9.3 Basic Elements of Music

Humanities 1021, 1022, 1023

Basic Elements of Music


The tune we remember. Melody is the horizontal aspect of music; it is similar to an artistic line in that the succession of tones of different pitches is organized so as to guide the listener through the composition. The melody can be a single melodic line we sing along with, or a complex melody that is difficult to follow. The melodic line is unique to each piece of music, as is the length of the melodic line.

2 measure melodic line: Battle Hymn of the Republic (Mine eyes have seen the glory. . .)

4 measure melodic line: I’ve Been Working on the Railroad

8 measure melodic line: Home on the Range

Legato: smooth and connected melody line

Staccato: detached, crisp, jagged melody line


Tones played simultaneously rather than in succession. Harmony is the vertical aspect of music; it is similar to artistic texture. All music stems from vocal origins, so “voice” refers to an individual part or line, even when we speak of instrumental music.

Monophony (“one voice”). Music with a single melodic line; unaccompanied, without harmony.

Homophony (“single melody with chords”). A single principal melodic part supported by chordal accompaniment.

  • Simple harmony. A vocalist singing along with a guitar accompaniment; the guitar creating harmony against the vocalist.
  • Block harmony. Vertical pillars of tone with little independent movement by underlying voices; two or more tones moving up or down in pitch together; a unifying feeling (i.e. church hymns, or music by Peter, Paul and Mary or Boyz 2 Men).

Polyphony (“many voices”). Music with more than one melodic line, each of equal importance, sounded simultaneously.

  • Counterpoint. Two or more melodies sounded simultaneously whose tones move independently of each other. Separate voices along a melodic course, each on its own, less unified, acting in a more dynamic manner.
  • Imitative Counterpoint (repeating of an idea). A motive or subject is presented in one voice and then restated in another.
  • Canon. Repetition of an entire length of a melodic line.
  • Round. A canon for voices at the same pitch or in octaves.
  • Inversion. Melody is turned upside down, following the same intervals but in the opposite direction.

Combined harmony. Combined harmonies, such as block harmony with a vocal melody.

Consonant (or Concordant) harmony. Harmony that is intentionally pleasant to the ear of the listener.

Dissonant (or Discordant) harmony. Harmony that is intentionally harsh, conflicting, unpleasant. Used for expression.


A pattern of regularly occurring strong and weak beats. We impose meter even on regular beats (i.e. the rolling of a printing press or a railroad car). The strong beat (the down beat) is usually louder.

We desire to release the tension in a series of strong beats; a 2/4 meter allows little time to relax between the strong beats.


2/4 or 4/4 (duple meter; accented every two or four beats): America, the Beautiful (O beautiful for spacious skies..)

3/4 (triple meter; accented beats every three beats): My Country,‘Tis of Thee; Happy Birthday


The pattern by which notes are arranged within the metric structure; the pulse, the beat of the music. The pattern may follow the meter closely, or it may work against the meter by placing strong beats (accents) were the meter places weak beats. Rhythms include: straight time, jazz, blues, rags, simple, complex, syncopation (placement of accents between beats or on weak beats where we do not expect an accent), and rock. The interruption of a rhythm leads to uneasiness.

When rhythm accentuates the meter we have a dance tune; when the rhythm breaks away from the meter we get a vague, dreamy, uncertain feeling.

Depending on the MELODY, HARMONY, METER an RHYTHM, music may be either OPEN (i.e. Star Spangled Banner) or

CLOSED (i.e. Mary Had a Little Lamb). CLOSED music has little space between melody notes, monophonic harmony, an

unchanging meter, and even rhythm.


How fast or slow the music is played; the relative speed of the strong beats, which may vary within a piece.

Can be measured on a stop watch. Tempos include:

  • Largo or Grave – extremely slow, relaxing, solemn
  • Adagio – slow
  • Andantewalking pace; literally, “going”
  • Moderato – moderate
  • Allegrettoa little fast
  • Allegro – lively, cheerful, quite fast; the usual tempo of the 1st movement in a symphony or sonata
  • Vivace – very fast (vigorously)
  • Presto – extremely fast, extreme tension
  • Prestissimosuper fast


The volume at which the music is performed; the relative loudness may vary within a piece. An increase or decrease in intensity may be produced by the addition or subtraction of instruments or sections of instruments.

  • pp – pianissimo (very softly)
  • p – piano (softly)
  • mp – mezzo-piano (moderately soft)
  • mf – mezzo forte (moderately loud)
  • F forte (loud) terraced dynamics: abrupt alterations from one passage to another
  • FF – fortissimo (very loud)
  • SF – sforzando (abruptly louder) – loud noise produces tension
  • < – crescendo (little by little growing louder)
  • > – decrescendo (little by little growing softer)
  • Terraced dynamics: abrupt alterations from one passage to another

Descriptive Adjectives

Light, heavy, gently, sweet, eerie, happy, joyful, peaceful, uplifting, sad, melancholy, evil, royal, regal, powerful, bright, cheery, even, uneven, huge, tiny, swinging.

Italian Adjectives (for the musically sophisticated!):

  • Agitato (agitated, nervous)
  • Bellicoso (angry, warlike)
  • Giocoso (humorously, like a joke)
  • Grandioso (grandly, proudly)
  • Grazioso (gracefully)
  • Lacrimoso (tearfully, as if crying)
  • Misterioso (mysteriously)
  • Raposo (calmly, sleepily)
  • Tempestoso (stormily)


Location of a musical sound in the tonal scale. Exact pitch is determined by the number of vibrations per second (frequency). Rapid vibrations produce a high tone, slow vibrations a deep one. The pitch of a child’s voice is higher than that of an adult. High notes produce more tension, as do jagged, abrupt changes.

Range of notes:

  • Narrow (all notes are within the range of one hand position on the piano, i.e. London Bridge)
  • Wide (requiring the wider range of the keyboard, i.e. Dixie)


The use of one instrument or a group of instruments to sound each voice within a piece of music. Groups of instruments in an orchestration may include brass, winds, strings, percussion and 20th century electronic instruments. Each group has its own voice (timbre), while each instrument has its own quality of sound (color).

  • Brass instruments are most easily distinguished by a metallic timbre and generally a sharp attack.
  • Woodwinds are distinguished by a reedy timbre and a gentler attack.
  • String instruments generally offer prolonged tones and smooth (legato) movement from one tone to the next.
  • Percussion instruments usually emphasize the rhythm.

A band excludes strings; an orchestra is made up of strings, in conjunction with various woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. A symphony includes all of the instruments. Don’t forget the human voice is an instrument.


Music may be structured in a simple or very complex form; be sure to check the title for a clue to the form.

  • Theme and variation. A melody (theme) is played, then repeated in altered form (variation) a number of times.
  • Song form. Originally derived from vocal music. In the ternary form a melody is played, a new melody is played, and the original melody is repeated again (may be varied). A-B-A is a common shorthand for this form.
  • Sonata form. From the Italian sonare (to sound), the sonata form employs the song form as the basis of an extended composition for one instrument or several. Sonatas are usually in three or four movements. Most rock music is in sonata form.
  • Concerto form. From the Italian concertare, or “coming together; a group of instruments playing in unison. In the Baroque period this form, modified as a concerto grosso, featured an orchestra in contrast with a small group “Roman” style) or solo instruments (“Venetian” style). After the solo-cadenza, the orchestra reassuringly brings us back to the basic material.
  • Symphonic form. A large scale work for orchestra designed to explore a range of moods. The first movement is generally lively and robust; the second slower, sometimes melancholy; the third faster and dance-like; and the last even is more spirited and rhythmic. The roots to the symphony are in the concerto ripieno, a late Baroque style of concerto-writing that used the entire ensemble, rather than just one or a few soloists, as the main melodic voice.


Music is written and performed to fit particular social occasions. Before the 1700s, music served one of three functions

Chamber Music (played by small ensembles in the salons and drawing rooms of the aristocracy)

Church Music (masses, motets, anthems and hymns)

Theater Music (incidental music played between acts of a play or opera)

Ballet – (ballet d’action). An outgrowth of 14th century Italian courtly dances, this style of public dance was dominant in Paris by the18th century.

Cantata – (“that which is sung”). A composite sacred or secular vocal form consisting of solos, spoken recitatives duets and choruses, interspersed with instrumental interludes; shorter than an oratorio.

Chamber music – During and after the classical era, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven set the standard for how chamber music should sound, its structure, and the ensembles it should utilize (string quartet, piano trio, small wind ensembles, etc.).

March – Piece of music with strongly marked rhythm suitable for marching; generally in 2/4 or 4/4 meter.

MassA musical setting of the words of the Roman Catholic Mass. The five sections of the Ordinary are Kyrie (Lord have mercy upon us….), Gloria (Glory be to thee….), Credo (I believe in God the Father….), Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy….) and Agnus Dei (O Lamb of God…). Lutheran masses set only the Kyrie and the Gloria to music. Masses were usually for unaccompanied voices before 1650; thereafter, soloists, chorus, and orchestra were often included.

Minuet – French dance in triple meter at a moderate tempo. Ranging from stateliness to a lively pace and whimsical character, the minuet embodied the grace of the aristocratic age in Baroque dances. It was used as the third movement of a sonata in ¾ time during the 18th Century. (Form = A-B-A, minuet-trio-minuet.)

Opera – Theatrical staging, passionate singing, orchestral music, and oft-poetic librettos (scripts) put together to tell a story.

Oratorio – Essentially an opera on a dramatic religious story drawn from scripture rather than the liturgy of the Mass; has several acts, but without scenery, action or costumes.

Overture – A short orchestral piece generally preceding an opera or ballet, although from the 19th century onward they can be works in their own right.

Prelude – An introductory, instrumental work, often to an opera. Also a short, self-contained piece for piano, or, less often, for orchestra.

Rondo – (Rondeau). A form of medieval French music that reflected folk-dance elements. The vivacious, good-humored, lively movement is characterized by recurrence of a central idea alternating with contrasting elements. An instrumental musical form, the common shorthand was A-B-A-C-A-B-A.

Suite – Multi-movement work that incorporates dances or other short instrumental types; may be arranged to tell a programmatic story.

Periods in Music History

  • Medieval c. 1000-1490Thomas of Celano, Vogelweide, Machaut, Dunstable, Dufay, Isaac
  • Renaissance1490-1620des Près, Taverner, Tallis, Palestrina, Lassus, Victoria, Sweelinck, Byrd, Dowland, Gibbons
  • Baroque1600-1750Monteverdi, Gabrieli, Corelli, Purcell, Lully, Vivaldi, Telemann, Bach, Handel
  • Classical1750-1820Haydn, Mozart, Gluck, Weber, Beethoven
  • Romantic1820-1900Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Mendelssohn
  • Contemporary1900 to presentRachmaninoff, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, Elgar, Gershwin, Stravinsky, Ravel

Associated Values

How do the dominant musical elements express the moral, ethical, philosophical or political values of the composer?


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PPSC HUM 1023: Modern Civilizations by Kristine Betts and Kate Pagel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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