Take the score of, say, Beethoven's fifth symphony, and erase (sorry!) every element that contributes to accent (signature, staccatos, etc.), keeping only the notes. Now, somehow you manage to play it. Will an audience say that they're listening to music?

(OK, agreed, many will recognize the 5th, unwittingly bringing back elements that are left. Take any other -not so well known- example.)

Note: This question originates from a comment in another question, where it was stated: "The point at which sound gets organised into music is usually when there is more than one 'beat' in a bar."

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – user28
    Mar 28, 2016 at 18:55

2 Answers 2


As the comments have suggested, there are a number of ways to define "music", some more subjective than others. But a good starting point would be that music is "organised sound", with the one crucial caveat that it is sound organised temporally (i.e. "in time"). Therefore you could remove arbitrarily many parameters from a performance score and the result could be considered to be some kind of music, as long as this still results in the production of sounds, spaced temporally.

To take your Beethoven 5 example, I would argue that only the pitches and rhythms are crucial to easily recognising this piece of music when performed (assuming one has chosen a sensible set of tempi!) This would result in essentially the same piece of music being performed, but as an unbelievably flat, inexpressive performance. The extra information (accents, dynamics, phrasing etc.) are what create a "musical" performance of a piece of music. If the notes and rhythms are the "cake", these extra elements are the "icing-on-the-cake".

Then, of course, there is the additional interpretation provided by performers; conductor and orchestra, in this case (the "cherry-on-the-icing-on-the-cake"?)

If, on the other hand, you take this score and remove or change pitch or rhythm information, you would in all probability start to produce a recognisably different piece of music.

I would argue that the central question here, is not whether removal of performance indications results in a piece still being music or not, but instead what the relative artistic merits would be of these changes. In other words, how important artistically are the different elements (layers?) within a musical score?

I would also argue that some music relies more heavily upon "the dots" (pitches and rhythms) for its artistic integrity, than other music, which may rely more upon other parameters (articulation, dynamic, phrasing, orchestration etc.) To give an example: I'm pretty happy to hear a Bach Two-part Invention played on any pair of instruments (within reason!), or even while playing Jet Set Willy, but I can't think of any Ravel or Debussy orchestral music that would "work" changed in the same way. (This is surely a matter of personal preference to a certain extent though, as are all judgements of artistic merit.)

  • Here, Cage's 4'33" is not considered music, as it produces no sound (but the turning of pages by the interpreter). (Something with which I'm perfectly fine.)
    – nightcod3r
    Mar 28, 2016 at 20:33
  • Ha ha! What a coincidence: I showed my son a "performance" of 4'33" for the first time today on YouTube. He's 8 - not sure he got it...! And yes, I suppose this would be a notable exception to my argument above. Mar 28, 2016 at 20:39

I would define music fairly broadly, as sound that...

  • has been produced with some degree of intention

  • has been presented in a context in which it is intended to be enjoyed or appreciated in some way.

So a two-tone alarm sounding to tell you that there's a fire isn't music, even though it's deliberately organised sound - until someone records it and puts it on a CD, at which point it (by this definition) becomes music (because it's now presented in a context in which it's intended to be appreciated).

Likewise, a sound like waves crashing on the beach, which is enjoyed by many, wouldn't be described as 'music' (apart from prosaically/poetically).

If we apply this definition to your question, 'removing' accents, dynamics, etc. from music (insofar as that's possible) would do nothing to change the fact that it's music.

  • As you pointed out earlier, it's a tough question. Your point of view here is humanistic/social. At the end of the day, we could say that we invented music, as we invented maths, so we decide. In this context, it makes sense to consider Cage's 4'33" as music, even if the "organization of sound" takes it to the limit here. On the other hand, a bird's song might be out of place, unless we consider the fields as a proper context to enjoy music (which it is for me, at least), and reject the purposiveness principle of Nature (i.e., a bird's song exists just by chance).
    – nightcod3r
    Mar 28, 2016 at 20:27
  • @nightcod3r I wouldn't dare suggest that birds' actions are any less purposeful than some of mine, so I'm quite happy to accept that birds make 'music' by my definition! 4'33" is to me, partly, a statement about the importance of a 'context for appreciation' when it comes to seeing something as 'art' - arguably with some parallels with Duchamp's Fountain en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_(Duchamp). Mar 28, 2016 at 20:47
  • @nightcod3r and BTW I would say my personal perspective here probably comes from having been a language teacher at one point - I tend to look at what different people mean by a word and try to adopt the most inclusive useful definition(s). Mar 28, 2016 at 20:52
  • May be 'intentionality' is as hard to define as 'music' seems to be...
    – nightcod3r
    Mar 28, 2016 at 20:53

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