Sunday, April 7, 2013

What is music?

 Guest post by Yehuda Z.
It is customary during Sefiras HaOmer and the 3 weeks to refrain from listening to music. In addition, the prohibition against music at weddings in Jerusalem is well known.

In recent years, many music groups have produced a capella albums. However, many of them have people imitating the sounds of musical instruments. Some of these people are extremely talented, and it can be hard to distinguish between the sounds they are making and music produced by instruments. This has led me to seek a Halachic definition of music.
To clarify this, I ask a number of questions:
  • Is a sound music only if it is produced by a musical instrument? And what exactly is a musical instrument? A number of instruments are mentioned in TaNa"Ch including metal horns (valveless trumpets and the like), stringed instruments (lyres and harps of sorts), and drums (mentioned in conjunction with Miriam at the Red Sea). But are instruments limited to these?
  • Must a musical instrument create sounds mechanically or is an electric organ also considered a musical instrument? How about a synthesizer where the musician literally shapes the sound wave?
  • Although drums are mentioned as instruments, they are permitted at weddings in Jerusalem. Would steel drums be permitted? If not, why are various percussion instruments such as cymbals permitted?
  • If one were to prohibit all instrument-like sounds as music regardless of their source, would an album of singing with no accompaniment be permitted? What if the album had people singing harmony lines?
  • Finally, how does the Halacha look at music that is reproduced electronically where the sounds are really just bits of paper resonating to an electric signal in a speaker? Is this music? Are the sounds a kazoo make considered music? After all, the difference between a symphony coming through a speaker and a kazoo music is just a question of degree. Otherwise, they are essentially the same.
In trying to define music, I find myself returning to two texts: 
  • The Gemara in Sukka 51b, לוים עומדין בכלי שיר ואומרים שירה, the Leviim standing with their musical instruments and saying Shira.
  • The Gemara in Erachin 33b, השיר שהלוים היו אומרים במקדש, ביום הראשון היו אומרים וכו', the Shir that the Leviim said in the Mikdash, on the First Day (Sunday) they said, etc.
It appears that the Gemara in Sukka clearly refers to the Leviim making music with instruments, but the Gemara in Erachin seems to use the same language to describe singing, with no mention of musical instruments. If so, perhaps music is Halachically defined so that there is no distinction as to the source of the sound at all. If music is prohibited, so too would singing. On the other hand, if singing is permitted, than so too would be music.
I would be glad to hear your insights. If you have sources, even better.

And may we all be zocheh to hear the Shira of the Leviim in the Beis HaMikdash bimheira.


  1. It is also interesting to note what I heard from Rav Scheinberg - that there is a difference between classical music (which if a person is desparate for music there is a basis for being lenient) and popular music. Obviously both are music but one is more associated with happiness than the other.

    Likewise there is a question of the prohibition of speaking with women depending on whether they are speaking or they have some for of lilt to their voice.

  2. Is the deadening, deafening, rock-retread type of "simcha" music also banned? In principle, it could be categorized as white noise or noise pollution, which ought to be exempt. Even the musical instruments or synthesizers could be no problem if they're being used as jackhammers.

  3. Just to throw a few more points out:
    * What about atonal music?
    * What about the 'musical piece' 4'33"?
    * What about music based on a scale other than our 8-note scale?
    * What about discordant music?

    1. "What about atonal/discordant music?"
      If I don't enjoy it, then the question is not whether I am permitted to listen, but why would I subject myself to it?!

      "What about the 'musical piece' 4'33"?"
      It's not music, it's a philosophic statement. Plus, most performers let their egos get in the way and play it too flamboyantly where subtly and understatement is key to the piece's success.

      "What about music based on a scale other than our 8-note scale?"
      Like much folk music and music before the 17th century?

  4. "Although drums are mentioned as instruments, they are permitted at weddings in Jerusalem. Would steel drums be permitted? If not, why are various percussion instruments such as cymbals permitted?"

    What you're driving at is whether tuned percussion instruments (xylophone, celesta, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel etc..) are in the same category as drums and cymbals. The answer is obvious.

    1. Actually, drums, cymbals, and cowbells resonate at specific frequencies (notes) depending on their size, shape, and where they are struck. So maybe the answer is not so obvious.

  5. Having spoken to Rabbi Mordechai Friedlander, shlit"a about this issue, I received the following guidelines:
    * During sefira and the 3 weeks, it is customary not to listen to music. However, there is no issur. The actual issur is more related to dancing and joyous gatherings with musical accompaniment.
    * Both Rav Elyashev zt"l and Dayan Weiss ruled that if it sounds like a musical instrument, even if it is created with the voice, it is considered music.
    * The Gemara asks but does not determine which was the Ikkar of the Shira in the Beis HaMikdash, the singing or the musical instruments.

    The bottom line from my understanding was that Halachically there is no difference between musical instruments and singing. However, since we are dealing with Minhag, the definition of music is not relevant.


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