Let’s learn about music

Science is exploring the past and shaping the future of music

a woman wearing an orange coat, jeans and yellow headphones smiles as she listens to music

Music may be hard to define, but it is definitely a big part of many people’s lives.

Eugenio Marongiu/Getty Images

From Spotify playlists to street performers to film scores, music is everywhere. Fast, loud songs can pump you up for a workout. Slow, sad tunes are perfect for wallowing in bad moods. For many of us, making and consuming music is an important part of life. Which raises the question: What is music, exactly?

There is no simple answer. People across time and cultures have defined music differently. But at least in Western cultures, music generally shares some common features. The basic building blocks of songs are notes. These pitches can be high or low, depending on the frequency of the sound waves that create them. The note middle C, for instance, is created by sound waves with a frequency of about 260 hertz. That means the sound waves vibrate about 260 times per second. Waves with higher frequencies create higher pitches.

String some notes together, and you get a melody. Play two or more notes at the same time, and you’ve got harmony. The timing of those notes makes up a song’s rhythm. The speed of that rhythm is called tempo.

Of course, different instruments can play all those elements of a song the same way and still sound different. That’s because instruments of different shapes, sizes and materials have different timbres (TAM-bers). Timbre describes the quality of an instrument’s sound. It allows you to tell whether a piano, violin or trumpet is playing the same note. Some have claimed that instruments built with certain kinds of wood or made by certain artists sound better than others. But recent research has cast doubt on those ideas.

Our ears collect the sound waves made by instruments. Those signals are then sent to the brain for processing. Some people discern pitches better than others. (Those with the brain disorder amusia, though, cannot tell pitches apart at all.) Individuals who speak tonal languages, such as the Chinese language Mandarin, may be especially good at this. In these languages, pitches help give words their meanings. So, speaking this type of language may help people discern musical pitches, too. But scientists still have a lot to learn about how the brain interprets music.

Want to know more? We’ve got some stories to get you started:

Analyze This: Do exotic woods make better guitars? When comparing the sound of guitars made from rare and costly woods to those made with common, cheaper alternatives, guitarists couldn’t tell much of a difference. (5/8/2019) Readability: 6.6

Computers are changing how art is made Some people have challenged the idea that artificial intelligence can be creative. But new software can provide inspiration to artists or fully partner with them in the creative process to make music and more. (11/12/2020) Readability: 7.2

Blame your ‘environment’ for your taste in music Research suggests that society shapes our listening preferences. (8/16/2016) Readability: 7.3

When you get down to it, songs are all made up of sound waves. How do those sound waves squiggling through the air make music to our ears? CrashCourse has your answers.

Explore more

Scientists Say: Amusia

Explainer: How the ears work

Explainer: Understanding waves and wavelengths

Explainer: How loud is too loud?

Tests challenge whether centuries-old violins really are the best ever

Musicians could benefit from teens’ research that pictures sound

Stonehenge enhanced voices and music within the stone ring

Speaking Mandarin may offer kids a musical edge

Can’t sing on-key? Blame the brain

Headed to a concert this summer? Pack earplugs

Giving Notre Dame back her unique voice

AI can guide us — or just entertain


Word find

Explore the science of music with interactives from PBS. See how changing the length of strings affects the pitches of they create when strummed. Combine different beats to create rhythms. Or see the frequencies that combine to make the “sound fingerprints” of various instruments.

Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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