Robert Estrin - piano expert

What is Music?

A simple question with a complex answer

In this video, Robert tries to answer the question "What is music?" And it is not simple as you may think!

Released on May 27, 2020

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, I'm Robert Estrin at The question today is: What is music? It's like, whoa, there's an easy subject. Let me see if I can knock that out in five minutes.

Actually I'm going to take a little bit of a defined part of this question because this is obviously a huge topic. If you look up dictionary definitions, instrumental or vocal writing that comprises of melody, harmony, textures, things of that nature, and obviously music is that. But the question, I actually got this question from a viewer, they're asking are nature sounds music? Are industrial sounds music? And it got me thinking, boy, this is actually a really good question. So what defines music, and is silence music?

He brought up the John Cage piece of Silence. How can a rest be music? Well I talked about this before. You know, silence is an integral part of music. Just as space, you can't have matter without space. We can get very metaphysical here very quickly. And it's true with music. Without the space between the notes, you don't have anything. So yes, silence is intrinsically a part of the music.

Is just silence music? It can be. So can industrial sounds be music? Well, if you go way back to the 1930s, I believe that's where musique concrete originated in France, which was gathered sounds with recording, the wire and later tape recording, trying to make music out of sounds from nature. So yes, nature sounds can be music, and indeed industrial sounds can be.

Here's what's really interesting though. If you look throughout history, music imitates civilization. That's why today you hear so much music that really does sound like a factory. You know, 20th Century music evolved into that percussive and in some ways harsh, ugly sounds because we hear that all the time, the sounds of the city, the screeching subway cars, and traffic and horns and all the rest of it, since we grow up with that sound.

Now go back centuries and you have the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven. So yes, we can still enjoy those sounds. But there's another aspect to this as well, which is the technologies of the instruments that enable producing different sounds. The French horn obviously is like singing, blowing through a hon is very much like singing.

But what about today when you have computer generated music, what is that about? Well, it's obviously going to produce sounds that couldn't be produced with the human voice. Not very easily, right? So our technology is the piano itself. Music could not have been conceived in medieval times or the Renaissance music could never have been imagined to encompass the kind of sounds that a piano could create.

And of course the development of the symphony orchestra, you listened to Mahler symphonies or Stravinsky ballets, and the sounds and the textures that were possible on a modern symphony orchestra couldn't have been imagined earlier. And to some extent it's a give and take. There's an imitation of life and its civilization and sounds that we hear around us from nature to manmade things. But there's also the sounds of the instruments make that can imitate that and it goes back and forth. So today of course, we're in a computer age and our instruments, that is computer instruments which are going to become more and more important as time goes on, they are capable of sounds that only machines can make.

So this machine in front of me is the epitome and the culmination of 19th century technology. What will be the culmination of 21st century technology? Only time will tell.

So that's a simple answer for you. All sounds can be incorporated into music and the sounds themselves aren't necessarily music, although I have sat out some times and listened to the sound of birds, and naturally there've been many compositions based upon birdsong, but are bird songs in and of themselves music? Are nature sounds music, or industrial sounds music? I kind of think if you're just listening to it, technically no, because music is created by humans, isn't it? As time goes on, music is being created by machines. Now, they haven't gotten brilliant yet, but it's gotten pretty capable. If you haven't investigated that, that's a subject for another video for you.

Thanks for the great questions. Again, I'm Robert Estrin here at, your online piano store, and you know the drill. You can always subscribe and get more videos. Until then, I'll see you.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Alan West * VSM MEMBER * on May 28, 2020 @12:50 am PST
A feel the simplest definition of "what is music" is it is organized sound. The way western music is "organized" is different to other forms of music say Chinese which is based on nature, however western music is based on even temperament. A pencil may be dropped to the floor and it makes a noise but that same pencil can be used to beat out a rhythm which then becomes "musical". The timbre of the voice or instrument(s) are important to how that organized sound is conceived.
Robert - host, on May 28, 2020 @2:47 pm PST
That's an interesting perspective on music - organized sound. The question then becomes, are all organized sounds music? A factory floor has many machines that emit regular rhythmic sounds. But this isn't necessarily music. The lines are blurred when you consider things like Musique Concrete, sounds that are recorded from the real world. However, the person recording must organize the sounds in some way. So, that would still fit your definition!
boxplayer * VSM MEMBER * on May 27, 2020 @11:21 am PST
Well done, and poses a number of questions.But I like your summation of "what is Music" !!
JJK on May 27, 2020 @7:19 am PST
Excellent! Excellent! So comprehensive!
I wish my 6-year-old granddaughter could study music with you!

Re: the question “music is created by humans, isn’t it?”
Perhaps the question should be “music is conceived/perceived (comprehended/understood) by humans, isn’t it?” In this case a bird song, per se, IS music if the listener perceives it as such (?!)
Robert - host, on May 27, 2020 @3:36 pm PST
That's an interesting take on this subject. In that case, anything can be music!
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