Monday, March 24, 2014

What is music?

What is music? In his original 1826 dictionary, Webster defined music as “melody or harmony; any succession of sounds so modulated as to please the ear, or any combination of simultaneous sounds in accordance or harmony. Music is vocal or instrumental.” A secondary definition describes it as “the art of combining sounds in a manner to please the ear. This is practical music or composition.”

Is Webster’s definition one that stands the tests of time? Or is it possible that methods of composition or manners of listening could change in generations following Webster that could stretch and even alter the true sense of what actually defines music?

This week we’ll hit on a few 20th-century composers and musical theories that stretched Webster’s perception of what constitutes music. After exploring these composers and their works, I’ll be curious whether or not you hold true to music as defined by Webster or whether your beliefs gravitate toward a more modern approach.

Early 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg is one example of a composer who began to redefine what some may consider music. An advocate of atonality, a term used to describe music that avoids a tonal center, and the twelve-tone method, a form of atonality based on various orderings of the twelve notes in the chromatic scale, Schoenberg was rejected by many while others found his theoretical approach fascinating.

Schoenberg’s Piano Suite is an example of his twelve-tone method. Give it a listen and let me know…do you still consider this music? Is it on an equal plain with Beethoven, Berlioz, or Brahms? Or do you consider it an interesting concept but not something you desire to listen to? Webster says music “please[s] the ear.” Do you agree?

Schoenberg's Self Portrait
Courtesy of


  1. As the WGUC banner says music should be for the heart mind and spirit. And Schoenberg surely is in there somewhere.

  2. Wow. I haven't heard this since my CCM days. I rejected it then... probably because I had to study it. I even had to write a twelve tone piece. It was a disaster, but it certainly gave me more appreciation for what's going on here. I love Schoenberg's use of form, not only in the arrangement of the 12 notes, but some of the classical forms he's using with repeats of sections. I also believe there is a subliminal effect with how our ear must hear all twelve notes before one is repeated. It's not unlike the sonata allegro form. We might not realize that the themes are repeated in certain keys (dominant, tonic) but the effect registers in our brain anyway. I'll bet this piece would reward close study. To me music is (among other things) melody, harmony and rhythm; sounds arranged in pre-conceived structure. Schoenberg displays all that here with very original thinking - a fresh approach compared to Bach Beethoven and Brahms. Exactly what he intended. Thanks Jessica.