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Looking inside a song

In this video, Adam White from the University of Sheffield breaks down a song into the five fundamental elements of music.
In this video, I’m going to introduce you to five really important concepts about the way music works, five concepts that we’ll be returning to again and again as the course unfolds. To illustrate these ideas, we’re going to listen to a song being performed one part at a time, from the beat and rhythm of the drums, to the bassline of the double bass, to the harmony of the guitar, and finally, to the vocal melody itself. But firstly, let’s think about these five musical elements. An understanding of these elements will greatly increase our appreciation of the way the music works, and will contribute to our understanding of some of the key techniques used in songwriting.
And hopefully, that knowledge will help us to write better songs. So what are they? Well, there’s melody, rhythm, harmony, metre and key. Some of these terms will, I’m sure, already be familiar to you since they’re commonly used to describe or identify some of the things we might like about a song. Perhaps we would say that a song has a good melody, or this song is in a key that suits my voice, for example. To describe and illustrate these concepts further, I’m going to talk you through the performance of a traditional song, called Green Rocky Road.
The arrangement of this song is made up of four instrumental parts and one vocal part, and we’ll see that some of the five elements of music are divided up between the performers, and thus the lines in the music, whilst others are the responsibility of one or two parts in particular. So let’s start with what might be regarded as the bedrock of any piece of music, the beat and the rhythm. As we listen, note how the beats are grouped into units of four, and how the drums create musical interest by playing short repeating patterns of time called rhythm over the top of the beat.
Catherine, can you give us one bar of single beats, and then play the rhythm that you’ll use for the rest of the song? [DRUM MUSIC PLAYS]
Next we’re going to hear the double bass enter. This part has two main functions, firstly providing some depth and weight of sound at the bottom of the musical texture. And secondly, it provides an ongoing support to the harmony, a part which will eventually be layered up on top of the rhythm and bass. Graham, can you join in in the next convenient bar?
In technical terms, what we have now is a bassline, which uses notes taken from the chords we’re about to hear on the guitar, and this part of the texture helps to ground the music like the foundations of a building. These two strands of musical texture, the bass and the drums have already established an impetus and a solidity to the music that will enable the other parts, the guitar and voice, to add interest in other areas, namely, harmony and melody.
Next, let’s listen to what happens when we add harmony. In this instance, the chords played by the rhythm guitars. [GUITAR MUSIC ENTERS IN]
There are two chords here, and both belong to the key of C major. They’re chord one, based on the first note of the C scale, and chord four, or F, based on the fourth degree of the scale. These chords are really important. They provide sound in the middle of the texture, between the bass and melody, and the notes of the chord blend with those of the melody and the bass. Finally, the guitar also has an important rhythmic part to play. Since the chords are strummed in rhythm to compliment the ideas initially laid down by the drums.
Finally, we have the melody, a series of notes and regularly recurring patterns that sits figuratively on top of the other parts. The melody also combines with the chords and bass notes to create a sense of what we call a key; in that all three parts draw on notes from the same scale of C major, and together they create a family of notes and relationships that holds the piece together and which makes it sound coherent and intelligible. Now, can you bring the melody in? [SINGING ENTERS IN] Now, we have four lines of texture comprising these five elements of music, beat, rhythm, bassline, chords, and melody.
What’s interesting is that some of these elements are shared by the whole band, each part has rhythm for example, but it’s only the bass and guitar that create the harmony, and only the vocal part that has melody. A sense of key, meanwhile, is created by the bringing together of notes played by the guitar, double bass, and those sung by the singer. Now, let’s listen to the whole song, and notice the way that a musical texture has been created consisting of several mutually interdependent lines, which combine and interact to create a coherent web of sound, comprised of the five elements; metre, rhythm, harmony, melody, and key.

At their most basic level, all songs are built from the same building blocks of music. In this video, Adam introduces you to these building blocks – with the help of some musical friends.

These building blocks are what we’ll be calling the five elements of music – melody, rhythm, harmony, metre and key. To help us understand these concepts and how they work together to create a song, we’ve put together a band and headed into a studio. The band are going to play a traditional song called Green Rocky Road.

We’ll see that some of the elements of music are divided up between the performers, whilst others are the responsibility of one or two parts in particular. This video is our first dose of music theory, but please don’t worry about trying to learn it all here. We’ll be returning to these concepts again and again as the course unfolds.

  • As you watch the video, make a note of which parts of the band (drums, double bass, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar and vocals) create each element of music.
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How to Write Your First Song

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