Introduction to the Elements of Music
Before we begin our first historical periods, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it will be important that you become familiar with some of the basic elements of music. The next few readings will focus on those basic elements. This information is vital to your understanding of the genres and styles we’ll be studying over the course of the semester.
This section includes the following pages:
- Slideshow: The Elements of Music
- Slideshow: Form
- A Historical Approach to the Elements of Music
- Meter in Music
- Yale Lecture on Rhythm and Meter
This slideshow introduces some of the basic concepts involved in musical structure or form. This slideshow does not get into the subject of specific large-scale forms, such as sonata allegro or theme and variations, because we won’t encounter those structures until we study the Classical era. These foundational concepts will set you up with the basics you need for the first portion of the semester.
A Historical Approach to the Elements of Music
While there are many different approaches to describing the building blocks of music, we often break music down into five basic elements: melody, texture, rhythm, form, and harmony. While it’s true that not every piece of music contains all of those elements, it is very likely that every piece of music you have listened to recently does.
Of these five elements, there are two that almost always come first: melody and rhythm. They are not only the two most fundamental parts of music, but they are very probably the very first components of music experienced by human beings. It is a matter of pure speculation whether the first music involved a melody being sung or a rhythm being tapped, but it is easy to imagine that these two experiences were some of the earliest human musical creations.
Let’s begin our brief study of these elements with melody—not because it is more important than rhythm but because the first music we will study in the Middle Ages will be Gregorian chant. Also known as plainsong or plainchant, Gregorian chant is a musical genre that emphasizes the element of melody, often to the exclusion of any other elements.
We will continue to let history guide our survey of musical elements by moving to texture next. One of the most significant musical developments was the medieval experiment of adding a new melodic line to an existing Gregorian chant melody. As you’ll soon learn, this practice was called organum, and it introduced a new texture, known as polyphony, to the sacred music of the Middle Ages that had been dominated by the monophonic texture of plainchant.
As far as we can tell from the sparse historical record, Gregorian chant was sung without a regular beat. This gives plainchant a flowing freedom that can be loosely described as having no rhythm. This is certainly the way we most commonly hear chant performed today. However, with the arrival of organum, it was necessary for the singers performing the two melodic lines to be able to stay together. This made a more regular beat or pulse (rhythm) necessary.
Around the late 12th century, a particular style of organum developed in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. This style involved holding out the notes of a Gregorian chant while a very active new melody was sung above it. To create that activity in the upper part and to keep the two (or more) parts together, regular rhythmic patterns of short and long notes were used. This can be thought of as the beginning of an important component of rhythm: meter.
Repetition, contrast, and variation are the basic principles of form in music. Form refers to the way in which sections of a musical piece are organized. Form, or structure, in music becomes much more specialized and standardized in later periods of music history. However, since we are beginning with the music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, we will stick to general concepts of form for now. It wasn’t until later periods that composers placed greater emphasis on form, so we will study particular structures later in this class.
Speaking of elements that won’t be covered until later in the class, harmony as it is most commonly taught today is a musical element that developed in the Baroque period (1600–1750) and evolved more and more complex constructions in the Classical and Romantic eras. Since the composers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance did not think of their music in harmonic terms (major and minor keys, chords, chord progressions, etc.), we will wait until later to introduce this very significant musical element.
This reading provides an introduction to the concept of melody in music and some of the specific melodic terms we’ll encounter in our study of early music. Once we’ve completed our study of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque, we’ll be introduced to some new melodic terms that developed in the Classical era.
Melody is one of the most basic elements of music. On the most fundamental level, a melody consists of a series of pitches. The relationship of those pitches—in other words, the contrast between higher and lower pitches and/or the repetition of the same pitch—is what we recognize as a melody or tune. Of course, in Western music, these pitches usually have definite durations, but we’ll talk more about the role of duration and time in our discussion of the musical element rhythm. An important thing to remember about melody is its linear or horizontal nature. Melodies are written out in horizontal lines on the printed page, and melodies flow past our ears one note at a time like a line of cars on a street or train. While that flow of pitches is the product of sound waves that are traveling outward from their source in all directions, most listeners draw an unconscious connection between their experience of a melodic series and the experience of watching objects pass by (for example, the passage of a train—horizontal movement). This linear concept is worth remembering when we learn about harmony later. Harmony involves groups of notes or chords played together to create “stacks” of sounds that are pleasing to the ear. Notice the vertical concept there: “stacks” of pitches played at the same time in harmony versus a line of pitches played one after the other in a melody. This question of horizontal and vertical is also relevant to the element of texture, as texture is largely based on whether the music was woven from independent melodic lines or built on successive harmonic stacks. So while melody may seem like a very simple concept that needs little explanation, the ability to recognize the linear flow of one or more melodies can give a listener (such as a student taking a listening exam) important clues as to historical origins and stylistic categories to which that piece belongs.
Melodic Contour and Motion
A melody that stays on the same pitch too long is not very interesting to listen to. As a melody progresses, the pitches usually move up or down. This movement can happen gradually or rapidly. One can picture a line that goes up steeply when the melody suddenly jumps to a much higher note or that goes down slowly when the melody gently falls. Such a line gives the contour or shape of the melodic line. You can often get a good idea of the shape of this line by looking at the melody as it is written on the staff, but you can also hear it as you listen to the music.
Arch shapes (in which the melody rises and then falls) are easy to find in many melodies.
You can also describe the shape of a melody verbally. For example, you can speak of a “rising melody” or of an “arch-shaped” phrase. Extra notes, such as trills and slides, may be added to a melodic line by either the composer or the performer to make the melody more complex and interesting. These additions are referred to as ornaments or embellishments.
Another set of useful terms describes how quickly a melody goes up and down. A melody that rises and falls slowly, with only small pitch changes between one note and the next, is conjunct. One may also speak of such a melody in terms of step-wise or scalar motion, since most of the intervals in the melody are half or whole steps or are part of a scale.
A melody that rises and falls quickly, with large intervals between one note and the next, is disjunct. One may also speak of “leaps” in the melody. Many melodies are a mixture of conjunct and disjunct motion.
Melodies have always been divided into smaller constituent parts. Over the course of music history, the terms used to describe these shorter melodic segments have changed, especially as new genres have developed that take a different approach to melodic material. It is important not only to know these terms and what they mean but also to understand their historical context. Students sometimes make the mistake of describing the melodic divisions of a particular historical period or genre using terms from a different period or genre. When writing to demonstrate understanding of a musical topic, it is necessary to use the terms appropriate to that topic. The following examples are meant to provide a basic introduction to the terms for melodic divisions and their context that will be most helpful as we survey the periods of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque.
It should not come as a surprise that a genre that has been in use as long and as widely as Gregorian chant has an astonishing abundance of terms for various melodic structures. The fact that plainchant relies so heavily on the element of melody for its composition only increases the number of melodic terms. We will not be studying chant in enough detail to need to know this extensive catalog of melodic names, but anyone wishing a brief introduction could read the introductory paragraphs of the Wikipedia article on Gregorian Chant. For the purposes of our class, it will be enough to recognize that most plainchant employs conjunct motion, as we won’t delve into chant enough to need to understand its melodic divisions.
In the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the most common method of composition was to take a preexisting melody, a Gregorian chant or popular tune, as a foundation around which additional melodic lines were composed. The preexisting tune was known as a cantus firmus, which literally means “fixed song.” This method suited the tastes of its day, but the use of an existing tune limited a composer’s creative options. As the Renaissance progressed, composers began to chafe at that limitation and experimented with imitation as an alternative. Imitation involved the writing of an entirely new melodic idea that was presented in one part and then successively repeated or imitated by each additional part as it entered. Each melodic idea thus imitated was called a point of imitation. These points of imitation were often not repeated. The composer simply continued to write new melodic material that was imitated in all parts or voices as the piece progressed.
As we study the Baroque, we will find ourselves using the term theme to refer to melodic ideas. The term “theme” is borrowed from the world of literature and is used in music with some of the same implications it has in writing. A theme in a story is a central idea or concept around which the entire story revolves. Likewise in music, a theme is a melodic idea that serves as a foundation for an entire piece. A theme in Baroque music, unlike the melodic ideas that were sung only once as a point of imitation in a Renaissance work, is a melody that would be heard repeatedly throughout the course of the work. In some highly structured genres, such as the fugue, elaborate rules were developed for the treatment of this central melodic idea and it was given a specific name: subject. The term “subject” is used almost exclusively in fugal composition. Important melodic ideas in other Baroque genres are most appropriately referred to as themes.
Rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, and texture are the essential aspects of a musical performance. They are often called the basic elements of music. The main purpose of music theory is to describe various pieces of music in terms of their similarities and differences in these elements, and music is usually grouped into genres based on similarities in all or most elements. It’s useful, therefore, to be familiar with the terms commonly used to describe each element. Because harmony is the most highly developed aspect of Western music, music theory tends to focus almost exclusively on melody and harmony. Music does not have to have harmony, however, and some music doesn’t even have melody. So perhaps the other three elements can be considered the most basic components of music.
Music cannot happen without time. The placement of the sounds in time is the rhythm of a piece of music. Because music must be heard over a period of time, rhythm is one of the most basic elements of music. In some pieces of music, the rhythm is simply a “placement in time” that cannot be assigned a beat or meter, but most rhythm terms concern more familiar types of music with a steady beat.
- Rhythm—The term “rhythm” has more than one meaning. It can mean the basic, repetitive pulse of the music or a rhythmic pattern that is repeated throughout the music (as in “feel the rhythm”). It can also refer to the pattern in time of a single small group of notes (as in “play this rhythm for me”).
- Beat—Beat also has more than one meaning but always refers to music with a steady pulse. It may refer to the pulse itself (as in “play this note on beat two of the measure”). On the beat or on the downbeat refer to the moment when the pulse is strongest. Off the beat is in between pulses, and the upbeat is exactly halfway between pulses. Beat may also refer to a specific repetitive rhythmic pattern that maintains the pulse (as in “it has a Latin beat”). Note that once a strong feeling of having a beat is established, it is not necessary for something to happen on every beat; a beat can still be “felt” even if it is not specifically heard.
- Measure or bar—Beats are grouped into measures or bars. The first beat is usually the strongest, and in most music, most of the bars have the same number of beats. This sets up an underlying pattern in the pulse of the music: for example, strong-weak-strong-weak-strong-weak, or strong-weak-weak-strong-weak-weak.
- Rhythm section—The rhythm section of a band is the group of instruments that usually provides the background rhythm and chords. The rhythm section almost always includes a percussionist (usually on a drum set) and a bass player (usually playing a plucked string bass of some kind). It may also include a piano and/or other keyboard players, more percussionists, and one or more guitar players or other strummed or plucked strings. Vocalists, wind instruments, and bowed strings are usually not part of the rhythm section.
- Syncopation—Syncopation occurs when a strong note happens on either a weak beat or off the beat.
Meter in Music
The concept of meter is very important to us in this class, as the ability to recognize the meter of a piece of music is a very handy tool in identifying a particular piece.
What Is Meter?
The meter of a piece of music is the arrangement of its rhythms in a repetitive pattern of strong and weak beats. This does not necessarily mean that the rhythms themselves are repetitive, but they do strongly suggest a repeated pattern of pulses. It is on these pulses, the beat of the music, that you tap your foot, clap your hands, dance, etc.
Some music does not have a meter. Ancient music, such as Gregorian chants; new music, such as some experimental 20th-century art music; and non-Western music, such as some native American flute music may not have a strong, repetitive pattern of beats. Other types of music, such as traditional Western African drumming, may have very complex meters that can be difficult for the beginner to identify.
But most Western music has simple, repetitive patterns of beats. This makes meter a very useful way to organize the music. Common notation, for example, divides the written music into small groups of beats called measures, or bars. The lines dividing each measure from the next help the musician reading the music to keep track of the rhythms. A piece (or section of the piece) is assigned a time signature that tells the performer how many beats to expect in each measure and what type of note should get one beat.
Conducting also depends on the meter of the piece; conductors use different conducting patterns for the different meters. These patterns emphasize the differences between the stronger and weaker beats to help the performers keep track of where they are in the music.
But the conducting patterns depend only on the pattern of strong and weak beats. In other words, they only depend on “how many beats there are in a measure,” not “what type of note gets a beat.” So even though the time signature is often called the “meter” of a piece, one can talk about meter without worrying about the time signature or even being able to read music. (Note that this means that children can be introduced to the concept of meter long before they are reading music.)
Meters can be classified by counting the number of beats from one strong beat to the next. For example, if the meter of the music feels like “strong-weak-strong-weak,” it is in duple meter. “strong-weak-weak-strong-weak-weak” is triple meter, and “strong-weak-weak-weak” is quadruple. (Most people don’t bother classifying the more unusual meters, such as those with five beats in a measure.)
Meters can also be classified as either simple or compound. In a simple meter, each beat is basically divided into halves. In compound meters, each beat is divided into thirds.
A borrowed division occurs whenever the basic meter of a piece is interrupted by some beats that sound like they are “borrowed” from a different meter. One of the most common examples of this is the use of triplets to add some compound meter to a piece that is mostly in a simple meter.
To learn to recognize meter, remember that (in most Western music) the beats and the subdivisions of beats are all equal and even. So you are basically listening for a running, even pulse underlying the rhythms of the music. For example, if it makes sense to count along with the music “ONE-and-Two-and-ONE-and-Two-and” (with all the syllables very evenly spaced), then you probably have a simple duple meter. But if it’s more comfortable to count “ONE-and-a-Two-and-a-ONE-and-a-Two-and-a,” it’s probably compound duple meter. (Make sure numbers always come on a pulse and “one” always on the strongest pulse.)
This may take some practice if you’re not used to it, but it can be useful practice for anyone who is learning about music. To help you get started, the figure below sums up the most-used meters. To help give you an idea of what each meter should feel like, here are some animations (with sound) of duple simple, duple compound, triple simple, triple compound, quadruple simple, and quadruple compound meters. You may also want to listen to some examples of music that is in simple duple, simple triple, simple quadruple, compound duple, and compound triple meters.
Yale Lecture on Rhythm and Meter
If you would like to flesh out your understanding of beats and meters—or if you would like to have a professor lead you through some exercises to help you identify meter in music—take a look at this recording of a lecture by Dr. Craig Wright at Yale University.
It’s not necessary to watch the entire video. To the right of the video itself are links that enable you to jump to particular points in the lecture called “Lecture Chapters.” I suggest starting at the second link (Beats and Meters). He’ll take you through the basic building blocks of rhythm and then get into how you can hear meter in a piece of music.
This document covers the three musical textures we will encounter in our studies: monophony, polyphony, and homophony. Texture is an element you will use when identifying pieces from all the periods of music history, so you’ll want to study this material very carefully. At the end of the reading assignment, you’ll find links to three pieces you can listen to; see if you can identify the textures of the pieces based on your reading.
Texture is one of the basic elements of music. When you describe the texture of a piece of music, you are describing the relationship of melodic and (sometimes) harmonic elements with each other. For example, the texture of the music might be thick or thin, or it may have many or few layers. It might be made up of rhythm only, or of a melody line with chordal accompaniment, or many interweaving melodies. Below you will find some of the formal terms musicians use to describe texture.
Terms That Describe Texture
There are many informal terms that can describe the texture of a piece of music (thick, thin, bass-heavy, rhythmically complex, and so on), but the formal terms that are used to describe texture all describe the relationships of melodies and, if present, harmonies. Here are definitions and examples of the three main textures you will encounter in our class.
Monophonic music has only one melodic line, with no harmony or counterpoint. There may be rhythmic accompaniment but only one line that has specific pitches. Monophonic music can also be called monophony. This texture is used very little in music of the Western European tradition after the Middle Ages.
Examples of Monophony
- One person whistling a tune
- A single bugle sounding “Taps”
- A group of people all singing a single melody together without harmony or instrumental accompaniment
- A fife and drum corps, with all the fifes playing the same melody
Polyphonic music can also be called polyphony, counterpoint, or contrapuntal music. If more than one independent melody is occurring at the same time, the music is polyphonic.
Examples of Polyphony
- Rounds, canons, and fugues are all polyphonic. (Even if there is only one melody, if different people are singing or playing it at different times, the parts sound independent.)
- Much late Baroque music is contrapuntal, particularly the works of J. S. Bach.
- Most music for large instrumental groups such as bands or orchestras is contrapuntal at least some of the time.
- Music that is mostly homophonic can become temporarily polyphonic if an independent countermelody is added. Think of a favorite pop or gospel tune that, near the end, has the soloist “ad libbing” while the backup singers repeat the refrain.
Homophonic music can also be called homophony. More informally, people who are describing homophonic music may mention chords, accompaniment, harmony, or harmonies. Homophony has one clear melodic line; it’s the line that naturally draws your attention. All other parts provide accompaniment or fill in the chords. In most well-written homophony, the parts that are not melody may still have a lot of melodic interest. They may follow many of the rules of well-written counterpoint, and they can sound quite different from the melody and be interesting to listen to by themselves. But when they are sung or played with the melody, it is clear that they are not independent melodic parts, either because they have the same rhythm as the melody (i.e., are not independent) or because their main purpose is to fill in the chords or harmony (i.e., they are not really melodies).
Examples of Homophony
- Choral music in which the parts have mostly the same rhythms at the same time is homophonic. Most traditional Protestant hymns and most “barbershop quartet” music is in this category.
- A singer accompanied by a guitar picking or strumming chords.
- A small jazz combo with a bass, a piano, and a drum set providing the “rhythm” background for a trumpet improvising a solo.
- A single bagpipe or accordion player playing a melody with drones or chords.
- Any singer performing alone.
- Any orchestral woodwind or brass instrument (flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, etc.) performing alone. Here is an example from James Romig’s Sonnet 2, played by John McMurtery.
- A Bach unaccompanied cello suite.
- Gregorian chant.
- Most fife and drum music.
- Long sections of “The People that Walked in Darkness” aria in Handel’s “Messiah” are monophonic (the instruments are playing the same line as the voice). Apparently Handel associates monophony with “walking in darkness”!
- Monophony is very unusual in contemporary popular genres, but can be heard in Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”
- Pachelbel’s Canon.
- Anything titled “fugue” or “invention.”
- The final “Amen” chorus of Handel’s “Messiah.”
- The trio strain of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” with the famous piccolo countermelody.
- The “One Day More” chorus from the musical Les Misérables.
- The first movement of Holst’s 1st Suite for Military Band.
- Polyphony is rare in contemporary popular styles, but examples of counterpoint can be found, including the refrain of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” the second through fourth verses of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” the final refrain of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” and the horn counterpoint in Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger’s “Lavender Road.”
- A classic Scott Joplin rag such as “Maple Leaf Rag” or “The Entertainer.”
- The “graduation march” section of Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance No. 1.”
- The “March of the Toreadors” from Bizet’s Carmen.
- No. 1 (“Granada”) of Albeniz’s Suite Espanola for guitar.
- Most popular music genres strongly favor homophonic textures, whether featuring a solo singer, rapper, guitar solo, or several vocalists singing in harmony.
- The opening section of the “Overture” Of Handel’s “Messiah” (the second section of the overture is polyphonic).
Once you have completed the reading on musical texture, choose one of the pieces listed below and listen to the piece on YouTube. After listening to your selection, please answer the questions below.
Two-Part Invention in C Major by Johann Sebastian Bach
Deum Verum by an Anonymous Composer
Rondo Alla Turca by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(Texture is most obvious in the first 20 seconds.)
- Which piece did you select? (Simply copy and paste the title.)
- Which of the three textures described above is represented by the piece you selected?
- What did you hear that enabled you to identify the texture? (1 or 2 sentences—use the explanations on the previous page as a reference, but do not copy. I want to hear how you express this in your own words.)
Check to see if you correctly identified the textures of the three pieces listed in the reading assignment on musical texture.
- Two-Part Invention in C Major by Johann Sebastian Bach: Polyphony
- Deum Verum by an Anonymous Composer: Monophony
- Rondo Alla Turca by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Homophony