We don’t think about it very often, but so many of the major things that enrich our lives are made up of smaller things. On their own, these underlying musical elements don’t seem to hold much meaning or significance, but each of them plays a crucial role in bringing form and function to that greater object or area of study. Take, for instance, the ten-speed bicycle. It’s common knowledge that a bike is a vehicle that will transport a person from point A to point B. Still, to operate it safely and effectively, a cyclist must be able to identify and learn the functions of the pedal, gears, brakes, and handlebars. Or if you’re more of a foodie, imagine a nice fluffy cake. Knowing what a cake is supposed to taste like is one thing, but a baker must follow a recipe and blend just the right proportion of flour, eggs, butter, sugar, milk, and leavening substances to achieve a yummy result.
These key parts—pedals, gears, chains, flour, eggs, sugar, etc.—play a crucial role in defining what that greater thing is and determining what it does. By extension, understanding each element and its role in the big picture can help you develop critical knowledge and skills in whatever subject matter you are trying to master, whether it’s cycling, baking, or anything else. Music is no different. No matter which instrument(s) you choose, learning the building blocks of music itself will undoubtedly help you become a better listener, player, and writer.
Let’s explore how 7 essential musical elements—sound, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, melody, harmony, and texture—act together to create that powerful and emotive aural phenomenon we know and love as music.
A consensus has not yet been reached on exactly what music is and how it should be defined, but everyone generally agrees that it is a human expression composed of a purposeful arrangement of sounds and silences; therefore, sound is a fundamental and irreplaceable aspect of all music. Sound simply refers to any vibrations that are audible to living things. Breaking down the key properties of sound is critical to understanding how it is manipulated to create music. We craft sound into music using a wide variety of vocal patterns and instruments.
One of the major characteristics that make one voice or instrument distinct from another is timbre. Timbre refers to the tone color of a sound or note without respect to its pitch, volume, or intensity. If you have ever played around with the various virtual instruments built into an electronic keyboard, you probably noticed that a particular note or chord on the grand piano setting sounds quite different than it does on the church organ setting or the synthesizer. You may have even noticed that the grand piano function on your keyboard sounds different than an actual grand piano. Factors that influence timbral differences include the material qualities of the instrument (wood, metal, plastic, thick, thin, large, small, etc.), vocal cord shape and age, attack and articulation (use of a guitar pick versus fingers, use of drumsticks versus brushes), and sustained pitch (notes that are sustained, shortened, have vibrato or decay gradually).
Because timbre deals with tone color, the adjectives used to describe sounds and pitches are also colorful. They include words like bright, dark, smooth, raspy, breathy, round, warm, piercing, heavy, light, mellow, dense, and many more. To get a better idea of timbre, listen to the following two different versions of “No Surprises” by Radiohead. Note how different instruments playing the same song create a different feel and overall listening experience.
Another key property of sound is pitch. Pitch is defined as the frequency at which a sound or note vibrates and is measured in hertz. Pitch operates on a nearly infinite spectrum, from high to low. Fortunately, humans have developed a system for organizing pitches in the audible spectrum into more recognizable bits called notes, or tones. Each note is named after a letter of the alphabet, A through G. When different notes are sung or played in a series, a melody is created. And, speaking of the alphabet, one of the first melodies we learn to sing as children is the Alphabet Song, A B C D E F G H I J K….. Just know that the notes sung for letters in the alphabet song DO NOT correspond to the lettered notes that represent pitches in music. Confused yet? We will further discuss how notes are used like building blocks to create melody and harmony in another section.
At the root of all music is the intentional manipulation of sound through timbre and pitch. Some secondary aspects of sound that are used to create music are amplitude (volume) – expressed as dynamics – and duration (sound and silence length) – expressed as rhythm. We will further expand on these musical elements in other sections.
If you’ve ever found yourself checking your heart rate, watching the second hand tick around a large clock, or listening to a car’s turn signal, you would have, in effect, been observing a series of steady pulses, or beats. Notice that the beats in each example – the heart palpitation, the tick, and the blinker – are usually evenly spaced apart. Now, imagine a scenario in which you’re playing the popular nursery rhyme “Patty Cake” with a friend. Have you ever noted that, even though your hands are clapping steadily, the syllables of the words you’re singing don’t fully mimic the beat?
Let the highlighted syllables represent where the claps occur (a steady beat). Notice the variance in the number of unhighlighted syllables that lie between each of the highlighted ones. In some instances, only one syllable exists; in others, there are two or even three. When the steady claps – aka the beats - are combined with the irregular syllables of the lyrics, a unique pattern known as rhythm is created. In other words, the flow of the lyrics represents the rhythm, and the claps represent the steady beat on which the rhythm is based. In music, rhythms can be fast or slow, and they can encompass percussive beats, melodic notes, and breaks of silence called rests.
In musical notation, phrases and rhythms are divided into smaller units known as measures. The number of beats within a measure determines the meter. Accordingly, a grouping of 2 beats is a duple meter, 3 is a triple meter, 4 is a quadruple meter, and so on. In the fraction-like figure we see at the beginning of a piece of music, known as the time signature, the beat grouping represents the numerator and tells us the number of note values needed to complete a measure. The denominator indicates what that note value is (whole note, quarter note, half note, etc.).
This means that in a 4/4 time signature, for example, each measure requires 4 beats, AND the quarter note value gets one beat. Because they signify a particular subdivision of beats, each time signature offers a different rhythmic feel. Some of the most common time signatures are 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 6/8. Songs in 4/4 time will have a straightforward feel, songs in 3/4 will have a waltz feel, and songs in 6/8 will have a swing feel. When studying meter in any time signature, it’s helpful to count out the individual beats in each measure, emphasizing some over others. Using some of the examples above, 2/4 may be interpreted as 1-2 | 1-2..., 3/4 as 1-2-3 | 1-2-3..., 4/4 as 1-2-3-4 | 1-2-3-4..., etc. This allows you to internalize the rhythmic feel of a piece of music as it travels from measure to measure.
Rhythm is a lot like language. It helps us arrange sounds and pauses into structures that we can understand and digest, especially when notated. The better you can distinguish rhythms from beats and identify rhythmic feel through meter, the better your grasp will be of musical flow and structure.
If you’ve ever attended a show or concert, you have probably seen the drummer of a band count from one to four to kick off a song. Typically, this is done either verbally, with sticks, or sometimes both. In any case, the purpose for doing so is two-fold: 1) to ensure that each member starts the song at the right time and 2) to establish the song’s speed, or in this context, tempo.
Based on our overview of rhythm, we know that the drummer’s introductory counts represent the main pulse of the forthcoming song. We can also discern how fast or slow it is going to be, but we don’t yet have all the tools needed to determine its tempo. Music defines tempo in both a descriptive (slow, moderate, fast, etc.) and a quantitative context.
The special unit of measure for tempo is beats per minute, or BPM. The higher the number of BPM, the faster the song is going to be. Tempo can also change from part to part within a musical composition to emphasize different feelings or moods. When those changes are gradual, they may be notated by the Italian terms Ritardando (a gradual slow down) or Accelerando (a gradual increase in speed).
Like time signatures, tempo can greatly affect the rhythmic feel of a piece of music. Below are a few examples of some common BPMs, their speed relative to each other, a description of feel, and some corresponding genres that commonly apply each tempo.
It’s every musician’s job to keep time, not just the drummer’s. Getting acclimated with a wide tempo array will pay dividends for your precision and consistency as a player. A metronome—in either physical or app form—is a terrific practice tool that can help improve your rhythm and timekeeping skills by generating an audio “click” or visual cue that you can play along with.
One of the most powerful forms of musical expression comes through the manipulation of dynamics. Put simply, dynamics refers to the volume produced by the instruments or voices in a piece of music, as well as the changes between “louds” and “softs” in the spectrum of volume. In music composition, certain Italian terms are used to notate the volume with which a piece or part is to be performed, as well as changes to volume (crescendo and decrescendo).
Dynamic contrast is a highly expressive tool that creates a sense of shock by suddenly and dramatically increasing and decreasing the volume between parts of a song. One well-known example of this lies in the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana. Note how the volume drastically increases when the song transitions from the verse and pre-chorus to the chorus and then returns to a relatively quiet state when the next verse begins.
By contrast, observe the gradually increasing swell of volume (crescendo) on Radiohead’s "2 + 2 = 5" that starts at around the 1:22 mark, comes to a climax about 30 seconds later, and then remains at a relatively high volume until the end of the song. Rather than shock and surprise, the resulting feeling here is one of suspense and urgency.
As you become more comfortable with your voice or instrument, you may be surprised to find yourself subconsciously expressing a wide range of dynamics in your music. Harnessing them effectively allows you to set the mood and genuinely move your audience.
If you have ever caught yourself humming, singing, or whistling a popular tune to yourself, you have performed a melody. Like rhythm, melody is one of the most intuitive forms of musical expression; it’s something we can subconsciously understand without fully recognizing. A melody is simply a sequence of notes that complement one another when played in succession. The notes that create melodies come from scales, which are pre-defined groups of notes that are drawn upon to help keep a melody pleasing to the ear. For example, the A Major scale consists of notes A B C# D E F# G# A.
A phrase that employs all or most of these notes—even out of order—will sound more agreeable than one that uses random notes. The three main scale types used in Western culture are Major, Minor, and Pentatonic (major and minor). Major scales contain 7 notes and sound pleasant or cheerful (think “Island in the Sun” by Weezer). Minor scales also have 7 notes, but they sound gloomier and more uncomfortable (think “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath). Pentatonic scales come in both a major and minor form but possess only 5 pitches (think “My Girl” by The Temptations).
Another property of melodies is their movement. Notes in a melody can go higher or lower in either a stepwise motion or a leap motion. In stepwise motion, the melody moves one note at a time, allowing for smoothness and consistency. In leap motion, a melody can “leap” several notes and impart a feeling of excitement or tension. Like rhythm, melody moves through time. It can rise ( / ), fall ( \ ), remain the same (__), or involve any combination of these motions. The traceable path that a melody makes as it moves along its constituent notes is referred to as Melodic Contour.
If melody occurs when notes are played in succession, what happens when you play two or more of them at the same time? The answer: you get harmony. In harmony, notes are stacked rather than lined up. Borrowing from the prior hypothetical scenario of singing to yourself, imagine that the song you’re singing is Freddy Mercury’s lead vocal part on the Queen song “Somebody to Love.” Not to be outshined, your dad and your sister mysteriously appear beside you and start singing the gospel-choir-style backup vocals that permeate the song. This collection of voices singing different, yet complimentary, notes and lyrics simultaneously creates beautiful harmony. But that’s not to say that harmony is always pleasant, or consonant, in music lingo. Harmony can also be dissonant, or atonal, especially if the musician intends to create an unpleasant or uncomfortable mood.
Harmony is conveyed through blended notes as intervals (two notes played simultaneously) and chords (three or more notes played simultaneously). Three-note chords, called triads, are among the most popular chord styles used in Western music, especially classical music and rock. One notable example is the guitar riff on the verse of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.” As is the case with notes in a melody, chords can be strung together linearly in what is called chord progression. For example, the chord progression of the verse riff from “Crazy Train” is A – D - E. Another commonality is that chords are designated a letter name and a quality (i.e. C major or D minor). In addition, chords can also be augmented (made sharper) and diminished (made flatter), which alters their inflection and mood. And, as crazy as this sounds, chords don’t even always behave like chords; sometimes they are arpeggiated – meaning, broken down into their constituent notes and played like melodies. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck is famous for playing arpeggios.
If you are learning to sing or play a melodic instrument, don’t be afraid to experiment with all the different notes (melodies) and chords (harmonies) you can. Doing so will boost your creativity and help you communicate musical ideas to whomever you may be playing with.
If you know anything about pizza—other than the fact that it’s awesome—you know that it can be made in different styles. One version is the New York style, with its thin and stretchy dough, thin layer sauce, and ample amounts of cheese. Another is the Chicago deep dish, with its pie-like crust, heavy sauce, and globs of cheese. Then, there are all the other flavors, toppings, and other ingredients like pepperonis, sausage, olives, peppers, mushrooms, basil, parmesan, and more. Music is a lot like pizza in that you can mix rhythm, melody, and harmony in a multitude of different ways to create songs, operas, symphonies, and other musical forms. As with pizza, the various ways in which these layers are arranged will determine the overall texture or thickness of a composition.
The simplest type of texture is monophony. As the prefix “mono” would suggest, this style yields only one line of music, like a voice singing acapella or a guitar solo. Other voices and instruments can be added without altering this texture style as long as they are performing the same part in unison. For example, a choir that sings the same lyrics in the same register (or even one octave apart) is still utilizing monophony as long as members don’t harmonize or deviate in any other way.
The second (and most popular) texture form in Western music is homophony. Music composed in this style consists of a lead melody supported by a harmonic accompaniment. Bands that feature a lead vocalist or singer/songwriters who play guitar or piano are the biggest culprits when it comes to this style.
Sometimes, an instrument can take the lead and be supported by other instruments. Peter Frampton and Eric Johnson (guitar) immediately come to mind. When two or more independent voices or melodies move at the same time, polyphony is the result. The dueling vocal parts in Queen songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Somebody to Love” are good representations of polyphony. Also, any time a guitar solo is featured alongside lead vocals, polyphonic texture is created because both voices feature attention-grabbing lead melodies that intertwine independently.
The last and most rare type of texture (at least in Western music) is heterophony. Like some other texture forms, heterophony features multiple voices or instruments performing simultaneously; however, at least one of them will deviate just a little from the common melody performed by the others. In a way, it’s the opposite of homophony in that the harmonic part can take the lead while a single voice comes alongside it to add embellishments. One example of this texture type in popular music comes from Ray Charles’ song “Night Time is the Right Time.” Throughout the entire song, you can hear a chorus singing the lyrics “night and day” as a harmonic progression while Charles adds his own complimentary lines of melody and lyrics.
One really good way to experiment with musical textures is to form an impromptu ensemble, join an open jam, or better yet, start a band with people who sing and play other instruments. School of Rock provides a great opportunity to do just that!
Besides being composed of key musical elements that form something greater than their sum, bikes, cakes, and music all require another major component...YOU! A bike will not go into motion until someone stands on it and cranks the pedals. A cake will not bake itself; the baker must whisk all the ingredients together and place his confection into a warm oven. And a guitarist must grasp her pick and start strumming so that her instrument will produce a sound. That guitarist (or singer, or keyboardist, or drummer) could be you. That sound could be melodious and magnificent. And the knowledgeable instructors at School of Rock can help make it all come together.
About the Author
Jonathan Rose is a drum teacher at the School of Rock in Rockwall, TX. An avid collector, restorer, and window shopper of musical equipment, Jon owns eight drum kits, 20 cymbals, and 50 snare drums! In his spare time, he enjoys recording drum tracks and creating drum loops and samples at his best friend’s home studio.