What Is Music?

Music is an art form that combines vocal and instrumental sounds for beauty of form or emotional expression, typically according to cultural standards of rhythm, melody and harmony. It is an aural experience that can be as simple as a folk song passed from one village to another in 13th-century England, or as complex as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. In addition to its aesthetic value, it has long been used as a vehicle for ritual and ceremony, for entertainment, and as an aid in communication and education, especially for visually impaired musicians.

The word “music” derives from the Greek word msike, meaning art of the muses. The Ancient Greeks believed that music evoked emotions and helped to bring people together. They had nine muses – Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Euterpe (harp and music), Erato (lyric poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (choral music), Terpsichore (dance) and Urania (astronomy).

For many philosophers, mathematicians and scientists, the power of music is rooted in its universality and mathematical properties. For the Pythagoreans, musical harmony mirrored divine harmony and was a tool for spiritual uplift. The German astronomer Johannes Kepler was a Platonist and, like Confucius before him, sought to establish the basis for all music in mathematics; he also espoused the belief that musical harmony could be heard as a kind of planetary movement.

Other musicians and theorists have been more concerned with its aesthetic value. Aristotle believed that musical sound was a representation of a certain emotion or idea, such as joy or sadness. The French composer Claude Debussy, like Franz Schubert before him, used chromatic harmony to express ideas such as ecstasy, grief and memory. The 19th-century English psychologist Edmund Gurney, for example, held that musical sound triggered and reflected human emotions.

Even if there is no single definition of what music is, most musicians and theorists accept that it consists of a combination of the elements of rhythm, melody and harmony, and that songs are defined by their lyrics and the arrangement of those words on a page or screen. The words in a piece of music must be arranged carefully, and the way they are used can have profound effects on what a song means.

Most people who are not professional musicians agree that music can have a powerful effect on the emotions of listeners, and that it can make us feel happy, sad, excited, frightened, lonely or angry. The underlying reasons for these effects are disputed, however. Some theories of music try to explain its power in terms of a physiological response, such as heart rate increase or adrenaline release; others claim that it has more to do with our culture and socialisation, for instance, the tones of a bugle are used to communicate orders in armies, and the lunga is used by African tribes to send messages between villages. There are, of course, other, less obvious and more personal reasons for enjoying music: it can provide a sense of connection to the past, to history, to our community; it can help us forget about problems for a while, or make them seem smaller; it can touch a part of us that words alone cannot.