music are associated with your culture and history? And what vocabulary words that you learned in this lesson can you apply to your favourite kinds of music today? Write your answers to some or all of these questions in a paragraph or essay.

What are the 5 characteristics of music?

The five characteristics of music are sound (overtone, duration, amplitude, pitch, timbre), melody, rhythm, structure or form, expression, texture, and melody.

How do you explain music?

Music can be explained as a combination of predetermined sounds. The process of making music involves organizing sounds, and tones in a specific order and combining them into a unified music composition. Musicians use ingenuity and creativity to organize sounds for a specific result.

What is the purpose of music?

The purpose of music is to provide expression and control moods in humans and animals alike. Music can provide a soothing technique for crying babies, and calm animals when they are frightened. Music is an antidote for emotion when words fail.

How do you define music?

Music is the instrumental or vocal sounds, sometimes both, that produce a form, harmony, and expression of human emotion in an art form.

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