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Music is a sometimes-pleasant, organized series of sounds. It was helpfully described by modern composer John Cage as "sounds, heard."

What is music?[edit]

Music is difficult to define, as it is difficult to extricate a clinical definition of the word from the inherent value judgments that accompany it. In everyday usage, the word "music" is understood to be sounds which are organized to enthrall and move the listener, in contrast to "noise" which is unorganized sound producing no particular effect. Inevitably, some music (particularly some types of modern music) is described as "noise" or "not music" by listeners who do not enjoy or understand it. What appears as music to one person may be interpreted as noise to another, and vice versa, as interpretation of sounds, whether organised or disorganised, dissonant or harmonious, may arouse different sorts of feelings in a listener.

Common definitions therefore include "organized sound" or "art in the medium of sound." But even these do not encompass some avant-garde works, such as John Cage's 4'33'', which contains no notes and instead comprises whatever background sounds happen to occur during a performance.[note 1]

Note that music is not limited to such sounds that a human being might produce by fashioning an instrument for the making of a simplified or otherwise organized sound and then "playing" said instrument. The chirping of birds and certain insects may properly be called music, especially if the sound produced is particularly pleasant to the listener. Furthermore, some of the most sophisticated music attempts to imitate the sounds made by birds,[1] insects, and other animals.

Elements of music[edit]

There are a few principal elements usually, but not always, used in creating music:


Rhythm consists of making the sounds in such a way that they emphasize a pulse or pace, usually repeated over fairly short interval of time. Some music consists primarily of rhythmic elements.


Melody is... well. Isn't that a fun question. Melody is a succession of musical notes which is perceived as a single entity, usually such that one is processed by the brain as following the last and extending the idea which it communicated. A common if informal definition is that melody is that which is not accompaniment to melody - though it should be noted that multiple simultaneous melodies are employed by some pieces. The pitches which make up a melody will often - but by no means always - proceed in a manner structured around a single, controlling pitch to which the music tries to return; this pitch is called the tonic, and music possessing this quality is described as tonal.


Harmony is the use of two or more notes played simultaneously. Some combinations of notes sound pleasant to the ear; this is called consonance. Others, well, don't; such combinations are referred to as dissonant.[note 2] Dissonances are used in music to create tension, and have a nasty habit of leading back (or "resolving") to more consonant harmonies. Much of Western musical history can be viewed as moving toward increasing acceptance of dissonance, brought on by the employment of ever-sharper dissonances.


Ok, so you want a real discussion of silence in music? Silence or "space", denoted by rests, can be just as important as can sound; the aforementioned 4'33" is made entirely of silence,[note 3] though less... extreme... examples of its worth also exist, including some by Beethoven, or in a slightly different sort of music, Count Basie.


Music may include sometimes-poetic words called lyrics. When inappropriate or allegedly so, they can cause a great deal of moralistic mouth-foaming.


Texture describes how "thick" or "thin" a piece of music (or section thereof) feels based on how many instruments are playing and the relationships between what they're playing. Commonly used examples include the following:

  • Monophonic texture - a melody alone
  • Biphonic texture - a melody and a supporting line which maintains the same pitch nonstop (such as a drone, pedal point, or ostinato)
  • Polyphonic texture - multiple melodic lines, whoo boy! Polyphonic music is also sometimes called contrapuntal.
  • Homophonic texture - melody and accompaniment; the familiar one. Homphonic music is often also homorhythmic.
  • Homorhythmic texture - all voices have the same or similar rhythms
  • Heterophonic texture - multiple voices simultaneously perform variants of the same basic melody. Sometimes regarded as a type of polyphony.


Timbre is the sound or tone of an instrument/voice. As a simple example, playing a piece on a guitar simply does not sound the same as playing that same piece on a piano would; this is due to the difference in timbre. Differences in timbre can occur not only between different instrument, but also on the same instrument. Most wind instruments sound substantially different in different ranges/registers; as an example, the higher notes on a horn have a much smoother sound than the lower notes. In addition to "natural" variation based on the pitch of the note played, deliberate alterations of timbre can be made; for example, a horn player can alter the timbre of his instrument by adjusting the position of his hand or inserting a mute, and make less drastic adjustments with only his mouth.


Different effects can be achieved by playing loudly or quietly, or by contrasting loud and quiet passages; such effects are referred to as dynamics. Like most other musical notation, they are conventionally given Italian names, some of the most common of which are as follows:

  • pianissimo or pp - very quietly/softly
  • piano or p - quietly/softly
  • mezzo-piano or mp - somewhat quietly/softly
  • mezzo-forte or mf - somewhat loudly
  • forte or f - loudly
  • fortissimo or ff - very loudly
  • fortepiano or fp - loudly at first but then immediately softly
  • crescendo, cresc., or the symbol Crescendo-3.svg - becoming louder
  • diminuendo, dim., or the symbol Diminuendo-3.svg - becoming quieter
  • decrescendo or decresc. - same as above
  • sforzando or sfz - especially forcefully
  • subito or s - indicates that a change is to be sudden; often combined with other dynamic markings, e.g. sff, sp
  • niente or n or n. - indicates nothingness, no sound; commonly seen as an instruction to decrescendo to nothing, i.e. Diminuendo-3.svg n.

Genres of music[edit]

All music is folk music, I ain't never heard no horse sing a song.
—Louis Armstrong, though see above in regards to animals and music[3]

Music is broadly and finely categorized by genre and sub-genre. While the major divisions are moderately clear, the subdivisions can result in virtually every piece ever composed or performed being its own sub-sub-sub-sub-genre. Keeping that in mind, and also that various forms of music often "borrow" elements and styles from each other, a few distinctions can be made. But like taxonomy, such distinctions can often be very flexible. Complaining about what category a piece of music fits into is possibly the intellectually lowest form of debate ever, even lower than arguing about semantics.

In a very broad sense from a more historical perspective, there is sacred and secular music; with the Church having been extremely powerful back in the day, as well as needing countless services to fill, there was lots of work to be had composing oratorios (religious passages set to music) as well as chorales, hymns and masses such as the requiem. Secular music of the day was usually oriented a bit more towards dance, folklore, or ballads chronicling current or historical events, as opposed to grandiose choirs and orchestras that were seen in Church music.[note 4] In the 20th century and beyond, music became more accessible and recordings allowed it to be played without the hassle of forming a full orchestra or live band. New sacred music became more scarce as "classical" composers moved on to more experimental works (and it just became easier to trot out a load of Purcell or Bach sacred music rather than pay someone to write something new each week) and the popular, secular music began to diversify into the various "genres" as one would find them categorised in a music shop. Advances in technology meant that bands no longer needed to be 40 strong just to be heard and the increased distribution of music allowed people to focus on what they liked the most, supporting and developing the musicians that created it.

Western music today is conventionally divided into a few, very broad groups:

  • Classical (however, this can also be a more specific term referencing the music of a period from about 1750 through 1820, so pay attention to context)
  • Jazz (boundaries with both classical (in the loose sense) and blues can get blurry)
  • Blues
  • Folk
  • Pop
  • Easy listening, aka elevator music/syrup
  • Shit your parents hate
  • Shit the next generation likes

Music in politics[edit]


In the 1980s in the United States, the PMRC was formed to attempt a labeling system so parents could ascertain whether or not the music their children were listening to was age-appropriate (or at least free of nasty words).

Three musicians—Dee SniderWikipedia's W.svg of the band Twisted Sister, who was the only one of the three who the PMRC had directly targeted, John Denver,Wikipedia's W.svg the good ol' country boy, and Frank Zappa, the founder and leader of the rock band Mothers of Invention, testified against censorship of music at a hearing before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, United States Senate, on September 19, 1985. Denver's was probably the most damaging testimony of the three due to his image, and his pointing out that Tipper Gore was wildly off-base thinking the song Rocky Mountain High was about drug use (which was so patently ridiculous that one would have almost certainly had to be on drugs to even come up with something like that), but all three absolutely nailed it. Zappa said:

While the wife of the Secretary of the Treasury recites "Gonna drive my love inside you" and Senator Gore's wife talks about "Bondage!" and "oral sex at gunpoint" on the CBS Evening News, people in high places work on a tax bill that is so ridiculous, the only way to sneak it through is to keep the public's mind on something else: 'Porn rock' ...The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of Moral Quality Control Programs based on "Things Certain Christians Don't Like." What if the next bunch of Washington Wives demands a large yellow "J" on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?"[4]

Much as with having one's movie "R"-rated, the warning labels rapidly became less a warning than a sought-after imprimatur of being "edgy," or at least swearing a lot.

Many pieces of popular music exist in two versions - one, as the "artist" intended, usually on what used to be called the "LP" or "album," and a second, sanitized version intended for radio airplay. The classic example of this was Steve Miller Band's Jet Airliner, where the "nasty" version said "funky shit goin' down in the city," while the radio market single was dubbed to say "funky kicks goin' down in the city."

In modern times, it is often the case that a large retailer like Wal-Mart will only stock the "sanitized" version of a CD (or DVD). Fortunately, this is increasingly largely irrelevant as more and more music is bought/downloaded/streamed online.

Abuse of music as torture[edit]

See Justin BieberWikipedia's W.svg and Miley CyrusWikipedia's W.svg for a full explanation of this topic.

Music, that is hopefully offensive to the victims and usually played very loudly, has been used as an assault technique (see Waco), and as an "enhanced interrogation technique" (see Guantanamo Bay). In The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson, it is suggested that playing music as torture was either a test of subliminal effects of music on the victims, or, possibly more sinisterly, as a light-hearted anecdote to desensitize the population to the regular use of torture on terrorist subjects.

After the U.S. invasion of Panama, the target of the invasion, strongman Manuel Noriega, sought asylum in the Vatican's diplomatic mission, headed by Monsignor Jose S. Laboa. To induce Noriega's surrender, U.S. forces played loud music outside the nunciature[5] by cranking up the rock & roll from the armed forces' Southern Command Network radio station (which took requests and played such things as Van Halen's "Hang Em High" and Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills"), and sometimes switching to shortwave station KUSW out of Salt Lake City for a change of pace.

Although playing loud music in one's room to piss off one's parents is not quite in this category, the Portsmouth Sinfonia,Wikipedia's W.svg founded at the Portsmouth School of Art in England in 1970, may well be "music as a form of torture." Sounding part way between a bunch of first school children playing Baa Baa Blacksheep on plastic recorders at their Christmas concert and what you'd expect the piped music in hell's waiting room to sound like, its members were all non-musicians or, if musically trained, were required to play an instrument they had no experience with.[6] Composer and music theorist Brian Eno produced two of their commercial albums (The Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics and Hallellujah! The Portsmouth Sinfonia Live At The Royal Albert Hall, both released in 1974) as well as playing clarinet in the orchestra.

Today, the easiest way to induce torture is to put on Rebecca Black.[note 5]

Use in activism[edit]

Since ancient times, and most recently with the explosion of "socially conscious" folk and rock in the 1960s and similarly-themed rap and hip hop in the 1980s, people have used music to protest the current political order, or some specific issue, usually with their lyrics.[note 6] Whether the revolution was ever achieved is not known for sure, however, one thing we do know is that it will not be televised!

Beethoven famously dedicated his Third Symphony (Eroica) to Napoleon, only to change his mind when the latter crowned himself Emperor. The original manuscript still bears the scratch marks and tears from Beethoven's quill where he violently crossed out the dedication.

Music as an underground communication channel[edit]

Underclasses have often made use of music and carefully "coded" lyrics to maintain solidarity against their oppressors. A prime example would be the development of Gospel during the slave-era United States.

Other, less obvious examples are the use of sly lyrical references to "obscene" acts that get past the censors of the day ("One eyed jack peeping in a seafood store" comes to mind, as does "What do you see when you turn out the light/I can't tell you but I know it's mine"[7]).


Music is often used to create, evoke, or encourage nationalist sentiment. To this end, composers may emphasize folk songs or other recognizable elements of some local musical tradition in their works, as in, for example, Copland's Appalachian SpringWikipedia's W.svg or Tchaikovsky's Marche SlaveWikipedia's W.svg (or that other thing with the cannon).Wikipedia's W.svg Sometimes pieces are written which set out to express national sentiment without directly capitalizing on folk melodies, such as Jean Sibelius's FinlandiaWikipedia's W.svg[note 7] or Chopin's Étude on the Bombardment of WarsawWikipedia's W.svg (often known as the Revolutionary Étude), with such pieces sometimes themselves becoming deeply associated with the nation. Politicians have historically sought to exploit, create, or redefine national musical traditions for their own purposes, the most notorious example being the Third Reich's stance on German music (which was not always German; for example, Chopin was given a fake German pedigree) and "degenerate Jewish" music (which was often neither degenerate nor Jewish; see especially the Second Viennese School).Wikipedia's W.svg[note 8]

In modern times, music has caught on as something of a recruiting tool for white nationalists, skinheads, etc., with the intertubes serving as a way to distribute what no brick and mortar store would want to touch.[9] However, some online retailers (most notably iTunes) have begun to pull racist music from their stores more proactively, though some do not.[10]

Religious activism[edit]

The liturgy, like the Church, is intended to be hierarchical and polyphonic, respecting the different roles assigned by Christ and allowing all the different voices to blend in one great hymn of praise.
—Pope John Paul II[11]

Music used to spread a religious message was historically an exceedingly prevalent occurrence, and is still around, along with a healthy dose of surrounding stupid (see below). In the Christian church, music has been used more or less from the get-go, though mostly without instruments until the introduction of the church organ, traditionally (but dubiously) credited to Pope Vitalian, who was pope from 657 AD to 672 AD.[12] Other instruments made their way into sacred music over time, a trend that culminated in Romantic works such as Verdi's Messa da Requiem,[note 9] although some secular works of the period utilized even larger forces.[note 10] Still, however, the organ remains a staple of sacred music, especially within the Catholic church[13] and its closer relatives, although its use is foregone, often in favor of the piano, in many smaller Protestant churches.

The Palestrina legend[edit]

It is widely reported that Giovanni Pierluigi da PalestrinaWikipedia's W.svg single-handedly saved polyphonic singing (at least within Catholicism) during the Council of Trent.[note 11] However, no total ban was ever seriously considered,[note 12] and while Palestrina did write a Mass that was performed at one of the council's meetings (and for the pope, to boot), this was well after the consideration of the proposed canon on music that seems to have fueled the legend. All that said, he was a composer of some renown in his day, his writings were pretty substantially influential on later Church music, and the Mass in question remains well-studied.

Music-related quackery and foolishness[edit]

Plenty of people spend large amounts of time and money pursuing the absolute most-perfect sound evah, many getting trapped into Audio woo. Some speculate that this is often done at the expense of actually enjoying the music. There is also the Mozart effect woo - the claim that listening to classical music (especially Mozart) directly increases intelligence.


Backward masking is basically pareidolia meets rock and roll: lots of concerned fundamentalists frothing at the mouth about rock songs which, if played backwards to suitably gullible and primed people, sound like they say things like "my sweet Satan," when in fact they just sound like a record being played backwards. They never seem to find the evil jazz blues rock pop rap whatever the hell they think is the devil's music these days music that says "my sweet Jesus" though. On a related note, some religious fundamentalists oppose many more modern forms of music (often jazz and later, but especially rock and roll) as doing/being the devil's work. This is in spite of the fact that those Bible verses which speak of music-making seem to generally condone it as a worthy means of praising the Lᴏʀᴅ;[14] none speak of musical innovation as being demonic.[note 13] Interestingly, such opposition may have been prefigured in St. Jerome's writings,[15] as well as those of several other early Christian leaders,[16] who opposed adding instruments to the essentially Jewish choral tradition of the baby Church.

Some religious apologists argue that because religion is important to a number of prominent classical composers, religion is necessary to produce great music (or art), ignoring some important facts: that there are plenty of musicians and composers who aren't religious or don't produce religious music, that there exists plenty of fucking awful religious music (Christian rock, anyone? Or Christian rap?!), and that due to the socio-economic standards of the time when much of the great religious music was written, if you wanted to produce music (or visual art, for that matter), religion was a pretty good way of doing so, since the churches had (and still do have) lots of money and resources - he who pays the piper calls the tune. Despite this, it's worth mentioning that a few famous composers were non-religious, remarkable considering the times that they lived in: Verdi, one of the the most popular opera composers, known also for his Messa da Requiem, was an outright atheist, Brahms was an agnostic humanist (he famously removed all references to Jesus in his German Requiem), and so also was Richard Strauss. Even Beethoven was an advocate of the Age of Enlightenment.[17]

Of course, Christians aren't the only ones guilty of music-related foolishness; Ayatollah Khomeini famously banned music from being broadcast in Iran period, because it was "no different than opium."[18] A smattering of other Islamic clerics have issued fatwas on music, which express a variety of positions, ranging from declaring music strictly haram to considering it permitted; several take a decidedly sexist slant, imposing restrictions on female singers but not their male counterparts.

Sound healing[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Sound healing

Sound healing is alternative medicine's answer to music: the belief that certain sounds can induce spiritual awakening or some other New Age-y effects. Sounds can and do have psychological effects, but not in the same way as the sound healers think. Examples:

  • Leonard Horowitz (also an AIDS conspiracy theorist and antivaxxer), who invented a set of "solfeggio frequencies" based on numerological manipulation of the digits 1 through 9; he goes on to proclaim how 528 Hz is "central to Divine creation" and will cause a revolution in the music industry.[note 14][19]
  • Binaural beats are an interesting auditory illusion, marketed by woo-peddlers as ways to alter brain states.[20]
  • Claims that equal temperamentWikipedia's W.svg negatively affects people's souls because it's impure. While there are quite valid rants to be directed against the "let's approximate ALL the keys!" approach,[note 15] this is not one of them.
  • Taking orbital frequencies of the planets, transposing them by (many) octaves into audible ranges, and claiming the results put you in harmony with the Solar System.[21][note 16]

Unlike a lot of other alternative medicine, sound healing is not entirely useless. Its concepts can be reused for artistic rather than pseudoscientific purposes; composers such as George CrumbWikipedia's W.svg have experimented with mysticism and numerology in music without being particularly insane.

See also[edit]


  1. OMGZ I don't think that was what the composer intended1111!!!oneoneelventy11one!!111one!!!11!!
  2. What exactly is a dissonance can vary by source though; while some medieval sources classified the perfect fourth as a dissonance, virtually no modern source does; likewise, while many modern sources regard the tritone as unambiguously dissonant, others argue that in some contexts it can be quite consonant. It must be noted also that expectations and classifications will vary by style of music; many chords common in jazz would be regarded as howling dissonances if they came amidst, say, a Taylor Swift song.
  3. British composer Mike Batt found himself the subject of a plagiarism action for including the song, "A One Minute Silence," on an album for his classical rock band The Planets.[2]
  4. It should be noted that those last two sentences are extremely generalised, but a better and more precise description is beyond the scope of a single article on music.
  5. Oh yes, do you really want us to link it so she can bankroll more singles?
  6. See our awesome article listing the greatest liberal songs.
  7. Yes, part of Finlandia became in essence a folk tune, but no, it was not based on existing folk music.[8]
  8. Yes, some of the most notable composers of that school were Jewish, but not all.
  9. Scored for twelve woodwinds, sixteen brass, a large string section, timpani and bass drum, and a double choir.
  10. For example, Mahler's Symphony No. 8, sometimes known as the Symphony of a Thousand, is scored for at least twenty-two woodwinds, twenty-four brass, an enlarged string section (including four harps), an organ, various percussion, a double choir, and a children's choir.
  11. At least one denizen of the RatWik heard this story in a college-level music class.
  12. Composers were, however, encouraged to make certain that the text of their works was more easily intelligible, as many polyphonic masses of the era suffered from problems with the discernability of their words, and things "lascivious or impure" were banned from sacred music, although this ban was not strictly or universally observed.
  13. The closest thing would be Daniel 3:4-7, where music is used to call people to worship Nebuchadnezzar's idol.
  14. Interestingly, this would be the exact frequency of a C if one were to use a five-limit just tuning on A = 440 Hz.
  15. For example, you (and your ear/brain) would expect notes a major third apart to have a nice consonant 5:4 (or 1.25:1) ratio of frequencies; in twelve-tone equal temperament the ratio is approximately 5.03968:4, or 1.25992:1. The audible difference is not even so subtle as the numerical comparison makes it seem.
  16. Why is this considered harmony and not unison, as a note and its octave would normally be? WHO KNOWS?


  1. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=33945288
  2. http://archives.cnn.com/2002/SHOWBIZ/Music/09/23/uk.silence/
  3. https://simple.wikiquote.org/wiki/Louis_Armstrong
  4. http://downlode.org/Etext/zappa.html
  5. From the National Security Archives
  6. "In the Hall of the Mountain King"
  7. Joe Cocker' version of "With A Little Help From My Friends" (Lennon/McCartney)
  8. Program notes from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
  9. http://www.splcenter.org/Music-Money-and-Hate
  10. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/03/17/amazon-paypal-and-spotify-inadvertently-fund-white-supremacists-heres-how/
  11. Quoted by the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff in "Sacred Music at the Service of Truth"
  12. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11297a.htm
  13. See Vatican II's Sacrosanctum Concilium, Chapter VI
  14. Ephesians 5:18-19, Psalm 33:1-3 (explicitly supports singing "a new song"), Psalm 92:1-4, etc.
  15. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001107.htm
  16. https://books.google.com/books?id=UVMNAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA55&lpg=PA55&dq=St.+Jerome+lyre&source=bl&ots=TGv4FqDGs5&sig=UO8BMXEJ2WLsmvopi6p4tUCMVkU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CDwQ6AEwB2oVChMIxKW8lOaKyQIVxjUmCh3I4wfn#v=onepage&q=St.%20Jerome%20lyre&f=false
  17. http://hollowverse.com/ludwig-van-beethoven/
  18. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9D04E5D61239E732A25757C2A9619C946890D6CF
  19. He wrote a book. It's a riot.
  20. Skeptoid on binaural beats
  21. http://www.transcendentaltones.com/index.php?option=com_virtuemart&page=shop.browse&category_id=6&Itemid=105&TreeId=1