Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do…….. Who can ever forget the refrain from the evergreen Hollywood movie, “The Sound of Music” that was a hallmark film and listed among the top all-time classics in the movies section? The film reflects the life of an Austrian Naval officer who brings up his family of seven motherless children in a strict, military-like atmosphere at home devoid of any love or emotion. When music enters their lives through the nanny hired to look after them, their lives are enriched with love, compassion and emotion.
Such is the power of music. And that gives rise to the inevitable question, “What is music?”
It may be difficult to put together a standard definition for music which may seem too technical or mechanical leaving out the more gentle qualities that music possesses. It is broadly an art form and for many people, music is to them what they believe or think is music. What is music to one set of ears may just be sound to another! The ‘sound of music’ is what defines it ultimately. In ordinary terms, what constitutes noise can be converted into music using a set of rhythmic beats or melodies to create a harmonious pattern. To create such music, there isn’t the need for complex musical instruments; even everyday items like spoons, pans or ladles can contribute to producing lilting music if a pattern of rhythmic beats are followed.
As vast as the encompassing qualities of music are, so are the definitions and terms to describe it. And so, we cannot attempt to capture or classify all aspects of music into known categories because the qualities of music are defined largely by melody, pitch, rhythm, timbre etc. Where in the days of ancient civilizations music was scored mostly through tools using which a pattern of sounds was created, today music is created electronically.
What is music – is it just sound?
The quick explanation is that music comprises sounds put together that we may find pleasing to the ears as a form of creative art and entertainment. The most original form of music is the human voice that can create sounds in various ranges; in nature, there are several variations of musical sounds from the chirping of the birds to the gentle flowing sound of water. The music that comes from musical instruments is the sound produced by them in tune to the methods used for playing these instruments. Can we therefore answer the question, “what is music” by simply saying that music is just sound? That may be a rather simplistic answer but music is far more complex than that
The etymology of the word ‘music’ originates from ‘mousike’, a Greek term that means “art of the Muses”. Muses, as we know are goddesses of various art forms such as dance, music, poetry etc; even modern-day artists liken their impressions and paintings to muses who catch their fancy. In Greek mythology we find the mention of nine muses who collectively defined the arts and were the inspiration of many creative endeavors.
As we saw earlier, the foremost aspects of almost all forms of music are:
- Dynamics – the softness or loudness
- Pitch – the high and low notes
- Rhythm – the sequential structure of beats, sounds and silences in between
- Tunes – made by the pitch of the notes
- Timbre – the distinct quality of musical sounds from person to person or from instrument to instrument
What is music – does it define history and culture?
Even the ancient and the earliest civilizations made music. In the absence of musical instruments, man imitated sounds from nature using patterns, repetition and tonality to echo them. These were probably used for purposes like luring and hunting animals or as forms of entertainment.
In all likelihood, the earliest rhythmic beats or ‘percussion’ involved hand-clapping or hitting stones and objects together to create distinct patterns. Thus, the percussion is termed the second man-made music. Archaeological finds in many regions have unearthed objects that date back to the Paleolithic Age that could have served as a musical instrument as well as a functional tool. We may not know much about the music of our ‘cavemen’ ancestors because there was no way to write down or record the music but old paintings which have been discovered or unearthed in archaeological finds depict several musical instruments being played by people. The earliest piece of music that was discovered relates to the Hurrian language which was spoken around Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) dating back to 1500 BC!
The third in the segment of music making instruments were the wind instruments or more specifically, the woodwind instrument. This followed the discovery by primitive men that a dry hollow bone or piece of wood made a certain sound when air was blown into it in a certain way.
Given that the earliest woodwind instruments go back nearly 43,000 years, long before the advent of farming and domestication of animals, they are without doubt the first musical tools created by man.
The history of music is slotted into several periods down the centuries. From the Prehistoric and Ancient to the medieval music of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical and the Romantic eras, music has fascinated and sustained mankind as much as it has evolved through the years. Modern music, as we know it from the early 1900s is still searching for a distinct identity because new ideas, new instruments, new forms, new sounds and new harmonies are still being discovered from time to time. Today, electronic music has taken the place of many traditional musical instruments; computers, electric guitars, keyboards and other electronic music ensembles are able to produce vastly different musical notes and sounds.
What is music – is it a tool of art and science?
We mentioned earlier that human voice was probably the first and original musical instrument; this is because the voice box or the larynx is likened to a wind instrument. Vocal music is therefore the first man-made music. Scientifically, this theory has been proven by the discovery in 1983 of the oldest known ‘Neanderthal hyoid bone’; the ‘hyoid’ in the human throat supports the voice box leading scientists to believe that Neanderthal man used a form of sound or language to communicate. We do know that birds and animals make their own kind of music; many species of birds have particular sound calls and musical notes to find partners, to communicate with chicks or to warn of danger and monkeys and other animals use rhythmic patterns of tapping tree branches and logs and beat their chests to show authority. Don’t elephants trumpet and whales sing?
Many aspects of music appreciation are learned and built over time through repeated exposure, both active and passive; these are the foundations on which the cultural aspect of music rests. The cross-fertilization of music between various cultures leads to the introduction and evolution of newer elements which are molded and adapted to the culture it represents. Increased modes of communication and technology have helped us understand the music of different cultures and become familiar with them. The culture of music creates common associations between different styles and genres linking certain regions of the world to certain periods in human history and to certain groups of people.
The awareness that music creates an ‘atmosphere’ is known to all. Choosing to create the atmosphere depends on the kind of music and the setting – soothing music while doing household chores, relaxing music for the daily commute, soulful music for a romantic date, funky music for a physical workout, jazz or classical music for a social event and so on. Even without direct choice, unobtrusive music played in the background as in a restaurant, office area or public space also helps to create an ‘atmosphere or ambience’ that ensures connectivity and continuity. The underlying effect of music on the human body and mind cannot be dismissed without taking cognizance of established facts that further add to the mysterious and magical nature of music; removing anxiety, reducing stress, alleviating pain and instilling a sense of wellbeing.
Because music is an integral part of our daily lives, it is not surprising that research studies have reinforced scientific theories about its use in treating medical conditions; hence the term Music Therapy. Music by itself has numerous positive and therapeutic effects on humans and many cultures have adapted the musical notes and tones to create healing properties that have contributed significantly in neurological disorders, severe disablement and injuries, recovery from prolonged illnesses and complex surgeries, etc. While many different genres of music can be adapted to treating different conditions, the single-most effective type of music has been the classical variety. For example, we have read about the ‘Mozart Effect’ on infants and adults that has clearly shown to enhance creativity, motivate faster learning and improve IQ levels substantially! Music has also been used extensively in producing altered states of consciousness such as mesmerism and hypnotism that reveal hidden emotional states and responses to situations. These uses have allowed science to learn more and more about the human brain and mind and uncover areas of receptiveness and involvement.
In short, music is a tool that allows for better quality of cognitive functioning and brain development, emotional and spiritual development, communicative abilities and motor skills etc. Besides its impact of mankind, music extends its creative and soothing influence to plant life and animal life; there are various instances and examples of plants responding to music and animals such as dogs showing a keen preference for certain music genres – e.g. most dog breeds become completely calm and soothed when classical music tunes are played. Need further proof of the Mozart Effect?
Finally, what is music?
Music is the combination of sounds, rhythms, notes and tunes. It is the amalgamation of creativity and expression of moods; it is also the sum of all languages and it is a process of therapy. The many facets of music encompass aesthetic, emotional, mental, physical, social and spiritual attributes. It is a timeless art, it is a form of creative expression and it bridges gaps and closes not only geographical boundaries but emotional ones too.
Neuroscientists believe that music is rated as ‘the most complicated sound’ that the human brain processes. For a long time, it was rather difficult to understand why our brains would evolve such complex and vastly advanced tools to create sounds and enjoy them. Now, after extensive research and studies we are able to understand that the human auditory system can process sound at enormous levels of complexity. Therefore, music becomes the highest refinement of that complexity. As to why such complex tools are created to produce the music, the answer lies again in the brain’s innate capacity to assess, generate and create new ideas. In evolutionary science, music is a vital link in the process of human evolution and the survival of the human species.
A quick glance at the Thesaurus to check the definition of music includes those combinations of sounds created by human voices and made by musical instruments to produce an art, a series of pleasing sounds to the ear, a musical composition and much more.
It also defines those sounds that occur in nature – any harmonious, pleasing, soothing and sweet sound that the brain understands as a musical pattern – for e.g. the sound of rolling waves, the rustling of leaves, the gentle falling of raindrops, the tinkling of water in a stream, birdsong and so much more. Therefore, essentially music is sound created through the mix of rhythm, melody, pattern, pitch, tempo etc.
To successful define “what is music?” is an impossible task because what is music or musical to one set of ears can just be plain sound to another! Rather than coming up with a definition, it’s wiser to understand the concept of music. At best music is understood as ‘the purposeful organization of sound’ or ‘humanly organized sound’.
And therein lays the paradox. Because while we can easily say that music is a tool or form of communication, it cannot be described in non-musical terms. However, music has helped us understand our history and the human experience in a way that images and words cannot, especially in times where transmissions of written history have been ruptured by violent occurrences and events.
Music lovers the world over are of the unanimous view that music can only be appreciated if we try not to analyze, define or imagine it to be a tool. Music is magical, music is powerful; it can sell anything from clothes to cars, eggs to electronics and homes to holidays besides strengthening societies and governments, religious orders and creating mass changes. Because music has the unique quality to convey memory, it can remind us of events, places and people in happy as well as sad contexts. It is therefore also a mirror of the world we live in, not just reflecting the culture but also becoming a driving factor in creating that culture.