Birds chirping, kids laughing, bells chiming. The honk of a horn, the slam of a door. An ongoing Om takes you home. Some sounds can be music to our ears. Simply put, sound is powerful. But when does sound become music? Is it through pattern recognition? Is it through some consensual cultural acceptance?
Sound is created by moving an object through the air. The movement compresses air molecules in the direction of the movement and leaves an empty space behind it; a vacuum. Sound is created by air molecules collapsing into that vacuum, thus filling the void. Isn’t that fantastic? Using a thin, hand held stick longer than your arm, you can create sound. Whirl it safely around you (preferably outdoors, taking care not to strike anyone) and you will hear that familiar rush in the air. Another very relevant example: the sounds from cars on a freeway. The principles are the same, as the car moves it pushes the air molecules in front of it and creates the vacuum behind. The molecules return and create the sounds we all have come to know well, especially in Southern California.
So, what differentiates sound from music? There are many opinions on this, ranging from cultural acceptance to individual taste. While making my bamboo flutes, I was running a belt sander and left my tuner on. I was astonished to look down and see the belt sander was in the perfect pitch of E. That awful noise was in perfect pitch! Clearly I would never have considered that to be musical.
The answer postulated by science is in harmonics. Harmonics are different ways of movement, within the same body, occurring simultaneously. Wait, what was that? Imagine a plucked guitar string. While our eyes see one continuous vibration, what we don’t see are the other smaller vibrations, that as a sum make up the whole. Known as overtones, they are crafted by the geometrical shape, and form the characteristic sound, of each instrument. Timbre is how two notes of the same frequency from different instruments sound fundamentally the same, yet characteristically different. The ‘A’ from my flute and the ‘A’ from my clarinet, while sounding great in unison, are distinguishable as the different instruments they are.
Culturally speaking, sound becomes music as the observer relates to it. While we may disagree on what sounds pass as music, (think Dubstep versus Mozart) we can agree that what we perceive as ‘music’ has discernible pattern, and is both intentional and time related. Do wind chimes create sound or music? The train whistle, heard on the high desert plains, is more abrasive (especially when asleep) than when heard on a track. The context in which we experience music is crucial. Room acoustics aside, our surroundings impact our perception. An amazing sax solo on a subway platform differs from the one in a Harlem jazz club. Our perception of sound as music is subjective. Even the frequencies we experience music in can have an effect. For more on this, compare music at 440Hz versus 432Hz.
Music is complex theoretically, yet it simply moves us. We cannot touch music, but music can touch us. By exploring the works of Rober Boerman and John Stuart Reid, now we can even see music. While the genre of music may change on an individual level, there is nary a human alive who has not been moved by it.