Sounds of music

What makes a sound musical?

We all know what music sounds like. Right?

Obvious Musicality

Piano and classical sound

Of course, we do. It's only when we start to try to define which sounds are musical that we get into unmapped territory. There are countless characteristics that make the stuff we hear more than just noise. But trying to describe what separates symphonic sound from cacophony is much more challenging.

When listening to an orchestra play Mozart, Shostakovich, or even Schoenburg, we know we are hearing music. These sounds are clearly identifiable while being incredibly diverse. The cello, French horn, oboe, and so on have such distinctive timbres. Anyone listening with attention will quickly notice how different the sonorities of these instruments are. So, is it the ability to create pitch, melody, and harmony that defines their categorization? Or perhaps the timbral character that makes a sound musical?

Or Not

World musical sound

Well, this would potentially exclude drums, percussion, and other unpitched musical instruments. Don't get me wrong: it's not that there's no pitch at all to a drum. Clearly, many great percussionists have created melodious features with their drums.

But percussion reminds us of the importance of rhythm in music. Without the beat, where would pop, rock, and dance music be? At the same time, it's not just drums that create the rhythmic character of songs and symphonies. Every instrument in a band or orchestra can be the timekeeper in any musical moment.

A Sound Idea

Some might suggest that musical sound is defined by the score. However, this is far too limiting for music as we know it. We've heard many popular songwriters and musical performers say that they cannot read music (meaning a musical score).

Add to this the ideas of improvisational music and there's no way this will be the defining moment for the sound of music. Improvising means veering away from “the charts” and spontaneously create (though often with a set of rules or forms) something of your own. So, we really don't have a defining characteristic for what makes a sound musical.

What's Up, Sounds?

Listen. Hear.

If the defining characteristics of musical sounds are not pitch, timbre, rhythm and beat, what is it? This is the cool part, folks! It's us. Basically, it's our ears (though I truly believe we listen with several of our senses). It's how we hear the sound.

And that, my friends, is what makes music so cool. Without the listener, the song doesn't exist as a song — it might as well stay in the imagination of the songwriter. Without our ears and other senses, a symphony almost need not be played.

So, how about it: there's plenty of music to listen to. I'd be honored if you'd take a minute to listen to a track or two while you're here. And thanks!

9 thoughts on “What makes a sound musical?”

  1. Really interesting post, Stan, and was “kinda” working my way to your same conclusion – it’s us! We recognize and define music, though even animals and birds respond to it, even if not consciously identifying it as so. There’s not much mistaking when birds are chirping and when there’s a contest for a scrap of good food, lol! There was an old yoga meditation teacher I knew back in the 70s in Houston, and his slant was that the universe “is” vibration, and we’re bringing it to consciousness. Nature tries, bringing us to this point, now if we can just not beat ourselves w/foolishness

      1. Hmmmm. I can see the button and many have been clicking it. Have you tried the WordPress app on the iPad? That’s usually what I use to like the posts of other folks I follow (including your site!).

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