We all know what music sounds like. Right?
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?
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?
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!