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Basic elements of music

Basic elements of music

The four components of tone constitute the basic elements of music. These elements have been organized in music in the following manner:

The Organization of Pitch. There are many pitches that exist in nature, but one really does not hear distinct pitches. In Western Music, from which we derive our pitch, the “pitch spectrum” is limited to a total of 12 different pitches. Because of pitch, it is possible to construct musical scales. A scale is a series of consecutive tones.

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These tones of different pitches may move in ascending order, from tones of lower pitch to higher ones, or in descending order, from higher to lower pitches in the same way that one goes up in a staircase. Without the scale, the organization of sounds into what we call music would be impossible.

Although there are many different scale patterns to be found in music, the most commonly used are the major scale and the minor scale. Every major and minor scale is a pattern of whole steps (alternate keys on the piano, including the black keys) and half steps (adjacent keys on the piano). For example, the C major scale has half steps between E and F and between B and the upper C, and all other scale degrees are a whole step apart:

The minor scale in its natural form has the following pattern of half steps between the second and third scale degrees and between the fifth and sixth scale degrees.
One can construct all the scales, major and minor, by using the key signature chart in the appendix, or by beginning with any tone and applying the pattern of half and whole steps.

Basic elements of music

The words whole and half refer to the distance between the successive steps in the scale. Thus, the fact that there is a whole step between the first and the second pitch indicates that one of the 12 tones, a tone between these two pitches, is omitted from this scale.

There are five such whole steps, indicating that five pitches have been omitted. The two half steps (between the third and fourth tones and the seventh and eighth tones), however, are adjacent pitches in the total fund of 12 pitches, and thus, no pitches have been omitted between them. The eighth tone in the scale is not a new pitch, it is the same pitch as the first, but placed one octave higher. The entire scale can now be repeated up through the next octave.

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· Tonality.

This is an element of music into which one should have a clear insight for a better understanding of it. In almost any melody, one tone can be found that seems more important more final, than any of the others used in making the melody. Tonality is the key or tonal center. Here, one particular pitch receives more emphasis than the others. Most music is written in a key. This means that all its harmony is related to a single tone known as the tonic. The central pitch is the tonic. Thus, a composition which uses the C major scale and treats C as a tonic is said to be in the tonality (or in the key) of C major; and a composition which used the C minor scale, again treating C as a tonic, is said to be in C minor. The tonality or key of a musical composition is indicated by a key signature, which as mentioned earlier, is placed at the beginning of the piece. The key signature is determined by the scale which forms the basis of the piece being studied.

Music in which two or more keys are combined simultaneously in a single composition is polytonal. A practice of the 20th century composers is shifting rapidly from one key center to another. This is referred to as multitonality or displaced tonality.

It should be noted that a scale is an abstract arrangement of the pitches in stepwise order forming the basis of a composition (Dudley and Faricy, 1961). The first and last notes of a scale are always the tonic, or central pitch. Thus, if one looks back at the example, (C major scale), it will be noted that the tonic C is the first and last note.

· The Organization of Duration.

Sounds can be made to last for a longer or shorter period of time because sounds have duration. Thus, it is possible to organize sounds rhythmically. The aspect of music which has to do with the organization of duration is referred to as rhythm, Rhythm is usually considered the most basic musical element.

Any combination of notes of different duration produces rhythm: e.g. alternating long and short notes, two short note and a lone one, or a long note and several short ones. Rhythm, in original Greek, means flow.

A movement that surges and recedes in intensity. The flow or rhythm assumes many forms in music. Not only the contrast of strong and weak impulses, but also that of long and short note values, and tones of lower and higher pitch, as well as the flow of consonant and dissonant harmonies are experienced as movement which gains or loses intensity.

· Meter.

As the term implies, it is a way of measuring durations on a fixed, regular pattern, so that the listener becomes aware of the basic pulse or beat. It is by the yard stick that we judge rapid or slow events, by the extent of their departure from the tempo.

Our music most commonly assigns the quarter note as the symbol of the metric unit. There are also note values which are shorter than the metric pulse, and those which are longer. Our note values are binary; each may be divided into two of the next smaller unit, and two together comprise the length of the next larger unit.

Basic elements of music

If we wish to divide our notes into three units rather than two, we use dotted notes; a dot adds one half of its value to a note. Thus, a dotted half note is equal in duration to three-quarter notes instead of two, and the dotted quarter note to three eighth notes instead of two, and so on.

Meter, which may be defined as the pattern of strong and weak beats in a measure, is indicated by a time signature which is placed at the beginning of the piece, just after the key signature. The numerator tells us how many beats there are in each measure, and the denominator tells us which kind of note (quarter, half, or whatever) will receive one beat. Thus, if the time signature is 3/4, this means that there are three beats in one measure and every quarter note will receive one beat. If the time signature is 4/4, there are four beats in one measure and every quarter note will receive one beat.

Beats can be equated with the footsteps of a soldier marching. If we think of the command -“Mark time, march!” given to CAT or CMT students, and they react immediately by marching, one-two, one-two note that the regularity of the steps is emphasized and that “one” is stressed or accented whereas “two” is not, that is, unaccented or unstressed. Here, we can note a pattern of two beats, the first accented, the second unaccented. This is called duple meter.

· Tempo.

This is an Italian word which literally means time. In music it refers to speed. Music may move at a fast, moderate or slow speed, and in varying degrees.

Customarily, tempo is indicated by such general terms as allegro (fast), vivace (lively), moderato (moderate speed), andante (moderately slow), adagio (slower than andante), lento (slow), largo (very slow), and so on. These terms are still employed, but today, tempo is more accurately indicated in musical scores by metronome designations, which show the number of beats per minute. For example, = 60, which means that there are 60 quarter notes in a minute (thus each quarter note would equal one second).

· Melody

Melody is that element of music which makes the most direct appeal. It is generally what we remember and whistle or hum. By melody, we mean an orderly succession of tones or musical sounds. It consists of a series of pitches and durations. It displays an overall balance between ascending and descending motions. Leaps in a melody are generally filled in immediately after the leap occurs. The most fundamental feature of melody is continuity. It appeals to the emotion. Oftentimes we say that a melody is either sad or melancholy or gay and happy.

A melody may be compared to a spoken sentence in which words have been arranged in certain relationships to one another, and then spoken with varying pauses and inflections. (Ortiz et al., 1976).

We notice that the melody divides itself into two halves. Such symmetry is frequently found in melodies dating from the 18th century. Each half is called a phrase. In music, as in language, a phrase denotes a unit of meaning within a larger structure. Two phrases together form a sentence, a musical period.

The smallest melodic unit is the motif which expands into a phrase, a succession of tones easily encompassed in one breath. The phrase usually rises to a high point, from which it falls to a point of rest or cadence. A “cadence” in music means a closing phrase. An entire melody is formed out of repeated and contrasting phrases.

Melody has four other characteristics or properties: dimension, progression, direction, and register.

· Dimension. Melody has two dimensions: (1) length and (2) range. Some melodies are characterized by being short and fragmentary. Such melodic fragments are called motives. Other melodies are long and extended. Many melodies are neither extremely short nor unusually long. The length of the melody is relative to the number of measures which compose it. Generally speaking, popular songs consist of one, two, or more melodies which are repeated several times. This means that the entire song is not only one melody from its beginning to its end.

The second dimension of melody is range. The range of a melody is the pitch distance from its lowest to its highest tone. Some melodies are wide in range; other melodies may be narrow in range; and many melodies have only a moderate range.

· Register. Register is the relative highness or lowness of the aggregate tones of a melody. A melody may have a high, medium, or low register. In a given composition, the same melody may shift from one register to another. In any case, register affects the quality of a melody.

· Direction. Melody moves in two directions of pitch: (1) upwards and (2) downwards. Either direction may predominate in a melody. Moreover, a melody may move rapidly or gradually in either direction: rapidly ascending, rapidly descending, gradually ascending, or gradually descending.

A melody which remains at a given pitch level, moving neither up nor down any appreciable distance, is called a static melody. Usually, a melodic line moves towards a high point which is the climax of the melody: A melodic climax may appear near the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the line. Observation of melodic contours will greatly increase your perception and enjoyment of the world’s great melodies.

· Progression. Melodic progression refers to the intervals (pitch distance) between the tones as a melody moves from one tone to the next. A melody may move mostly stepwise; that is, it progresses to adjacent notes of the scale or adjacent keys of the piano.

· Function of Melody. Melody is the element of music that arouses interest. It is what most listeners can easily identify. It is the musical idea around which a composition is constructed. This melodic idea or basic tune of the composition is called a theme.

The theme is of paramount importance to a composition, and it provides one of the most important approaches to intelligent listening. The ability to recognize one or more themes, when they recur in a composition, is a clear indication that you are moving toward full appreciation.


Another element of music is harmony. It is the simultaneous sounding of two or more tones. Harmony is apparent when a singer accompanies his melody with chords on the guitar, or when the pianist plays the melody with his right hand while the left strikes the chords. We are jolted if the wrong chord is sounded, for at that point, we become aware that the necessary unity of melody and harmony has been broken. A chord is two or more notes or tones sounded at the same time and conceived as an entity.

The most common chord in our music is a certain combination of three tones known as triad. Such a chord may be built by combining the first, third, and fifth degrees of the C-D-E-F-G-A-B (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do) scale: C-E-G (do-mi-sol).

Chord Progression. Chords are not only constructed in a variety of ways, but also progress from one to another according to many different plans. The scheme by which chords change is called chord progression.

Harmony, like melody, has rhythm; that is, chord changes may come at regular or irregular intervals of time, thus producing a harmonic rhythm. Sometimes harmonic rhythm is independent of melodic rhythm, which means that it is not determined by melodic rhythm; sometimes it is dependent on it. Harmonic rhythm is static when a given chord is maintained for a number of measures, or chord changes may come frequently, producing a more energetic and
exciting effect.

Consonance and Dissonance. The distinction between consonance and dissonance is necessary in the discussion of harmony. Certain combinations of tones produce a quality of repose or relaxation, called consonance. Certain other combinations of tones produce a quality of unrest or tension, which is called dissonance.

The dissonant chord creates tension. The consonant chord resolves it. What suspense and conflict are to drama, dissonance is to music. It creates the area of tension without which the areas of relaxation would have no meaning. Each complements the other: both are a necessary part of the artistic whole.

One who hears much 20th century music will develop a greater tolerance for dissonance than he who limits his exposure to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Tone combinations regarded as dissonant in their own time come to be accepted by later generations as consonant.

One’s capacity to tolerate novel chords has grown steadily. The leader in this development is always the composer, whose imagination grasped the possibilities of new combinations while they were still unacceptable to his fellows; who dared break the tradition, only to be roundly abused; who by sheer force of will impose his vision on the world; and who, after having expanded the artistic horizon of his time, became in his turn the venerated founder of a new tradition that had a new set of rules set forth by disciples who would attack the next innovator as zealously as once their idol had been attacked.

Diatonic and Chromatic Harmony. A diatonic harmony is one in which there are very few altered tones (i.e. sharps, flats, and natural signs).


One of the qualities of music which is closely related to and dependent upon harmony is tonality. It is an element of music which is difficult to define, but for our purposes, we shall define tonality as a musical property which creates a sense of gravitation toward a key or tonal center. Here, one tone assumes greater importance than the rest. Most music is written in a key.

That means all its harmony is related to a single tone known as the tonic. The key of C, for example, will have as its tonal center do (C) because this is the first and last tone in the scale of C. When the tonic is F, the key is F, and so forth. Most music is written in a single key, and this is the reason an accompanist of a guitarist or a pianist usually asks the soloist in what key he wishes to sing. Once a key is given, he can construct chords to provide harmonic accompaniment to the song.

· Polytonality. Music in which two or more keys are combined simultaneously in a single composition is polytonal. Polytonality is used to bring out the different levels or planes of the harmony. Piano music especially lends itself to this usage, the right and left hands playing in different keys.

· Multitonality. This is sometimes called displaced tonality. Here the composer rapidly shifts from one key center to another so that the entire key feeling is disturbed.

· Atonal music is an innovation of Schoenberg. It is music that rejects the framework of key. Here, the composer avoids any feeling of key at all times. The technique is named as “the method of composing with 12 tones.” Atonality and polytonality are characteristics of modern music, a great contrast to the tonal music composed in previous centuries.

· Dynamics. When intensity is applied to a piece of music, rather than to a single tone, it is referred to as dynamics. The term refers to force or percussive effects: degrees of loudness and softness, and the process involved in changing from one to the other.

Certain Italian words are used to indicate dynamics. The most important are forte (loud), piano (soft), fortissimo (very loud), pianissimo (very soft), mezzo forte (moderately loud), and messo piano (moderately soft). As to the directions to change the dynamic, the most common are crescendo (becoming louder), diminuendo (becoming softer), and sudden stress (sforzando) accent on a single note or chord.

A number of terms embrace both tempo and dynamics. Andante maestoso (fairly slow and majestic) implies a stately pace and full sonority. Morendo (dying away indicates that the music is to become slower and softer). Scherzando (playful) requires a light tone and brisk movement. Con brio (with vigor) suggests an energetic pace and vibrant sonority.

Tempo refers to the rate of speed, the pace of the music. It determines the speed of the beats in the measure, their duration in actual time.

There is a close connection between tempo and mood; tempo markings indicate the character of the music as well as the pace. Like dynamics, the terms used to indicate tempo and those that indicate changes in it, from fast to slow and vice versa, are generally in Italian. Most frequently encountered are the following:

Basic elements of music

Music does not always move along at an even, regular pace. It may speed up or slow down gradually or abruptly. Gradual increase of speed is called accelerando; gradual decrease of tempo is called ritardando. When tempo becomes faster, the music is in general more tense and exciting; when the music slows down, relaxation usually takes place. A ritardando is often employed in the concluding measures of a composition.

Timbre is tone quality. Every musical medium has its own distinctive quality of tone. The tone quality of each of the following instruments a piano, an organ, an orchestra, a band, a voice, and the like can be easily identified by anyone who has heard these instruments.

The same can be stated of the human voice. The human voice can produce a variety of tone qualities. These qualities are evident in the different vowel sounds of a song. Each human voice has its own characteristic quality, so that it is easy to distinguish between the voices of different singers even when they sing at the same pitch.

The composer has at his disposal the selection of the medium that will best express the quality and the meaning of his ideas. Like harmony and rhythm, tone color is part and parcel of the composer’s idea.


In music, texture refers to the melodic and harmonic relationship of musical factors.

Types of Texture:

The relations between melodic and harmonic factors exist solely as a single melody; it is without either a harmonic accompaniment or other vocal lines. Any instrument or voice performing a melody without an accompaniment is effecting a monophonic texture.

· Homophonic texture. Here, we have a single-melody-with-chords. We hear homophonic texture when the pianist plays the melody with his right hand while the left sounds the chords, or when the singer carries the tune against a harmonic accompaniment on the piano. A folk song with guitar accompaniment is homophonic music.

· Polyphonic texture or many-voiced texture. This is a combination of two or more melodies of more or less equal prominence. The terms “polyphonic” and “contrapuntal” are nearly synonymous. To create polyphonic texture, there should at least be two melodies sounded simultaneously. Here, the composer would consider how the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic elements relate to one another.

· Nonmelodic texture is created for special effects in which harmonic sounds obscure or partly exclude the melodic content of a composition. This occurs in contemporary and modern music.

· Sonority is an attribute of texture which is based more on harmonic than melodic consideration. This refers to quality of richness or thinness of texture. It is determined by: (1) the number of parts, (2) spacing of tones, (3) register of tones, and (4) timbre.

The number of parts refers to the number of voices involved, whether all or only some of them are to be sung or played by different instruments. Spacing of tones refers to the musical intervals between the parts, whether thirds, fourths, or any other interval. The register of tones refers to whether the tones are high, medium or low, and timbre refers to the tone quality or qualities of the mediums which will play the music.

A polyphonic composition that consists of six parts has a far richer sonority than one consisting of only two parts. Likewise, a homophonic composition which is accompanied by full chords has a richer sound than one having an accompaniment of only a few tones.

When the tones of a chord or voice parts are closely spaced, the result is a thick texture; when tones are widely spaced, the texture is thin.

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