RELATED TERMS: Metre; Rhythm; Beat; Leirmotif; Aleatory

Music is “sound through time”
Jean-Jacques Nattiez 1990

This, though it might sound good, is insufficient. All sound only exists through time, therefore this definition does not distinguish music from any other sound.

A very good related definition may be extrapolated from the work of John Cage, in particular 4’33”, although he never gave an explicit definition. In this piece, the performer performs actions which indicate that the piece has begun, that the first movement has ended and the second begun, that the second movement has ended and the third begun, that the piece has ended. The performer makes no sound intentionally. The entire piece lasts exactly 4’33”, and is deemed to consist of those sounds which occur during its duration.

Thus, Cage is saying, in essence, three things: firstly, music is something that is framed, i.e. a piece of music is generated by a time boundary set by the composer and/or performer – it starts, it ends, it isn’t limitless. Secondly, the music consists of everything that we hear during this boundary, that we in fact cannot, should not try to, separate and categorise what we are hearing into what is the ‘music’ part of the experience, and what is the ‘other noises’ part of the experience. They both together form the auditory part of a whole experience, e.g. someone coughing during a quiet part of a classical piece can definitely be an important part of the whole experience. Thirdly, ‘sound’ becomes ‘music’ because we say it does, and because we therefore give it the kind of attention which we give to ‘music’ and other kinds of art. He thus says that music is brought into being by a certain kind of attentive listening.

There are other, more exclusive definitions, which vary but generally state that to be music the ‘sound’ has to include some of: melody, rhythm, harmony, organised structure.