MUS202 Music Appreciation

Elements of Music


Pitch – register (high or low);  Organization of pitches with a pattern of intervals between them creates scales;  and patterns of chords form harmony.  Chords are meaningful groups of tones within a harmonic system.  Tonal systems of harmony produce a sense of key.  Words we might use to describe harmony: major/minor, dissonant, consonant, tonal, atonal, triadic, functional.  Words we might use to describe scales: major/minor, chromatic, gapped.


Rhythm – the time element of music.  A specific rhythm is a specific pattern in time; we usually hear these in relation to a steady pulse, and mentally organize this pulse or tempo into meter (sometimes called a "time signature").  Meter organizes beats into groups, usually of two or three; beats can be divided into small units usually 2, 3 or 4 subdivisions


Melody, or musical line, is a combination of pitch and rhythm (some say "duration").  Sometimes a melody is considered to be the theme of a composition. We might characterize melody by its contour (rising or falling) and the size of the intervals in it.  A melody that uses mostly small intervals (or scale steps) and is smooth is said to be a conjunct melody.  Not surprisingly, a melody that uses large intervals is called a disjunct melody.  A motif (or motive) is either a very short melody or a distinctive part of a longer melody.  I might describe the opening four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as a "motific cell."


Timbre – sound quality or tone color; timbre is the characteristic that allows us to distinguish between one instrument and another, and the difference between vowel sounds (for example, long "a" or "ee").  Terms we might use to describe timbre:  bright, dark, brassy, reedy, harsh, noisy, thin, buzzy, pure, raspy, shrill, mellow, strained.  I prefer to avoid describing timbre in emotional terms (excited, angry, happy, sad, etc.); that is not the sound quality, it is its effect or interpretation.  Rather than describe the timbre of an instrument in other terms, it is often more clear just to describe the timbre by naming the instrument, once we have learned the names and sounds of a few instruments.


Dynamics – loud or soft.  A composition that has extremely soft passages as well as extremely loud passages is said to have a large or wide dynamic range.  Dynamics can change suddenly or gradually (crescendo, getting louder, or decrescendo, getting softer.)


Texture – a quality of the number of lines and the character of their relationship to each other in music


monophonic (one voice or line),

polyphonic (many voices, usually similar, as in Renaissance or Baroque counterpoint),

homophonic (1. a melody with simple accompaniment;  2.  chords moving in the same rhythm (homorhythmic))

heterophony – “mixed” or multiple similar versions of a melody performed simultaneously (rare in European music; possibly used in Ancient Greece)

polyrhythmic – characterized by layers felt in different meters simultaneously

collage – juxtaposition & superimposition of extremely different textures or sounds


In addition to these terms, a texture may be described as light or heavy, thin or thick, or transparent/translucent or dense/opaque.