One time in an on-line chat group someone raised the question of whether Rap music
was “really” music, or whether it was just noise?
I offered the following answer:
I defined "music" as "organized sounds," and sounds can be analyzed according to the
A. The way the sounds are produced.
1. Percussive instruments
2. Acoustic instruments
3. Electronic instruments
4. The human voice
B. The way the sounds are structured:
8. Repetitions and Variations
C. The nature of the lyrics:
1. Emotional Category (Love, Anger, patriotic pride, humor, nostalgia, religious
2. Specific Subject (I love you; I hate you; I miss you; I miss my old hometown; my religion
is the greatest; my country is the greatest, etc.)
3. Language (Is the song in English, or some other language?)
4. Grammar & Syntax (Do they conform to the rule books for that particular language, or
is it a dialect?)
5. Vocabulary (Does the song use a sophisticated vocabulary, or does it use slang?)
6. Pronunciation (Is the singer highly articulate, or are the words mumbled or distorted
according to some dialect?)
The specific combination of these elements constitutes a particular "style." Now, every
style is created by a certain socio-economic-ethnic group, and my contention is that
someone prefers particular styles, depending on that person's attitude toward those
cultural groups. Most often we prefer the style that was popular in our own subculture
when we were growing up, or with which we most closely identify.
Every generation tries to create its own style in order for members of that age group to
differentiate themselves from their parents. My own parents came of age during the
1920s, and their Charleston style of up-tempo music was looked upon with horror by my
Victorian grandparents. I grew up during the 1940s and '50s, so I looked upon my
parents' ricky-ticky music as hopelessly cornball, while they found the romantic ballads of
the big-band era as tuneless and soporific. I grew up in an area of the Deep South where
"hillbilly" music was most popular with many of my classmates, but I regarded that kind of
rural culture as too naive and uncouth for my taste, so I hated their music. When Elvis
Presley and the Beatles introduced "Rock and Roll," I regarded it as monotonous and
Now, overlaying these strata of cultural conditioning there appears to be a biological
component. In 1987, a group of psychologists did an extensive study of the relationship
between intelligence and personality. They compared a group of "average" people with
members of Mensa (who rank in the upper 2% of the I.Q. population) and members of
one of the Super-Mensa organizations (who rank in the upper 1%, or higher). One of the
questions concerned taste in music. Unfortunately, the survey only included two styles of
music: Symphonic and Rock. But there is little question that symphonic music is much
more complex than Rock 'n Roll.
The results were quite enlightening. They found that average people do not care much for
symphonic music, Mensans like it, and Super-Mensans like it most of all. Attitudes
toward Rock were the opposite. The average person liked Rock, Mensans didn't care
much for it, and Super-Mensans liked it least of all. (Mensa Bulletin, April, 1987)
Thus, it would seem that people with higher levels of intelligence prefer more complex
styles of music. Bebop is also an extremely complex form of music, and Rap is probably
the simplest, most primitive type since the Stone Age. I suspect that if the same survey
were taken today and included those two styles, the results would be the same as they
were for symphonic vs. Rock, except the differences might be more extreme.
Then of course if a person has studied music extensively, that adds additional
complications to their preference for certain styles. Most likely it would broaden their
So, is "Rap" really music? Of course it is, but it is a radical departure from tradition. It
discards melody and harmony entirely, relying almost exclusively on rhythm and lyrics.
Generally there are a few basic chords monotonously repeated in the background, while
the vocalist chants a crudely constructed poem in a rhythm that never varies. The lyrics
express extreme hostility and are screamed in an "Ebonic" dialect that is generally
unintelligible. It comes from the subculture of angry young black men trapped in American
ghettos. Therefore, it is most appreciated by others from that subculture, and by white
adolescents who can identify with their plight and their anger at the world. Naturally it is
looked upon with revulsion by older generations; that kind of shocked reaction is exactly
what was intended.
But I think we can rest assured that teenagers of tomorrow will snicker at Rap as
outdated, and will revert to some other style from the past, which will then be regarded as
the latest thing. Waltzes played on a clavichord perhaps?
Is "Rap" Music, or Noise?