The components of music

Music is the art of arranging sound for expressive, creative and emotional reasons. It is very diverse, with countless genres and cultural traditions, although for this article, we will be sticking to western music.

It is very useful to realise that music can be broken down into multiple components. Lets listen to an example, and break it down.

In listening to this, the following things can be heard. I have separated them into multiple tracks below.

Percussion

Percussion creates a steady repeating pulse in the background, played here by a drum.

Harmony

Harmony defines the tonal basics of a piece of music, and creates a progression between different tonalities. Here, a synth is playing the harmony.

Melody

A melody is a series of pitched sounds that arranged to sound interesting.

Different instruments are designed to serve different functions, for instance:

  • Percussion instruments like drums and symbols define a basic rhythm.
  • Guitar, piano, and synthesisers are commonly used to play harmony.
  • Melody can be played by a lot of instruments. Perhaps the most common melody instrument is the human voice. Flute, piano and guitar can also play melodies.

The ocarina is primarily a melody instrument, however they can also be played in harmony if multiple ocarina players play together. Different notes are played by varying your fingering and blowing pressure over time.

The elements of a melody

Any melody is built from two distinct elements:

  • Rhythm, when the notes are played in time,
  • and pitch, which note to play on your instrument.

These are then combined to create 'figures', which are essentially words, and phrases, analogous to sentences.

Rhythm

The easiest way to understand rhythm is to get up and go for a walk. As you are walking, notice how your feet meeting the ground form a consistent pattern? hit, hit, hit....

Now, imagine that you were to play note every time your foot hits the ground, It would sound something like this:

This steady 'pulse' or 'beat' is the fundamental basis of most music. The other critical element being repetition. At the simplest level, beats are grouped together, for instance into groups of 4:

On top of this basic grouping, short patterns or 'figures' are made by varying the durations of the notes. Notes can be held for multiple beats, as well as multiple notes played over the duration of a single beat.

These figures are then combined to create a longer phrase. Notice that the rhythm patterns in this example repeat multiple times.

All of the other elements of music are built on these basic concepts of rhythm. Percussion is perhaps rhythm in it's purest form, but harmony and melody are also built on rhythms.

If you would like to know more, its explored in much more detail in Understanding rhythm.

Pitch and notes

The other aspect of melody is pitch. Pitch describes the 'highness' or 'lowness' of a sound. High pitches sound like this:

And low pitches sound like this:

Pitched sounds are really common day to day, for example:

  • Bird songs
  • People singing or playing instruments like piano, flute or ocarina.
  • A siren - usually sound alternating between two pitches.

Can you think of any others?

Timbre - same pitch, different 'colour'

In addition to pitch, notes also have a propriety called 'timbre', or 'tone colour'. Timbre is what makes an ocarina sound like an ocarina, a violin sound like a violin, and a piano sound like a piano. Sounds can have the same pitch, but have a different timbre.

You can hear the same pitch played on a collection of instruments with different timbres in the following audio sample:

Visualising pitch

It is easy to visualise the pitch of sounds using tools like a chromatic tuner, or a pitch graph like the one below.

In a pitch graph high pitches are drawn towards the top in the graph, and lower pitches are drawn towards the bottom.

Try whistling or singing, and watch how the line moves.

Discrete pitches and notes

Fundamentally, pitch is continuous. If you whistle in the above tool and make a 'whoop' sound, a smooth ascending curve will be drawn. But you may have noticed the fixed lines with names like 'F', 'G', or 'C#'.

To make it easier to make music sound musical, as well as to design instruments that people can more easily play, western music has standardised a number of fixed pitches out of this continuum that sound good together, which are called:

  • C
  • C sharp or D flat
  • D
  • D sharp or E flat
  • E
  • F
  • F sharp or G flat
  • G
  • G sharp or A flat
  • A
  • A sharp or B flat
  • B

These repeat multiple times in octaves, denoted by a number like 'C4' and 'C5'. The same note in a different octave sounds higher or lower in pitch, yet sound remarkably similar. This is demonstrated and explained in Octaves and scale formation.

Any melody that you may want to play is formed by combining some collection of these notes in sequence. Standardising pitches allows us to play different instruments together. As a matter of fact, all western instruments play the same system of notes.

Scales

If you were to try making music from all of the notes mentioned above, it would sound very 'ghostly' and ungrounded as the notes are equally spaced.

Due to this, music is written using a limited number of these notes called a 'scale'. Quite a lot of different scales exist, For example:

  • The major scale C major: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  • The minor scale C major: C, D, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, B C
  • The blues scale C blues: C, D#, F#, F, G, A#, C

Melodies are formed from scales by choosing different notes from that scale. For example a melody using the first, third, and then second note of the C major scale would give you the notes.

C, E, D

Whereas the same notes from C minor would give you:

C, Eb, D

Different scales have different tonalities. The major scale is often considered 'happy' sounding while the minor scale sounds 'sad'. Here is the same melody in both C major, and C minor:

Another term for a scale is 'key'. The difference between a scale and a key, is that the word 'scale' implies an order, while a key is just an unordered set of notes.

Playing a scale means playing through the notes of a given scale in sequence, while the phrase 'play a key' sounds weird.

Tonality and the tonic

Most western music is tonal, which means that it is written to highlight a single pitch called the 'tonic'. The words 'pitch' and 'tone' mean the same thing.

The tonic is the root note of a given scale. For example the 'tonic' of both 'C major' and 'C minor' is 'C', even though the scales are formed from a different selection of notes.

Melodies can be thought of as a tonal 'journey', moving through a selection of different notes before finally returning to the tonic.

Note that the tonic DOES NOT have to be at the bottom end of the scale. The tonic of the melody 'out on the ocean' is F, which is in the middle of the range of notes used. Sometimes this 'tonic in the middle' structure is called a 'plagal mode'.

Closing

Melodies are formed from scales by choosing different notes from that scale. However the notes used are not random. Like rhythms, melodies are built from figures, and phrases, which are discussed in Figures, phrases and motifs.

The next time that you are listening to music, try to hear its separate elements, percussion, harmony and melody. Are all of them present? Can you hear any repeating figures in the rhythm?