Towards A Working Definition Of "Music"

29 February, 2020
Many search for a definition of "music" which is verbal, complete and objective.
But what we actually need to work with, right now, is a definition that is subjective, egocentric, and by example.

Why define "music"?

In everyday life most people use the word "music" without worrying too much about what the definition of that word is.

Nevertheless, there are certain contexts where we need to define the word "music", such as:

  1. Someone is compiling a dictionary, and a satisfactory definition is required for every word in the dictionary, including "music".
  2. Students are being taught about music, and the teacher feels the need to define what it is that is being taught.
  3. Scientists and philosophers are considering the fundamental mystery of music, and the hope is that a suitable definition might cast some light on the mystery, or at least provide a useful starting point for research.

In all these situations, there is a fundamental assumption: that it is possible to write a description of "music" in not too many words, such that the definition includes all those things which we call "music", and it doesn't include anything which is not "music".

And the problem is, given our current understanding of the nature of music, it is not possible to write such a description.

Just because you are in some situation where you feel you have to write a definition of a word, doesn't mean that you can write a definition.

I will explore some of the differences between dictionary definitions, and our actual knowledge of the meanings of words, by considering a couple of other words: "elephant", and "food".

Definition by example: "elephant"

I Googled "definition elephant", and Google referred me to this definition at

A heavy plant-eating mammal with a prehensile trunk, long curved ivory tusks, and large ears, native to Africa and southern Asia. It is the largest living land animal.

This seems like a reasonable definition, and we can judge it to be satisfactory based on two observations:

  1. Elephants are something that happen to exist.
  2. The description given has enough details that it includes elephants and it doesn't include anything else.

It's a great definition.

But, and this is the important thing, almost nobody in the world knows the meaning of the word "elephant" because they read a dictionary definition.

Most people know what an elephant is, because of one or more of the following:

So in practice, our knowledge of the meaning of the word "elephant" is acquired from our experience of examples of things that are "elephants".

The binariness and objectiveness of "elephant"

The concept of "elephant" is very binary. Either something is an elephant, or it is not an elephant.

If we consider prehistoric species, then we might have to consider ancestors or relatives of the two modern species of elephant, and some of those might be animals where we are not sure whether or not they count as "elephants".

And maybe, in the future, people will have technology that enables the creation of genetically modified elephants, and with too much modification, they might not be "elephants" any more.

But, if we limit ourselves to things that exist right now, or in the historical past, or the near future, then "elephant" is a very binary concept.

The definition is also very objective, because, once we are exposed to a few examples of elephants, we will have the same idea of what is or isn't an "elephant" as anyone else has.

Another example: "food"

The definition from of "food" is:

Any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth.

"Food" is a category of thing that is more like "music".

To start with, food exists as a thing that people consume in some manner (also people create it, which may or may not be relevant to defining what it is).

Also, unlike "elephant", "food" is less binary, and there exist things which are "food", but very poor examples of such, and there exist some types of "food" which are better "food", because they are more nutritious, or because they are more delicious.

Our understanding of the meaning of the word "food" is also somewhat less objective than our understanding of the word "elephant".

If we want to define food by example, the definition has to be subjective.

This is because you can't just show some food to a child and say "that's an example of food".

A child can only truly understand what "food" is if you use the word to refer to something which the child has actually eaten.

This is because our understanding of what the word "food" means includes our personal subjective experience of what it is like to eat food. Food is not just something that we can eat which happens to be nutritious – food is something that we want to eat when we are hungry, and when we eat food it tastes nice, and when we have eaten enough food we are not hungry anymore.

And, as it happens, different people have different preferences for eating different foods, and there are some foods which some people will eat, and some other people won't eat (or at least they will not choose to eat it).

Defining "music"

Here is the definition of "music":

Vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.

And, just as in the case of "elephant" and "food", nobody in the world knows what "music" is because they read a dictionary definition.

People learn what the word "music" means from examples. You play some music to a child, and the child subjectively experiences music, and you use the word "music" to talk about it to the child, and the child then learns what the word "music" means.

The problem with the dictionary definition above, and with any other attempt to "define" music in 100 words or less, is that we know much less about what "music" is than we know about what "elephants" are, or what "food" is.

Things that we don't know about music include:

Given this list of things that we don't know about music, we can't really say, with any degree of confidence, that the above definition definitely includes all things that are "music", and definitely excludes all things that are not "music".

(Also, like many dictionary definitions, if you look close enough it is potentially circular. It is not obvious what "beauty of form" and "harmony" actually mean – in practice music has "beauty of form" and "harmony" if it happens to be strong music.)

The subjectivity of "music"

Music is an extremely subjective phenomenon.

We only know what music is from our subjective experience of music.

It is so subjective, that we cannot really be sure that what we call "music" is the same thing that other people call "music".

The most we can do is assume, in cases where other people listen to the same music as we do, that their experience of music represents essentially the same phenomenon as our own experience of music.

If I experience musical items A and B as "music", but not item C, and my friend experiences items B and C as "music", but not item A, then I can assume that item C does count as "music", in relation to my friend, even though it falls outside my own subjective experience of music. Of course I'm trusting my friend to be honest about his subjective experience of item C.

In the case of elephants, subjectivity isn't really a problem.

In the case of food, we have an objective scientific understanding of the function of food, and this avoids the need to completely depend on our personal subjective experience of food.

If my friend claims that completely charcoalized toast is "food", I can be skeptical, and science can back me up, because charcoal does not have any kind of nutritional value.

In the case of music, we do not know what the function of music is, if indeed it has any function at all.

The only thing we really know about music is that people like listening to it.

If someone else claims to like a certain item of "music", there is no way we can refute such a claim.

A working definition of "music"

If we think that "music" is something that can be defined, in the traditional manner of a dictionary definition, then we will write a definition of music in so many words, and having written our definition, we will want to believe that it is objective and that it adequately describes what is music and what is not music.

If you are compiling a dictionary, and you have to write a verbal definition of every word, then just do it.

But if you are studying or researching music, then my advice is don't.

Don't even try to write a satisfactory objective verbal definition of the word "music", because if you even think that you have succeeded, then you are just fooling yourself.

And if you take any such definition seriously, you will be undermining your own efforts to understand the true nature of music. (Among other things, you will waste too much time studying "music" that actually turns out not to be music.)

Not verbal, and not objective

The problem is, if you are seriously studying music, you still need some definition of what counts as "music".

The alternative to an objective descriptive definition is to do the opposite.

In other words, choose a definition of "music" which is:


This definition is intrinsically egocentric.

It solves the problem of finding a definition of music that everyone can agree on, because it tells you not to even try to do that.

It does create a problem when communicating with other people about "music", because now you have to constantly qualify your use of the word "music" as referring only to music that you think is musical.

But that is not a fatal flaw in the definition – it is just an acknowledgement of the extremely subjective nature of our current knowledge of what "music" is.

This definition is only a "working" definition – it is not a final definition of the word "music".

A final definition will only appear after we solve the mystery of music, and we need to have a working definition of "music" to even get started with solving the mystery.

So the working definition has to come first.

The mystery of music

The deepest mystery of music is the intensity of the subjective experiences that music generates in the mind of the listener.

If the effects of music were weaker, it would be easy to dismiss music as just a side-effect of something else.

For an example of something similar, but weaker, we can consider the emotional effects associated with different colours.

There is a certain amount of interest in this emotional aspect of colour, and it does of course affect people's behaviour, for example when deciding what colour to wear, or what colour to paint a room, or what colour to use in advertising, etc.

However, because the effect is relatively weak, it is plausible to suppose that the emotional effects of colour might just be a side-effect of certain instinctive reactions that we have to certain things with certain colours, like green leaves, and red blood.

Whereas, with music, the emotional effect is much, much stronger than the emotional effect of colour, and a "side-effect" theory is much less plausible.

With a definition based on the individual's own personal experience of music, the music most strongly identified as such by the definition is the very same music which mostly strongly affects the individual in question.

Thus, as a working definition of "music", the egocentric subjective definition is the best definition you can have, and it is the best starting point to have in any research program into the mystery of music.

Intrinsic differences in individuals' responses to music

An egocentric definition of "music" necessarily defers questions about significant differences in how different people respond to different types of music.

It is possible that some aspects of responses to music are intrinsically different, and not just as a result of different personal histories of exposure to music. This could be similar to how different people smell different things differently, with some people being oblivious to smells that strongly affect other people, even though we all know and agree what the word "smell" means (another word that we understand based on definition by example and subjective experience).

I'm guessing that, if such differences exist, we won't even begin to understand them until after individual researchers have successfully gained a better understanding of their own personal responses to music.

To put it another way, to progress, music research needs to be undertaken by individual music researchers who use the egocentric subjective definition of "music" as the starting point for what they need to study, and as a reference against which hypotheses are formulated and tested. When some progress is made by individual researchers researching their own individual experience of "music", then, and only then, we may be in a position to understand the full range of responses to "music" (and definitions thereof) across the general human population.

Subjective peer-review

Scientific research is meant to be a process of discovering publishable results that can be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

How can one publish research about something that is defined both subjectively and egocentrically?

The short answer is that you can't.

The longer answer is that the peer review process needs to be adapted to take account of the subjective and egocentric meaning of the word "music".

For example:

Probably no existing scientific journal is going to allow submission, review and publication of papers based on these criteria.

But, if it turns that music science can only progress when based on a subjective egocentric definition of the word "music", then it might be a good idea for someone to start a music science journal that does provide for such a "subjective peer-review" process.