What Is Music? 1. Defining Music William Forde Thompson and Kirk N. Olsen Has it ever occurred to you how strange it is that humans seem to enjoy concoct- ing sounds by hitting objects with sticks, blowing air across a small opening in hollowed-out cylinders, buzzing lips into a mouthpiece, and scraping stretched steel strings with the stretched fibers of horse hair? If humans were being investi- gated by an alien species from another planet, what would they make of this pecu- liar activity? If they wanted to understand this behavior, the first step they would need to take is to define it. DICTIONARY DEFINITIONS OF MUSIC What is music? According to a 1947 version of the Random House College Dic- tionary, music can be defined as “an artistic use of sound to express thoughts and feelings through the elements of melody, harmony, and rhythm.” One problem with this definition, however, is that it makes a lot of assumptions. First, it assumes that we make music to express our thoughts and feelings, which defines music as an act of communication. Not everyone would agree that communication can explain everything about our experience and enjoyment of music. In some cases, we enjoy listening to music for the same reason that we enjoy listening to the sounds of waves on a beach or a summer rainstorm. That is, we sometimes enjoy the sounds in music for their own sake, even if nothing specific is being communi- cated to us. Second, it identifies quite specific ingredients of music: melody, har- mony, and rhythm. Is that all there is to music? And does all music contain these three ingredients? Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is probably no. Consider, for example, the traditional music of indigenous Australians (also called Aboriginal Australians). One of the instruments commonly used in this music is the didgeridoo—a type of instrument classed as an aerophone (other aerophones include the harmonica and the trumpet). Skilled players of the didgeri- doo use a technique called circular breathing to create a continuous sound that they can control, often using vocal and breathing techniques that change the over- all sound quality of the instrument, or timbre. The didgeridoo does not produce melodies in the conventional sense of the word, and when it is accompanied by other instruments, such as clapsticks or vocals, the combination does not sound like the kind of harmonies that we hear in popular Western music. Thus, this form of music does not fit well with the dictionary definition of music and its emphasis on melody, harmony, and rhythm. The 1955 edition of the Oxford Universal Dictionary offers an improved defini- tion of music. It describes music as “the art of combining sounds with the aim of achieving beauty of form and the expression of thought and feeling.” This
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