Practice: Music - Currently no debate


Music is “sound through time”

Jean-Jacques Nattiez 1990

This, though it might sound good, is insufficient. All sound only exists through time, therefore this definition doesn’t distinguish music from any other sound.

A very good related definition may be extrapolated from the work of John Cage (though he never gave an explicit definition), in particular 4’33”. In this piece the performer(s) performs actions which indicate that the piece has begun, that the first movement has ended and the second begun, that the second movement has ended and the third begun, that the piece has ended. The performer makes no sound intentionally. The entire piece lasts exactly 4’33”, and is deemed to consist of those sounds which occur during its duration. Thus Cage is saying, in essence, two things: firstly, music is something that is framed, i.e. a piece of music is generated by a time boundary set by the composer and/or performer - it starts, it ends, it isn’t limitless. Secondly, the music consists of everything that we hear during this boundary, that we in fact can’t, shouldn’t try to, separate and categorise what we are hearing into what is the ‘music’ part of the experience, and what is th ‘other noises’ part of the experience (they both together form the auditory part of a whole experience, e.g. someone coughing during a quiet part of a classical piece can definitely be an important part of the whole experience). Thirdly, ‘sound’ becomes ‘music’ because we say it does, and because we therefore give it the kind of attention which we give to ‘music’ and other kinds of art. He thus says that music is brought into being by a certain kind of attentive listening.

There are other, more exclusive definitions, which vary but generally state that to be music the ‘sound’ has to include some of: melody, rhythm, harmony, organised structure.

Related Practice(s):
poetry - Theatre - sound art

Related Terms:

the segmentation of time into musical articulation, achieved through beat, metre and accent; can be applied from the micro (cellular r.) to the macro (structural r.) level. See also metre or beat


the (usually repetitive) count of time in music: 4 to a bar, 6 to a bar etc


the (always repetitive) count of time in music, as in metre, but also giving a sense of the ‘feel’ of the music: fast, swinging, heavy etc.

Stuart Jones


A process in composing in which some elements are left indeterminate or are determined by a process in which chance plays a role


A leitmotif (pronounced /ˌlaɪtmoʊˈtiːf/) (also leitmotiv; lit. “leading motif”) is a recurring musical theme, associated with a particular person, place, or idea.

The word has also been used by extension to mean any sort of recurring theme, whether in music, literature, or the life of a fictional character or a real person.

Leitmotifs can help to bind a work together into a coherent whole, and also enable the composer to relate a story without the use of words, or to add an extra level to an already present story.


Audience comes from the latin audire: to hear; therefore it is completely appropriate to descibe those attending and listening to a musical performance. Of course it is also used for film, theatre and performance. What the word audience does do is make all those attending to a performance, with whatever senses, a collective, a crowd, with the collective, shared feelings that crowds have. In performance the audience, although usually outside the performance itself (extradiegetic) has an effect on the performance. This is particularly clear in music performances, where the ‘dialogue’ set up between the performers and the audience is a key part of the concert’s energy. The term is also used in a wider, more loose sense, to describe an artiste’s public “my audience”.

Stuart Jones


A leitmotif (leitmotiv) is a form of threading device consisting of a melody or sometimes chord sequence that recurs and reminds the audience of a state or some-thing/one with agency (see actor). Originated by Wagner for the range of melodies that cluster round the characters, objects and states in his operas. Transformation in leitmotifs depict transformations in the elements to which they are attached. They are a very powerful structural tool.