Music, aesthetics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M030-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved December 09, 2021, from

1. Defining music

Perhaps the very first question in musical aesthetics is ‘What is music?’, understood as a demand for a definition of music in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions that help demarcate music from noise, silence and nonmusical sounds. Clearly, music is organized sound at least, though not all organized sounds are music, for example political speeches. Attempts to add the basic elements of music such as melody, harmony and rhythm as part of the necessary and sufficient conditions also fail, for not all music has melody, for instance some African drumming; nor does all music have harmony, as Gregorian chant and much non-Western music; nor does all music have rhythm: some atmospheric modern works for synthesizer or organ consist entirely of a long cluster chord.

Nor will it do to define music in terms of organized sound meant for aesthetic appreciation, for not all music is aesthetic or intended as such, for instance a lot of avant-garde music; and some poetry is meant to be recited aloud and aesthetically appreciated in part for its sonic and ‘musical’ qualities, but is not music, strictly speaking. Defining music in terms of organized sound that expresses and arouses mental states also fails, for not all music expresses and arouses, as with some Baroque keyboard music, nor is all music so intended by its creators.

An adequate definition of music must focus on music’s sonic qualities, on music as music. One notable attempt, accordingly, suggests that music is sounds humanly organized or arranged to enrich experience through active engagement (such as performing, listening, dancing and so on) with the sounds regarded primarily as sounds (Levinson 1990). Such a definition could be expanded to cover possible music created by intelligent extraterrestrials or computers, as sounds organized by humans or beings sufficiently human-like in cognitive and other respects. It also follows that while the sounds of nature such as bubbling brooks might be heard as if they are music, they are not music proper.

A related issue concerns John Cage’s controversial 4′33″, a work that instructs the performer(s) to be silent for the duration of the work. On the definition just mentioned, Cage composed a musical work, albeit a limiting case of music, in organizing or framing the sounds as having such things as a specific duration, instrumentation and three movements. Others, however, deny that Cage organized sounds for they claim, amongst other things, that Cage did not exclude any sounds as ambient, as other musical works typically do, and so maintain that Cage’s work is not music but rather theatrical or else performance art (Davies 2003).

Citing this article:
Trivedi, Saam. Defining music. Music, aesthetics of, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M030-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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