The best advice I can give regarding appreciating music is twofold:  to let yourself be immersed in it and give it your attention (don’t let it be background noise).  That’s it.  Knowing about music and its workings is irrelevant to enjoying it.  No one was born with THE musical gift, not even Mozart (yeah, I know.  Blasphemy).

That said, I know there are many people who want to know about the inner workings of music and there will come a day when you, yes, you, will want to know more.  Today is that day.

Let’s get started.

Disclaimer:  Most of what I write is from the Euro-American perspective.  I know that some ideas about music of other cultures are not the same as those in the Western tradition.

Now let’s get started.

Appreciating the Sound of Music

I understand that there are a few persons in the world who claim to not like music (this baffles me).  When they make this claim, I don’t know if they are assuming that a person is referring to a certain style they don’t like, that they assume that the person to whom he or she is talking will disagree, or they claim this because their religion tells them to and they would rather be thought of as religious than to give in and enjoy the sonic landscape of which humans are capable.  This post isn’t about trying to convince people they’re wrong; that never works.

Music is a special organized sound.  Any instrument can create music.  There is debate on whether silence is music, but I’ll save my opinion for a later post.

First, let’s make sure we understand each other.  I’m going to introduce this music thing, followed by some real basic music guts (or music theory, if you prefer, but not too deep).

Anyone can make music.  That is, anyone can create pleasing combinations of sounds that someone in their culture would hear as music.  So, what is music?  This post will deal with music from a Euro-American perspective.

It doesn’t matter what style it is or whether anyone else likes it; if it is “humanly patterned or organized”[i], it is music.

Let’s be clear about this definition:  not every sound that has a pattern is music unless it is called for by a composer (Beethoven, for example, but also John Coltrane in his improvisations.  John Cage challenged our concept of music; he’s worthy of his own post.  Later).  And this music doesn’t have to be “liked” by everyone to be music; having to like a certain style of music is not a prerequisite for sounds being music.

Additionally, not all sounds that have patterns are music.  For example, the sound of a jack-hammer has a pattern when it is used in construction (so does the sound of the hammers from the guys hammering new shingles on my roof).  If you are walking past this construction, I don’t think anyone would say, “I wonder if Spotify or Pandora” (or whatever) “has this tune?”  Likewise, a baby’s laughter is not music, although it always brings a smile on my face.

Laughter has been written into some music, notably operas (though there is debate on whether it is actually musical), and a jack-hammer can be one of the instruments in a composition, though not a very good one because there is very little control over the musical parameters.

Ah, parameters.  “What,” you may ask, “are these parameters?  Do these parameters exclude the kind of music I like?  You may ask, “Is this some attempt by some snobbish music teacher to prove to me that certain styles of music are inferior to others?”  No.  I mean, really, NO.

The Parameters (Elements) of Music

What does a composer do with sound?  Every composer chooses what sounds she or he will use in their music.  The sounds can range from a diatonic scale (the Western – and “normal” – do-re-mi) to environmental sounds.  Regardless of their choice, two things are certain:

  1. Music does not need to be written down.
  2. Music just has to be heard.

Music can be from some dude improvising on the street on various paint cans or a grand opera performance.

When it is not written down, it is memorized and shared aurally.  There are many examples of persons who can’t read music, but still create memorable tunes.  You might even be a person who doesn’t read music, but does sing (in the shower, in the car, with friends . . .).  Think about how you learned to sing “Happy Birthday” or other common tunes (“Jingle Bells”, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, etc.).  In fact, you probably thought it was easy to learn those tunes.  It was easy because it was social and it was, usually, one tune at a time.  No one put sheet music in front of you and said, “learn this for your sister’s birthday tomorrow.”

When it is written down, composers and performing musicians use a system that has been handed down, expanded, and improved over the centuries.  Whether it is written down or learned aurally, all music shares the same foundation:

  1. Pitch
  2. Intensity
  3. Timbre
  4. Duration

Here is a brief overview of each.

Pitch

Frequency (pitch) is the highness or lowness of a sound.

Check the appendix “Pitch and Timbre Examples” for, well, examples.

Timbre

This is the characteristic quality of a sound.  In other words, it is the quality that allows you to tell the difference between an acoustic guitar and an over-driven guitar, between a flute and a trumpet, between a saxophone and a viola.  Check the above appendix again for examples of these, as well.

Intensity

This is loudness, or, as musicians would say, dynamics: how loud or quiet a sound is.  No further explanation is necessary.  Okay, maybe a little.  Death metal rock is always louder than lullabies.  The beginning of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” is softer than about 1 ½ minutes into it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Szdziw4tI9o).

Duration

This is how long a sound or silence lasts.

For each of these elements of music, we can dig deeper.  For example, when discussing pitch, we can talk about individual pitches, as in a melodic line, or we can talk about the simultaneous sounding of pitches, or chords.  When discussing timbre, we can discuss the sound of a trumpet without a mute or with a variety of mutes.  The sound is still a trumpet’s, but its timbre is affected by the use of a device that is stuck in the bell.  When discussing intensity, we can talk about the degrees of loudness or softness or even the gradual intensification or attenuation of a sound.  For durations, we can talk about beats, rhythms, form, etc.  Music and noise must have all of these.

I will start with pitch first . . . in a future post.

[i] Blacking, John, “How Musical is Man?”, University of Washington Press, 1973.