Note: part of this text was adopted from my contributions to the Wikipedia article on this subject.

The first thing I would like to say is that I have very little formal training in music. I took piano lessons in middle school and have continued to play since off and on (I play Rondo all Turca, Moonlight Sonata, etc).  I have also taken one class called “History of Western Music” which in some ways motivated this article. However, I hardly know any music theory other than notation and scales. But I do not consider this a hindrance in my ability to lay out a philosophy of music, or in my ability to enjoy or play music. (However, it does affect my ability to compose music greatly.)  It seems many people get caught up with “music theory” and miss the larger questions about music. Music theory is a heuristic tool for figuring out which notes sound good together and which sound bad (consonance and dissonance). It describes this on several levels — first musical intervals, then chords,  then temporally spaced combinations of intervals (melodies), then combinations of melodies (counterpoint) and then overall organization (musical form). There is also the subject of instrumentation, or the classification of various timbres and how to combine them in a balanced way. With all of its formalism, musical theory can get quite complicated. It can even be highly mathematical, especially in the process of investigating various tonal systems (beyond the 12-tone model) to find the ones with the greatest efficiency and usefulness  With all this classification and notation, the larger problem of why certain combinations sound good or bad, why they elicit certain emotional responses, is not discussed.

Although science is making much progress in answering the questions of “why”, so far a universal theoretical synthesis remains out of reach. In the end, a scientific theory of music will probably involve many fields such as evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, neurobiology and sociology. Because a complete scientific theory is still lacking, I have titled this paper “Philosophy of Music” since there will be much arm-chair style conjecturing. One pitfall in discussing these matters is that people can get caught up with their subjective views based on their limited experience dealing with music. Music is not completely universal. A lot of music is much like a language that has to be learned. I have listened to a wide variety of music, so I think this helps alleviate some bias I might have. In many cases of listening to a new style of music, there is a learning curve. I noticed this, for instance, with certain types of electronic music. What once sounded harsh now sounds good because I have learned the “musical vocabulary” and can associate with the music. In a similar fashion, new musical styles can take a while to be accepted. Mozart was derided by the public as having “too many notes”, Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was met with vehement disgust, early rock was considered crude, and techno remained limited until more sociable dance music was developed. All of these radical shifts in style took time to be accepted. Therefore, we should be careful about making generalizations about what types of music are “good” or “bad”. It is largely a question of cultural training and background.

None the less, research shows that some elements of music are universal. Research shows infants as young as two months will move toward “pleasant” sounds. Infants show a remarkable sensitivity to sounds, being able to learn their mother’s voice in the womb. Low rumbling sounds are considered pleasant by most people. For instance, white noise can help people get to sleep and the slow crash of ocean waves is considered peaceful. This may be because low rumbling is what we hear in the womb, a time when we were provided with a constant flow of warmth and nutrition.


The definition of music is a tricky subject. Part of the problem is that accepted definitions of music are culturally and historically dependent. For instance, in medieval Europe, only singing was considered music by the church leaders. Instruments where not considered music because they where made by man, not God, and hence were not as holy as the purity of the human voice. The human voice is often considered necessary for “true music”. The philosopher Hegel said that “Instrumental music is not strictly art at all.”

One common definition of music is “organized sound”. However, this definition is rather unsatisfactory since it is too broad. There are many types of organized sound that are usually not considered music such as human speech or the beeping of an alarm clock. Other definitions, such as “music is organized tones”, as suggested by some early philosophers, are too narrow, because there are many forms of music that do not use a tonal scale. Percussive music and atonal music are examples. There are many different ways of denoting the fundamental aspects of music which extend beyond tones: popular aspects of music include melody, harmony and rhythm. However Musique concrete may lack all of these aspects since it consists only of sound samples of non-musical nature, and sometimes these sounds are presented at. Ambient music may often consist merely of recordings of wildlife or nature. Are Musique-concrete and ambient music not “true music”? The arrival of these avant-garde forms of music in the 20th century has been a major challenge to traditional definitions and has some to give broader characterizations. Others consider these forms to no longer be musical and better categorized under the label of “sound art”.

A preeminent figure in the development of avant-garde music in the 20th century was John Cage. His work, 4’33” is a useful test case for a definition of music. In 4’33”, a performer sits on stage for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and produces no sounds. Cage intended the piece not to be produced by the performer, but by the environment around the performer. After all, there are always sounds around us no matter where we go, and no concert hall is perfectly quiet. John Cage believed that any sounds could be considered as music, and this idea is reflected in many of his works. Under the view of Cage, music is not so much inherent in sounds themselves, but in the listener. The electronic musician Oliveros echoes this view describing how music is created in the listener. Oliveros describes methods of “deep listening” and says that what one gets out of music depends on how one listens. For me, there is a lot of appeal to this view, and I find it a very logical position to take. Under this view, any sounds can be interpreted as “music”. “Music” is not a particular subset of sound, rather, it is a way of interpreting sound. In other words, any sounds can be considered music. For instance, the blowing of wind through the trees, the clanking of pipes in an underground shaft and the rumbles of cars on city streets can all be interpreted musically. Beethoven seems to have had this view, since he discussed how he enjoyed walking through the woods and listening to the “trees singing”.

Meaning & Aesthetics

The debate over how music gets its meaning has been going on for centuries. Only now that scientists have started studying the question may we finally get some answers. Of course, music can be interpreted many different ways by different listeners, but there are also general emotional characteristics. The central question is to what degree these associations are in-born and to what degree they come from cultural association. The sciences of neurobiology, evolutionary psychology and ethnomusicology are slowly making progress in answering this question.

The first attempts to put music in an evolutionary framework were made by Charles Darwin himself, who said in his 1871 book The Descent of Man, “Musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex.” Today there is active research in the evolution of music, with some evidence supporting Darwin’s hypothesis that it was used for mating and other evidence suggesting that music was a means of social organization and communication in early cultures.

A few leading evolutionary psychologists argue that music has no adaptive purpose at all, but simply manages, as the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has written, to “tickle the sensitive spots” in areas of the brain that evolved for other purposes. In his 1997 book How the Mind Works, Pinker dubbed music “auditory cheesecake”, a phrase that in the years since has served as a challenge to the musicologists and psychologists who believe otherwise.

In general, neural networks are very good at recognizing and aligning to recognize and predict patterns in input data, even between the senses. Thus, it is clear that in principle, any association could take place, given enough training. This may also explain why it takes several listens in order to appreciate a musical piece.

Here is my own observations from listening to Chopin’s Ballad no. 1.

1st listen: may not sound very good

2nd listen: start noticing, recognizing melodies

3rd listen: Emotive power increases

4-10 listens: increasing emotive power

10-20 listens: start noticing minor deficiencies, or flaws. Piece maintains emotive power

20 and onwards, levelling off and/or decrease in emotive power.

In-born or genetic considerations of aside, we can consider the Aesthetics of music from a cultural point of view. As mentioned, views on what is “good music” have changed dramatically over the centuries as new musical forms have arisen and others have fallen out of favor. This fact shows the cultural dependence of a person’s ability to interpret and enjoy music. Of importance is the difference between art music and popular music. Popular music is music that mass audiences find accessible and is thus heavily dependent on culture and time period. Art music is music that is cultivated by relatively small groups and must be practiced and studied in order to be fully appreciated. Popular music is often learned in TV shows, commercials, music videos and movies, where associations are formed. Nearly all styles are tied with certain lifestyles, examples to consider are punk, ska, rap, trance, jazz, country, etc.

Absolute vs. Program Music

Related to our discussion of “in-born” vs “cultural” ascetics is the classical debate between “absolute music” and “program music” which occurred in the 1800s. Absolute music refers to music that is not about anything in particular and is non-representational. “Program music”, by contrast, utilizes associations to with the intention of evoking extra-musical ideas, such as a scene, image or mood. As mentioned, cultural condition leads the mind to make certain associations of one kind or another. In a strict sense then, absolute music is impossible since extra-musical associations are inevitable. The actual debate that took place was more about intention — whether music is intended to have an association or whether it is composed as music just for music’s sake, to which the listener will make his own associations. Absolute music had to be instrumental, because a vocal part would necessarily imply a cultural association.

This debate took place during the Romantic Era. The majority of opposition to absolute instrumental-based music came from Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche and Friedrich Hegel. Wagner’s works were chiefly programmatic and often used vocalization. He said that “Where music can go no further, there comes the word… the word stands higher than the tone.” He intended all his music to be associated with specific moods, or in the case of opera, specific scenes. He invented and pioneered the use of a “leitmotif”, a specific melody which is associated with a specific character. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote many commentaries applauding the music of Wagner and was an amateur composer himself. He praised Wagner’s efforts to make powerful, emotionally-charged music. Hegel said that “Instrumental music is not strictly art at all.” Other romantic philosophers and proponents of absolute music, such as Johann von Goethe saw music not only as a subjective human “language” but as a transcendent means of peering into a higher realm of order and beauty. For him, music allowed one to escape the “merely human” world of cultural associations. The beauty and emotive power of music comes, not from cultural associations, but from abstract order inherent in the music. This is often the way the music of Bach is presented. But still, it is hard to remove Bach from the spiritual, religious context in which it evolved.  Perhaps this is why some “absolutists” went so far as to express a spiritual connection created in music. In this view, music allows one to in some way transcend cultural associations and describe things that can not be verbalized. In Part IV of his chief work, The World as Will and Representation (1819), Arthur Schopenhauer said that “music is the answer to the mystery of life. The most profound of all the arts, it expresses the deepest thoughts of life.”

Tone color – the unexplored frontier

The 20th century has seen an increased interest in tone color. Electronic music in particular has opened up a vast new realm of experimentation since tone-color can be modified. Modern synthesizers allow for waveforms to be precisely controlled.

But even amongst traditional instruments, differences in tonal color can be important. For instance, the piano I have at my house has a very loud, bright, clear sound. This often annoys me because it makes it difficult to play quiet or somber pieces. Out of tune, or “murky” pianos can evoke a variety of feelings. And everyone is familiar with the “honky tonk” piano sound. Most Jazz pianos are in fact deliberately out of tune. Every great pianist has had his or her own preferred piano. Horowitz preferred a slight nasal sound in his piano. A degree of murkyness in a piano is considered favorable. Pure sine waves sound harsh to the ear.

It is well known that the technological development of pianos has, for better or worse, limited the range of expression of the instrument. Before the invention of the piano there was the harpsichord, which had a highly developed repertoire. The harpsichord used plucked strings, and thus had very little sustain time and virtually no dynamic control. sThis naturally led to fast-moving melodies played independently by both hands, and the development of counterpoint, or the proper overlapping of melodic figures. There was also a percussive counterpart to the harpsichord called the clavichord, in which hammer remained in contact with the string after hitting it. I should also mention the organ, which did low for sustains, and allowed for manipulation of tonal color via “stops”. Organs were, in fact, very much like crude synthesizers.

The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori of Italy around 1700. Cristofori’s breakthrough was to develop a complex mechanism or “action” whereby the hammer could quickly retract after hitting the string, thus allowing a note to be sustained as long as desired. This had to be done in such a way that the hammer would not bounce violently, and could be used again in rapid succession. At the same time, a damper mechanism was needed to quiet the string after the note was released. The harpsichord and clavichord quickly became relics during the classical era. During this era the piano was considered a percussive instrument, and was used as accompaniment. By the 1800s, the piano had developed into a solo instrument, but it remained much quieter then today’s pianos. During Beethoven’s time, metal frames and metal strings were added to pianos, making them more resonant and loud. The introduction of larger, sturdier frames allowed additional notes to be added on either end of the scale. Beethoven was the first to utilize these “extra notes”. In fact, some of his pieces contain notes which lie beyond the standard 88 keys on the modern piano. Today, the tonal dimensions piano music are still being expanded. The past few decades have seen some avant-garde composers such as F. Rzewski focus on new keyboard attacks and pedal techniques for modulating tone color on piano. Some of Rzewski’s pieces even call for hitting the frame of the piano in various locations!

Of course, the real development in tone color has been the the advent of the keyboard and keyboard-based synthesizers. It is possible in the future the keyboard might eventually displace the piano, but right now it is unlikely because the string-resonances of the piano are tricky to recreate digitally. Even though music remains largely tied to traditional instrumentation, electronic modulation of tonal color may eventually become a central aspect of music, along with melody, harmony and rhythm.

Epilog: the Mozart effect debunked

The Mozart effect was observed by physicist Dr. Gordon Shaw that people who listened to Mozart sonata for two pianos scored better on spatial reasoning tests. Dr. Shaw points out that listening to music while studying will probably decrease performance because it would impinge upon the spatial reasoning centers of the brain. The actual Mozart effect is quite small and has been exaggerated by media, commercial enterprises and politicians looking for easy ways to improve student performance in schools. Still, music is a useful agent for relaxation and preventing stress while working. Instrumental music is much better than vocal because vocal music causes greater disruption in the left hemisphere. Also, learning how to play an instrument has been linked with several cognitive benefits.