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SO, WHAT IS "MUSIC?" (Part 1:The Common Understanding)

Updated: Jun 4, 2023

For that matter, what is "noise?" (Could not resist this cute picture of my cat "Mo" helping me contemplate this question, and the below clever gif, since some readers might respond with "ho!" or "who cares." But I do!)

And then there is this thought (brilliant insight or frivolous notion?):

Is there a category in between music and noise, something yet unnamed but existent that could be defined, or at least identified when we hear it, much like the Supreme Court Justice who famously declared was his way of defining the elusive term "pornography"?

This could be an evidently simple question, but it's easily complex to consider for someone in my musical status. I'm an amateur pianist and two-year piano student retired from two non-musical careers, and thus at a more or less early intermediate level (if that can even be defined, which I think it cannot be), and with only a rudimentary understanding of musical theory and vocabulary.

But it's a fascinating question that I routinely discuss with some of my Music Tribe members and musical friends, some piano professionals and some amateurs like me. There are also significant definitions by published, respected academicians and musicologists, and a lot of commentary to consider in answering my question.

Because of the enormity of my topic, I'll break down my thoughts into mangeably-sized discussions, and start from the ground up in this one, then continue to ask the professionals what they believe and think in Parts 2 and 3.

So, let's start with the second term "noise" and the commonly-understood definition.

The Websters-Merriam online dictionary says:


1. sound; We heard unusual noises in the attic. especially: one that lacks an agreeable quality or is noticeably unpleasant or loud 2. any sound that is undesired or interferes with one's hearing of something; I couldn't hear him over all the noise. 3. loud, confused, or senseless shouting or outcry; the noise of the demonstrators 4. the characteristic natural or routine sound or sounds of something (such as an animal or an environment; the noise of the herons, the noise of the bubbling brook. She missed the noise of her hometown. 5. (The final category has to do with disturbance be it mechanical, electromagnetic, of just attendant "noise" to some other meaningful sound.)

With those definitions in mind, there is a lot of so-called "music" that to me, lacks an agreeable quality, is noticeably unpleasant or loud to my ears, that interferes with more pleasant thoughts, seems like shouting and is confused, and thus, likely heard by me as just so much "noise." But I often observe that someone else concludes differently than me and finds "music" where I find "noise." Is it impossible to agree upon a definition, and does it come down to personal preference as well as definition?

So what does the dictionary say is "music?"


1.a vocal, instrumental or mechanical sounds having rhythm, melody, or harmony; choral music piano music, recorded music b: the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity 2. a distinctive type or category of music; there is a music for everybody—

Eric Salzman, rock, jazz, or classical music 3. a musical accompaniment; a play set to music 4. the score of a musical composition set down on paper; leafing through the music 5 a: musical quality; the music of verse, the music of lovingly orchestrated words—

Saturday Review

b: an agreeable sound : euphony; her voice was music to my ears, the music of a nightingale

Definitions 1 and 5.b seem particularly meaningful to me, which I consolidate and transLate as:



I think my word "orderly" implies either rhythm or harmony or melody. It implies some sort of operation that has been done by someone or something to put sounds into some kind of order. Yes, I consider something doing it, too, such as ice melting, or whales crying, or leaves rustling, or bees humming. Some people don't think that natural sounds qualify as music, and by and by in these three blogs, I'll research and consider what the musicologists and music professionals have to say on this matter.

For now I'd love to have you review and respond to a lovely "find" of what I consider "music" and "not noise," by environmentalist Jana Winderen, and her composition, "Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone," Winderen is a Norwegian artist whose has deep concern about environmental destruction. She accurately records melting ice, cracking glaciers, and other natural sounds.

But does she make "music?" That is my burning question.


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