How is ‘beautiful’ music defined?

This past week my wife asked me to compose something beautiful, preferably for the cello (as that’s her favourite instrument).

I said “What do you mean?”

“Not ‘intelligent’ or clever or busy, just something… beautiful.”

“Meaning what, exactly?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Like, a song that’s nice.”

“Oh, OK!” I said. “I’m right on it!”


Er… can you help me?!


What do you think she means? Am I displaying an incredible amount of utter ignorance here? I thought some of my choral music is particularly beautiful (especially “Lucy’s Song” using a text by Charles Dickens), and if you’ve heard “A Mother’s Lament” I’m sure you’ll agree that can be classified as ‘beautiful’ too.

But “beautiful music” seems to be a completely subjective matter (click it to tweet it!)

And apparently, what I’ve composed to date is not enough. I have a challenge here, folks, and I have an inkling as to the kind of thing I should be doing, but what are your thoughts? What makes a piece of music “BEAUTIFUL?” What are the characteristics, styles, intentions, moods, etc.? Help me write this piece by leaving a reply below, and I will most certainly dedicate the piece to you! Seriously.

Here’s an example of a cello piece that I think is beautiful. What do you think makes it so?


What makes this music “beautiful?”

I’m sure there are specific characteristics that make music ‘beautiful’ but what are they?

Nick Scott believes it is all to do with pacing. What does that mean?

One response on his post suggest “anything that comes from the heart” and I would add “as opposed to the head.” But again, what does that mean? How does a composer determine what someone else would find beautiful?

In response to a post on the Musica Sacra forum, bjerabek suggests the Golden Ratio is at play in anything beautiful. I can see that. I looked into the Golden Ratio during my sojourn at Cleveland State University some ten years ago, but how sad if that were that’s required to make beautiful music – doesn’t that make it “intelligent” or “clever” music?

Just a simple Google search for the most beautiful music in the world doesn’t really help, nor does Classic FM‘s overuse of the adjective.

So I’m wondering, what music do YOU find beautiful? And more importantly, WHY?

I do have a comment policy. Click here to read it if you really want to.

  • Gregory Ruffer

    It’s interesting that Melissa doesn’t want anything “intelligent” as I think that is what makes music beautiful. By that I mean that we interact with music on a cerebral level. There is nothing inherently beautiful, sad or happy about any individual sound. The combinations of these sounds, based on how we have been trained over our lifetimes to hear them, causes us to think of them as beautiful. Add text to this and there is another dimension of cognitive interaction.

    I argue that something like Barber’s Adagio was not well known before the movie Platoon because it is a fairly simple piece of music that was written while he was still a student. When it because the soundtrack to a highly moving, sad movie about the Vietnam War, it took on a life of angst and sadness that it cannot shake. If our society used fanfare trumpets to signal bombing raids during WWII, I imagine that we would think differently of these instruments and the writing.

    So, Stephen, try writing whatever you want to write. When you present it to Melissa do it with aroma therapy (a scent she finds particularly “nice”), immediately following an event that made her happy and maybe in tandem with a beautiful sunset and a warm embrace. I have a feeling that the music will be inconsequential to her enjoyment….

    My 2 cents.


    • Absolutely have to agree, Greg, that environment (which includes presentation medium) has an enormous impact on the way we perceive music.

      Having said that, I now wonder what the difference is between “beautiful” and “engaging” (specifically thinking of Barber’s Adagio vs. Ravel’s Bolero)…

  • I believe that we are hard-wired to find beauty in creation, including musical creation, but yes, that each person’s perception of it is subjective. However, to the human ear, beauty is in harmony, rather than cacophony (hope this is making sense). When I think of “beautiful” music, I think of rich harmonies, blend, as well as simplicity. Haunting and dramatic may also be beautiful. Dissonance may be intelligent or clever, and the musical “numbers” may match up, but let’s face it, often times it is also grating on the human ear. (This may just be my humble opinion…)

    Examples of music I find beautiful: Lo, how a rose e’er blooming and a lot of the German Christmas music; Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im spiegel”; Elgar’s cello concerto; Mahler’s Adagio (don’t remember which symphony this is part of ???); as well as Gollum’s Song from Lord of the Rings, sung by Emiliana Torrini.

    Does this help? 😉

    • Hi Melissa. I’m guessing that much of the intelligent or clever music you’ve been exposed to has had its formulas and structure too prominent, and it masked any basquing in more traditional melodic and harmonic congruency? It seems very easy to disconnect the head from the heart, even when listening, so I wonder if that’s had an influence on what you find beautiful as well. And the general listening environment?

  • Yes, I agree that the piece above is beautiful…love it…

  • Nora Miller

    I am not a composer. But I am a consumer of composition, that is, a listener. I puzzled over this very question (as have we all) for many years. I found what I consider a useful answer in Harry Weinberg’s book “Levels of Knowing and Existence.” He explains that we find this puzzling because we have been taught to believe that “beauty” is some characteristic of a thing, when in his opinion, what we call “beauty” is only the emotional reaction we have to a given experience. If you accept that idea, then you cannot go looking for beauty, but you can start to make sense of the almost infinite and wildly varying array of things we call beautiful. We respond with the “beauty” emotion to the sight or sound or feel of a thing as a combination of our perceptions, the context of the moment, the significance we assign, and so on. This explains how the same “thing” may not always seem beautiful to us, why we might “see” beauty in something otherwise awful, and why something insignificant to one person can so touch another.

    In the context of your question, I think you start by stepping away from the idea of making something that “everyone” would consider “beautiful.” That’s not really what she asked for. Instead, I suggest that you consider what you know about her and the context of her request (a birthday present? spring? boredom? etc) and use your long experience to pluck her heartstrings with the cello’s bow. While you may not necessarily consider your result beautiful, if you aim at her perceptions and beliefs, you can hardly miss. IMHO.

    • Fascinating, Nora. I totally agree that our experience’s whole environment will influence our perception of any piece of music, which will probably be different every time even for the same piece.

      As for satisfying someone else’s desire for beauty (i.e. my wife’s), does it make sense to focus on that personsa individually regardless of my own intuition? Or should I try to combine my own perception of beauty as well as theirs? (Perhaps in this instance, the former is better for long term domestic congeniality!)

      • Nora Miller

        Now *that* is an interesting question! I just recently came across a review of a book about “positivity resonance,” a term coined to describe the highly interactive nature of love. The author, Barbara Fredrickson, claims that the experience of love involves an iterative reaction between two or more people that amplifies and shapes the feeling, and by doing so, it shapes the relationship and the people in it. While I have some opinions about that notion (which I will reserve until I read the actual book), we can apply that here to the question of how you might go about creating this beautiful piece for your wife. I think we can agree that you cannot compose *simply* based your understanding of her personality and beliefs. As the composer, you will filter whatever you do through your own personality and beliefs. But if you begin with what you understand her to believe about beautiful music, it will give a starting point, and if you maintain that focus, it will undoubtedly produce a piece quite unlike what you might write if you were writing strictly for yourself. In fact, I could imagine you producing two pieces that start the same, but diverge based on how your tastes differ. Sort of like His and Hers music?

  • Nora Miller

    @Melissa While dissonance may grate on the human ear, there are those who thrill to those sliding, crashing, clashing “chords.” I grew up believing that nothing written after Beethoven and Chopin could really be “beautiful” but in my later life, I started a relationship with a composer of “new music” who opened my ears to microtonal and minimalist music. These are things I would have jumped up to turn off before I met him. Now I seek out these offbeat, out-of-tune, offpaced, and utterly creative works and I experience the emotion of beauty. It’s all “in here” and not “out there”. Things that gain wide acceptance as “beautiful” can be said to follow one or another pattern that large segments of society have learned to love. They seem inherently beautiful because they evoke our foundational understanding. But stuff we don’t know or stuff that ranges too far from our educated tastes don’t. These can become “acquired tastes” but often do not.

  • Gregory Ruffer

    Interesting that you chose the Bolero as I thought of that one when I was writing my first comment. The movie “10” popularized that piece and associated it with comedic sex and obsession so that it’s hard to hear it any other way now. At least, that’s going to be the impression of my generation. I wonder how a younger generation who had not seen the movie would hear it.

    • LOL! I’m pretty sure it was famous way before “10”! And now I can’t get the exciting arrangement by Blast! (Star of Indiana marching band on stage – brilliant show) out of my head. Not least because they were also the opening act at Dudley Moore’s last birthday party at Carnegie Hall.

      Well, special memories for me, anyway.