What is a song?

Julie Douglas

"What's the frequency, Kenneth?" Aarstudio/Getty Images

I don't know why people ever introduce songs; the song itself is the introduction. It's like saying this is Martha. That's only the beginning of the story of Martha.

Martha is a whole mass of molecules and complexes and things bound together by terrifying physical improbabilities and the truth is she could fly apart at any moment like some terrible pent up lock that's waiting to snap and spatter her psyche across the universe ...

If it weren't for our rib cages it would just be spleens a go-go ... people are held in by all this stuff and then they're called almost insultingly a single name. The same with a song.

-Robyn Hitchcock from "Storefront Hitchcock"

It's tricky business to try to define a song. What's the difference between music and a set of sounds? Say a fork clinking against a plate and the plinking of a piano?

A good starting point is pattern, or relationships, between basic music elements. And according to cognitive psychologist and author of "This is Your Brain on Music," Daniel J. Levitin, when they combine in a meaningful way they give rise to "higher order concepts such as meter, key, melody and harmony."

And it all begins with an illusion of continuity. One of the ways that this is achieved is through pure physics. Levitin says that the lowest note on a piano vibrates with a frequency of 27.5 hz.

This is also the same rate that constitutes visual constancy when you watch a movie. At this frequency a motion picture seems like one continuous dream unfolding before your eyes rather than a frame-by-frame representation of characters and their inner lives.


Levitin says "When molecules vibrate at around this speed we hear something that sounds like a continuous tone." He likens it to putting a playing card in the spokes of a bicycle wheel. At slower speeds you hear the click-click of the card; at faster speeds a buzz is created, one that you can "actually hum to, a pitch."

But at the heart of intentionally organized sound is melody, a series of notes, played one after another. Levitin has a chapter devoted to the more nuanced question, "What is music" that expertly breaks down every single element (that combines to create something meaningful) at a granular level.

But I can't help to think back about Valerie Salimpoor's research of how and why some people get the chills when listening to music.

She found that the dorsal striatum (the part of the brain following along to detect pattern) is rife with dopamine signaling, telling us that a goosebump-inducing song is really just a narrative, each note a detail in the story.

And then --WHAM-- right at the emotional peak of the music, the ventral striatum, which is involved with emotion, takes over in the dopamine department. Is this switch to the emotional brain circuit telling us that the brain is inferring meaning to this organized sound?


Pair that with a 2012 paper published in Frontiers in Cognitive Auditory Neuroscience , in which one of the authors, Anthony Brandt, stated that "spoken language is a special type of music" and that babies begin by hearing language as "an intentional and often repetitive vocal performance."

They listen to it not only for its emotional content but also for its rhythmic and phonemic patterns and consistencies. The meaning of words comes later."

You can start to see how the question, "What is a song" is far more than a technical question, maybe even an exploration of how we began to acquire language - to tell stories -- in the first place.