What is Music?

And thus we enter the world of music…


Hopefully, the above discussion peaked your curiosity into the music that you’re already listening to. Pull out one of your favorite records and listen as intently as possible. Set down all other distractions and delve into the sound. Do you hear anything you haven’t heard before? Are little easter eggs of sound sprouting up?

The term music itself stems from the “Muses” of Greek mythology, nine goddesses that presided over the arts. Look up the term muse in the dictionary and you’ll find a couple definitions: 1. the source of inspiration for a creative endeavor, 2. absorbed in thought; a period of reflection. It’s these two ideas that we’ll focus our study this semester.

The source of inspiration for a creative endeavor

Here we will study the setting of a piece of music. By this I mean the history, the time period, and cultural influences of a piece/style of music. As the culture you’re living in today influences your taste in music, art, fashion, etc., it did the same for composers of centuries past. The music and accepted practices of the Catholic church of the 15th century differ greatly to the sounds we hear from the 20th & 21st century.

A period of reflection; absorbed in thought

Here is where we find composers delving into their own emotions, and other personal content to express their emotions and/or take on events of the time. Whether specifically defined or not, every piece has a quality to it that is meant to effect the listener through the movement of sound.

Sources from ancient Greece depict two sounds of the musical expression coin. On one side there is the restrained, and pure sound of Apollo. On the other, the ecstatic and sensual side of Dionysus. As time progresses we gradually maneuver between the two to embody the style of the day. If the Classical Period is inline with Apollo, based on form and structure,  then the Romantic Era is on the side of Dionysus, based on raw emotion.


Music is a language expressing meaning through sound, created from one’s “mother tongue.” From exposure and experience, we create expectations from sound. We create attachments to songs that remind us of events and time periods in our lives. Let’s explore how these events inform our own interpretation and response to a piece of music.

Understanding how music works requires concentrated listening. Like going to the gym, and training your muscles to playing a given sport, listening to music requires practice, time, and repetition. In his book Tuning of the World, R. Murray Schaefer defines the difference between concentrated listening, and peripheral hearing.

oncentrated listening = attention to detail, directionality, aural space; “indoor listening” of concert hall; more elaborate music; higher frequencies

peripheral hearing = less attention to detail, less intricate music; directionality replaced by diffusion of sound, immersion, lower frequencies; “outdoor music” of a folk festival; left with an impression of the music heard

The majority of what we hearing throughout the day is peripheral hearing. When listening to music for a deeper understanding, it is important to create a time and space for listening to a piece of music, and focusing on specific details in its sound quality that define it as a Mozart sonata versus West Coast hip-hop.

Lastly, in her book Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practice, and Possibilities, Joanne Kurfiss defines what she calls an “ill-structured problem.”

Ill-structured problem: An open-ended question that does not have a clear right answer and therefore must be responded to with a proposition justified by reasons and evidence. Often it is difficult to determine which information is relevant to a solution and which isn’t. Ill-structured problems require the highest level of critical thinking. “In critical thinking, all assumptions are open to question, divergent views are aggressively sought, and the inquiry is not biased in favor of a particular outcome” (Kurfiss, p. 2).

Music, and all realms of art, fall into this category as we each create our own interpretation of the sound events we hear, and how they may or may not affect us on an intellectual, and/or emotional level. Over the semester, we will build a vocabulary to us help define characteristics of musical style so we may more deeply understand some of the common traits that form the backbone of stylistic movements throughout western music history.

After listening to the playlist, describe a bit of your listening experience by answering the following questions.


"What is music?" listening assignment

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6 thoughts on “What is Music?

  1. Hiya,

    I just wanted to check in on whether or not we should also record our answers on our Rampage blogs or not. For previous classes (namely in UNIV 200) I’ve had to record in both areas so I have records of my submissions. Thanks!


  2. Dear Professor Ashby,
    I am sorry to bother you but I am needing to make sure that I am posting assignments in the correct places. We have the blog site, the class site where we answer questions, and the text where there are questions and quizzes. If I am missing something please let me know!
    Thank you,
    Lisa Kidd-Goodman

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