What is music?

what is music? We are all aware that music and "atmosphere" go together. We might put on relaxing music for a quiet romantic dinner, but listen to something livelier while doing some physical work or exercise, or when out socialising in larger groups. You might have heard of farmers who increase production by playing music to their animals, recent studies showing that listening to fast music whilst driving increases the rate of car accidents, and the Mozart Effect claims to increase intelligence. While some claims may be exaggerated, there is no denying that music can suggest and affect our state of mind. But the reason for this is very mysterious. Why should organised sounds affect us to such an extent that billions are spent annually making music?

music professor We're sure some professors may have written volumes about this topic but don't worry, we won't! We just think that it might be useful to share some thoughts on this question, since it is so relevant to other explorations on the mfiles web-site. We think that the main aspects of music which influence us can be summed up as:

  • Tempo & Rhythm
  • Pitch, Melody & Harmony
  • Pattern recognition
  • Culture aspects

Tempo & Rhythm

Music tends to have a steady tempo to it, often measured in "beats per minute". A simple observation is that most music is in the range of 50-200 beats per minute, the same as the extreme range of our heartbeats. In general too, the tempo of a piece of music roughly equates with the heartbeat associated with the corresponding physical state or emotion which the music suggests.

heart beat Anything in the range 60-80 beats per minute is calm and relaxed, less than 60 is often very relaxed, introspective or even depressed. 80-100 is moderately alert and interested. 100 upwards is increasingly lively, excited or agitated and, since we crave some degree of excitement from our entertainment, 80-120 is quite a common tempo, and even 120-160 is common in some energetic situations. We're not saying that there is an absolute correspondence between heartbeat and music tempo, but there is a strong degree of suggestion between the two. Music moves in time and suggests movement, and we tend to associate music unconsciously with movements made by our bodies while talking, walking, running, dancing, riding, etc.

To illustrate this, note that marches are in duple time (2/4 or 4/4 ) giving that "left, ..., left, ..., left, right, left, ..." feel. In contrast to this 3/4 time seems to completely lack that left-right feel, and we therefore frequently associate it with circular motions, like swirling waltzes, or roundabouts at the fun-fair. Music suggesting a horse galloping or a train ride is fast with more complicated rhythms representing 4 legs or several sets of wheels.

a horse galloping This latter example illustrates that while tempo sets the basic pace of music, there are many ways in which composers can alter and adjust this using different note patterns or rhythms. Syncopation is a familiar example with notes unexpectedly landing "off the beat", which adds complexity and interest to a basic beat, often turning a simple march tempo into a jaunty swagger (see Ragtime). The rhythm of music can qualify the repetitive nature of the underlying beat by suggesting more frequent or less frequent movement. Even though the tempo of a piece of music might be slow and relaxed, a high frequency of notes can suggest a degree of contained excitement within that relaxed state. But the combination of Tempo and Rhythm has an immediate almost physical impact on our perceptions.

There is also a strong degree of correspondence between tempo and emotions and this is evident from everyday metaphors. In the English language, not only do we talk about "beats" of the heart and "beats" in music, but we also say that something is "upbeat" when it is happy and positive or "downbeat" when something is sad or depressed.

Pitch, Melody & Harmony

elephants make deep sounds and mice make high-pitched sounds Lots of things make noises but in general bigger objects make deeper noises, whether long columns of air or long strings in a musical instrument, big chests, large animal footsteps (like an elephant), or simply large objects generally banging together. Conversely, smaller instruments, short columns of air, short strings or tight strings, small animals (like a mouse) or objects make higher pitched noises. We tend to find large things more threatening than smaller things (part of our evolutionary heritage) so pitch on its own can affect how we percieve sounds and music, providing a basic scale from "high = light, happy, carefree, funny" to "low = dark, sad, ominous, serious". So Pitch on its own affects our perceptions.

a melody of 3 notes A Melody consists of a linear sequence of tones. A good melody (even if it doesn't have words) is often one that we could hum, sing or whistle. In general we prefer melodies where the tones are reasonably close together, with a variety of nice harmonious intervals between them, and a rhythm similar to that of speech. The notes should not be in an extreme range and shouldn't have large awkward jumps between them. The notes should also have durations which are not too short and not too long (often in the range of 0.1 second to 2 seconds). In this way melodies are very similar to sentences that our brains are designed to speak and listen to, although instrumental musical can stretch those boundaries a little. Different types of melodies also help to convey different emotions, for example chromatic melodies or melodies belonging to a minor scale are often seen as darker than melodies from a major scale (see the section on harmony below). Research has also shown that the emotions of melodies mirror the emotions of speech. Just as sad people tend to talk in a monotone, sad music seems to move in very small intervals within a narrow range. In contrast happy people talk using a greater tonal range, and happy music follows this pattern using larger intervals over a wider range.

Pythogoras studied harmonics in music Unusual things happen when we combine tones of different pitches, called Harmony. Some combinations go well together and some don't. Those notes which combine well seem to be close to what's called the "harmonic sequence". The harmonic sequence is the completely natural set of different notes produced by something vibrating, and is most easily demonstrated musically using brass instruments. The lowest notes of this series are like those produced by a "natural" (without keys) instrument such as a bugle, and include octaves, fifths and thirds. These are just the notes which go well together to make "harmonious" sounds like major chords. On a stringed instrument you can demonstrate the lower notes of the harmonic series by playing the strongest "harmonics" of the strings which divide the length into fractions like halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, etc. These harmonics are always present to varying degrees within all notes, and their proportions help to give sounds their unique "timbre" or colour or tone.

without valves a brass instrument sounds the notes of the harmonic series A minor chord differs from a major one by using a "minor third" interval. The minor third is further up the harmonic sequence and therefore sounds remote from the original note, which goes to make the minor chord sound darker and less natural. Other combinations of notes are even more remote on this sequence and can give rise to musical clashes or "dischords". It is worth observing at this point that our equal-tempered method of dividing a music octave into 12 identical intervals produces some notes which are only approximately the exact values of the harmonic series, but nevertheless close enough to deceive most ears. Our long exposure to music based on these 12 notes means that they sound normal anyway.

Pattern Recognition

It is a matter of life and death to most animals that they can focus on important things and ignore unessential ones. Some of this might be instinctive and some learned by experience but at its root it is all about recognising and responding appropriately to certain patterns, maybe weather conditions or vegetation that indicate a good source of food, or shapes or sounds that might indicate danger from a predator.

the human brain is excellent at recognising patterns Human brains in particular seem to have a highly developed and flexible pattern recognition capability. This aspect of our intelligence has allowed us to adapt to many different climates and conditions, make the best use of available shelter and resources, and to build language and culture to communicate to each other and succeeding generations. It also allows us to appreciate and to create pattern for its own sake in the form of visual and aural Arts. The simplest form of pattern is just repetition. If we see something familiar, then it triggers memories and related thoughts, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. The repetition needn't be exact, but "similar" enough to trigger that familiarity.

we recognise musical patterns just as easily as visual patterns Translating this into musical terms, if we hear a similar sound or group of sounds twice, then it clicks with our brains and we recognise this as a Pattern or an association. The pattern is often fairly simple, consisting of a single note or a few notes in sequence. If the sequence of notes is too long, we will struggle to remember them. Conversely if we hear a short sequence of notes repeated many times then this becomes too boring (part of the background which we tend to ignore) and we only notice when there is a change to the sequence. You might have a picture hanging on your wall, but it is so familiar that you don't really notice it any more (until someone moves it or removes it). In the same way, we can block out repetitive noise (road traffic or next door's lawn mower) but immediately notice if it suddenly stops.

Some music is designed to be in the background, unobtrusively creating "atmosphere" or ambience in a restaurant, shop, lift or other public place. Such music (or "muzak") should be ideally of a common volume, timbre and consistency, in other words predictable or "bland"! (It can be annoying if such music is too loud or otherwise obtrusive when you are trying to think or hold a conversation.) Other music is designed to grab your attention, by being loud or otherwise having an immediately distinctive pattern. These two types of music are often played together so that a memorable melody is distinctive and stands out from a simple accompaniment of chords and repeating percussion. Melody and accompaniment is like foreground and background in a visual scene.

seeing musical patterns In many ways writing music is trying to find a good balance between repetition (pattern) and novelty (not conforming to a pattern). If there is too much pattern then it becomes the norm, our brains then "tune it out" and it becomes part of the background while we turn our attention onto other things. If the music changes and something new arises, it will grab our attention again. But too much novelty is hard to relate to. Music which is ever changing without an immediately recognisable pattern can seem like just random "white noise" and again we "tune it out" as being uninteresting and relegate it to the background. Some composers have experimented with ways of generating musical patterns which might be mathematically perfect, but if our ears don't notice these patterns the music becomes an academic exercise and fails to move the average listener.

Musical patterns help us recognise different instruments or singers in a piece of music. Patterns of different types also give rise to figures, phrases, themes, melodies, forms and styles. These structures help musicians to provide both recognition and variety in music, and optimise the listener's experience by providing works that seems consistent and balanced yet with interesting features to make the experience enjoyable. Sometimes people listen with concentration to music and become involved with it, but at other times the music is playing in the background (see Film Music) or accompanying another activity. Nevertheless the unconscious experience can have an affect on us, largely due to Pattern Recognition.

Cultural Aspects

So far, based upon tempo, pitch and pattern, we have a Natural basis for some of the foundations for music and how it affects us. Indeed it is quite possible that aliens on another planet who also respond to sounds, might also share some of these basics and understand aspects of our music or us theirs. But there is no denying that many aspects of music appreciation and music psychology are learned by repeated exposure (both passive where children are exposed to various types of music, and active where individuals seek out types of music that interest them.)

castanets, guitars and flamenco foot stamping are associated with the music of Spain The Cultural aspects of music are built upon these basic foundations, and evolve over time into complex conventions which are passed on from generation to generation. The relative isolation of different communities during this musical development mean that they are likely to evolve in different directions. Then later cross-fertilisation between different cultures can lead to the introduction of new elements which are initially molded to fit the adopting culture and then evolve further. With increased means of communication across the globe we now have some familiarity with the music of different cultures and can perhaps recognise the region of origin, though there is no denying that many old forms of world music are being "westernised". There's even a name for the mixing of different music styles or genres. It is often called "fusion", a word which originally meant applying jazz methods to other styles, but now more generally means any type of genre mixing.

sketch of jazz musicians As well as recognising music of different countries, we also recognise lots of different styles of music like Latin dance styles, Blues music, Classical, Rock and Roll, Viennese waltzes, Hymns, R&B, Techno, military Marches, Ragtime or Jazz. The distinguishing features of these styles might include particular rhythms, tempi, themes, instruments or music structures or combinations of these. The culture of music is such that we share a common set of associations with different music styles, linking some with parts of the world, certain periods in history, or certain groups of people. In some cases this might be amazingly closely defined sub-styles of music which to people of another "culture" might all sound "the same", but sometimes it can be as simple as a certain instument or rhythm being enough to suggest the style. Because of these associations we might be drawn towards or away from certain styles of music, such that we may enjoy Tibetan music because it is linked to our faith, or perhaps we hate Rock and Roll because our parents love it. So as well as a large set of cultural music associations, we have some very individual associations (maybe even a favourite song, singer or composer) which alter our musical perceptions and appreciation.

Conclusions and further information

loudspeaker and music notes We haven't set out to define music and don't believe that it is possible. But looking at some of the parameters which combine to form music, we observe that some of these are quite natural in origin, coming from the natural world of sound production, some stem from our bodies physically and the natural movements, sounds and rhythms inherent in them, and others from the way our brains analyse data. These at a very basic level tell us something about why music affects us so. On top of this, on a more complex level, there is a whole host of cultural developments and conventions that we have constructed. See our section on film music cliches and decide which of these have a natural basis, or which are simply cultural conventions. Also see our article on Humour in Music which explores some of these questions in a light-hearted way.

If you are interested in the psychology of music, there are many reference books which you might want to check out. Philip Dorrell has written a book on the subject called "What is Music?" whose central theory states that "music is a super-stimulus for a hitherto unknown aspect of speech perception". The book goes on to explain many different facets of music perception. Much more information about the book can be found at whatismusic.info.

The monthly science magazine Scientific American featured an article in 2004 called Music and the Brain how different brain regions are involved in interpreting music, and how the functions of these regions change with the experience and training undertaken by musicians. And in 2009 the same magazine published some research on ways in which music affects our emotions, called Why Does Music Make Us Feel?, and again in 2012 some research was reported explaining why Music Intervals Sway Moods.

More recently Scientific American reported on research showing that when people sing together, their heartbeats begin to synchronise (article dated 8th July 2013). Then further research showed that it's not just the beat that affects a walker's pace, different types of music affect stride length even if the music is at the same tempo. In general louder or more agressive music seemed to create longer stride length (article dated 18th July 2013).

The weekly science magazine New Scientist carried a number of articles about the emotional effects of music in its edition of 29th November 2003 under the umbrella title of "The Power of Music", including an interview with the Greek composer Vangelis.

The BBC News web-site reports on studies that show Classical Music is effective when used to deter youths from congregating in places which might might lead to antisocial behaviour.

This video shows that a cockatoo has a sense of rhythm, matching the beat when the tempo changes. Researchers who examined such videos on youtube speculate that the sense of rhythm is linked to parts of the brain used to process and imitate sounds - a talent which many birds have.

This clever video is about the "12 Tone" system of creating melodies but it touches on many of elements discussed in this article, particular pattern recognition and cultural expectations.

To explore research related to the possible impact of music on brain function and development including the "Mozart Effect", start at the following sites: MozartEffect.com.