Exploring music – What is music? (1989)

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor asks whether some sounds musical and others just noise?

Watch time: 58:30
Charles Taylor using a machine to blow up a balloon, with a child in the Ri theatre
Credit: Royal Institution

Lecture 1 – What is music?

From the 1989 Lecture programme:

Music is one of the most familiar features of everyday life and in all cultures since time immemorial people have danced and sung in rituals, in celebrations, as an expression of joy, or just for fun.

Whenever the pressure of the air is changed rapidly, by beating a drum, by rattling a stick in a tin can, or by plucking a string stretched across a box, our ear-brain system detects the pressure changes as sound. The sound travels from the source to the listener as sound waves, but what are they really like? And why are some sounds musical and others just noise?

The answer that we shall find for simple, single sounds is fairly easy: if the vibration is very regular the sound is more musical than if it is irregular. But, as soon as we move to the more complex sounds and mixtures that occur in the real world of music, the difference is far less easy to describe in any scientific way. The answer to the question of why some combinations of sounds seem more pleasant to the ear than others is not easy to find.

Some musical instruments (talking drums and trumpets of Africa) are used for sending information from one place to another. Is all music concerned with passing on information? Why do some people love a piece of music that other people hate? There are obvious differences in the musical likes and dislikes of people of different cultures and yet some people say that music is a universal language.

How much of what we like is determined by our experience and upbringing and how much arises from the physics of the ear-brain system? What part does memory and conditioning play in our appreciation of music? Why do some sounds make us laugh and why can music have such a powerful effect on our moods?

It is unlikely that we shall find very clear cut answers to these questions, nor indeed to the general question posed by the title of this lecture. But we should have a good deal of fun exploring the subject with experiments and recordings and, hopefully, we shall know a little more about music at the end than we did at the beginning.


Physicist Charles Taylor explores the links between science and music in these CHRISTMAS LECTURES from 1989.

From the 1989 Lecture programme:

Science and Music always seem to be treated as separate subjects by our educational system and yet large numbers of professional scientists are passionately fond of music. I was very lucky because, at school, I was taught music and physics by the same person and so was given a firm foundation for the interest that has remained with me ever since.

Science is sometimes described as the process of asking questions about the world around us and, in this course of lectures, we shall be asking a series of scientific questions about many different aspects of music beginning with perhaps the most difficult of all… 'What is Music?'

It is a fact that every sound from that of the proverbial pin dropping to the almost overpowering sound of a full choir and orchestra in an operatic climax, or from the calm of a lullaby to the deafening frenzy of a pop concert, is produced by changing the pressure of the air by a small amount. These pressure changes travel as waves to the ears of the listeners and when they are perceived by the miraculous ear-brain system they become the sensations we call sound and music.

We shall explore the basic science involved in this journey, starting with the ways in which musical instruments make the pressure changes. We shall investigate the factors that affect the quality of sound produced which stem both from the craftsmanship of the instrument maker and from the skill and artistry of the performer.

The remarkable properties of the ear-brain system have a profound effect on our perception of music and will need to be considered throughout the series. The technology of instruments (from the earliest reed pipes to the latest electronic synthesizers) has influenced the development of music and we shall look at the history of musical instruments with that in mind. Music and musical instruments have developed differently in different parts of the world and modern composers and instrument makers are now learning a great deal from other cultures.

A hundred years or so ago scientists were beginning to think that they understood many aspects of music and during the lectures we shall use some of the fascinating demonstrations from that era… in many cases using the actual apparatus that has survived in the Royal Institution. In 1819, a scientist of that period – Savart – wrote that he thought the time had come when the efforts of scientists and of artists could unite to bring the art of violin making to perfection; but it has taken over 150 years even to achieve the necessary cooperation and we are still far short of perfection. Nevertheless in many areas scientists, musicians and instrument makers are learning to cooperate successfully with each other and, especially in the world of electronic music, there has been astonishing progress even in the last five years or so.

The very complexity of the operation of the ear-brain system sometimes leads to strange results, some of which can be funny and others disturbing. So, although many of the experiments and demonstrations that we shall do in the course of our exploration will appear to be quite objective, it will often be necessary to remind ourselves that we are dealing with very subjective phenomena. The wonderful experience that we call music can only begin to be understood properly if we bring the measurements and observations out of the laboratory and apply them in the real world of performance and listening.