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Performing Arts: Music

movements and sounds


Music is a way of organizing sound.

responding to music

We respond to music

  • kinesthetically by dancing
  • musically by singing or humming or keeping time
  • emotionally by letting ourselves be moved from one emotional state to another
  • intellectually by recognizing melody, phrasing, harmony, tonality, rhythm, meter, danceability, BPM, etc.

Humans can hear a range of frequencies that leaves room for an infinite number of audible tones. Compare it to color, which remains fixed even over long times. Blue paint today is still blue tomorrow and five hundred years from now. In contrast, music changes, often gradually, over very short periods of time. A tone “lasts” only as long as you can hear it, that is, while the air around you is changed by the tone, which isn’t long at all.

A tone has a unique pitch, which is its frequency of vibration. That frequency has a duration and loudness that can be measured quantitatively. It also has a quality called timbre, which is our psychological perception of its qualities. Timbre is what distinguishes a tone produced by a stringed instrument from the same tone produced by a drum or human voice.

The border between music and noise is always culturally defined—which implies that, even within a single society, this border does not always pass through the same place; in short, there is rarely a consensus … By all accounts there is no single and intercultural universal concept defining what music might be.

Musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez (my emphasis)

Being humans, when we hear more than one tone in succession, we listen for patterns of tones and repetition of tones. If you put several tones in a time sequence, you have a melody. Whether anyone wants to listen to it is another matter.

If you play two melodies together or thicken the melody with related tones, you have harmony.

Melodies are played over time, which is usually divided uniformly into equal and regular beats. Patterns of beats form rhythms, which like melodies, are often repeated, sometimes with slight variations.

So the fundamental properties of music are a series of tones played by an instrument according to a rhythmic structure. Put it all together, add in the influences of a specific culture over time, and you have a wide variety of music available today, which is but a fraction of the music that has been produced by humans through our history.

Tuning systems

Music and mathematics are deeply bound to each other. Part of the development of math was an attempt to understand music, especially stringed instruments.

Stretch three strings next to each other. The second string is exactly half the length of the first. The third string is a third the length of the first. When you pluck the first two strings at the same time, the tones have a similarity that is common to almost every musical system. In Western music, we call it an octave.

When you pluck the third string at the same time as the first two, you get another interval, called a third.

Why does that ______ music sound so weird? How can people even listen to that?

The Musical Scale is not one, not natural, not even founded necessarily on the laws of the constitution of musical sound, … but very diverse, very artificial, and very capricious.

Alexander Ellis, 1885

How many of these diverse, artificial, capricious tuning systems are there? The one that we’re used to is called twelve-tone equal temperament. The octave is divided into twelve equally spaced frequencies. Another half dozen systems are common around the world, and another dozen systems are used in specific places.

WolframTones: A New Kind of Music – generate a composition of your own

One system that we’ll hear from Indonesia and Thailand doesn’t use harmony, so its metalophones and xylophones sound very harsh to our ears.

A musical scale is the sequence of tones in ascending (toward higher frequencies) or descending order that is characteristic of that tuning system.

Many other musical traditions employ scales that include other intervals or a different number of pitches.

An octave divided into:

  • two, three, or four tones – prehistoric and some contemporary folk music
  • five tones (pentatonic) – common in E. Asian music, also E. African, Somali
  • six tones (hexatonic) and seven tones (heptatonic) – common throughout the world
  • eight tones (octatonic) – jazz and modern classical music

Other musical traditions that you might encounter in this course

  • South American music was imported from Europe, so much of it uses the same instruments and tonal systems, and basic rhythms and genres as music in Spain and Portugal.
  • Sub-Saharan African music emphasizes polyrhythms. A current popular genre is Afrobeat. Wikipedia’s Polyrhythm.
  • Middle Eastern Hejaz aka Hijaz music from Egypt, Turkey, Israel, and Arabia (and even heard in Spanish gypsy music and flemenco music) uses the Phrygian dominant scale – some intervals of three semitones.
  • Arabic music may use quarter tone intervals as well as an octave divided into 24 equal tones.
  • Gamelan music from Indonesia uses the Pélog and Sléndro scales that are neither equally tempered nor harmonic intervals.
  • Classical Carnatic music and Hindustani music from India uses a moveable seven-note scale. Rāgas often employ intervals smaller than a semitone.
  • Japanese koto music uses a modified Western tuning system but the same 12-system that the Chinese use.

Musical form | language and notation | instruments (search for your country)

Glossary of musical terminology

List of folk/pop music traditions: Asia | South America | Sub-Saharan Africa | Africa | Mideast/North Africa

Musical traditions of: Asia | Africa | Mideast | Latin America

Jamaica – ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub