An Introduction to the Elements of Music

Symphony conductor
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You don't need to be a musician to understand the basic elements of music. Anyone who appreciates music will benefit from learning how to identify music's building blocks. Music may be soft or loud, slow or fast, and regular or irregular in tempo—all of these are evidence of a performer interpreting a composition's elements or parameters.

Leading musical theorists differ on how many elements of music exist: Some say there are as few as four or five, while others contend that there are as many as nine or 10.

Knowing the generally accepted elements can help you understand the essential ​components of music.

Beat and Meter

A beat is what gives music its rhythmic pattern; it can be regular or irregular. Beats are grouped together in a measure; the notes and rests correspond to a certain number of beats. Meter refers to rhythmic patterns produced by grouping together strong and weak beats. A meter may be in duple (two beats in a measure), triple (three beats in a measure), quadruple (four beats in a measure), and so on.

Dynamics

Dynamics refers to the volume of a performance. In written compositions, dynamics are indicated by abbreviations or symbols that signify the intensity at which a note or passage should be played or sung. They can be used like punctuation in a sentence to indicate precise moments of emphasis. Dynamics are derived from Italian. Read a score and you'll see words like pianissimo used to indicate a very soft passage and fortissimo to indicate a very loud section, for instance.

Harmony

Harmony is what you hear when two or more notes or chords are played at the same time. Harmony supports the melody and gives it texture. Harmonic chords may be described as major, minor, augmented, or diminished, depending on the notes being played together. In a barbershop quartet, for example, one person will sing the melody.

The harmony is provided by three others—a tenor, a bass, and a baritone, all singing complimentary note combinations—in perfect pitch with one another.

Melody

Melody is the overarching tune created by playing a succession or series of notes, and it is affected by pitch and rhythm. A composition may have a single melody that runs through once, or there may be multiple melodies arranged in a verse-chorus form, as you'd find in rock 'n' roll. In classical music, the melody is usually repeated as a recurring musical theme that varies as the composition progresses.

Pitch

The pitch of a sound is based on the frequency of vibration and the size of the vibrating object. The slower the vibration and the bigger the vibrating object, the lower the pitch; the faster the vibration and the smaller the vibrating object, the higher the pitch. For example, the pitch of a double bass is lower than that of the violin because the double bass has longer strings. Pitch may be definite, easily identifiable (as with the piano, where there is a key for each note), or indefinite, meaning pitch is difficult to discern (as with a percussion instrument, such as the cymbals).

Rhythm

Rhythm may be defined as the pattern or placement of sounds in time and beats in music.

Roger Kamien in his book "Music: An Appreciation" defines rhythm as "the particular arrangement of note lengths in a piece of music." Rhythm is shaped by meter; it has certain elements such as beat and tempo.

Tempo

Tempo refers to the speed at which a piece of music is played. In compositions, a work's tempo is indicated by an Italian word at the beginning of a score. Largo describes a very slow, languid pace (think of a placid lake), while moderato indicates a moderate pace and presto a very fast one. Tempo can also be used to indicate emphasis. Ritenuto, for instance, tells the musicians to slow down suddenly. 

Texture

Musical texture refers to the number and type of layers used in a composition and how these layers are related. A texture may be monophonic (single melodic line), polyphonic (two or more melodic lines) and homophonic (the main melody accompanied by chords).

Timbre

Also known as tone color, timbre refers to the quality of sound that distinguishes one voice or instrument from another. It may range from dull to lush and from dark to bright, depending on technique. For example, a clarinet playing an uptempo melody in the mid to upper register could be described as having a bright timbre. That same instrument slowly playing a monotone in its lowest register could be described as having a dull timbre.

Key Musical Terms

Here are thumbnail descriptions.of the previously described key elements of music. 

Element

Definition

Characteristics

Beat

Gives music its rhythmic pattern

A beat can be regular or irregular.

Meter

Rhythmic patterns produced by grouping together strong and weak beats

A meter may be two or more beats in a measure.

Dynamics

The volume of a performance

Like punctuation marks, dynamics abbreviations and symbols indicate moments of emphasis.

Harmony

The sound produced when two or more notes are played at the same time

Harmony supports the melody and gives it texture.

Melody

The overarching tune created by playing a succession or series of notes

A composition may have a single or multiple melodies.

Pitch

A sound based on the frequency of vibration and size of the vibrating objects

The slower the vibration and the bigger the vibrating object, the lower the pitch will be and vice versa.

Rhythm

The pattern or placement of sounds in time and beats in music

Rhythm is shaped by meter and has elements such as beat and tempo.

Tempo

The speed at which a piece of music is played

The tempo is indicated by an Italian word at the beginning of a score, such as “largo” for slow or “presto” for very fast.

Texture

The number and types of layers used in a composition

A texture may be a single line, two or more lines, or the main melody accompanied by chords.

Timbre

The quality of the sound that distinguishes one voice or instrument from another

Timbre can range from dull to lush and from dark to bright.