When studying and discussing music, it can be broken down into categories of properties to help distinguish different styles, eras, composers, regions, and pieces from one another.
For the purpose of this class, we will refer to SEVEN elements of music: Rhythm, Melody, Harmony, Timbre, Dynamics, Texture, and Form.
The pattern of movement in time. - Harvard Dictionary of Music
The pulse of the music in terms of how fast or slow it flows by (the pulse you tap your foot to while listening to a song)
Measured in beats per minute (bpm)
60 bpm = 1 beat per second - a song at 60 bpm would be considered slow
120 bpm = 2 beats per second - a song at 120 bpm would be twice as fast as 60, a medium speed
240 bpm = 4 beats per second - a song at 240 bpm would be considered very fast
*NOTE* When someone says “I love the beat of that song” … what they mean is that they love the rhythmic structure/pattern … but what they’re actually saying in musical terminology is that they love how fast or slow it goes …
The speed of the beat (slow, medium, fast, etc.). Tempo is most easily determined by the use of a METRONOME, an analog or digital device that clocks the number of bpms by clicking/tapping at the same speed as the music. You can download free metronome apps to your phone. In fact, you should do this for the purpose of this course :)
How beats are grouped into small patterns within a larger song. Musical phrases are broken down into segments that show rhythmic groupings known as MEASURES. Measures can have any number of beats in them, but most commonly have 2, 3, or 4 beats. 2-beat measures are in duple meter, 3-beat measures are in triple meter, and 4-beat measures are in quadruple meter. To complicate things even more, every beat can be SUBDIVIDED into two equal halves (simple) or three equal thirds (compound). When listening to songs subdivided into simple meter, they sound even and “straight”; songs in compound subdivision sound “swung”.
DUPLE: beat is in groups of 2 (try counting along to a song 1-2 | 1-2 …)
TRIPLE: beat is in groups of 3 (try counting along to a song 1-2-3 | 1-2-3 …)
QUADRUPLE: beat is in groups of 4 (try counting along to a song 1-2-3-4 | 1-2-3-4 …)
SIMPLE: beat is divided evenly into two sub-beats (1-2 2-2 3-2 4-2…)
COMPOUND: beat is divided evenly into three sub-beats (1-2-3 2-2-3 3-2-3 4-2-3 …)
You can take any meter grouping and subdivide it by simple or compound to get completely different rhythmic feels. These are each represented by a TIME SIGNATURE - which you won’t be tested on and don’t need to learn for the sake of this course - but for those of you who already know music, let’s review how they work …
DUPLE-SIMPLE TIME: 2/4
DUPLE-COMPOUND TIME: 6/8
TRIPLE SIMPLE TIME: 3/4
TRIPLE COMPOUND TIME: 9/8
QUADRUPLE SIMPLE TIME: 4/4
QUADRUPLE COMPOUND TIME: 12/8
*EVEN MORE METERS*
Here are some more advanced concepts for those of you with prior musical training!
MIXED METER: can be found in pieces where the meter changes up frequently - like a measure of 4/4 followed by a measure of 3/4 then 5/4 …
COMPLEX METER: occurs when a grouping is uneven or odd within a measure. For instance, 7/8 or 5/4 time.
The word RHYTHM specifically refers to how pitches in music are organized (compressed or elongated) over a consistent beat. A notational system allows musicians to write and read rhythms precisely at any given tempo. We won’t learn how to read or write rhythms in this course. The system of rhythmic notation we use in the United States is based on the Western Classical tradition of western Europe, but there are many rhythmic notation systems around the world (and many cultures that learn rhythm by ear without writing anything down).
A coherent succession of pitches. - Harvard Dictionary of Music
PITCH or NOTE or TONE: when referred to in melody, these are the individual sounds that comprise a melody. When you hum or sing or play a melody, you are performing a series of pitches/notes/tones in succession.
SCALE: a pattern of notes used to create a melody (this is what keeps melodies sounding comfortable, familiar, and predictable rather than random and unpredictable). Most musical scales are in MAJOR (sound happy) or MINOR (sound sad or maybe angry or scary).
MELODIC CONTOUR: refers to the shape of the melody - like drawing an arrow to accompany the direction of the melody. Melodies can go up or down or stay flat and repeat the same note. When you sing along to a song, you’re creating a melodic contour with your voice - a visual representation (drawing a line higher as the melody goes higher, or lower as the melody drops lower) is a great way to communicate a lot of information about the piece of music quickly.
STEPWISE MOTION: is when melodies go one note up or down a scale. This sounds simpler, easier, and more stable.
LEAP MOTION: is when melodies go multiple notes up or down a scale. This sound more unexpected, energized, and dramatic.
The relationship of pitches as they sound simultaneously. - Harvard Dictionary of Music
For harmony to exist, there need to be more than one note sounding at once.
INTERVAL: two notes sounded at once and the distance between them.
CHORD: three or more notes sounded at once. Chords create a musical mood by the interactions of all the intervals within them.
TRIAD: most classical and popular music uses triadic harmony - harmony developed by the use of three-note chords.
Harmony can sound CONSONANT, meaning the pitches sound pleasant together, or DISSONANT, meaning the pitches sound unpleasant together. Composers write music with both in mind to help paint a mood and tell a story through music.
TIMBRE (pronounced TAM-ber)
The character of a sound distinct from its pitch, length, or intensity; tone color. - Harvard Dictionary of Music
If two or more voices or instruments are performing the exact same melody, how do you tell them apart? Their timbre/tone color. Timbre is the result of the following factors:
MATERIAL OF INSTRUMENT: wood, metal, animal skin, plastic, vocal cords, other materials. How hollow or solid, thin or thick, how large or small? The materials play the biggest factor in timbre.
ATTACK/ARTICULATION: what does the beginning of the note sound like? What is the instrument struck or played with? Is the attack soft or hard?
SUSTAINED PITCH: what does the note sound like after the attack? Intensity of sound? Is there the presence of VIBRATO (a rapid variation of pitch adding richness to a sound)?
Describe Timbre with adjectives you might use to describe color, temperature, consistency, or the human voice …
Abrasive, Booming, Brassy, Breathy, Bright, Brilliant, Brittle, Buzzy, Clear, Coarse, Cool, Cutting, Dark, Delicate, Distorted, Dry, Dull, Edgy, Ethereal, Flat, Focused, Full, Grating, Guttural, Harsh, Heavy, Hoarse, Hollow, Husky, Intense, Light, Lush, Mellow, Metallic, Muddy, Murky, Muted, Nasal, Penetrating, Piercing, Pure, Raspy, Reedy, Resonant, Rich, Ringing, Rough, Round, Scratchy, Shallow, Sharp, Shimmery, Shrill, Silky, Silvery, Smoky, Smooth, Strained, Strident, Strong, Subdued, Thick, Thin, Throaty, Thundering, Tremulous, Unfocused, Velvety, Vibrant, Warbling, Warm, Wheezy, Whispered, Wooden
The aspect of music relating to degrees of loudness. - Harvard Music Dictionary
Enjoy Gustav Holst’s First Suite in E-flat for Military Band, Movt. II “Intermezzo” while listening for dynamics. Notice it starts piano, crescendos to forte, then jumps back to piano again multiple times, finishing with a very drawn out diminuendo to the end.
Dynamics (volumes) are described in music with Italian words:
FORTISSIMO (ff) - very loud
FORTE (f) - loud
MEZZO FORTE (mf) - medium loud
MEZZO PIANO (mp) - medium soft
PIANO (p) - soft
PIANISSIMO (pp) - very soft
CRESCENDO (cresc.) - gradually loudening
DIMINUENDO (dim.) - gradually softening
The pattern of sound created by the interaction of musical voices. - Harvard Dictionary of Music
MONOPHONY: a single line of music occurring at a given time. This may be a SOLO (single performer) or performed in UNISON (multiple performers on the same line of music). Different instruments and voices can perform in monophony even if they are performing the lines in different octaves - think about a group all singing “Happy Birthday” together on the same note at the same time.
HETEROPHONY: almost like unison - except one voice will do a little more than the others - think of a solo gospel singer ornamenting/decorating the melody that the rest of the choir is singing.
HOMOPHONY: two or more voices - one voice is the melody and the other voice(s) serve in support roles. This is the texture most Western Classical and popular music falls into - but many world music traditions do not adhere to this format.
CHORDAL: all voices move with the same rhythm (like in church hymns)
MELODY-ACCOMPANIMENT: melody usually has most interesting rhythm, other voices perform backgrounds with more simple/repetitive rhythm (like in pop songs)
POLYPHONY: two or more voices moving independently from one another at the same time; also known as COUNTERPOINT. This can sound dissonant - with the two independent voices clashing - or it can sound consonant, with the musicians performing lines that interlock well with each other even though they’re very different from each other.
The shape of a musical composition as defined by new and repeated segments; the musical roadmap. - Harvard Dictionary of Music
Find pattern and repetition between the different sections of the music
Each section receives a new letter name: A, B, C, D, etc.
When the same music shows up again, it gets the same name as before: A, B, C, D, A …
COMMON FORM TYPES
Binary: A B
Ternary: A B A
Song Form: A B A B (most pop music - verse, chorus)
Modified Song Form: A A B A
Strophic: A A A A A A (most folk music)
Rondo: A B A C A D A
Theme & Variation: A A’ A’’ A’’’ A’’’’ etc.
Accounting for variation:
When a section repeats but is slightly modified from its original format, it is referred to as PRIME. So section “A” becomes “A Prime,” “A Double Prime,” and so forth to distinguish each new variation of A that is not the same as the original. It is written out with an apostrophe (see Theme & Variation above) for each new variation of the section.
There are lots of other, more advanced Form types we won’t study for this class …
ANALYZING A PIECE FOR ITS ELEMENTS …
Here is an example of accurate and extensive descriptions and analyses of each musical element for a single pop song. For this analysis, we will use The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights”. Released on November 29th, 2019, this song was the most popular international hit of 2020 and stayed on the US Top 10 Billboard for a full year.¹ Its success may be due, in part, to the feeling of pent-up loneliness it delivers which perfectly reflects the zeitgeist of the 2020 global Covid-19 Pandemic.
“Blinding Lights” clocks in at 172 BPM, which is extraordinarily fast for a pop song. Throughout, the tempo stays steady without slowing or speeding. The beats are grouped in sets of four which means it is in quadruple meter and the subdivision of the beats is in even sets of two, so more specifically, simple quadruple meter. For those with some previous music knowledge, this would be identified as 4/4 time.
The melody of “Blinding Lights” is in minor; but notice that it only sounds “melancholy” rather than sad, this is because it’s using a form of C Pentatonic Minor (C Eb F G Bb) that removes several of the traditional minor intervals, so it sounds too hollow to be truly minor. Untrained ears would certainly not need to get that specific - but knowing it is in minor is important. The contour of the melody is flat-falling through the first half of the verses and flat-rising through the second half. The choruses have a rising-falling motion.
There is very limited harmony in this song, mostly relying on unison (voice and synth) or solo (voice or synth) lines and “power chords” (open parallel fifth intervals) rather than full triad chords. The harmony is consonant and minor.
First, make sure you’ve identified all the instruments/voices that are present in this track (that’s called INSTRUMENTATION). Then, decide what kind of adjectives describe each instrument or voice you hear. The Weeknd’s timbre is breathy, mellow, and velvety. He sounds calm and cool even though the lyrics imply a crisis. The synthesizer sounds warm, thin, ringing with quite a lot of reverb at the end of lines. The drum machine’s timbre is thin, shimmery, and cutting in direct contrast with the synth and voice. Notice that every timbral choice on this track was made to connect with a 1980’s synth-pop nostalgia. It sounds very much like the Stranger Things soundtrack or other “throwback” songs that are popular in current pop music trends.
"Blinding Lights" (Song 2019) - The Weeknd
There is not much dynamic variety in “Blinding Lights”. The voice is continuously at a mezzo-forte volume while the background parts tend to be mezzo-piano, under the voice for support. When the voice is absent, the synthesizer increases in volume to take over the main melodic texture.
The texture of “Blinding Lights” is mostly homophonic because there is a single, solo singer with accompaniment. When the singer is not singing, the synthesizer becomes the melody. The additional voices serve as harmony or “call-response” echo, but the voices are never singing separate melodies at the same time.
There is one moment of polyphony at 3:05 when the singer and synthesizer each have different melodies at the same time. After the polyphonic moment, the singer and synthesizer finish the phrase in unison as the song ends.
An easy way to predict form for music with lyrics is by looking at the lyrics written out. Often they are “chunked” out in sections and you can predict that each section will be a different letter in a form pattern. By seeing how the lyrics line up and number of lines per section, it can be easy to guess ahead of time what the form is before even hearing the song. Also, predicting that most radio songs will be in some kind of song form (ABAB) or modified song form is a good guess before you begin listening. For “Blinding Lights,” the song starts with a Hook (a short, ‘grabby’ introduction melody played by the synth). When the Weeknd’s voice enters on “I been tryna call …,” this is the first A section (and also the first verse). B begins at the chorus when the lyrics “I said, ooh, I'm blinded by the lights …” start. Following this first chorus, there is another synth Hook. Next is an A’ (A prime) at “I'm running out of time …” This would be considered A prime because it is shorter than the first A section. The chorus then happens two more times for B and B’ (the melody goes higher but it is still in the same format as the B chorus). The Hook synth melody sounds one more time and the song finishes with a B” (just the first two lines of the chorus).
(Hook) A B (Hook) A’ B B’ (Hook) B’’