What is Music? - Definition, Terminology & Characteristics - Video & Lesson Transcript | Study.com

What is Music? - Definition, Terminology & Characteristics

Lesson Transcript
Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

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Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

Do you have a favorite song or band? Have you ever played an instrument or been to a concert? In this lesson, explore what music is and learn some terms and characteristics important to it. Updated: 07/30/2020

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.

Music includes works played by jazz bands
jazz band

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.

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  • 0:04 What is Music?
  • 1:20 Terms Related to Music
  • 2:49 Characteristics and Types
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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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.

Example of a percussion ensemble from China. In this ensemble, the main voice would be performed on a percussion instrument.
Percussion ensemble

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.

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Additional Activities

Understanding Music

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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