The Elements of Music

In this short article, I’d like to run through the Elements of Music with you. The Elements of Music (sometimes abbreviated to EoM) are the basic elements you can expect to hear (at least some of) in every single song you ever listen to. Each of these elements can be considered a part of what makes music what it is. An awareness of these elements can be a really accessible way to begin developing your musical knowledge, or to deepen your awareness of what you hear each time you listen to music. I’d also like you to experience that The Elements of Music are not as fancy or complicated as they may sound…so no need to grab a lab coat!


Dr. P…WHO?

Those of you that know me know that I love a good acronym. The following acronym is a great way to remember the initials of the EoM, however some time should be spent getting to know what each of the letters of the acronym represent. The acronym is question, is DR P SMITH.

Dynamics

Rhythm

Pitch

Structure

Melody

Instrumentation

Tonality, Texture, Timbre and Tempo

Harmony

The keen eyed of you will have noticed that there are actually four ‘T’s. This is worth remembering, especially since I don’t know a single soul with the surname of Smitttth.


Ok, great. But why is this important?

Good question. Understanding the EoM is as important as understanding what paragraphs are to literature, what the comma is to punctuation or what gravity is to the solar system. Understanding the EoM puts us in the driving seat as musicians and affords us the opportunity not just to define what we hear better, but also to better understand what it takes to make a piece of music interesting. Beneath, I’ll detail what each letter of DR P SMITH means, is layman’s terms.

Dynamics

Dynamics are basically the volume of the notes that we play. From deafening loudness to a mouses whisper and everything in between.

Rhythm

This is the way the basic pulse of the tempo is divided up to create more interesting sounds of movement in music.

Pitch

Pitch is to do with how high or low/deep a note sounds. A simple way to imagine this is to compare the sound of a whistle to the rumble of a ships fog horn.

Structure

Structure is essentially the form a song takes. So, a very basic song may just have a verse and a chorus, whereas a more complex song may have an intro, verse, chorus and bridge section, some of which may repeat throughout the song.

Melody

A melody in music can be thought of as being what a vocalist or a singer might sing. Some people describe this as the ‘tune’ of a song. Usually, a melody will feature a range of pitches arranged in a way that the musician thinks suits their song the best. Think of any song featuring a singer and you’ll know what I mean.

Instrumentation

Instrumentation is to do with the instruments that you can hear in a song. Being a rock musician, the typical instrumentation I work with is what you’d think of as a fairly standard ‘rock band’; guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and vocals.

Tonality

Tonality is widely thought of as the mood of a song, or at least the perceived mood. I say this because there is often debate about the language used when discussing tonality in music. Typically, it is taught from an early age that major tonalities sound happy and minor tonalities sound sad.

Texture

Think about the texture of sandpaper compared to silk. Music can create the sonic equivalent of these textures. Compare the beautiful smooth sound of a gentle arco violin to the bone crushing sound of a heavily distorted electric guitar or the pounding beat of a drum. The difference between these three examples is musical texture.

Timbre

Timbre can be thought of as the range of sounds an individual instrument can make. Take my previous metaphor of the ‘bone crushing’ distortion of an electric guitar and an amplifier. Electric guitars and amplifiers combined can also create clean sounds, or crunch sounds with varying ranges of overdrive right up to out and out distortion. Then you can add reverb, or delay, or chorus, or a flanger. All of these effects affect the sound of the guitar, therefore it’s timbre.

Tempo

Tempo is how fast or slow a piece of music is. Simple.

Harmony

To ‘be in harmony’ with something in day to day life is basically to say that we are getting on with whatever that thing is with no problems. The same is true of music; two or more sounds together creates a harmony. Two or more sounds that are ‘in harmony’ are known as consonant, meaning that those sounds sound pleasing together. Two or more sounds that are ‘out of harmony’ with each other are known as dissonant, meaning that those sounds don’t sound pleasing together.


The Next Steps

Now you are more aware of the Elements of Music, the next step would be to take each element and put on some of your favourite songs. Can you hear any of these elements? If so, write each element as a heading and try to describe in any way you can what it is that you can hear for each. The more you do this, the more you’ll begin to appraise music in this way without thinking about it, and the more you’ll be able to understand the language of music.

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