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Arrangements of sounds in time are achieved via the components of melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre in the art of musical composition. Every human society has a universal cultural element, and it is one of the universal cultural characteristics of all of humanity. Pitch (which controls melody and harmony), rhythm (and its related notions of tempo, metre, and articulation), dynamics (loudness and softness), and the auditory characteristics of timbre and texture are all included in most definitions of music. Pitch is the fundamental element of music (which are sometimes termed the "color" of a musical sound). The emphasis, de-emphasis, or omission of certain of these components may vary depending on the style or genre of music being played. Various instruments and vocal styles, ranging from singing to rapping, are used in the performance of music; there are pieces that are entirely instrumental, compositions that are entirely vocal (for example, songs without musical accompaniment), and works that mix singing and instruments. In Greek, the term o (mousike) means "(art) of the Muses," and it means "(art) of the Muses."

To put it in its most basic form, the activities that define music as a form of art or cultural activity include the creation of musical works of various kinds (such as songs, tunes, symphonies, and so on), the criticism of musical works, the study of musical history, and the examination of the aesthetic qualities of music. Music was divided into two categories by ancient Greek and Indian philosophers: melodies, which were defined as tones arranged horizontally, and harmonies, which were defined as tones ordered vertically, respectively. Expressions like "the harmony of the spheres" and "it is music to my ears" allude to the fact that music is frequently well-ordered and pleasurable to listen to, respectively. While 20th-century composer John Cage believed that any sound might be music, he also believed that noise could not be music, stating that "there is no noise, just sound."