11 Elements of Music Explained

All the music we listen to is made up of some fundamental elements. In this article, we’ll explore 11 of these concepts that will help you understand and communicate your ideas and thoughts about music a little bit better.

Understanding what some of the major musical elements are will help us not just write better music but also make us more appreciative of all the music out there. 

Almost all music that has ever been created has certain fundamentals. These factors form the basis of the piece.

Let us take a look at some of the most important elements of music and why they are important:

1. Melody

‘Melody’ refers to a collection or sequence of notes that is pleasant to the ear. They generally have a high recall value and consist of multiple musical notes arranged in a particular manner. One of the first things that strike us when listening to a song or a piece of music is the melody.

In a song, a melody can come from vocals and even different instruments. A vocal melody refers to the notes you hit when you sing a particular song. An instrument, such as a guitar or piano, can also add melody to music. 

Melody is an essential part of music composition and forms the basis of a song. 

2. Harmony

Harmony’ is when two or more musical notes are played or sung simultaneously. In a choir, or in gospel music, multiple singers will sing different notes which then come together to form a unique sound. This is known as harmony.

Harmony is also when notes are played one after another to create a sound that is pleasing to the ears. When we play any chord on an instrument, we play the root note, the octave, and notes from the scale, depending on what kind of chord. Here, the notes are played one after another and form a harmony.

In musical compositions, harmony is the key to adding color. We use vocal and instrumental harmonies to add more depth and intricacy to our music. 

3. Rhythm

The word ‘rhythm’ comes from the Greek word “rhythmos”, derived from “rhein”, which means ‘to flow’. Rhythm is a complex aspect of music. It includes not just the beat and the time pattern, but also its relation to silence. 

While rhythm can exist independently without melody and harmony, the latter cannot exist without the former

Rhythm is not just beats or repetitive patterns. In hip-hop music, rappers follow a certain rhythm, which is inspired by the beat of the song.

While a four on the floor is one of the most common rhythms in music, when certain percussive elements are added in different time signatures, it makes the music more complex and interesting. It is the rhythm of the song that gets us up and dancing.  

4. Form/Structure

The structure of a song refers to the arrangement of blocks such as verses, chorus, bridge, etc. In pop music, the most basic structure will generally have an intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge. 

By effectively placing one block after another, musicians can create songs that not only sound good but also have high recall value. When a song has too many verses or there are too many repetitions of the chorus, it often sounds lackluster. A good musician or composer understands how structures work and write music accordingly. 

Musical form refers to the overall structure of a composition. When we listen to electronic music, such as techno, we might think that it does not have a form since it is largely repetitive. But this is not true. All musical compositions have elements such as an intro, a peak or chorus, and an ending. This helps the composer create a narrative through their music. 

5. Dynamics

‘Dynamics’ refers to how quietly or loudly something is played. This works on two different levels. One refers to how quietly or loudly all the instruments of a song are played.

Typically verses are generally a lot quieter and more sparse and choruses are generally loud and everything plays in unison. This is the dynamic range of the song. 

For example, in the song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana, the intro guitar riff is played twice before the drums kick in, the guitars then start playing in an overdriven tone. There is thus a shift in the dynamics. The song gets quieter during the verses and picks back up during the chorus and the outro. Here is the song below:

Dynamics also determine how loudly or softly individual instruments are played or vocal melodies are sung. If a singer were to sing an entire song with the same energy or a drummer played an entire track with the same dynamics, it wouldn’t sound great. Dynamics add peaks and troughs to musical compositions and make them sound more human.

6. Tempo

The speed at which a piece of music is played is known as the ‘tempo’. We have often come across the acronym ‘bpm’ or beats per minute. This signifies how many beats there are in a minute. A slower song, like a ballad, will have a lower bpm than dance music. 

Tempo is directly related to a composition’s rhythm and the time signature used. 

In classical music, Italian terminology is used to describe the tempo of the part. While ‘Adagio’ is slow and is typically played at 66-76bpm, ‘Allegro’ refers to a more moderate, broader range of 120-168bpm, and ‘Vivace’ is fast at around 168-176bpm. 

Sheet music will always have tempo information to reflect how fast or slow something should be played.

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen is a great example of multiple tempo changes in the style of classical music but with modern instruments and lyrics. Listen to the song here:

7. Texture 

The interaction between melody, harmony, and tempo in music determines its texture. One of the reasons why we love ambient music so much is because the compositions rely heavily on textures to convey the mood. The music is generally layered with different synths to add a certain kind of richness to the sound.

In music theory, there are four main types of texture: monophony, polyphony, homophony, and heterophony. 

 While monophony refers to a single melody line with no harmonies or accompaniments, homophonic music has a clearly defined melody line with chords added to it. A singer singing without any instruments is an example of monophony whereas a barbershop quartet is homophonic.

When multiple independent melodies are played simultaneously, it is known as polyphonic music. In heterophonic music, a single melody is played but with variations added to it. Bluegrass music is an example of heterophony. 

8. Timbre (Tone Color)

The timbre or tonal color of music is an important factor that influences our perception of a song or composition. 

Where a particular instrument or vocal part lies on the frequency spectrum and envelope determines its timbre. 

In production, heavier genres of music such as metal or grunge will often have added distortion or overdrive to give it a gritty, aggressive sound. Pop music, on the other hand, will have a cleaner mix with added emphasis on the vocal arrangements. 

Timbre is the characteristic tone color of an instrument or voice. When we say that someone has a raspy or a shrill voice, we generally refer not to the pitch, but the timbre.

9. Meter

While a four on the floor rhythm pattern is perhaps the most common one in music, there are other patterns too. While waltz is classified by its ¾ groove, 6/8 is another common meter found in songs such as Norwegian Wood by The Beatles and We Are The Champions by Queen.

Metre refers to regularly recurring patterns and accents in a groove. When we talk about the time signature of a song, we generally mean its meter. While a 4/4 is the most simple and easily accessible meter, many musicians like to play in odd time signatures to make their music sound more unconventional.  

10. Instrumentation

The way different instruments are played and arranged in a song is crucial because it breathes life into it. The instrumentation determines the mood, genre, and essence of a composition. 

When we listen to a song, any song performed by a band, we are easily able to determine the different instruments such as vocals, guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards if any. The instruments play in sync and add their own, unique sound to create a song. 

Even in vocal performances such as acapella and choir, different voices are assigned different harmonies and pitches. This breaks the monotony of a single voice or pitch. This is also a form of instrumentation. 

11. Articulation

The musical parameter that determines how a specific note is played or sung is known as articulation. 

Some of the main types of articulation in music are:

  • Staccato: a note that is held for a short duration or detached.
  • Tenuto: a note that is held for a full length or played louder.
  • Marcato: a short note, long chord, or medium passage that is played louder than surrounding music.
  • Legato: musical notes that are connected and played smoothly. 

Articulation adds color to the music and even shapes features such as attack and decay. This, in turn, affects the song’s timbre, pitch, and dynamics. 

Summary

When we understand the rules of music and have a knowledge of its grammar, we suddenly find many more tools at our disposal to write and create better music. 

The elements in music all come together to give a song its soul, its emotion.

One of the most important elements of music is the human connection, this can best be described by the feeling you get when you listen to music. You are instantly transported to another realm.

Whether you are a listener, a budding musician, or a professional, an excellent exercise in music appreciation is to listen to your favorite song or album and objectively observe how all these elements work in tandem. You will be able to see how it all comes together to create a masterpiece. So what are you waiting for, try it today!

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

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