ELEMENTS OF MUSIC: RHYTHM
Rhythm is the organization of sound in time. Rhythm is composed of beat, meter, accent, syncopation and tempo. All these things together and how they change over time is rhythm.
The beat is a regular, recurrent pulsation that divides the music into equal units of time. We might refer to it as a pulse, not unlike a heartbeat.
Meter is a repeated pattern of evenly spaced beats. In music, we find a repeated pattern of a strong beat plus one or more weaker beats.
Accent is an important aspect of rhythm. Accent is the way individual notes are stressed. This can be done by playing a note louder than the rest of the notes. It can also be done by playing a note higher in pitch or by holding a note longer than the others around it.
Syncopation occurs when an offbeat note is accented, when the stress comes between two beats, or when a weak beat is accented.
Tempo is the speed of the beat, the basic pace of the music. Fast tempos are usually associated with energy, drive and excitement. A slow tempo often contributes to a solemn, lyrical or calm mood.
When you listen, listen for speed and steadiness. Is the music fast or slow, pressing forward or holding back?
ELEMENTS OF MUSIC: SOUND
If rhythm is one part of music, the other part is sound. Sound is all around us. It can be the hum of the computer, the honk of a car horn, the crinkling of paper or the voice of a friend. The elements of musical sound are pitch, melody, harmony, dynamics and timbre. In order to better understand sound in music, let’s get familiar with the specific elements that contribute to sound in music.
Pitch refers to the relative highness or lowness of a sound (or note) in music. As an easy illustration of pitch, think about speaking voices. Men speak at lower pitches and women speak at higher pitches. Pitch is determined by the frequency of vibrations. As vibrations increase in speed the pitch goes higher and as the vibrations decrease in speed the pitch sounds lower. All other things being equal, plucking a shorter string will produce a higher sound than plucking a longer one (think about the short strings of a violin versus the longer strings of the double bass). Composers use pitch to contribute to the mood of their music. Low pitches often indicate sadness or mellowness. Higher pitches often sound happier or more excited.
Melody is easy to recognize but somewhat harder to define. It is perhaps easiest to say that the melody is the series of single notes (or pitches) that add up to a recognizable whole. Melody is the tune, the series of notes that we hum or sing when recalling a song. Generally, it is what the singer sings in any given song. The melody begins, moves, and ends. It has direction, shape and continuity. The up-and-down movement of its pitches is the melodic line, or curve. Here is some vocabulary associated with melody:
Phrase – Phrases are shorter units of the melody which help define its shape
Step – A small interval between two adjacent notes (for example, the step between do and re on the do-re-mi scale) is called a step.
Leap – Any interval larger than a step (for example, the leap between do and mi on the do-re-mi scale) is known as a leap.
Legato (le-GAH-to) is a way of playing a melody so that the notes are connected in a smooth style; the opposite of staccato
Staccato (sta-KAH-to) is a way of playing the notes of a melody so that they are detached; the opposite of legato
Harmony is “the combining of notes simultaneously, to produce chords, and successively, to produce chord progressions.” (Grove). It refers to the way chords are constructed and how they follow each other. Background singers are often “harmonizing” with the melodic line of the main vocalist. Usually, the harmony in a song is made from the notes of the chords that underlie the melody. Here is some vocabulary associated with harmony:
Chord – A chord is a combination of three or more tones sounded at once
Progression (or chord progression) is a specific series of chords that underscores a melody to give it fullness, emphasis or even surprise
Cadence is a conclusive ending place in a melody, possible at the end of a phrase or verse
Consonance is a tone combination, or chord, which is stable. The notes seem to go together and sound pleasing. Consonance makes us feel as if things have come to a point of rest or conclusion. Dissonance is the opposite of consonance. It is a tone combination that is unstable and seems to require resolution, or onward motion to a stable chord. Dissonant chords often sound as if the notes are fighting with each other and have been described as harsh or conflicted. Dissonant chords create tension. Generally, as we listen, we begin to anticipate the resolution of those dissonant chords into chords with more consonance. The anticipation for the release of dissonant tension is how music progresses.
Dynamics are the degrees of loudness and softness in music. “The intensity of volume with which notes and sounds are expressed.” (Grove) These changes in volume can be sudden or gradual. The decision to play a particular piece loudly or softly is one of many ways in which an artist can manipulate sound. The effect of such choices impacts the overall variety and mood of a piece. Dynamics are indicated on a piece of music by a series of shorthand notations which stand for Italian words, first used in musical notation. Here is a common list of dynamic terms which encompasses a spectrum of sound-volume.
Decrescendo (descresc.) or diminuendo (dim.) – gradually softer
Crescendo (cresc.) – gradually louder
Like many elements in music, loudness and softness are relative. For example, the loudest note on a single violin (played fortissimo) is quiet in comparison with an entire orchestra’s moderately loud sound (mezzo forte).
Timbre (pronounced TAM-ber), or tone color, is the quality of sound that distinguishes one instrument or even one musician from another. Timbre is “a term describing the tonal quality of a sound; a clarinet and an oboe sounding the same note at the same loudness are said to produce different timbres.” (Grove) It has also been described as the “sound-felt quality” of the music. Words like “bright,” “dark,” “brilliant,” “mellow” and “rich” are often used when talking about timbre, but you are by no means limited to those words. Timbre can emphasize the emotional impact of a tune. It can also point out the various sides of a melody by having several instruments play the same tune. If several instruments are playing the same pitch, one right after the other, but the sound is different, the difference in the sound is what we call timbre.