The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines music as “the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion” (Concise Oxford Dictionary 1992). However, the music genres known as Noise music and Musique concrète, for instance, challenge these ideas about what constitutes music’s essential attributes by using sounds not widely considered as musical, like randomly produced electronic distortion, feedback, static, cacophony, and compositional processes using indeterminacy (Priest 2013, 132; Hagerty 2007).
A famous example of the dilemma in defining music is modern composer John Cage’s composition titled 4’33”. The written score has three movements and directs the performer(s) to appear on stage, indicate by gesture or other means when the piece begins, then make no sound and only mark sections and the end by gesture. What is heard are only whatever ambient sounds may occur in the room. Some argue this is not music because, for example, it contains no sounds that are conventionally considered “musical” and the composer and performer(s) exert no control over the organization of the sounds heard (Dodd 2013). Others argue it is music because the conventional definitions of musical sounds are unnecessarily and arbitrarily limited, and control over the organization of the sounds is achieved by the composer and performer(s) through their gestures that divide what is heard into specific sections and a comprehensible form (Gann 2010).
The problem of defining music is further complicated by different conceptions of music in different cultures.