The Great Questions of Music

The following is a short list of some of the “Great Questions of Music”. It is believed that these questions are continually in the “background” when music is experienced.

For each question, we provide some commentary from the OMS point of view. The commentary is organized as follows:

The Basic model: These comments are in black font like this. The Basic model deals with the aspects of music that can be fairly easily classified and labeled to some degree. This is roughly equivalent to what is dealt with in ordinary professional music criticism.

The Transcendental model: These comments are in a green font like this. The Transcendental model deals with aspects of model that are “infinite” or “unbounded” in some sense, that are highly personal/subject/intimate, that are difficult to verbalize.

Although the discussions are abbreviated, it will often be clear to the reader how they could be expanded and integrated into existing discourse on the various fundamental issues.

We do not claim that the OMS point of view is the only legitimate point of view for the Great Questions of Music.

[1] What is music?
[2] Does music convey meaning?
[3] Does music express or induce emotion?
[4] Is music a language?
[5] What constitutes excellence in a musical composition?
[6] What constitutes excellence in a musical performance?
[7] Is (great) music culture-independent?
[8] Why is music deeply significant to human beings?


[1] What is music?

A fairly neutral characterization: “When people speak of ‘music’, they are generally alluding to parts of a complex  of phenomena. The complex includes the following kinds of people:  Composers, performers, music-producers, and listeners.  It includes sound. It includes the experiences of listeners – both the immediate, real-time experiences, and also the longer-term experience (and mental activity) that continues afterwards. It includes various tangibles such as: musical scores, musical instruments, performance-events, commentary and discussions about music, and so on. There can be other aspects to the complex, but the above is a good enumeration of some central aspects.”

An OMS-centric definition: “Music is organized multi-stimulation of musical receptors/agents. Some principal musical receptors are listed in the Basic OMS model”.

From the Transcendental point of view, there is a substantial part of the musical experience which is simply a vast, open-ended mystery.

[2] Does music convey meaning?

No (subject to a few qualifications – see below).

Under the OMS model, music is essentially a set of stimuli. A stimulus, taken by itself, does not convey meaning. (Analogy: A good dinner might be thought of as a fairly well-organized set of stimuli. However, a good dinner in and of itself does not convey meaning.)

Of course, a piece of music could be used to convey a signal or a message (“If you hear me whistle “Begin the Beguine”, this means that someone is home”) – but this is something different than the music itself conveying meaning.

If music contains lyrics, its OMS profile would typically indicate that the lyrics are only a small part of the total stimulation provided by the music. Also, according to OMS, it would not be critical that the lyrics be asserted (i.e. claimed as true) in order to provided stimulation (“And my number is BEechwood 4-5789, You can call me up and have a date any old time. “)

Of course, a piece of music may be deeply meaningful to the listener (but so can a tree, a good dinner, …)

It is possible for music to stimulate meaningful thought – which can then result in the development of information. (“Having listened to some music of Messiaen, I can now recognize some fractal patterns in birdsong.”)

From the Transcendental point of view, perhaps musical experience has a “higher meaning”.


[3] Does music express or induce emotion?

[a] There clearly are a few “common emotions” that can be fully induced by listening to music: E.g. bliss, elation, irritation.

There also seem to be a few more common emotions that can be induced to a mild degree by listening to music: E.g. anxiety, relief, surprise.

David Huron has written of “micro-emotions”. (See ) Examples of micro-emotions in everyday life might include “small pleasures” such as: The smell of flowers; new laundry; closing your eyes when tired. It seems to me that micro-emotions are experienced in music.

There are also the countless “feelings” that one experiences when listening to many common kinds of music. This kind of experience for me is rich and even overwhelming when listening to works such as Chopin Berceuse, Chopin Barcarolle, Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #2. I call such feelings “mu-motions” rather than “e-motions” because they seem to lack some of the paradigmatic characteristics of common emotions. E.g., a common emotion such as “fear” has the following characteristics:

[i]  Back-linkage: E.g. if I reflect on a recent experience of fear, it will typically associate back to earlier intense experiences of fear.

[ii] Persistence: A current experience of fear, will affect future experience; and even if it is “forgotten”,  it is capable of being recalled.

Mu-motions do not seem to have these characteristics. I.e., the wonderful feelings that I have during the Chopin Berceuse seem to dissipate and are largely lost permanently after the piece is over.

This is not at all to deny the human significance of mu-motions or to claim that they have no relationship to common emotions. It is rather to point out that they seem to belong in a separate category from common emotions.

[b] Can music “express” emotions? Yes, in many of the ways that other kinds of  intentional stimulation can express emotion. (Think of the ways the emotion can be expresssed by a kiss; by the serving of a good meal; by a scream; by a thoughtfully planned party for someone you care about. These indicate some of the ways that music can “express” emotions.)

[c] Taking a step back, a very important question is: “Why do we consider the issue of music and emotions to be an important issue?” I think part of the answer is as follows:

[i] Music stimulates human beings deeply and extensively (OMS strongly supports this view). The total stimulation provided by music is one of the most substantial (deep, extensive, effective) experiences that happen to human beings

[ii] Musical stimulation is mysterious. (“When I experience the Chopin Berceuse, what in the world is going on?!?”)

[iii] There is a sense at times that music serves a purpose or function, although it is not clear what the purpose or function is.

However [i], [ii], [iii] are largely separate matters from issues about music and emotion.


[4] Is music a language?

Definitely not. There are aspects of music which are linguistic or language-like. But OMS makes it clear that this is a fairly small part of the phenomenon of music.


[5] What constitutes excellence in a musical composition?

It seems to me that excellence must be correlated with the OMS Profile for the work. I.e., excellence is correlated with the kinds of stimulation that can be produced, and the quality/degree of the various kinds of stimulation that are possible. (NB: OMS is concerned primarily with musical performance rather than musical composition. One musical composition can map into a wide range of musical performances. Subject to this qualification, it is okay to speak informally of the OMS Profile for a musical composition itself, as long as this is done with care.)

It follows from this that there are various kinds of excellence in musical composition. Beethoven Op. 110 would be a paradigm of one kind of excellence (OMS profile [for a good performance] would have lots of 4s, 3s, and 2s; work is highly architected and structured; work is deeply integrated into well-developed compositional procedures). Gregorian Chant would be a different paradigm of excellence (A sparse OMS profile; work serves a narrow set of objectives). Music by the Bee Gees would be another kind of excellence. And so on.

From the Transcendental point of view, probably every musical experience has transcendental aspects, and these are difficult to evaluate.


[6] What constitutes excellence in a musical performance?

Excellence in performance is based on two factors:

[a] Excellence of the music as performed at that moment (e.g. [5] above applied to a specific performance).

[b] “Conformity” of the performance to the composition (if any) that it is based on.

There is extensive debate on what counts as conformity to a composition. There are issues about composer’s intentions, historical authenticity, artistic license and responsibility, …

A key observation that comes from OMS relating to this is that: There is no obvious way that a composer can come even close to specifying definitive performance instructions in the sense of OMS. (In conventional western music) a composer can specify notes, dynamics, etc. – but these specifications do not directly address most of the categories of stimulation in an OMS Profile.

So it seems to me that what we have is a mysterious relationship between performance and composition. The performer typically must work from a composition which is sparse in its relationship to the result that the performer will produce. This is (definitely) not to say that a performer has virtually unlimited latitude in performance; but it is to raise deep and perhaps disturbing questions about what there is to guide/influence/limit a performer.

There may be examples of music that are excellent from the point of view of the Transcendental model, but not so much under the Basic model.

From the Transcendental point of view, probably every musical experience has transcendental aspects, and these are difficult to evaluate.

[7] Is (great) music culture-independent?

With respect to the OMS Basic Model – which is about 90 discreet categories of stimulation – we can look at each category individually in terms of culture dependence/independence.  Clearly some categories are mainly culture-independent, etc. etc.

Looking ahead, this issue of cultural independence is likely to diminish. This is because, thanks to the internet and other factors, cultural isolation is disappearing rapidly, and the musical world seems to be melding into one comprehensive musical culture.  E.g. even the most remote cultures in the world now seem to have heard the Beatles, as well as vice versa.

[8] Why is music deeply significant to human beings?

This question probably requires an open-ended multi-part answer. What follows are several major considerations:

[a] Music is somewhat like a (primitive) form of love. It is love that is transmitted via the recipient’s ears. (We call this “Ear-Love”.)

Ear-Love is not the most “mature” form of human love. For instance, music is mainly one-direction (from the composer/performer to the listener, very little from the listener back to the composer/performer); more mature forms of love are typically bi-directional (e.g. love between mother and child).

But music does have many characteristics which are associated with love: It is mainly pleasurable; it provides a variety of stimulation; it is organized for the benefit of the listener (it is “listener-centric”); it is unconditional (possibly a payment to initiate the music, but after that, no conditions); it is intimate; it is deeply satisfying. There are probably additional characteristics – still under research.

[b]  Music is a highly intimate experience – in terms of the receptors that are accessed, the ways in which they are stimulated, the phenomenal private subjective experiences that are possible.

[c] Notwithstanding [b], we would speculate that (ala OMS) the listener has a subtle awareness that if a piece of music stimulates certain of his/her receptors, it also stimulates the same receptors in other people (perhaps in different ways, etc.). In this sense, music communicates a deep fellowship among human beings.

[d] Music provides information about myself. For instance, while listening to The Moonlight Sonata, I understand that I have an extremely rich multi-layered “inner life”, that is extraordinarily sensitive to what it hears.

From the Transcendental point of view, music is deeply significant in that that transcendental experience (which is probably always part of musical experience) is always deeply significant.