What is music anyway?

November 05, 2016

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How much music do you consume? But do you know what it is?

An average person listens to more than 25 hrs each week, which amounts to 13 years of your life, spent on listening to music!

Music is in the fabric of our modern lives, and we have a soundtrack for nearly every activity. But, ironically, most people have no idea how music works or even the basics of how to listen and appreciate music.

This episode explores the basic nature of music. If we boil music down to its essence, what is it? Is it a universal language, as some have claimed? What does that mean? What is it communicating?

Defining music is not easy. The next three episodes will help you understand music, possibly like you have never seen before.



Artist: Snarky Puppy

You can watch the full Snarky Puppy “What About Me?” video here.



Before we start our first episode, let me tell you why musical literacy is important for our culture and for you personally.

How much time do you spend every day listening to music? If you’re an average person, you listen to music 25hrs each week and in your lifetime, you will spend 13 years listening to music.

No one will deny that music is more interwoven into the fabric of our 21st century digital experience, than in any other society in the history of the world.  We listen while driving, while jogging, while working, while studying, when going to sleep, when waking up. We no longer buy tapes or CD’s because all of the artists and albums of the world are in our pocket in and our ears.

But… in the most ironic twist. This musical revolution is exploding in the soil of cultural musical illiteracy. Most people have no idea how music works. You might think this is crazy, but even many musicians today, can’t even read sheet music.

Is this a bad thing? Of course it is. But judge for yourself.

Is illiteracy ever a good thing? and ignorance, well, it only gets you so far.

You see, when you understand music, your capacity to appreciate and enjoy it is exponentially greater. Imagine attending a football game and not knowing how the game actually works.

While there is still something to appreciate: the large crowd, the hotdogs, and perhaps some action on the field… but that is not to compare, as with someone who is able to appreciate every play and know exactly what is happening on the field.

But even for your pragmatists, music is a powerful tool that can actually make your life more productive. You see, the power of music is contained in it’s ability to influence how we feel and our mood in general. Knowing how to harness various genres to make our lives more productive is more empowering than you can imagine.

Finally, music can only progress and evolve when society supports musicians who are actually making progress. Let’s be honest, there are a lot of bad musicians out there. So the goal of this podcast is to make you musically literate, so that you can intelligently interact with music and enjoy it for everything it has to offer!

And now, for this very first episode, perhaps the most appropriate question to begin with, is a very fundamental one:

What is Music?

Here’s something incredible. Right now, as I’m communicating with you, an almost magical process is at work. Through this vehicle of verbal communication, I am actually able to take concrete ideas and thoughts, and transfer them into your mind so that you would also possess the same thoughts and ideas.

Of course this process seems banal because it’s so common to the human experience. But let’s parse it for just a moment, and than we’ll compare it to the language of music.

Everything begins with an idea, which is basically a set of thoughts, processed and stored inside your brain. You generate this idea, and, in its most infant state, your mind hasn’t decided what words to use in order to articulate it. At this point, the idea is not hashed out or concrete. it exists purely on the level of intuition and general concepts. 

But when you decide to make the idea concrete and to share it with someone, the only way, is to place your idea into a container. Which is like a linguistic package of sorts, custom tailored to deliver this idea, and this idea alone.

By the way, this is where a good vocabulary is helpful, because you have more materials to choose from when creating your package. And all this happens in your subconscious, as your mind searches through your spoken lexicon, and constructs a set of sentences that would house your idea and deliver it successfully to your listeners.

It’s kind of like shipping with the postal service, the package always depends on the item being shipped. If it’s something fragile like glass, you need much more packaging than perhaps a book. The same is true for ideas, nuanced ideas take more words and packaging, if you will, to deliver them successfully.

Alright. Once your idea has been packaged properly, you’re going to need to deliver it. So, let’s imagine that you’re talking on the phone with a friend and you’re going to deliver this idea-package through the medium of spoken communication via a phone.

As you begin to speak, your diaphragm (which is a thin muscle membrane located at the bottom of your ribs), pushes down on your abdomen, creating a vacuum in your lungs and therefore allowing you to take a breath. Once you have air in your lungs, your diaphragm, together with your rib muscles controls the output of your breath as you engage your larynx to phonate your vocal chords. This creates an audible phonation so that your friend would clearly hear what your saying.

As the sound is created in your larynx, it’s immediately manipulated by the shape of your mouth, the position of your tongue, and placement of your lips. And it works like morse code. The sound has been encoded with an encrypted message, which can only be decrypted using the same lexicon you used, when you encoded it.

Now this is a technical way to talk about it, but this is what happens. And in terms of physics, when you speak, the sound you create is a set of frequencies. So what exists your mouth, is basically the vibration of air molecules. And because there are air molecules between you and your phone receiver, your phone microphone, which is a tiny diaphragm, detects the vibration of these air molecules and is able to read and record the message.

In an incredible feat of technological power, your message is instantly converted into an digital signal and beamed through a radio frequency to a nearby cell phone tower. Your cell phone tower is operated by your communication service, so the message travels to the appropriate hub which directs the message down to a tower near your friend, and then finally into your friend’s cell phone.

Your friend’s cell phone receives the radio frequency sent by the tower, converts it back into an analog signal and using your phone’s tiny speaker reconstructs your message and beams it through the air molecules and into your friend’s ear.

Now, the human ear has a tiny membrane, known as the ear drum, which is able to detect this message and turn it into an electrical signal and send it to your brain.

At this point, your friend must possess your lexicon used in the message to successfully decode your message and understand your original idea.

Just imagine that. In an instant, the idea which you generated in your mind, has been packaged and conveniently delivered to your friend, and your friend is magically able to possess the same idea.

I don’t know about you. But that is fascinating to me!

Now, you might ask, what does this have to do with music?

You see. When a musician performs, something very similar takes place, but not with ideas… but with emotion.

Good musicians are commonly sensitive people because they are acutely aware of what they’re feeling. Their feelings are so strong and overwhelming, that oftentimes they cannot find the right words for them, so they confide in creating music, which for them, is a much more effective tool for communicating emotion than words.

So if a philosopher begins with an idea using words, the musician begins with an emotion using music.

We’ll explore this in a later episode, but music has the unique capacity to instantly make you feel something.

So if the musician is good, they utilize the instruments which they have mastered to create a package for their feeling. What we call songs, are basically feeling packages.

Just like you can communicate ideas using words, you can communicate emotion using music.

Of course, when lyrics are involved, there is an overlap with linguistic communication and ideas are passed down, but if the musician is good, the lyrics themselves are not about the idea, as much as the feeling that the idea solicits.

Imagine yourself at a Snarky Puppy concert, and the chart calls for a guitar solo. If there aren’t any psychological barriers, the music should soon illicit a feeling inside of you.

As the bass and drums provide a context, the guitar player is improvising with riffs that almost seem like the guitar player is enthusiastically telling you a story. Even though there are no words, you close your eyes and just feel what the guitarist is trying to say. You experience being taken on a brief journey, it feels like traveling, it feels like storytelling, it feels like somewhere you’ve been before. Only to open your eyes and find the same facial expression you just created to be vividly painted on the face of the guitar soloist.

And at that moment, you realize that you’re both on the same journey. You’ve both just experience something incredible, you’ve both just shared in brief story and somehow, just by looking in the eyes of that musician, you know that he’s feeling the exact same thing you are.

And when that happens. Good music happens. Beauty happens. Community happens. A shared experience takes place.

This, my friends, is the goal of music.

By the way, this song is called, “What about me?” and it is performed by the Jazz Fusion group called Snarky Puppy. I will include a video link to the entire song in episode #1 at our website, which is, so go there if want to check them out. Or just hang tight, and I will be introducing them in an Artist Highlight podcast coming up soon.

I understand that there are many nuances to be made here, and unfortunately, I don’t have time in this episode to make them. But, have you ever thought of music this way? I’ll be honest, most people have no idea what music is and how it’s intended to work. In fact, the three major dictionaries, Cambridge, Oxford, and Webster, all get this completely wrong. I’m not kidding, but their definitions are really whacky.

In the next episode, we will parse their definitions and I’ll show you how they miss the point.

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