How would you define music?

It seems that It’s very easy to fall down the rabbit hole of being overly-philosophical when trying to decide what music “is”.

After thinking about it for an evening I’ve decided that to stop myself from listing hundreds of wishy-washy non-definitions I’ll jot down some prosaic and unsentimental thoughts.

Music could be:

  • A harmonious construction of set-valued (organised and standardised) tones arranged such as to appear agreeable or acceptable to a listener.
  • A series of complimentary sounds that form a greater sound.
  • A noise deliberately created to generate pleasure for either the composer, performer or listener, or any combination of these.
  • Music seems to conform to a series of (often very) broad rules which differentiate it from cacophony. “Cacophony” is subjective.


  • Lots of things make pleasant sounds but they’re not necessarily music. The sound of a waterfall or a finely tuned engine are pleasant to listen to but not musical.
  • Non-musical but pleasant sounds might not be able to be organised into music without difficulty (James May has tried to play the Top Gear soundtrack using engine noises. It wasn’t very good but it WAS recognisably “music”: Click Here).

We do have a couple of problems. Quite a lot of complex music makes use of silences to highlight the notes (Stokowski : “A painter paints his pictures on canvas but musicians paint their pictures on silence“, etc.). Who has the right to say how much silence between the notes is still allowed to be music? John Cage’s 4:33 (how many people quote this piece?!), a work of silence in three movements (see here) might seem trite and pompous but the score exists, so it’s organised and standardised and it can be performed. It might also provide pleasure for any of the three groups mentioned above. It is music.

Pure rhythm is also clearly music although it doesn’t have any notes and might not actually be being played by a person such as the first fifteen seconds of Fujiya & Miyagi’s “Ankle Injuries (here). Japan’s Kodo Drummers are hailed as musicians.

OK, so it seems that I can’t define music in one pithy phrase without having to qualify the statement somehow immediately afterwards so for now I’ll stick with my third option from the initial group:

“A noise deliberately created to generate pleasure for either the composer, performer or listener, or any combination of these.”


Have a look at this, it really is beautiful: Animusic –  Pipe Dream

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