Elements of Music


Pitch – register (high or low);  Organization of pitches with a pattern of intervals between them creates scales;  Words we might use to describe scales: major/minor, chromatic, gapped, pentatonic.


Rhythm – the time element of music.  A specific rhythm is a specific pattern in time; we usually hear these in relation to a steady pulse, and mentally organize this pulse or tempo into meter (sometimes called a "time signature").  Meter organizes beats into groups, usually of two or three; beats can be divided into small units usually 2, 3 or 4 subdivisions


Melody, or musical line, is a combination of pitch and rhythm (some say "duration").  Sometimes a melody is considered to be the theme of a composition. We might characterize melody by its contour (rising or falling) and the size of the intervals in it.  A melody that uses mostly small intervals (or scale steps) and is smooth is said to be a conjunct melody.  Not surprisingly, a melody that uses large intervals is called a disjunct melody.  A motif (or motive) is either a very short melody or a distinctive part of a longer melody.  I might describe the opening four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as a "motific cell."


Timbre – sound quality or tone color; timbre is the characteristic that allows us to distinguish between one instrument and another, and the difference between vowel sounds (for example, long "a" or "ee").  Terms we might use to describe timbre:  bright, dark, brassy, reedy, harsh, noisy, thin, buzzy, pure, raspy, shrill, mellow, strained.  I prefer to avoid describing timbre in emotional terms (excited, angry, happy, sad, etc.); that is not the sound quality, it is its effect or interpretation.  Rather than describe the timbre of an instrument in other terms, it is often more clear just to describe the timbre by naming the instrument, once we have learned the names and sounds of a few instruments.


Dynamics – loud or soft.  A composition that has extremely soft passages as well as extremely loud passages is said to have a large or wide dynamic range.  Dynamics can change suddenly or gradually (crescendo, getting louder, or decrescendo, getting softer.)


Texture – monophonic (one voice or line),

polyphonic (many voices, usually similar, as in Renaissance or Baroque counterpoint),

homophonic (1. a melody with simple accompaniment;  2.  chords moving in the same rhythm (homorhythmic))

heterophony – “mixed” or multiple similar versions of a melody performed simultaneously (rare in European music; possibly used in Ancient Greece)

collage – juxtaposition & superimposition of extremely different textures or sounds



METER and examples


Most music in the world has a pulse or beat (exceptions include shakuhachi music from Japan, Gregorian chant from Europe, various forms of Arab music, some Australian didjeridu music, etc.).  Usually, the pulses are organized (by the performer, listener, and composer) into groups, usually from 2 to 5 beats in a group, and are usually regular (the same number of beats repeating over and over, and the beats always the same length).  This grouping is the general idea of METER.  Most music derived from European sources falls into DUPLE (2 or 4 beats) or TRIPLE meters.  Beats themselves can be SUBDIVIDED into smaller parts, usually 2, 3, 4, 6 or 8 even parts (duple or triple subdivisions).  Music derived from folk music in the Balkans or from other sources such as India have beats that are IRREGULAR in size.  These beats usually are groups of two or three sub-pulses (or pulse subdivisions).  I prefer the term “asymmetrical,”  but there is no ideal term for this concept.


The organization of time in European-influenced the music usually is happening at at least three levels.  The middle ground, the level to which we are most likely to tap our foot, is the beat (or pulse) which is grouped at a higher level into groups of beats known as measures or bars. Going the other direction, beats are subdivided into smaller parts.  Sometimes it is difficult to decide what is the basic level or speed of the pulse (or tempo).  For example, fast music in a triple meter could be heard as a slow or moderate tempo (60 beats per minute) with its beat subdivided into three parts, or as a very fast stream of beats (180 beats per minute) that are grouped into threes.


In music there is a play between repetition (pattern) and variety.  The regularity of meter gives rise to a set of expectations, and these expectations can be manipulated to create emotion, motion, surprise, etc.  For example, in a 4-beat meter ("4/4" or "common time"), the first beat is the strongest beat, and the third beat is the next strongest.  The second and fourth beats are "weak" beats.  Heavy accents on these beats create a feeling of surprise known as “syncopation.”  Repeated heavy accents on the second and fourth beats create a feeling known as "rock 'n' roll."  Another use of the strong/weak beat distinction is the relative degree of melodic closure; when the melody ends on beat 1 (the "downbeat"), it is called a strong cadence and has the greatest feeling of closure, finality, rest or completeness.