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2.1: Terminology

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    The Elements of Music.

    Before diving into the various types of music this text covers, we first need to understand how to talk about music. No matter what type of music you're listening to—regardless as to the time period, style, or culture—there are certain elements we must consider when addressing music. This is true for all types of music. The following terms are the most important elements found in music. There are short definitions provided, but the various VIDEO LINKS have a very in-depth discussion that addresses these terms and the other terms that are found within them.

    Melody and Harmony.

    It is difficult to discuss melody without simultaneously discussing harmony, and there are many terms we need to establish when discussing them. Read this brief overview, then watch the video link at the bottom of this description before moving on.

    Melody simply refers to the tune of a given piece of music. Think about your favorite song. Can you sing or hum the tune? That's the melody. Of course, we could be more "scientific" and say that a melody is a series of different notes and pitches heard in order that we understand as a single phrase. In other words, the tune.

    Melodies are derived from collections of notes called scales, which establish a specific key (or "home" base).

    Harmony refers to the phenomenon that occurs when more than one pitch are played simultaneously. Harmony can sound pleasant—this is called consonant harmony—or it can sound unpleasant and incorrect—this is called dissonant harmony. Modern music: that is, most music from the Baroque period through the present day including popular music on the radio is rooted in a very specific type of harmony called a chord.

    As mentioned above, these terms are more difficult to discuss in paragraph form; watch the VIDEO LINK that discusses melody, harmony, scales, and you'll have a better understanding of how all of this plays together.


    It is important to realize that not all music has a melody! Consider this drum solo by Led Zeppelin's John Bonham from 1973's performance of "Moby Dick:" there's no melody, so what is it that we're listening to? This is a perfect example of music that only incorporates rhythm. The term "rhythm" itself is difficult to define. Some people say it's the "beat," but this is a misnomer. In fact, we can't understand rhythm without addressing the terms beat and meter.

    The beat is a pulse that you can tap your foot to. It stays the same speed; it doesn't slow down, nor does it speed up. The meter is how we organize that beat. We can organize the beat in groups of 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s, etc. The rhythm therefore refers to how sounds and silences are ordered over the course of time, placed within un underlying meter and beat. Remember that music exists over a period of time: you can't listen to music without experiencing time going by. So, rhythm refers to the ordering of the sounds and silences over that time span. These terms are defined and addressed more clearly and expounded on in the VIDEO LINK.


    Texture refers to how many different layers of music are happening simultaneously. Generally speaking, there are 3 types of textures we experience in music: monophonic, homophonic, and polyphonic textures.

    Monophonic texture refers to music that has a single melody played or sung without any type of accompaniment. Sing a melody to yourself out loud: you're singing in a monophonic texture.

    Homophonic texture refers to a single melody, but with some form of accompaniment. The accompaniment is subordinate to the melody. That is, it needs the melody to be present, otherwise your music would be completely boring.

    Polyphonic texture refers to multiple independent melodies playing at the same time. It's very difficult to write music with completely different and unrelated melodies played simultaneously, and still having it sound good. Being able to compose in this way takes a strong understanding of the rules of counterpoint, which refers to how notes sound when they're played against each other (in other words "counter" to one another).

    These terms are quite difficult to understand by simply reading a description, but the VIDEO LINK provides a brief description on Texture.


    What makes an electric guitar sound different from a violin? They're both string instruments, aren't they? What about a piano compared to an organ? They're both keyboard instruments? How about the difference between a children's choir and an adult choir? Why do they sound different from one another? These questions refer to the color of sound, or the timbre. As we go through the semesters, you'll find that combining instruments creates very unique blends of sound. The next chapter discusses insruments in much more detail and provides a video link that covers how the sound is made on orchestral instruments.


    Form refers to how music is organized from from a macro and micro perspective. Think about your favorite song. How is the organized? Are there multiple sections? Is there an introduction? A verse? A chorus? Is there a pre-chorus in between the verse and chorus? How about a bridge, or a solo? The arrangements of these different sections make up the song's form. In traditional repertoire, a single movement of music can last 10 minutes or more---understanding how it's organized will help us understand the music on a deeper and more intellectually and artistically gratifying level. Watch this VIDEO LINK that describes how we understand form on these different levels. As we cover much throughout this text, we will focus on the larger formal organization of a given work.

    For those interested in downloading a PDF handout of this unit's PowerPoint file, click here.

    2.1: Terminology is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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