"Table of Contents"


   Experiencing the Humanities


A Web Textbook

CollegeHumanities.org,  or  OnlineHumanities.org




12. Music: The
Universal Language


Painting on an ancient Greek vase depicting a music lesson*


Chapter Twelve of
Experiencing the Humanities

by Richard Jewell

Introduction--The Life and Times of Music

Music is perhaps the most universally practiced of all the arts. People from all cultures throughout the world, from ancient times through the present, enjoy music in some form, and a majority of people participate in it at some time in their lives, from simple singing along as a baby or child to rich complexities of singing, playing, or dancing to music made by instruments.

Part of the reason music is so universally experienced is that it is one of the our most natural experiences. As two sayings go, "music sooths the savage beast" (both real ones as well as parts of ourselves), and "music is ecstasy."

We are music. After all, we have our own instruments: our voices, and even our hands and feet for beating a percussive rhythm. In addition, in all the world around us, we find music in birds' songs, in the gurgling of brooks and the sounds of waves, and in the melodic (or not so melodic) tones and rhythms of animals' noises and people's voices. You hear music every day even if you can't sing a tune. To be human is to be musical.

Surfing the Edge of the Wave

As mentioned in the beginning of "Chapter Eleven: The Performing Arts," music--as one of the performing arts--moves through time. This means that his means that we must pay a different kind of attention to it than we do when looking at a book, a picture, or a statue. We must, instead, pay special attention to the leading edge of the music, as if it were the edge of a wave.

Regarding this kind of attention, Samuel Thompson, a twentieth-century philosopher, suggests that we adopt a listening attitude toward music, one that works well for all performance arts.  Thompson, a professor at Monmouth College in Illinois, had a small house near the campus and perhaps the best, largest, and most expensive music system in his town of 10,000 for listening to music.  He would close all his doors and windows and then turn up the sound so that it was as loud as that of any rock band; then he would play pieces from his collection of classical music.  Thompson's method of listening was this: he said that music is like a constant wave of sound, so we should listen to it by focusing on the front edge of the sound

In other words, we must always listen to what is coming out of the sound system--or the performance--at that very instant.  And doing so is like riding the front edge of an ocean wave of music using our ears as our surf boards.

Imagine, for example, that you are on a surf board, staying right at or under the front edge of the wave as it advances. Your job--and your enjoyment--depend on you riding that front edge as continually as possible, always in the present, in the now, as you listen. Don't worry about what happened a few seconds ago, or where the wave is headed. Just listen to it right now.

Why is music especially important?

In experiencing and understanding the humanities, music plays a special role. It is perhaps the single art form most thoroughly and intricately enmeshed with other aspects of a society. This means music is one of the most primary, basic strands of the web that ties all parts of a culture together, whether a culture's music is fast or slow, gentle or strong, voiced or instrumental, chorded or with single notes, or all of these.

For example, ancient Israel's famous King David played a lyre (an early stringed instrument somewhat like a guitar). And as a simple, poor shepherd boy in the fields, watching over his flock of sheep for unending days and nights, did he likely also learn, as did other country boys and girls, to cut holes in wood straws to make a flute or recorder? David is the reputed author of a number of the Old Testament's "Psalms" (or "songs").

Did a large number of shepherds play musical instruments? Did they gather and learn each others' songs? Did they play, often, for family? Did they play in public, or even for rich households as entertainment to earn a little extra money? Did they play for royalty? in ancient Israel, how many shepherds--such as David, author of many of the Old Testament's Psalms ("Songs"), who later became a king--sing their songs or play their simple woodwind instruments as they watched their sheep? Did they share their songs with other shepherds over campfires or in towns? Did they sing those same songs to others in town, to royal households, and on travels to nearby countries? How many of their songs have traveled through the ages to our own times? What do the answers to all of these questions show about David's culture?

Because of the great importance and influence of music, you may examine any time period in history--or a particular cultural part of that time period--you can by looking, in part, at its music. Who played the music? Who listened or danced to it? Where was it played, whether in private or in public? When during day and night was it played, and why? For example, how would it be possible to truly describe the last half of twentieth century America and Europe without explaining the profound effect of rock music on its youth?

If you can answer such questions as those above about any culture's music, you already have made a significant beginning examination of that culture. This type of examination offers answers to some of the deepest and most relevant questions a culture's culture's psychology, sociology, politics, religion, and philosophy--the culture's overall thinking, feeling, and acting.

What is "Music"?


What, exactly, is the sound we call music? It is not just any noise (though individual noises can be adopted into music to add to it). And it is not completely random (though some sounds in nature, such as a gurgling brook, sometimes might be called "musical" because they happen to sound beautiful). Music can, perhaps, be defined in at least four ways: self-expression, symbol, organized sound, and social connection. Usually, at least three of these definitions are involved in making or hearing music. Often, all four are in some way combined.

First, music is self expression. From the earliest pounding of sticks on rocks by a caveman or cavewoman, to the most intricate and delicate electronic notes played by keyboards today, music is a way of individual self-expression. This self-expression can be very ordered or totally unordered, depending on how we feel and what we want. It can be accomplished very simply with just one's own voice, even with a growl or a scream of expression; or it can be accomplished with many years of training and subtle playing on a rich, multi-toned, multi-note device producing many notes at once. Music "talks" to us in ways that words cannot, reaching some of our deepest emotional and physical depths and some of our highest, most pure or abstract spiritual heights. Music allows us to express ourselves in new ways. It can help us or hurt us, so great is its power; it can lead us to do wonderful or terrible things. Music is so innate, so automatic, that it requires no education in words, no paints or brushes, and no instruments except what we find within our own vocal chords and objects around us. But it also can reach a level of refinement and meaning that goes beyond words and pictures, at times, beyond even the complex instruments on which it can be played, to express feelings and experiences that nothing else quite can explain.

Second, music is symbol. It is, quite simply, a language, itself: a language of feelings. This was stated in "Chapter Eight" about all art, that art is the language of feeling, a viewpoint well developed by twentieth-century American philosopher Suzanne Langer. However, music is perhaps, directly and intensely, a language of feelings more than almost any other form of art. Each note in music, each sound, is a symbol of some kind of feeling, just like each word in writing is a symbol for some kind of meaning. Each chord or series of notes is just like a written (or spoken) sentence or paragraph. Each note, each phrasing of several notes, and each song conveys a feeling--or even several feelings rolled into one musical story--that we not only appreciate but that represents us as a human being: a musical story that we can understand deeply on a level that words or visual art alone often cannot so intensely convey.

Third, music is an organization of these symbols, of certain sounds. This organization includes notes that sound good together, called "harmony," and notes that create sounds that tend to grate against each other, called "disharmony." Theories about harmonious and disharmonious music have been written since at least 500 BCE by Greek philosophers and musicians. In short, there simply is, within most of us, an innate, biologically-based agreement on which notes sound good together (as in a well trained choir or in a love song on a guitar), and which notes clash (as in music purposely--or accidentally--making us wince, cover our ears, or want to hide). Notes that sound good together are called "tonal music," and notes that seem not to fit together or even clash or grate in our ears is called "atonal music."

Notes that are pleasing are organized in a wide variety of melodies and harmonies over a flowing period of time. Some music seems universally to be organized to make us feel positive, happy, even joyful. And some music seems organized naturally to make us feel sad (as in "minor-note" songs) or even willful, angry, or distressed. Other forms of organization include, for example, the notes of the musical scale (as on a piano); the speed and intensity at which notes are played; and the way different instruments or vocal sounds are arranged to create different effects in listeners or players.

Fourth, music often is social connection. On the one hand, it can be intensely private for those first creating it. However, as soon as music is performed for others, it becomes social communication from artist to listeners and, often, among the listeners. Whether you listen to the song of a Muslim prayer being called out from a tower over miles of a city, a full orchestra playing a symphony, a jazz piece, a hard-rock song, or anything else musical, we as humans "talk" to each other about our emotions--our feelings--when we listen to others playing, even more so when we sing together, and perhaps at an even deeper level when we dance together, letting the music control our body rhythms and feelings on a physical level.

Human beings seem more willing to be social with music--to share it, together, more often, in a greater variety of ways--than perhaps with any other form of art. Perhaps this is because we all have the natural instruments for joining in: voices that can sing, feet and hands that can tap, and bodies that can dance. For whatever reason, music is one or humankind's deepest and most common forms of bonding in groups small and large. It is a world language in which all of us are able, if we wish, to participate.


Some cultural anthropologists--as mentioned in the beginning of "Chapter 11: The Performing Arts"--suggest that the first languages may have come from dancing and singing.  Human beings, they say, may have chanted songs to each other using repeated rhythms and notes and changing words.  That is, language was born, perhaps, as a regular mixture of both words and musical notes. 

However language began, singing is, clearly, a very ancient art form.  It is endemic to almost all cultures throughout the world, rustic to highly advanced.  Musical instruments were developed early in the history of humankind, as well.  Several thousand years before the advent of the first high cultures, possibly many tens of thousands of years ago, people first fashioned instruments from gut strings, reeds, horns, and other natural objects and used them as a complement to their singing.  By the time high cultures and written records appeared in Egypt, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East, well made instruments of varying kinds were a part of those cultures.

In addition, some of our earliest written texts were created with the intention of their being chanted or sung. Examples include such early texts as the "Psalms" and "Song of Solomon" of the Bible's Old Testament; much of the Muslim Quabala, meant to be sung or chanted; the first "novel" ever written, Gilgamesh; and the first written yoga instructions, Patanjali's Yoga-Sutra.

The history of musical instruments likely begins almost as early as the first songs were sung. Early human beings likely used natural objects as instruments to beat a rhythm in time with their songs, their walking, and their dancing using devices that sounded interesting, some objects (like rocks) sounding hard, others (like dried bones) sounding hollow, and still others (like grasses) making a swishing sound. One can easily imagine these early human beings learning to vary the beat, the sounds, and the loudness or softness to mimic their lives of hunting, birthing, celebrating, and dying. Eventually in ancient times, as with the art of storytelling, the real events recounted by song, word, and beating instruments became merged into each other to tell the song stories of great heroes and great villains, mythic in their stature of half god, half human, and sometimes half animal. Such myths were sung or chanted to the accompaniment of beating on natural objects around untold campfires through thousands of years.

Gradually, for these instrumental and sung stories and entertainment, people made specific instruments. They saved special pieces of bone, tied rushes together, cut pieces logs for drums. They learned they could stretch animal hides across a frame to make a better drum, and they could cut reeds in special ways to create different flutes. In time, as early humans developed metallurgy--the making of metals--they turned their metal cutting, melting, and shaping to also making instruments through which they could blow air to make songs: horns of different types and sizes.

And gradually, over thousands of years, different types of instruments proliferated. And different types of stories and events required different types of songs. In some early cities, groups of musicians came together to play and sing. And different cities and cultures throughout the world began not only creating somewhat different types of musical pieces, but they also--through trade caravans and wandering musicians--began to share these culturally rich and different musical methods.


Instruments vary from the simplest bark-notched reed to the most complex using yards of tubing or dozens of yards of strings. Humans have played instruments as soon as they were able to start making tools, which is to say, from tens of thousands of years ago, possibly earlier.

What does it mean to play an instrument? It helps, perhaps, to imagine you are playing each type of musical instrument. Though having a real instrument (or a toy version) may help, it also is relatively easy to watch such musical instruments being played, and then imagine you are playing those instruments. Stand up, put your lips together, and pretend you are holding a trumpet, cornet, tuba, or French horn: let your lips squeeze out the notes and your fingers play the keys. Or sit and put your mouth around the tip and reed of a saxophone or clarinet, or blow into a flute, and pretend your fingers are moving the levers or stopping the air holes to create different sounds. Or imagine you are rapping on a drum or cymbals, or perhaps playing the strings of a guitar like your favorite guitarist or band. It only takes a few seconds of any of these to begin to feel how players actually feel, playing an instrument.

Though plenty of soloists are quite famous on their instruments, most people who play instruments--and who sing--do so in groups. Producing music often is the fine art of playing together using sounds and patterns that make sense in some way to your audience. The players usually practice together to make sounds that are not just understandable to their audience but also can transport their audience to special emotional places, places of deep, low, or high feeling.

There are five basic instrument types. They are percussion, woodwind, string, brass, and electronic

Percussion instruments (drums et al.): Percussive instruments have been around since our cave-dwelling ancestors began beating rhythms on objects around them: logs, rocks, and bones. Percussives establish an underlying beat or pattern, like the human heart. They include drums, bells, and anything hit by hand or with a stick to create a percussive sound. Sticks usually are called "drumsticks."

In an orchestra or large band, drums and other percussive instruments of several types may be used: a standard bass, tom-tom, snare, timpani, and cymbals. Sometimes a bell lyra (flat metal keys on a stand, in the shape of a lyra).

A typical rock, jazz, or other ensemble (group of players) with drums usually includes at least one (and sometimes two) of the following: kick-drum (bass or floor drum), cymbals, floor tom (larger tom-tom  on lower stand), stand tom (smaller tom-tom on higher stand), snare drum, kick-drum (bass or floor drum), steelpan drum, and gong.

Other specialized drums may be used exclusively in a band of all drums of one type in some cultures, for example, a conga band. Or a specialized drum may be a featured instrument in an orchestra, band, or other ensemble: examples include the bongo, conga, tambourine, tabla, wood block, and others from many, many cultures across the world and throughout time.

Several types of percussive instruments create individual notes. One common example is a popular children's toy, the xylophone--a series of one or two octaves of flat metal plates, often in different colors, which you hit one at a time. Other note-making percussive instruments include the bell lyra, a set of bells, marimba, chimes, and many others.

Woodwinds (clarinets, flutes, et al.): Woodwind instruments have been with us since the first person in antiquity took a hollow reed or a tube of bark and blew through it to create a note. Adding holes made more notes, and gradually such "wood winds" became carved and ever more complex.

Woodwinds offer "air" sounds, often higher, such as emotional thoughts and soaring feelings: clarinets, recorders, flutes, oboes, saxophones, fifes, and others are considered woodwinds. Some of them now are made of brass or other metals; however, they got their start as wooden instruments, and they produce a sound that has a noticeable "breath" sound.

The old-fashioned church organ also is a woodwind. This is because when you hit a key, you allow air to travel through a pipe. Each pipe has a different note, from very low to very high. Until several centuries ago, pipes were made of wood; then they became metal. A modern organ, whether in a church or in a home as a piano-size instrument, makes its sound electronically. However, larger churches sometimes still have air-fed pipes, and they are considered excellent instruments that cannot be compared to quite any other single instrument for grandeur, tone, and range.

String instruments (violins, guitars, et al.): Strings have been with us since a human first discovered that you could stretch a thin, dry "string" of animal gut between two sticks and make a note by plucking it. Different lengths and thicknesses of these gut strings produced different notes.

String instruments now are made of nylon, sometimes steel, and other manufactured materials. The strings provide a wide variety of vibrating sounds from very smooth to as harsh as you might want (imagine some sounds made by electric guitars), either as a single notes or as chords of several notes simultaneously, creating a wide variety of emotions and feelings: violins, violas, bass viols, guitars, bass guitars, lutes, cellos, violas, and others.

Among the strings are the percussive strings, such as the piano. A percussive string is an instrument on which, usually, you hit a key (as on a piano), which makes a small hammer, usually made of wood, hit a string inside the instrument. The result is a note. Percussive strings include the piano, harpichord,

Brass instruments (horns): Brass and other metal instruments probably first were created from large tubes of bark or hollow wood big enough that you could pucker your lips and blow into these wood tubes to make a horn-like sound. Originally made of wood, and difficult to shape because they were wood (more difficult than woodwinds, which only require a thin piece of wood and some holes), horn instruments had their real beginnings when humans started shaping metals.

Think, for example, of how the wandering early Jewish people, travelling to their land of Israel to settle it, invated the walled city of Jericho by blowing their horns, thus--as the story goes--making the walls tumble down so they could get inside and take it over. While many metals have been used for horned instruments, brass has been a particularly convenient metal, both in forging (making) horned instruments and in the tones that come from brass-made instruments. Thus horn instruments have acquired, over time, the name "brass" instruments.

Brasses create basic, underlying movement and deeper, more physical feelings: examples of the brasses include the trumpet, cornet, trombone, French horn, E-horn, baritone, bass, and others. Brass instruments require breath, but the sounds they produce are more metallic--"brassier"--and are slightly newer in the ancient history of instruments because they were made from metal, not wood like woodwinds, or gut strings like stringed instruments.

Electronic instruments (electric guitars and keyboards et al.). Electric instruments are new since the invention of electricity, become common only in the last half of the 1900s. From the beginning--with electrification of guitars, organs, and other keyboards--they have promised exciting new ways of producing and hearing music. Now they are common, especially because they can offer almost all of the sounds above and more. They range from electric guitars, drum pads, and electronic keyboards to computers and synthesizers with high quality speaker systems. All of them, depending on the level of quality, can produce a wide range of tones, types of sounds, and rhythms.

Someday, we might add "bionic instruments" to the list. Bionic instruments would be electronic music played by our imagining it in our heads or even, perhaps, moving our fingers as if on a keyboard. Our brains would be wired in to an electronic biofeedback device or "bio-receiver," either through an actual wire or, more likely, through headgear that can "hear" our biological brain signals and send the signals wirelessly to the bio-receiver.

In each instrumental group are many kinds of instruments that can--and do--go far beyond what the limited descriptions above suggest. Indeed, each instrumental group, above, has so many instruments that they often can span the whole rainbow of human emotions. And while some instruments can mimic each others' sounds, each major group of instruments, above, does have a particular type of sound that separates it from the other groups. As a result, each of the instrumental groups above can speak in a unique range of emotional messages.

So many types of instrumental music, instruments, and groups have developed throughout history that there is no room to discuss all of them. They range from the simple instrumental groups of pipe, string instrument, and drum that got together in very ancient times to play with each other and entertain others, and from the very complex and large multi-instrument orchestras that began developing in the renaissance and baroque (post-renaissance) times, and to today's different types of small and large instrumental groups, from rock, country bands, classical music's small and large groups, to jazz, hip hop, reggae, and many other types.


Jazz in particular has an interesting and relatively recent history. For this reason, it is a good example of how instrumental types of music can develop.

Many people think that jazz started in New Orleans in the early 1900s with such players as Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. However, like many other instrumental styles throughout history, the music called "jazz" started in many places at once, all the way from New Orleans' particular style of experiments to the rural Southern "juke joints"--small African-American bars where people gathered to listen to whoever was playing and to drink beer and, often, stronger homemade brews.

In all of these places, musicians were synthesizing, experimenting, and trying out different styles of playing trumpets, saxophones, pianos, string instruments, and more by playing what they felt. In many places, with many inspirations, slowly a form of music developed that was especially evocative of people's soaring and plummeting emotions, some of it great for dancing, some of it so freeform that it was more for just listening, some of it with voices but a lot of it just a small group of musicians experimenting with each other. Other influences included musical styles called "mambo" from the Caribbean and "bossa nova" from South America. Gradually this merging and experimentation in mostly the Southern United States came to be known loosely as "jazz." And musicians began to pick it up in the big cities, write it down, and replay the same songs over and over.

It moved northward from places like New Orleans, Jacksonville, and Kansas, up the rivers, railroads, and highways to northern and eastern locations. One version of jazz, called "swing," was particularly popular on the new radio stations developing around the nation and in ballrooms across the country.  famous swing bands like Louis Armstrong and Bennie Goodman would come to town and play in the largest ballroom or dancehall available, touring the country for decades and, eventually, making records in the newly developing record industry. Even today, most big cities and some smaller ones have at least one important venue where jazz is played regularly. And jazz, like many other forms of instrumental playing before it, has become a specific type of music that is considered important, creative, and historic.


We as a human species have been singing from the beginning of our first existence. Perhaps we started "singing" even before that, when we were more animal than human, howling into the night, crying out, and using our voices to make a wide variety of other sounds expressing our feelings before (or in addition to) our earliest civilized words.

Types of Musical Parts, Voices, or Voice Ranges

How do you learn about singing? It is fairly easy, at least in your head (whether you have a good or poor singing voice), to imagine several different singing parts. Singing parts, or types of voices--also known as "voices" or "voice ranges"--are divided by pitch (how high or low the notes are) and by gender. The gender division exists because, after male voices go through their voice change in early puberty from a high pitch to a lower pitch, these mature male voices usually are a half octave to a full octave lower than women's voices. In addition, men's and women's voices have, on average, different tonal qualities. Here are the names of the basic pitches of voices (though many more--and other names--also exist):

                                                    FEMALE                            MALE

                        HIGH:                 Soprano                               Tenor

                        MIDDLE:           Alto                                      Baritone

                        LOW:                  Contralto                                            Bass

Usually, once a male's voice is done changing at puberty, both men and women retain the same voice pitch. Sometimes, however, aging and sickness can change it slightly.

Types of Groups

There are soloists--singers who sing alone. However, there also are many types of singing groups.

Again, learning about singing often is easier if you use your imagination. Do you sing or play in a group, or would you like to? Which kinds of musical groups would you like to be part of--a rock band or hip hop or rap group, a small or large choir, or perhaps a band or orchestra? What musical part would you sing in a group, and/or what musical instrument do you imagine yoursel playing? The best way to understand each of these groups is to imagine being a member in them, singing or playing your part.

Many types of groups exist. Here are some types of groups and the number of musicians for each. The types and sizes are general, here, and the names may vary in actual usage.


solo performance: one singer
duo (two singers); duet (two singing in two parts, as in a harmony)
trio, quartet, quintet, sextet, etc.: three, four, five, six, or more singers
barbershop quartet, sextet, etc.: singers using sprightly, tight harmonies

"choir" (a generic term): group of singers of almost any size,
larger sizes often have a conductor in front leading with hands or a baton

small or ensemble choir: small group of singers
chamber choir
: twenty to thirty-six singers
chorus: sixty to eighty or more singers (also a generic term)


"band" (a generic term):
brasses, woodwinds, and percussives (no strings; e.g., a "school band"),
and a conductor in front leading with a baton

marching band: a band with the above instruments marching in a parade or sports bowl
rock/country/pop/garage band
: small group of singers playing guitars, drums, keyboard, sometimes more
jazz/rhythm and blues/funk band
: smaller group that may include piano, string bass, drums, trumpet or saxophone, and singer(s)
swing band/"big band"
(1900-1950): singer backed by multiple jazz instruments and additional brasses


classical music (generic term): all formal music using formal European instruments, ancient-current times.

Periods and types of general classical music:
"renaissance" music
: formalized, repetitive playing and singing, often for royal courts and the rich
"baroque" music
: melodic; mostly strings, woodwinds, and harpsicord, about 1600-1750
"classical" music (as a specific time period): European formal music, about 1750-1825
"romantic" music: emotional and passionate formal music, about 1830-1900
"modern" music: formal music that breaks from convention/tradition, about 1900-2000
"contemporary" music: a mix of many conventions, styles, and experiments, about 2000-present

"orchestra" (a generic term):
fifteen to ninety-plus, like a band but with many added strings,
and a conductor in front leading with a baton

Specific types of classical music groups:
through sextet: as above in "singing," but with instruments
standard string quartet: two violins, a cello, and a viola
string quintet: a quartet with an extra viola or cello, or a bass viol
chamber orchestra: fifteen to forty-five players
symphony orchestra
: ninety or more players

Several major types of classical performances:
a symphony
: a long, elaborate classical concert, often in four movements
a concerto: a long, elaborate concert with featured soloist(s), often in three movements
a sonata: a concert featuring a soloist, often backed by a piano, often in several movements
an opera: primarily a staged play with all dialogue in singing, back by an orchestra
an overture: the beginning of a classical piece that introduces, briefly, the major musical theme(s)
a movement: classical pieces often have several movements, each like a chapter in a book

There are all kinds of groups and combinations of singing and playing in our contemporary times. Large orchestras back solo singers or a band. Bands play mixes of rock, country, hip hop, rap, and classical. Big orchestras play rock, country, and hip hop songs. In addition, the categories above really only touch the surface of all the different types of singing groups, bands, and classical music groups that exist. For example, rock music alone can be divided in classic rock, hard rock, soft rock, pop rock, psychedelic rock, funk rock, country rock, jazz rock, sitar rock, and so many others. The same is true for many of the other categories.

Country Music

Country music is an excellent example of how a style of music can suddenly blossom in one era or another. It has been born in the United States in just the past century or so and has spread throughout the world. Country music has become its own, separate style and subculture of music within less than one hundred years. Many other styles and subcultures of music have taken much longer to develop. As a result, and because its development is so recent and widespread, it is an excellent example of how new musical styles and subcultures come into existence on our planet.

Country music alone has a dozen or more major categories. Originally a mixture of early African-American plantation and juke joint cultures (juke joints are small shacks in the South where liquor and food is served and a live band plays black music for people who dance) on the one hand; and, on the other, early Mexican and Mexican-American music from the decades before and after the United States confiscated one third of Mexico and created the U.S.'s southwestern U.S. states. This combination had further additions, such as the folk music of people from the British Isles who came to the U.S. to live in the eastern hills and, in many cases, become coal miners; the gospel music developing in small, evangelical Christian churches in the Midwest and Far West; and other strands of music from early jazz, old slave songs, and very early rock.

In a matter of one hundred years or less, country music became a soaring, powerful, new, and popular music category. It has become an integral and unifying force and power in thousands of villages and small towns across the country, as well as being very popular in urban and suburban areas. With the advent of radio in the 1900s, and especially of the very powerful early radio stations that could reach many hundreds of miles away from their broadcast points, country spread ever more until it arguably is the most popular category of music in the United States today.

All other types of music spread, as well, just as country music has: people find out about every type of music, if they wish, by radio, television, computers, social media, and word of mouth. In any town of ten or twenty thousand people, now, you may be able to find excellent musicians who work as soloists or in groups, bands, choirs, and orchestras who are looking for audiences and sometimes other musicians who can join them in singing and playing the types of music they mutually love.

How is music organized and written?

Most music is identifiable by its type and sub-type as discussed above. In other words, most people can tell the difference easily and quickly between, say, classical music and children's songs; between rock, country, and hip-hop; or between opera and musicals on the one hand and marching-band music on the other. And most music is organized creatively and intuitively using the patterns of the types and sub-types. That is to say, someone writing a country song usually will use one of several basic patterns in country music, and a sub-type of this pattern: for example, a country song of the sub-type blue grass, and of that sub-type's sub-type "ballad." The same is true for almost all organizing of music: creators start with an idea that fits within the type or "genre" of music they are best at writing, and then they follow the patterns of the sub-type of song they want to write.

Some of the most interesting music, if more difficult to successfully perform or sell, are the genre-crossing songs. Lil Nas's country and hip hop crossover of 2019, "Old Town Blues," is an excellent example, one that also demonstrates what many rock and hip hop musicians have known for many years: hip hop and rock, and hip hop and country, often use the same organizational patterns of song writing and so can, with the right words, be sung in any of these three styles. The Moody Blues hit album Days of Future Past was one of the very first to establish major crossover status in 1967-8 of classical music fused with rock. And many classical music themes--the main "song" to which most classical music pieces keep returning--that are one and two centuries old or more have become popular hits with words put to the theme, or even used in commercials.

However, there are other structures besides just the type and sub-type of music. Some of the most basic, underlying structures of music have to do with our heartbeats, our instinctual sense of notes and harmonies, and of other elements tied in deeply to our biological existence as human beings, as follows.

The Western Twelve-tone Scale

In the West, the organization of music usually is based on a twelve-note scale, also known as the twelve-"tone" scale. This is a biological reality for the great majority of people. We can hear the notes and recognize, all of us, that they seem to be separate notes, and that some of them fit together well, and some don't seem to fit together.

When notes fit together, as when several keys are played at the same time on a piano, or several strings at the same time on a guitar, we say that the tones have "harmony" or are "harmonious." In fact, there are "major" chords that are used in most music, using two or three tones that fit pleasingly, fit well, in human ears, and make us feel happy, energetic, firm, or in other ways positive. There also are "minor" chords which convey a different set of feelings such as loss, difficulties, or other slightly sad feelings. And then there are discordant chords--that make us feel uncomfortable or bad, jangled or otherwise unpleasant, notes that just do not seem to fit together at all.

The tones in a scale are the actual sound of each note, or its vibration. Scientifically, each tone has an exact vibration difference that is proportionate to the notes before and after it. In other words, the vibrations of each note have an exact pattern, moving up or down a scale, such that science can measure each one mathematically. Some philosophers have even said that music is the language of mathematics, or that the sound of mathematics is music.

Of course, the twelve-tone scale was developed long before science examined it. Science just tells us how it works. In real life, most people can hear the differences easily, and a majority of people can, with a bit of practice, sing the twelve steps. In addition, it is very easy to play the twelve steps on a piano or similar keyboard.

Why does a keyboard instrument make it easy for everyone to play the twelve-tone scale? It is because the twelve-tone scale is one set of white and black keys on a keyboard, before you start over with the next set of white and black keys. You simply play each of the keys in a row: twelve keys, including all of the white and black keys. That is one set. It takes you through all twelve Western music tones. Of these twelve keys, a keyboard has seven white keys and five black ones.

With every thirteenth note, you start a new set of twelve tones, but at a higher octave. That means that a middle-range, white-key "C" tone on a keyboard is the same tone as a higher white-key "C" note. The difference is just that one is lower in pitch, and one is higher. For other purposes, they can work the same in singing and playing any Western song.

Another popular way of knowing or remembering the Western scale is to remember a song made with just the white keys on a keyboard. These seven white keys are known as the "natural" tones (and the black ones are the "flats" and "sharps"). This song, using the seven white keys, is the "Do-Re-Mi" song from the movie The Sound of Music. In the movie in this particular song, music teacher Maria teaches the von Trapp children to sing "Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, Do," "Doe, a deer, a female deer," etc. If the "Do re mi" is played on a keyboard with just the seven white keys, it starts on the "C" key. It can be played in other ways with slightly different sets of keys, but starting with the "C" key is a popular way of teaching a scale.

The simplest way to understand all of Western music's tones--and the tones of most other countries' music--is to use this basic twelve-tone range of sounds. These tones are natural to the human ear and human body. This is so especially for the seven "natural" or "major" tones--the white keys on a piano: they are used for songs that most people consider positive or neutral for their feelings. The "half-step," "minor," or flat and sharp tones--the black notes on a piano--add whole additional ranges of emotional and physical feelings.

This twelve-note plan works fairly well as a system of tones in Western music. However, there are two problems with it.

The first, a relatively small problem, is for those who wish to write and read musical notes. A sharp and a flat sometimes can be the same key (and sometimes a sharp or a flat can also be a natural key). For example, there are seven white keys on a keyboard, but there are only five black keys. If you know keyboards, you also know that the white key called "C" has a black key immediately after it, and that black key is called "C sharp." But that same "C sharp" also is "D flat" compared to the white "D" key. Even harder, if you go back to the white "C" key and then try to play "C flat," there is no black key for it, so the next key down, which is "B," becomes your "C flat." Most music writing is aware of this problem and tries to make the musical notes as easy to read as possible.

And if this sounds confusing, don't worry about it! Just enjoy the music. If you decide to read music--notes written on paper or on a screen--especially complex music, knowing this about flats and sharps can be important. Otherwise, you don't need to know it to enjoy music and to hear it accurately and well.

What is the second problem with the twelve-tone scale? It is a much bigger problem for some types of music, at least if you try to play that music. Some music--for example, Asian Indian ragas (as in sitar music) and Arab maqamat (developed from ancient Egyptian clapper and flute playing)--use more than twelve tones in a single scale. If you learn to play the music on the types of instruments or sing it in the types of songs made for these scales, then you can adapt to it with practice. If you are just a listener, however, you may want to listen especially close to the leading edge of such music when you first hear it, so that you can hear the differing vibrations of some of the notes that are different from Western music. However, again, as with all music, if you simply follow the leading edge of the music, listening attentively, and let it sweep into and through you, that is all you need to enjoy and understand it.

Tempo, Beats per Measure, and Repetition

Organization also includes tempo or speed, beats per measure, and repetition. Speed, or tempo, means that some music is played slowly, some quickly.

Tempo, or speed, mimics the rhythms of nature, most especially the human heart. Slow tempos often are about the speed of our own human hearts at rest, perhaps 40-60 beats per minutes. They are used, for example, in "slow songs" for dancing, at funerals, and to convey sadness, seriousness, or other "heavy" emotions and physical sensations.

Fast tempos often are used, for example, for "fast songs" for dancing, for marching bands and sports events, and in rock and heavy metal. Many tempos exist between these two extremes: for example, Playing more slowly and holding notes longer--or adding longer pauses between notes--creates somber, thoughtful, sometimes heavy-feeling music. Music played at a fast pace often is considered more danceable music, music for marching, or otherwise music that conveys and encourages wild swings of bursts of emotional feeling and physical activity.

When classical, band, and choir music is written, it also may have special words above the written notes, words indicating what speed to use in playing or singing the music. The words often are in Italian. "Adagio," for example, means "slow," "allegro" means "fast," and "presto" means "even faster." There are many such words that you can research.

Sometimes a written piece of music piece may have, at its beginning, a word or two describing the speed of the piece. Other pieces, such as waltzes, have an expected tempo and so, if a piece is labeled "waltz," that defines the tempo. Fast rock songs, for example, typically have 120-130 beats per minute, or twice the normal speed of the human heartbeat. Yet other pieces may have no indication, especially if it comes from early classical music periods or before.

As a result, for such music, musicians and directors may depend on tradition or even historical research to figure out what speed to use. In addition, musical directors and small groups sometimes like to play a little with the tempo of a musical piece. They may make it a little faster, or perhaps a bit slower, just to see what effect this has on listeners.

Measures are the unit for organizing notes and beats into very small groups so that they are easier to read, sing, and play. A measure may have one, longer, held note; typically it has three or four notes; sometimes it may have as many as eight or even sixteen little, very fast notes. The best way, perhaps, to determine what a measure is in a song is to count the pattern of beats: what you might count in your head as you first listen, for example,  just before you start dancing to a song or playing it. You might, for example, figure out that there is a "1 ,2, 3, 1, 2, 3" repetitive pattern or beat; or you might figure out there is a "1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4" repetitive pattern. The "1,2,3" pattern means that each measure has three beats in it; "1,2,3,4" means each measure has four beats to it.

And again, in any single set of "1,2,3" or "1,2,3,4," there can be one long note held for all three or four beats, or perhaps two notes held slightly longer during those three or four beats, or perhaps (most commonly) three notes in a three-beat measure, or four notes in a four-beat measure, or even a lot of faster, briefer notes in that measure. For example, the song "Mary had a little lamb" has four beats to the measure. Every word represents one note and one beat, in this song, except for the word "lamb," which lasts for two beats, and the word "snow" at the end, which lasts for three or four beats. You can count the beats and the lengths of the notes with your fingers as you sing the song to yourself.

When music has a three-beat time (most often called "3/4" time, as above in "1, 2, 3"), it may sound something like a waltz or other slower, more graceful song. A popular old song of this type is sung in the first line as "Skaters away, Glide, glide and sway." This music from this song actually first was part of a classical waltz. "Slow songs" for dancing often are three beats per measure, as well.

Music that has four beats per measure (most often in a pattern called "4/4 time") often is faster. Marching music often has four beats per measure, as do "fast songs" for dancing, most rock and hip hop songs, and many country songs.

A short song may have just one or two dozen measures, whereas a symphony may have many hundreds of measures. The number of beats per measure is called the "time" or, sometimes, the "time signature." The number of measures--the length of a musical composition--along with its speed and style of playing all join together to create certain types of music, whether a simple nursery rhyme or a long, complex full-orchestra symphony.

Repetition is of great importance in almost all music. Repetition means, simply, that an important part of the music is repeated. In classical music, this repetition sometimes is called a "restatement." It especially applies to a restatement of the main theme, which often is played briefly at the beginning, restated in a variety of ways throughout the main part of the classical piece, and then brought into full play in a final restatement at the end.

In popular songs of all kinds, repetition occurs especially in the "chorus" or "refrain." This is a repetition of several lines of music and words, often done about three times, sometimes more or less, using the same words and notes. This alternates with the "verses," or main story line. Typically, popular songs start with the first set of verses, which start telling the story or feeling, and then the refrain is played. Then a new set of verses that further describe the story or feeling are sung and played; then the refrain is played once again. In this way, the power of the refrain, its summary and overall meaning for the story, keep building in the repetition. In a successful popular song, by the end--when the refrain is played one more time--the meaning of it becomes very clear and strong. Almost all popular song from almost any kind of popular music follows this pattern.

In both classical and popular music, though, there are smaller repetitions. In popular music, each verse, however different the words might be, have a very similar or exact same melody. In both types of music, there are patterns of notes that go up in similar places in the different movements or verses, and patterns of notes that go down--or vary in other repeated ways. Repetition of notes makes that measure, that set of words, stronger, more memorable, and more understandable in our minds and bodies, consciously and unconsciously, as we listen.

Conclusion--Music and Human Nature

Music is basic to human nature. This chapter describes how music is created, organized, and experienced. The most important part is the experiencing of music. Knowing more about how it is made may help you appreciate it more as you listen, sing, or play. But actually listening to the very edge--or learning your music well enough that you can sing or play the leading edge--is the most important key to appreciating music. Whether you are hearing it, dancing to it, singing it, or playing it, music is not some kind of abstract, analytical language. It is what we are, often, as humans.

Music is our own heartbeats, the blinking beats of our eyes, our fingers, our toes. We hear music in the bubbling of water, the shushing breath of the wind, the calls of birds. For many listeners and viewers, it is more personal, sometimes, than even the best of other arts. That is because music is perhaps the most accessible, the most ancient, and the most biologically natural art that we can enjoy.


Exercise 1

Be the surfer. Learn to ride with--to concentrate on--the leading edge of music. Choose a piece of instrumental music that you don't know, online, on radio, or otherwise easily available to you. Then, as you hear it, try listening to its front edge. Don't linger over what has gone past: stay with the front edge of the wave of the music. Once you've done this with two or three instrumental pieces, try it with a song with words in it. Concentrate on the front edge of the song: don't think back to what is said, even if you missed some words. Instead, just keep your concentration on the leading edge of the music. Then describe whether this makes a difference in how you appreciate or feel the experience.

Exercise 2

Make up your own song. Go online to "virtual piano" to find a keyboard you can play. Tap a series of notes that you enjoy, whether just five or six notes you repeat, or something longer. If your virtual keyboard has the names of the notes, write them down so you can remember them, or take a video of your playing.

Exercise 3

What kind of group would you like to sing or play in? Write it. What kind of singer--lead, backup, or choir or chorus member would you be? What part would you sing, soprano, alto, contralto, tenor, baritone, or base? If you would like to play an instrument, which one? In what kind of group would you play? What would be some of the other instruments in the group? What kind of music would you make? Write all of this, explaining as needed.

Exercise 4

Invent a song. Choose a private space so you can make whatever sounds you want. You may sing, growl, squeak, or make whatever noise you wish; and/or you may use an instrument you know, hit different objects, ring different glasses and bowels, or other otherwise make "instrumental" noises. Experiment. Do whatever combination of mouth and/or hitting-object sounds you want. If you find a rhythm and set of sounds you like in a sequence, then even if the sequence is short you should practice it until you can remember it. A next step would be to record it, and then listen to yourselves playing it--even turn it in for your teacher or your class to hear in kind, supportive enjoyment. Then write a description of how singing/playing it makes you think, feel, or appreciate music in any way.

Exercise 5

Get together with one or two other people in your class or among your friends. Do "Exercise 3," above, together in some way. Be experimental: try different sounds and "instruments." Try to create a song you as a pair or group have made, even if it is only a few bars long. A next step would be to record it, and then listen to yourselves playing it--even turn it in for your teacher or your class to hear in kind, supportive enjoyment. Then write a description of how singing/playing it makes you think, feel, or appreciate music in any way.



Many musical performances are available online. Simply search for the name of the musical piece, the composer, and/or a key phrase or word from it: e.g., "song Satisfaction," "Rolling Stones," or "I can't get no satisfaction."

If you need to find the name of a group, search for 'composers world," composers United States" (or a country of your choice), "best rock music groups," or similar phrases until you find the list you need.


Videos of performances, whether rock, jazz, classical, or anything else, often can engage you more deeply, especially if you are a visual person. Many videos of performances are online or available through libraries. Online, search by composer or group name (e.g., "classical music Beethoven" or "rock music Beatles") or by title of song (e.g., "music Eroica" or "song Yellow Submarine").

In Person:

Hearing music in person is much more of a fulfilling or at least completely surrounding experience than simply hearing or watching it online or in a video. This is true whether you are at a live country music performance or an orchestra presentation. In the best live-music experiences, listeners often try to be close to the musicians, be able to listen to the music or even dance to it without being distracted by too much conversation or other outside noises, and be a part of the music by letting it sweep over them.

All types of music are fair game for experiencing it in person as an art form. Start with music you love. Enjoy the performance with a friend. Afterward, talk with them about it: what did both of you like best about it, how did it make you feel, how did the musicians play in certain ways to create these feelings, and what other kinds of music or even images or memories did the music help you recall. As you progress in your understanding of music as an art form, and how it affects you, try experiencing music in person that is different from what you usually like.


*Image in Chapter Title: A painting on an ancient Greek vase depicts a music lesson, ca. 510 BC,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music, Retrieved 10 Jan. 2020.

Most recent revision of text: 29 Sept. 2020



Richard Jewell

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