The Elements of Music
The standard elements of music, or the basic parameters of which we talk about music, are:
- rhythm/meter (along with tempo = musical time)
We will begin with listening skills and basic analytical tools to help you recognize and discuss these elements of music. But first, here are some questions and explanations to help direct your listening and to prompt your responses.
MUSICAL TIME (beat, meter, rhythm, tempo)
- Can you tap your foot in a regular pulse to the music? If so, you have found the beat. This is what you feel when you dance, and the beat is often accentuated by drums or other percussion instruments.
- Can you hear if the beats group together in regular patterns of 2, 3, or 4, accentuated by a strong pulse at the beginning of each group? If so, you have found the meter.
- Can you hear short and long durations of sound? This is rhythm.
- Can you hear the rate of speed the music moves in time, such as fast, slow, medium-fast, medium-slow, etc? This is tempo.
- Can you hear a line of notes, either sung or played, that seems to hang together into a coherent musical idea? This horizontal dimension of music is melody.
- Can you listen to it more technically to discern contour, range, and shape of the line?
- Do you hear two or more parts sounding together? This vertical dimension of music is harmony.
- Do you hear a succession of vertical blocks of sound? Three or more notes sounding together are called chords.
- What is making the sound?
- Can you identify any particular instruments? Voices? Electronic sources?
- Can you hear when the music is loud and soft?
- The sound color and shades of loud and soft refer to musical timbre. Dynamics, or the amplitude of sound, also contribute to the overall sound color.
- Can you hear distinct parts? only one part? Does the music sound thick? thin? The surface appearance of music, like a landscape but really a “soundscape,” is called Texture.
- Do the parts sound together in the same rhythm, like in a hymn? This is called homophonic texture.
- Do the parts sound together as separate but equal strands playing against each other? This is called polyphonic texture.
- Do you hear a fluid melody supported by chords? This is called a melody and accompaniment texture.
- Can you discern a structure or design, based on parts of the music that repeat or contrast with each other? Repetition and contrast are the basis for musical form, often designated by letters of the alphabet, such as ABA.
Tools and Skills for Listening. Start to practice them every time you listen to music!
Here are four steps to help organize how you listen to music and to prepare responses to what you are hearing.
- Listen attentively
- Describe the elements you are hearing
- Reproduce what you are hearing
- Represent what you are hearing
Listening Activity: Follow the four-step guide with the famous tango La cumparsita by Hernán Matos Rodriguez (1897 – 1948).
YouTube video of performance by Juan D’Arienzo and his orchestra, c. 1960.
Audio clip: LaCumparsitaClip.mp3
1. Listen attentively
As you listen, put 100% of your attention on the music and avoid distractions. Turn off everything else; don’t do anything else; only engage your ears to actively listen. If it helps you to shut down your other senses, close your eyes. Listening attentively means the music is in the foreground, not background, of your awareness. You must concentrate as hard as when you read a book, write a paper, or watch a movie.
Listen to the first part of La cumparsita only (0:00 – 0:30), performed by the tango orchestra of Juan D’Arienzo. Remember to put 100% of your attention on the music and avoid all distractions for the 30 seconds of this clip!
2. Describe the elements you are hearing
Move from the aural experience to describe what you are hearing in words. Jot down any musical terms or definitions you already know that define any of the musical elements you can perceive. If you are starting as a complete beginner, don’t worry. You will acquire musical vocabulary in this course. For now, simply jot down your repsonses to the music, whether aural, intellectual, or emotional.
Here are some details of a few of the elements:
MUSICAL TIME: beat, meter, rhythm, tempo Rodriguez originally intended this famous tango as a march for his student federation, and we hear the musical time clearly marching along. We could even march right along with it! The regular beat in the music moves in steady groups of 2; the rhythm mostly corresponds directly to the beat, or divides it into equal subdivisions; and the tempo is moderately fast. Note how the interpolation of silence at 0:09 creates a momentary stop in the forward marching motion.
MELODY The tune begins with a big leap upwards followed by smaller descending leaps, and finally a little turn around the opening note. This pattern repeats immediately, and so it sets the stage for the main melodic idea of the tango. The opening tune marches along in the basic rhythm with the beat, and its identity seems secondary in importance to the rhythm.
HARMONY We can hear 3-4 parts sounding together to create a full harmony.
TIMBRE The particular sound color of the traditional tango ensemble comes from the blend of piano, violins, bandoneons and string bass. The dynamics grow from an initial medium-soft level in the opening to a loud level. After the short pause, the dynamics drop back to a soft level when the piano plays the little riff, then gradually build up again to end the section loudly.
TEXTURE The parts mostly sound together in the same rhythm in a homophonic texture.
FORM The section hangs together through repetition and contrast of the melodic ideas. Calling these ideas a and b respectively in these cues:
a 0:01 – 0:09: Violins marching
a1 0:09 – 0:16 Silence, piano riff, violins marching
b 0:16 – 0:30 Violins now play flowing line, then piano finishes
3. Reproduce what you are hearing
Try to tap or clap the rhythmic pattern you hear in the music. Then, try to sing the melody back to yourself. Reproducing what you hear not only brings the musical experience into your own body, but it will help develop your aural memory. The more you practice this skill, the easier it becomes to just think of a song inside your head!
Clap back the rhythm you hear in the opening violin melody at 0:01 – 0:04. Then clap back the rhythm in the violin at 0:05 – 0:09. Is it the same or different? (You should discover the rhythm is exactly the same.)
4. Represent what you are hearing (You may be able to do steps 1 – 3 fairly easily, but step 4 may pose a challenge!)
Another way to help you to understand music is to express what you are hearing in a visual representation. For example, make dots and dashes like a Morse code symbols that capture the short and long rhythms you hear, such as · · · — (short, short, short, long). Listen to the international code for distress, or SOS, and see if you can relate the aural signal with dots and dashes:
· · · — — — · · ·
Click here to download this sound file: SOS_morse_code.mp3
Now write the first nine rhythms of “La cumparsita” with dots and dashes to represent the short and long durations.
– – – – . . . – –
Or, try to represent the shape and contour of a melody across a time line that also reflects rhythm. You can accomplish this by plotting the notes on a graph where the horizontal axis = time and the vertical axis = range (low to high), and then plot how the notes rise and fall. For example, this graph maps out the first 9 seconds of “La cumparsita.” In the first 5 seconds, the melody begins in long notes with a big leap, moves downward in two smaller leaps, then hovers above and below the starting note in mostly shorter durations. The next 4.5 seconds essentially repeats this same pattern, but expands the leap. Listen to the melody again while following the graph.
Musicians use various systems of notation to represent sound, either on a staff with symbols to simultaneously represent the notes, meter, rhythm, and dynamics, or through different types of shorthand notation, such as popular music symbols or figured bass. Here is the opening violin melody of “La cumparsita” in musical notation. How many of these symbols do you already know? (If you don’t know anything about music notation, don’t worry! Details of notation will be discussed in the following modules.)