What Is Music?

Posted: May 11, 2014 in Essay's.

Presentation1 What is music?

What Is Music?


A brief insight to the history of sound, its journey of evolution and understanding of its vital corrolations to reality as a science, a remedy? Also how it’s understanding has become a vital part in understanding laws of the universe.

Music as we know it today has evolved from southern Germany as far back as 40,000 years ago where the ‘’oldest bone-flute to date’’ was discovered in 2008. (Owen, J. 2009, p1) Around 590bc laws of music were to become understood as more of a science and with due credit to Pythagoras it took a revolutionary turn of understanding during the era of the Ancient Greeks.

Pythagoras was known as a thinker, a radicle modernist of his time, he was born around 580bc and died around 500bc. Modernism is a term broadly used as it can describe thought processes, a person’s character or a particular group of cultural ways that evolve and change with the movement or period of time itself. We tend to divide time over this concept and name them pre/post modernism. It’s a little difficult to give this pre-modernist a specific title, as his studies were a variation of the most contemporary subject matters of his day. Astrology, Music and Mathematics were of the highest interest within human society at that time, He was also exploring by asking questions like what is mankind? & What is the universe?’ Pythagoras’s revolutionary philosophy (although personal hardcopies have never been found) had provided substantial evidence that has been adopted and used to pioneer what we know to be western music of today. All of his studies were preserved through the cult brotherhood he had formed before he died. He was very inquisitive to the idea that music has a strong connection with the soul; he titled this study Musica Humana. He also liked to believe that the planets in our galaxy have a particular resonant frequency and that everything has its rightful place in the universe, this study was called Musica Mundana, and the study of live play with stringed and reeded instruments was collectively called ‘Musica Instrumentalis’.


”Overall he liked to consider himself as a healer and believed that music can have a remedy for every illness.”

(James, J. 1995 p31)


Alongside his concept of dualism, one of Pythagoras’ most profound discoveries with in music theory was the relationship that harmonic intervals have with mathematics. (James, J. 1995 p32) It is said that Pythagoras was walking past a blacksmiths where he heard the sound of three different sized hammers striking the steel anvils making different pitched sounds. He then went inside to

investigate and found that the hammers were weighted 12lb 6lb then 3lb, which encouraged him to understand that some how, laws of mathematics must be responsible for the variation in sound. He went on to investigate further and built the infamous monochord, an instrument of one string and by changing the length of the strings bridge, a little like frets on a guitar of today, his study became responsible for theorizing what we know as an octave and  the harmonic 4th and harmonic 5th. Luigi Russolo, a post-modernist say’s that Pythagoras literally systematized music mathematically. (Russolo, L. 1913, p2)

Later on the church explored this tuning method in depth as writing music was reserved for the upper class or those under the authority of the newly formed religion. In the 7th, 8th, and 9th century when the Gregorian chants were said to be performances for God, musical chords and scales were still being discovered and perfected around this time and the church had forbid a certain collection of these notes inside the octave called the Tristan Chord, this was said to be the chord of the devil because of its deterring & unholy sound.


On the turning of the 19th century Luigi Russolo a famous futurist composer and innovative ‘ post-modern thinker’ of the late 1800’s ran with the baton of music evolution and explored what he called ‘The Art of Noises.’ In this text he studied and brought to attention the general noises of daily life. He starts by exploring the idea that the early earth was almost silent apart from the organic sounds of Mother Nature, like the wind blowing through the trees, waterfalls and the sound of the animal kingdom. He then moves on to say that man caused an influx of sounds as a result of the industrial revolution. This included the sound of industry, vehicles, nature and machinery all sounds that were new to the ear then.


In conclusion to The Art of Noises’ Russolo was highlighting the overlooked ‘music’ of Mother Nature and further from his studies he decided to build an orchestra of sounds that are strictly natural and grouping them as follows;


1.     Roars, Thunderings, Explosions, Hissing roars, Bangs, Booms

  1. Whistling, Hissing, Puffing
  2. Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering, Gurgling
  3. ECT…


Although Russolo’s attempt to entertain a crowd with his ‘Noise Orchestra’ went down in history as a dramatic failure resulting in an outburst of violence from his audience, In a round about way his futuristic improvisations were attempting to bring the word ‘music’ to everyday ‘noise’ that is around us all of the time. “As every manifestation of life, is accompanied by noise”. (Russolo, L. 1913, p4) It seems that Russolo’s forward thinking hopes to contribute to the evolution of how we see music or want it to be. This is in essence modernism of his time and contributing the ever-changing answer to the question ‘what is music?’


In 1857 the very first sound recording instrument was patented, invented by a Frenchman called Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville he named it the Phonautograph. It worked by etching sound wave vibrations onto a smoke blackened paper. Later in 1898 Thomas Edison had updated the device to become less of just a lab instrument. Hearing recorded sound for the first time in history drew a line and defined what we know today as ‘Live Music’ as before hearing back these phonograms, society wouldn’t have known anything different than the music that was played ‘live’ in front of them by musicians and their instruments.


The Itonarumori is a ‘natural sound’ machine invented by Luigi Russolo in 1913, his invention complimented the study of music and sound by initiating technology and working parts as equal members of the musical instrumental family. You could say that the invention of these natural sound machines were the birth of musical technology although the show he performed consisting of roars, whistles and thunder cracks from his Itonarumori wasn’t quite a ‘smash hit’ with the public.

After the groundbreaking invention of electricity, current was quickly combined with ideas of making sound and in 1919 a Russian modernist named Leon Theremin created a device known as the Theramin. See it here in action (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcTPRjiCs6s)

1928 saw the birth of sound synthesis as the Theramin contributed to the development of musical technology. Over the course of the 20th century ‘music’ as we knew had rapidly evolved so to define what was very quickly widening in depth of understanding, the study of what music actually was or meant to people became of high interest to scholars across the world. To be a modernist scholar you would be thinking radicle and outside of the box to try and find new ways or meanings behind what we know as ‘the present’ or as ‘common practices’. This involves a great degree of optimism, genius or a sense of ‘looking through rose tinted glasses’ as you would be looking for other possible answers or outcomes in what would generally appear as not there, or not worth the thought of common man or present cultures.

Post-modernist pioneer, John Cage was asking them very questions in his early studies on the turn of the 21st century. Not only did he introduce electro synthesis to the world of ‘music’ he composed and theorized music and invented a new approach to harmonies. Cage’s work has profoundly widened our understanding of what music is by exploring improvisation. Modernist’s are living and constructing their lives on thought processes that involve improvisation at the very outset.

Improvisation in musical terminology is to create ‘off the cuff’ composition or freestyle play, This practice sometimes referred to as ‘free music’, can be used to inspire new material to record, or the ‘freestyle jam’ itself can be performed or recorded and published as artistic expression. Bailey say’s ”Mankind’s first musical performance couldn’t have been anything other than a free improvisation.” (Bailey, 1992, p83).

Like most of the freethinking modernists we’ve had throughout history, on a quest for the new, John Cage identified the very initial thought in the process of improvisation by highlighting what would normally be overlooked as part of the musical art… This was silence.

During his study of ‘Silence’ Cage spent time in an Anechoic Chamber, a room sound proofed so much that you can almost you’re your own thoughts. Whilst talking with the sound engineer at the facility after his experience inside the chamber, he explained that even in the most silent of surroundings he could still hear two tones running inside his head. One high pitched and one low. The reply from the engineer correlated interestingly as he says ‘the high tone is the sound of your neuro-electro circuit and the low tone is the sound of your blood circulating your body. This whole experience had allowed Cage to conclude,


“There is no such thing as an empty space or and empty time. There is always something to hear, Something to see.

In fact, try as we may to make silence, we can not.”

(Cage, 1957, Experimental Music)


Does Cage’s conclusion mean that silence is also music? As music is being determined by a collection of organized pitched sounds travelling across vibrating airwaves, even in the most still and ‘silent’ of environment, sound can still be heard. This also correlates with earlier mentioned Pythagoras’ studies of ‘Musica Humana’. Life as we see it in essence is starting to be seen as wave vibrations and frequencies due to the new discoveries of the atom being 99% space held together by a certain vibration frequency. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3xLuZNKhlY)

As the good book say’s..

In the beginning was the word, and the word was with god’’

(John, 1:1)

 Is word not sound? Given the studies and brief encounter of the musical expressions explored in this text you wouldn’t be too far from a translation like this, ‘the big bang, or the beginning of existence in time and space as we understand it, is a result of sound clash or vibration.’’ Who or what initiated that first ‘word’ or ‘sound’ is an entirely different topic of conversation and boils down to spiritual or religious beliefs however, one thing we can agree on is that the study of what ‘music’ is, is ever changing and over the last century alone has rocketed in variation of understanding, As the universe keeps expanding surely so will our studies and understanding of sound vibrations.

So what is music? Is it defined by a gathering of mathematically structured notes sequenced in an arrangement played by an instrument and artist? Or is it the general sound of daily life, both natural and manmade being disregarded as music as it is being played all around us everyday?

Or is music the very essence of what’s inside of you and everything we know to be real, seeing as we live by the law and order of A Creator’s Symphony of vibration? Over the course of history, ‘music’ and the industry has faced a lot of scrutiny yet flourished from the concepts, discoveries, experiments and studies of great philosopher’s scientist’s and musicians. Never the less, music is still embarking the journey to this day with artists being the challenge of being radicle as they nurture their modernist minds and improvise with new musical technology. It seems music’s past track record has shown to suggest that it will keep on growing


It seems this debate is to be left for you decide as each day, life is still growing and our understanding of our surroundings and even the universe are growing too. So ‘What is music to you?’


Anthony Jon-Paul Fitzgerald.






Bailey, D. 1992 Improvisation, Its Nature and Practice in Music. London: The

British Library National Sound Archive.


Russolo, L 1913. The Art of Noises: Futurist Manifesto. Continuum International Publishing Group.


Cage, J.   1957 Experimental Music.






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