Music Is _____

What is music?  What is music?  What is music?  Though not a tonal language per se, English is a language of inflection and affection. We find ourselves enrapt with music’s ineffable characteristics, however to reach an agreeable definition seems impossible and ill advised.  Below represents the dynamic and diverse conclusions of composers, philosophers and, of course, musicians on the issue of sonority.


Let’s begin at the lifeblood of our Western world: the dictionary…

mu.sic (myoo’zik) n. 1. The art of organizing tones in a coherent sequence so as to produce a unified and continuous composition. 2. Vocal or instrumental sounds possessing rhythm, melody, and harmony.

The American Heritage Dictionary (Second College Edition)


What follows is an anachronistic listing of profound and shallow epigrams.

“Music is a kind of counting performed by the mind without knowing that it is counting.”                                                                                                                        G. W. Leibniz, The Monadology (1714)

“Music is an innocent luxury, unnecessary, indeed, to our existence, but a great improvement and gratification of the sense of hearing. It consists, at present, of MELODY, TIME, CONSONANCE, and DISSONANCE.”
Charles Burney, A General History of Music (1776-89)

“Music…is an invisible dance, as dancing is silent music.”
Jean Paul, Levana (1807)

“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.”
Ludwig van Beethoven, quoted by Bettina von Arnim. Letter to Goethe (1810)

“Music is the occult metaphysical exercise of a soul not knowing that it philosophises.”
Arthur Schopenhauer, quoted in Shapiro, An Encyclopedia of Quotations about Music (1978)

“Music means itself.”
Eduard Hanslick, The Beautiful in Music (1854)

“All music is what awakes from you
when you are reminded by the instruments,
It is not the violins and the cornets, it is
not the oboe nor the beating drums, nor
the score of the baritone singer singing
his sweet romanza, nor that of the men’s
chorus, nor that of the women’s chorus.
It is nearer and farther than they.”
Walt Whitman, ‘A Song for Occupations’

“Music is another lady that talks charmingly and says nothing.”
Austin O’Malley, Keystones of Thought (1914)

And one of my favorites…

“Music — that no one knows what it is —
and the less he knows he knows what it is
the nearer it is to music — probably”
Charles Ives, ‘Epitaph for David Twichell’ (1924)

“All music is nothing more than a succession of impulses that converge towards a definite point of repose.”
Igor Stravinsky, quoted in Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1963)

“After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
Aldous Huxley, Music at Night

“If this word ‘music’ is sacred and reserved for eighteenth and nineteenthcentury instruments, we can substitute a more meaningful term; organisation of sound.”
John Cage, Silence (1961), ‘The Future of Music: Credo’ (1937)

“Music is organized sound.”                                                                                                  Edgard Varèse

“Music, in the human realm, is simply nonlinguistic and conscious control of sound.”                                                                                                                         Bernie Krause, who later revised this definition, The Great Animal Orchestra (2012)

“Music is the best means we have of digesting time.”
W. H. Auden, quoted in Craft, Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship (1972)

“Music is a safe kind of high.”
Jimi Hendrix, quoted in Green, The Book of Rock Quotes (1982)

“There are three worlds of music — the composer’s, the performer’s and the critic’s.”
Erich Leinsdorf

“The hardest of all arts to speak of is music, because music has no meaning to speak of.”
Ned Rorem, Music from Inside Out

“Music is sound wanting to be heard.”
Bryan Pezzone

Feel free to add to this incomplete list.  Let’s be thankful we have no earlids!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s