The most common and accepted answer to this question is that music is organized sound, but many composers and philosophers of the 20th century have contested this answer. If music is organized sound, then where and how do we distinguish sound from music?
Music can be analyzed into four major categories; melody (the horizontal movement of pitches), harmony (the vertical orientation of pitches), rhythm (the durations for each pitch), and timbre (the sound color created by each instrument or combination of instruments). Along with dynamics (volume), tempo (speed), and meter, these major categories are the main focus for writing and understanding music. By asking “What is Music?” composers in the 20th century wondered how music would sound if it was written without all of these components and whether or not it would still be perceived as music.
Hungarian composer György Ligeti wrote some music that only used one of the four major categories, timbre. By focusing on just pitch in music like Atmosphères (which you may recognize from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), Ligeti created a soundscape of tone colors. Atmosphères, features an orchestra of just strings, with each performer playing a different pitch at all times. Although this description implies the music created is just noise, the effect and sound of it is quite the opposite and the piece is full of power and emotion. It’s still organized sound so it’s still music right?
Ligeti took this idea to the next level with his piece Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. Instead of using a string orchestra the piece uses 100 metronomes as instruments and nothing else. Instead of using just timbre like in Atmosphères, Poème Symphonique focuses on just rhythm, specifically tempos. Each metronome is wound up all the way, set on a different tempo, and they all start ticking simultaneously. The metronomes compete with one another, creating a sound texture similar to Atmosphères, until the last remaining metronome stops ticking. But Poème Symphonique raises questions such as, “Is it still music if there is no notation or performers involved?” and “Is this still organized sound?” If it isn’t considered organized sound then another question to ask is, “Is it still music?”
American composer John Cage made his career out of writing music that questions “What is music?” In addition to writing music completely through chance, he became famous for writing a piece titled 4’ 33”. By writing music with chance as the only factor, Cage removed the “organized” part from the definition organized sound. If he could create music this way that sounded musical to the unknown ear, how could the listener argue it wasn’t music? In the three movement piece 4’ 33”, the audience is exposed to 4 minutes and 33 seconds of pure silence. The point of this “composition” is that the noises produced by the audience during the performance is itself the music. Every shuffle, every cough, every seat creak, is a musical sound with pitch, timbre, and dynamics. This piece and John Cage’s philosophy proposes that all sounds are musical and that there is no way to distinguish a difference between sound and music.
This shows that melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre weren’t created in order to write music, but were discovered as ways to better understand and label musical events. The concept that music is everywhere inspired several composers to take everyday sounds and show how musical they are. American composer Scott Johnson used recordings of people talking in his composition John Somebody. By editing these conversations, repeating certain phrases, and adding instruments, Johnson shows how musical simple dialogue can be.
So what is music? Is it organized sound or are all sounds musical? Or maybe it’s somewhere in-between? Like all other forms of art, music is subjective and can be interpreted differently from person to person. I thought I had a good understanding about what was music and what wasn’t when I got to college but luckily I had a teacher like Dr. Barsom who forced me to listen to music that sounded like noise and nothing else to me. Eventually, I not only found myself appreciating this “noise” as music but even grew to love some of it. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then music is in the ear of the beholder.
One man’s noise is another man’s symphony.