Musical Elements

Musical Elements are the basic materials or "building blocks" which are used in forming the structure of music.  In explaining the elements of music, I like to group them into two general categories, RHYTHM and MELODY.  Keep in mind that this is a western view of music, although most musical cultures have a similar division. 

In a nutshell, rhythm pertains to all musical elements that are time-related.  Through the establishment of a pulse or beat, rhythm creates an actual framework for which music can progress through time.  It also provides a physical connection to the listener, resonating with the natural rhythms found in the human body (breathing, walking, running, speaking) and eliciting a response in the form of tapping or moving with the music, dancing, or in some cases, altered states and trances. 

Melody is the realm of sounds, specifically, the tones that we hear in music.  It is usually refereed to in terms of "high" or "low" and reflects inflections that are found in speech.  This close connection with speech (or even pre-speech sounds) gives melody the expressive role in music, even if there is no singer/vocalist in a musical performance.

I personally see the categories of rhythm and melody as a dyad reflecting the dual nature of musical thought:

time related non-time related
linear spatial
horizontal vertical
physical emotional
movement expression
momentum reflection
 left-brain  right-brain

The combination of the two sides of this dyad, melody and rhythm, gives wholeness to musical form and the possibility of a wide range of expression.

Let's look at a more detailed breakdown of musical elements:

1. Rhythm

Pulse -- Any regular, predictable series of musical sounds, establishing a linear pattern of beats that are evenly spaced in time.  The pulse in a musical piece is felt as a regular recurring pattern of stressed beats, i.e., what you tap your foot to or dance along with.  Without a pulse, a piece of music is considered to be rhythmless, or arrhythmic.


Tempo -- The speed of a pulse.  Musical pulses tend to be at or near the same rate as those pulses found in the human body, such as the heart beat, breathing, walking, running, dancing, or rhythms of speech. 


Tone Length -- The duration of a tone in music.  Many patterns are established using combinations of short and long tones.  Here's one:

short - short - short - long

Play sound file: Example01.mp3

-- The space between notes; also with short or long durations.


Meter -- The grouping of pulses (beats) into small units, usually groups of 2, 3, 4, or 6 beats.  A hierarchy of beats develops out of this, so that meters become groups of strong and weak beats.  Meters allow for more complex rhythmic development in music.

Example #2:  Native American music is often characterized as having a strong, regular pulse, but without a consistent grouping of the beats--no real meter.  Listen to this and compare with later examples. 

Play sound file: Example02.mp3


Simple Meter -- These are the most common meters in the world, characterized by one single predominant meter in a piece.  Most simple meters are divisible by two (2, 4, 8, or 16 beats) and are called duple meters.  Some are divisible by three, and are called triple meters. 

Example #3 This polka from Louisiana is a song in duple meter. 

It can be counted as 1 - 2 - 1 - 2 - , with beat 1 stronger than beat 2.

Or, you can count 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-, with beats 1 and 3 stronger than beats 2 and 4.

Play sound file: Example03.mp3


Example #4:  This son from Mexico is in triple meter.

You can count it as 1 - 2 - 3 - 1 - 2 - 3 - , with beat 1 the strongest. 

Play sound file: Example04.mp3


Compound Meter -- A meter that has more than one pulse.  Most often, this occurs with a meter of 6 beats.  The emphasis can be placed on beats 1 and 4, giving it a triple rhythmic grouping of 3 + 3: 

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 -

Or, the emphasis can be duple, being placed on beats 1, 3, and 5:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 -

A song in compound meter would have both versions playing simultaneously, resulting in a duple/triple combination:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 -

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 -

Another compound meter, found in much African music, is in a meter of 12 beats.  This adds another layer of complexity, with simultaneous groupings of 6 X 2, 4 X 3, and 3 X 4:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - (6 beat pulse)

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - (4 beat pulse)

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - (3 beat pulse)

Needless to say, compound rhythms are difficult to delineate (or clap along with!)

Example #5:  This is in a compound meter of 12 beats.  It is Afro-Peruvian music, a landó, exhibiting both African rhythms (in 12) and Spanish rhythms (in 6).

Try to feel the various pulses!

Play sound file: Example05.mp3


Symmetrical Meters -- Meters that can be divided into smaller, equivalent units.  For instance, a meter of 8 can be divided into 4 + 4 or 2 + 2 + 2 + 2.  Likewise, 6 can be divided into 3 + 3 or 2 + 2 + 2.  Also called divisive meters.


Asymmetrical Meters -- Mostly found in the Middle East, these are meters that cannot be divided into smaller equivalent units.  For instance, a meter in 5 can only be divided into unequal parts, 3 + 2 or 2 + 3.  Other asymmetrical meters are 7 (3 + 2 + 2), 11 (3 + 2 + 3 + 3 or 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 3) etc...

These are often times called additive meters, because they are constructed of strings of small groups of beats.  More commonly, they are known as odd meters.

Example #6 This is a Bulgarian lullaby in an asymmetrical meter of 11 beats.  Bulgarian music exhibits strong characteristics of Middle Eastern music--this kind of rhythmic usage is one of them.  If you follow the singing closely, you may hear the division of the beats as:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 -

or: 2 + 2 + 3 + 4

Try to feel the various pulses!

Play sound file: Example06.mp3

Don't worry if you can't yet hear these rhythms and meters--I won't ever ask you to identify them by sound!   Hopefully, as the quarter progresses, you will begin to hear the differences between them.

2. Melody

Tone -- A sound that is used in music, produced by an instrument or a human voice.  It is either pitched (consisting of a pitch) or non-pitched (consisting of pitches, such that no clear single pitch is apparent.


Tone Quality -- The character of a tone, often described in subjective or aesthetic terms.  A tone can be simple (consisting of a single pitch) or complex (consisting of many pitches).  A tone can also be described in terms such as smooth, rough, clean, dirty, bright, dark, soft, harsh, brassy, reedy, thin, thick, open, muted, full, constricted, etc...  Another common term for tone quality is the French word "timbre" (pronounced tam-bhur), meaning tone color.


Pitch -- The perceived highness or lowness of sound.  It is the building block of a melody.  Technically, a pitch is a specific frequency, measurable in cycles per second (cps or hertz).  Many basic instruments produce a clear pitch when played, such as a single string, a flute, and a bar of metal or wood.  


Melody -- A succession of pitches.  Melodies can vary greatly in length, but are usually composed in short phrases.


Register -- also called an "octave".  When the frequency of a pitch is doubled, the resulting pitch is nearly identical, but is perceived to be "higher" sounding than the original.  A melody can be played or sung in many different registers, but will always be perceived as the same melody.  Typically, smaller instruments sound in higher registers, larger instruments sound in lower registers. 


Scale -- A collection of pitches used in a melody or piece of music.  Scales typically have between 5 and 7 pitches, although some music cultures use as few as 3, while others may use as many as 12.   All scales have a pitch hierarchy, which means that certain pitches have more weight or power than others.  Every scale also has what's called a tonic or ground tone, which is the principal pitch of the scale.  The pitches of a scale can be multiplied by the number of registers used by the performers in a piece of music.

Most cultures believe that different scales have different emotional qualities to them.  For instance, Example #3 and #4 above are in a common western scale called the major or diatonic scale.  It is considered to be happy, pleasing, and stable in quality.  Example #5 above is in a western minor scale, considered to be more melancholy, sad, tragic, or mysterious.

Some cultures have many scales, others have few or perhaps even only one.  Typically, the more scales a culture uses, the more importance that culture places on the use of melody and the emotive powers of melody.


Contour -- The shape or behavior of a melody.  A melody can be described as flat, curving, sinuous, rising, falling, angular, smooth, etc.  Sometimes, melodic contour varies between cultures.  Example #6 above has a very smooth contour (typical of lullabies); while example #2 has an angular melody;  example #5 has an ascending leap at the beginning of each phrase, followed by a descending contour.

Musical Construction

Texture -- This describes how the various elements of rhythm and melody are eventually combined in a piece of music.   Different cultures of the world seem to prefer different textures in their music.   Some of the more common terms are:

monophony -- A single melody with a single rhythm.  The number of musicians doesn't matter: monophonic music can be played by a single performer, or a large group of performers playing the same thing.  A very common texture found throughout the world, especially in simple songs and folk music.

Example #7:  This is Middle Eastern classical music from Iran.   All of the performers are playing the same melody and the same rhythm. 

Play sound file: Example07.mp3


polyphony -- Two or more distinct melodies, each with its own distinct rhythm, being played simultaneously.   Most commonly found in the music of Africa and the African Diaspora, but polyphonic music is also common in some Indonesian, Pacific Island, and European classical music.

Example #8:  This is popular music from Zaire.  There are multiple lines of music being played--the bass guitar, two different electric guitars, a singer, and drums to unite the various parts. 

Play sound file: Example08.mp3


homophony -- Two or more distinct melodies being played with the same rhythm (isorhythm).   Most commonly found in European music, especially choral singing.

Example #9:  This is early American choral music in a hymn style.  There are four distinct melodic lines, but they are being sung with the exact same rhythm.

Play sound file: Example09.mp3


heterophony -- A single melody being performed by more than one player, with each performer using a slightly different rhythm or variation from the original melody.  Mostly unknown (and undesirable) to western music, but extremely prevalent in the music of east and southeast Asia.

Example #10:  This is classical music from Japan.  The flute and the zither are playing the same melody, but each plays their own "version" of the melody, with a slightly different rhythm and melodic variation.

Play sound file: Example10.mp3


Composition -- The degree to which a piece of music is created before performance.  Some cultures compose music in its entirety before performing; others compose a portion of the music and leave the rest to improvisation (see below) during the performance.  Compositions can be in written form, using music notation or tablature, or they can be learned and remembered without notation (aurally).


Improvisation -- The creation of music while performing.  While improvisation of some sort exists in most cultures and musical styles, the manner in which it is accomplished varies greatly.  In some styles of music such as American jazz or the classical music of India, improvisation is the dominant focus of the musical performance.  Sometimes, improvisation is combined with composed materials, such as most Middle Eastern classical styles, which alternate between composed and improvised music, or Indonesian classical music, which delegates the improvisation to certain specific classes of instruments.  Still other cultures, such as most European or East Asian styles, limit improvisation to subtle inflections and nuances in the melodies (melodic variation).


Form -- Musical form is the shape that a piece of music takes as it is composed or performed.  As we will discover in this class, form is a very important element in a culture's music.  It reflects many of the overall artistic, aesthetic, and even cosmological ideas that a culture holds.  For instance, music in the western world and the Middle East tend to be based upon linear forms, while music from eastern and southern Asia tend to be based upon cyclical forms; both cases can be compared with the prevailing religious views of the cultures, i.e., the Judeo-Christian/Islamic religions in the west (which view the cosmos as a creation-apocalypse linear continuum) and the cyclic Hindu/Buddhist models of re-birth/re-incarnation in the east.  

Form is also determined by the function of the music (just like biological science!).  For instance, you will often find traditional West African dance music with forms that are open-ended or without any pre-determined length.  This allows the music to continue for as long as the dancers need to complete their dance.  Native American singers will often sing the same short melody repeatedly until they feel the song has served its usefulness.