Music theory: the five musical elements
In the last video, you heard a band build up the main ingredients or ‘elements’ that comprise the various layers of time, pitch and texture in a piece of music. In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at these elements and explaining them in a bit more detail.
We recommend that you spend some time on this aspect of the course as it will considerably help your understanding and appreciation of the ideas explored in the weeks to come.
The theoretical components of music may seem overly technical and difficult to grasp when you first encounter them, but they can be ‘understood’ in a number of different ways. For example, whenever we sing a song or play chords on the guitar, we are demonstrating some understanding of the concepts of melody and harmony. You could think of this in the same way as ‘knowing’ how to throw and catch a ball; we may not understand the physics or maths of projectile motion and air resistance, but we do have an idea of how a ball is likely to travel through the air - often built up through experience and trial and error.
Our knowledge of music may not be complete, but it is the basis of the way that we might make sense of these elements.
We might consider melody to be the single most important element within a song. In everyday language, this is the element we call ‘the tune’. In technical terms, however, the melody is a series of pitches, or notes, that are organised to form a shape or pattern. Each individual note is given a length determined by the rhythm of the melody, so we might think of melody as ‘pitch plus time’.
In addition to this, we can identify that a melody has a number of different characteristics which we will refer to as phrase, contour and interval. We will deal with these aspects of melody in more detail in Week 2, but for now just observe the way the melody has movement (provided by the fact that the pitches are of different lengths) and shape because the notes literally move up and down as the melody proceeds. In popular music, the singer in the band usually sings the main melody, while the other performers play an accompaniment that complements the singer.
This element of music arises when pitches are vertically combined, usually in groups of three notes. The common terms are chord or triad. Chords are used to harmonise a melody - providing accompanying notes that blend with and support the melody, and the notes of each chord are formed by combining notes together. We will investigate this topic in some detail in Week 4 so for now, just listen to the way pitch is divided in this piece between the melody sung by Nat Johnson and the notes played on the guitar and double bass to accompany the voice.
A key is a way of grouping together pitches into ‘families’ - all the notes within a certain key can be said to have something important in common. So, the pitches to the song Green Rocky Road all come from the same scale, that of C Major. A scale is a series of notes in which the first and last are usually the same, organised to a particular pattern. Keys are created when the first degree (tonic) and fifth degree (dominant) are used in ways that give structure and to some extent ‘meaning’ to the pitch elements of the music. In this course we will be focusing on major and minor keys only, and to some extent modes that are associated with them. This topic will be explored in detail in Weeks 2 and 4 so don’t worry too much if these ideas sound quite complex at this stage. In our song, the sense of key is created by the notes played on the guitar and double bass, and the notes sung by Nat.
This element gives us a means of understanding one of the ways that time is organised in music. The metre of a piece is created by regularly recurring ‘pulses’ or ‘beats’ which are in effect accented units of time. So in this song the metre is 4/4 and is created by a strong accent on the first of every four beats with milder accents on beats two, three and four. As the song progresses we can get a sense of the regularity of the beats (we tap our foot to them) and it underpins and organises the element of time within the song.
This is a term that we will all be familiar with – rhythm describes the way time is applied to music. In this instance, the notes of the melody have rhythm since they are of different lengths. Crochets (or quarter notes) last for one beat, quavers (or eighth notes) for half a beat, for example. All of the parts of the band - instrumental and vocal - create the rhythm of this song.
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