What Is the History and Meaning of Music?

Music is a series of organized pitches experienced over time. We take a brief look at the history and meaning of music through the ages.

Mar 23, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

what is the history and meaning of music


On the one hand, music is the art of arranging sounds into combinations of pitch and rhythm. In more technical terms music comprises a series of organized pitches experienced over time. However, beyond such abstract theoretical principles, music helps us to express and recognize human emotions – it provides a mirror to history, and ourselves. When we engage in music we exist in the present. Music is a constant across all human societies that at the same time, stands as a universal language capable of uniting all of humanity.


The Sound of Music

The hills of the Austrian Alps, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Julie Andrews once claimed that the hills were alive with the sound of music. And sure enough, from the rolling landscapes of Austria to the global oceans; arid deserts and tropical rainforests alike give rise to soundscapes of rhythm and pitch. Waves crash, winds howl, and sands shift – the rainforest air is heavy with noise. 


Animals craft their own compositions. The vast diversity of life on earth deploys a splendid array of tones and timbres, blending percussive beats, complex melodies, and vocalizations. From the Congolese Bonobo to the majestic Humpback whale, the animal kingdom is alive with musical expression. Birdsong has graced the skies for millennia. 


Likewise, the human connection to music has been present across cultures since time immemorial. Musical ability is thought to have emerged in humans before the acquisition of language – music is embedded in our evolutionary history. 

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The Mathematical Foundations of Music

Pythagoras, an ancient Greek philosopher, by an unknown Artist, 1655, from Thomas Stanley, The history of philosophy. Source: East Tennessee University


Music possesses mathematical foundations. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras – best known for his mathematical theorem – was also curious about music. He sought to unravel the truth of why some pitches sound good together and others don’t. He proposed an experiment. Taking a monochord (one long string tuned at a set pitch) he plucked it, to establish a fundamental pitch. Next, he cut the length of the string in half and plucked it again – to his amazement, at a 2:1 ratio, he obtained the same pitch (known as an octave). 


Continuing his experiment, Pythagoras repeated the process at intervals of one-third (3:2 ratio, also known as a “perfect fifth”) and one-fourth, one-fifth, and one-sixth of the strings length, consistently discovering consonant pitches. Pythagoras’ observations unveiled a mathematical relationship between pitches, providing a natural explanation for the consonance of harmonious tones, and the dissonance of those that clash. His revelations underpin the foundational principles of Western music. 



A single frequency sound wave at 10Hz displayed on an analog oscilloscope, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In the context of modern Western music, discussions about melody, harmony, chords, and scales, fundamentally revolve around the concept of pitch. Simply put, pitch in music refers to the perception that a note can sound either “higher” or “lower” than another note. When a sound is made, such as plucking a guitar string, a soundwave is produced – an oscillating wave of energy comprised of molecules. Any given soundwave has a “frequency,” denoting the speed at which the wave completes its cycle. 


Mathematically pitch is quantified by the number of times a soundwave can repeat in one second, measured in Hertz (Hz). In this context, pitch relates to how the human ear hears and understands a given frequency. A high frequency translates to a high pitch, and a low frequency results in a low pitch. 



The cornerstone of electronic dance music and hip-hop during the 1980s, the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer drum machine, Source: Wikimedia Commons


At the heart of all rhythm is the “beat” or “pulse.” Our initial rhythmic encounter occurs with the experience of our mother’s heartbeat in the womb. Spontaneous rhythmic patterns emerge from within our bodies as we breathe and our hearts maintain rhythm. 


The speed of a rhythm is known as the tempo. Just like our own pulse, the tempo of our heartbeat is often influenced by our emotional state: of calm, excitement, or fear. In music, the tempo plays a crucial role in shaping the emotional impact of a composition. 


Music can rely on an implicit pulse, utilizing the spaces between phrases to evoke feelings of serenity, as observed in classical music. The pulse can also be expressed openly as a repetitive electronic “groove” as seen in dance music, or more commonly, an acoustic drumbeat. In whatever form rhythmic movements make us want to tap our feet, nod our heads, and dance


Music is a Universal Language

An unknown violinist plays in the village of Krivorivnya, Western Ukraine, 2014, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Music serves as a powerful means to convey a diverse range of human emotions. It can evoke nostalgia. Rhythms can enthuse us with energy. Music can distract: it enables us to experience euphoria and well-being on the one hand and diminish our perception of pain on the other. 


Throughout history, music has been heard as expressive of emotions. It expresses beauty, human character, tension, and social conditions. In music theory, major chords sound happy, confident, and bright, while minor chords convey sadness. Major seventh chords voice romance while diminished chords articulate tension. 


In music, we depart the realm of social conditioning and conscious thought, to enter a state of presence in the moment. Music not only enables us to recognize and connect with our emotions but also provides a universal means of communicating and expressing them. 

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.