Music as it is Defined

By: W. Francis Gates

There have been many varied definitions of music, dependent on the writer's idea of, or appreciation for, music. One man's music is another man's noise. And he defines accordingly.

One says Nevin is music and Bach is noise. One declares Mozart to be noise and Stravinsky, music. Another reverses the definition. Even the dictionary tells us that "music is the art of combining tones to please the ear."

Whose ear -- yours or mine?

A French writer, Jules Combarieu, is more general, and declares it to be "the art of thought in tone." In other words, it is an art, not a natural phenomenon; it deals with tones, and it presupposes thought; that is, educated mental action and discrimination. "Thought, using tone as its medium, creating an art work."

And still, this leaves open to discussion, "What is an art work?" We journey back to the starting point, you saying Mozart created art works, and Schonberg didn't; while I may pin my faith to Cadman and Herbert.

One might reduce the definition a little, and make it more generally satisfactory, by saying music is "thought expressed in tone." This would exclude noises -- casual, unbrained combinations of tones -- and require definite mental application, presupposing a knowledge of the essentials of musical construction.

While this definition may be satisfactory to you and to me, there are those whose idea of music is so different from ours, that only a definition to fit their own particular style would suit them.

One says music should be impersonal, abstract. Another school declares that it should always tell a story. Still another division of the musical public says that music should go much farther than the dictionary definition above quoted; that it not only is the art of "combining tones to please the ear," but that music should represent the whole of life, whether it pleases the ear or not.

In other words, if the subject portrayed is one of pain, horror or calamity, then the music must be of clash, cacophony, discord, entirely abjuring the idea of beauty or "pleasing the ear." Out of all this, long ago, arose the question whether it was the function of music merely to be beautiful, or whether, like painting, its mission is to portray all of life -- good and bad, pleasure and sorrow, happiness and horror.

That is a question no part of the world can settle for the rest. Ever since music reached an advanced stage of development, it has been a bone of contention among musicologists and composers, and, no doubt, it will so continue for decades, and possibly for centuries.

So, not to enter discussion of it, the simpler way is to accept such a generalized definition as that suggested above, and classify music as "thought expressed through tone," to which hardly any school of music, or compositionComputer Technology Articles, can take exception.

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This article, written by W. Francis Gates, was taken from the February 1922 issue of magazine "Etude Musical Magazine." And, provided by This article is featured at, along with free piano lessons, sheet music, products, and lots more.



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