What Is Music?
Sounds are all around us, from birds chirping and waves lapping against a coastline to cars honking in traffic. But sometimes sounds are put together in purposeful ways to create a specific atmosphere or to express ideas or emotions. Such organized sounds are called music.
Music is a collection of coordinated sound or sounds. Making music is the process of putting sounds and tones in an order, often combining them to create a unified composition. People who make music creatively organize sounds for a desired result, like a Beethoven symphony or one of Duke Ellington's jazz songs. Music is made of sounds, vibrations, and silent moments, and it doesn't always have to be pleasant or pretty. It can be used to convey a whole range of experiences, environments, and emotions.
Almost every human culture has a tradition of making music. Examples of early instruments like flutes and drums have been found dating back thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians used music in religious ceremonies. Many other African cultures have traditions related to drumming for important rituals. Today, rock and pop musicians tour and perform around the world, singing the songs that made them famous. All of these are examples of music.
Terms Related to Music
To better understand how music is made, let's discuss some important musical terms.
If you can sing the tune of a favorite song, you've experienced melody. Melody is the series of coordinated pitches that form the main line of a tune. Think about it as the primary voice in a musical work. When we speak of 'voice' in this way, it might be a human voice or an instrumental one.
When you hear a work, the melody stands out, but sometimes other sounds or voices help support it and make the music more complex. Harmony refers to multiple lines of musical notes that are subordinate to the melody and complement it. You can hear the harmony, but it's not as prominent as the melody. Harmony is often formed by a series of chords, or three or more notes played at the same time.
Another important element of music is rhythm, or the repeated patterns of movement in sound. Basically, rhythm is the placement of sound in time. It involves specific units of sound arranged as beats. Also important to rhythm is the idea of tempo, or the speed at which the beats are performed.
Music also has many terms that describe how it should be played or sung. These include words like allegro, which means quick and lively, and largo, which means slow. Other terms give instructions for loud or soft or bold or calm, or even suggest how specific notes should be emphasized. All of this helps to create a desired end result.
Characteristics and Types
All music tends to share certain characteristics. Most includes the elements discussed, like melody, harmony, and rhythm. Music is also often collaborative, involving more than one person in its performance. It commonly builds in tempo, volume, and energy over the course of a piece. A good way to illustrate this is to think of your favorite song. Does it begin soft, low, or slow and build to a more dramatic finish? Or does it begin with a loud flourish all at once?
Music is made with endless combinations of instruments, voices, and sounds, often produced by bands or ensembles. For example, an orchestra is an instrumental group that includes large sections of string, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments. Instrumental music also includes small ensembles like brass quintets; jazz trios of piano, string bass, and drums; or percussion ensembles that include a range of percussion like drums, bells, and rattles.
Music can also be made by the human voice. Large choral groups have a range of voices, including soprano (the highest voice) and alto, normally sung by women, as well as tenor and bass (the lowest voice), normally sung by men. Opera is an art form that combines vocal and instrumental music to tell dramatic stories in song. Rock and pop music today include many variations of vocal music, from solo artists to duos, trios, and large groups of singers.
Music involves so many things. When you listen to a symphony orchestra or to your favorite rock group, think about all the parts that went into it. Elements like melody, harmony, and rhythm combine to create the organized sounds that speak to you.
Let's review. Music is the organization of sounds for a desired effect. It includes sounds and silent moments. Music has been around for thousands of years, and it's been made by cultures around the world. Important musical terms include melody, or the main voice or line in a piece of music, and harmony, or the lines of music that complement the melody but are subordinate to it. Harmony is often made of chords, or three or more notes played at the same time.
Also important is rhythm, which refers to repeated patterns of movement in sound. Rhythm involves elements like beats, or specific units of sounds played in tempo, which is the speed of the beats. Many terms in music describe how it should be performed, including allegro for fast and largo for slow. Types of musical ensembles include instrumental ones like orchestras, and vocal ensembles include choral groups. Arts like opera include both instrumental and vocal music.
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This lesson explained many important terms and concepts surrounding music. It's a concept that most people in the world can relate to. Now it's your turn to think about what you've just learned in new ways using the following activities.
Music Around the World
As this lesson mentioned, all human cultures have musical traditions. Choose just one musical tradition and write a paragraph about it. What does this kind of music sound like? What terms from this lesson can you apply to it? What is the history of this musical tradition? Make sure you listen to examples of whatever music you choose!
Examples: You can write about any music, but here are some ideas to get you started: Inuit throat singing; Chinese opera; Yoruba drumming; Indian Raga music; Cape Jazz from South Africa.
Thinking Outside the Box
This lesson gave you several elements that make up what we typically think of as music. But can music go beyond these definitions? Look at the examples below and write a journal response explaining which, if any, you consider to be music. If they are not music, what are they?
Examples: Birds singing; 4'33" by John Cage; As Slow As Possible by John Cage; the Zadar Sea Organ; the Singing Ringing Tree.
Your Musical Traditions
What kinds of music are popular where you live? When did those kinds of music originate? What kinds of music are associated with your culture and history? And what vocabulary words that you learned in this lesson can you apply to your favourite kinds of music today? Write your answers to some or all of these questions in a paragraph or essay.
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