The History of Music


Music is a ubiquitous part of human culture, heard incidentally as background noise, celebrated at rock concerts or orchestra performance, and studied at school. It is also widely used as an expressive vehicle, with texts ranging from political protest to calls for a loud and lively dance party. Its global spread has been accelerated by the rapid dissemination of recordings and publications. It is a form of communication that is almost always intended to be shared, and the fact that it often communicates a wide range of emotions has given it a special place in the arts.

Music has long been a subject of philosophical inquiry. The Platonic-Aristotelian teaching, restated by the Stoics and Epicureans, emphasized music’s emotional and functional role, with its relation to pleasure and the cultivation of virtue. The scholastics, including St. Augustine (354–430 ce), feared its sensuous character and urged the supremacy of words in religious music.

The 17th and 18th centuries witnessed the flowering of speculative theories about the nature and significance of musical sound and composition. These theories, often based on mathematical and acoustical analyses, were augmented by empiricism, the study of natural processes in everyday life. Then the advent of modern recording technology brought a vast expansion in the number of people who could listen to music, allowing them to hear operas and symphonies without traveling to a city and to learn to play instruments with relative ease. As a result of these developments, the study of music has become a major discipline within education.

In the 19th century, the rise of radio and phonographs enabled people to enjoy music even in remote locations. This gave music a new status as a medium for mass communication, and it became possible to reach much of the world’s population with the sounds of classical, popular and ethnic music. At the same time, a greater awareness of the intrinsic value of a piece of music opened the door to pedagogical considerations, especially when accompanied by a text.

As the 20th century progressed, the number of people studying music at higher educational levels continued to grow. Many of these students were attracted to various genres of popular music, such as rock and soul. These genres are characterized by lyrics that address a range of emotions and are usually accompanied by guitars, keyboards or other electronic devices. Their improvisational elements are an expression of the artist’s individuality and may reflect specific cultures or historical periods.

Whether music has meaning outside itself or not is still a matter of dispute. Philosophical analysts are divided between those who are referentialists, who hold that musical stimuli refer to concepts and feelings that exist beyond music, and nonreferentialists (or absolutists), who believe that a work of music means only what it is in itself. The latter view tends to be supported by music teachers and students. A moderate approach to this debate is often taken by those who are concerned about the sociological or psychological effects of music.