Elements of music include timbre, texture, rhythm, melody, beat, harmony, structure, tempo, pitch, and dynamics.
What are the elements of music?
The elements of music are essentially the different things you can hear when listening to music. They are what differentiates a piece of music from other sounds.
If you perform a piece of music, even if you are singing and dancing to your favorite song, then – whether you know it or not – you are showing that you have a sense of what the elements of music are.
Recognizing your existing sense of what the elements of music are can help you to take your understanding of music and music theory further. You will repeat the rhythm and melody if you sing a few lines of one of your favorite songs.
To replicate the rhythm, you show that you have a sense of the pulse and the different durations of the notes you are singing. By singing the melody, you establish how the different pitches relate to one another (called intervals).
If you were then to sing along to a recording of the song, you would automatically adjust your pitch and tempo so that they matched what you were listening to – you are more musical than you know!
By learning to recognize and describe the different elements of what you hear, you will be able to talk and write about music more accurately – not to mention enjoy and appreciate new things about how a piece is constructed. This easy-to-download poster will help you explain the elements of music to children and jazz up your display walls too!
Ten elements of music to teach children
Combinations of long and short sounds convey movement. When learning to understand rhythm, you should try to understand it in terms of regularity. Later on, you can learn how this regularity is played with and contradicted in music. Music is measured in beats, and rhythms are different beats. This is the steady pulse that runs throughout a piece of music.
Rhythm alone is musical. Think of the intro to the song ‘Car Wash’ by Rose Royce – the clapping is instrumented only with hands, but it forms the backbone of the rest of the piece. Listen as the different textures of the song come in one by one and are layered over the clapped rhythm.
More – Take your understanding of rhythm further by learning more about its interdependent elements: meter, pulse, and duration (of notes).
The underlying steady beat of the music. This is what we may tap our foot to or clap along with! If you can do this without necessarily being able to describe the rhythm in terms of beats, you are aware of something regular pulsing through the music. You could say that the pulse is rhythm in its simplest form.
The length of the beats makes up the music. In the main melody – the tune in a pop song that you would sing along to – this would be the different lengths of the notes you are singing. In contrast to the pulse of the rhythm, which is regular, each note of the melody would last for different portions of the pulse.
Try clapping a pulse as you sing a melody – try Frère Jacques – and notice how the words aren’t necessarily as long as the beats of the pulse. They can be longer (lasting for one or more claps) or shorter (multiple notes or words between claps).
Pitch is how high or low a sound is – every sound has a pitch, even if it isn’t musical. In written music, the notes on the staff show what pitch to play, when, and for how long.
Tempo is an element of music that dictates and describes the speed at which music is performed. This effects the mood of a piece of music. Often, sad music is slower than happy music, but this isn’t a strict rule. Complex moods are created in music by using tempo in both expected and unexpected ways and changing the tempo during a piece.
Tempo can be described precisely using metronome indications and BPM (beats per minute). But it can also be defined more broadly using performance directions. Performance directions usually appear at the beginning of a piece of written music and describe the speed or tempo at which the piece should be played. These tempo markings won’t be as precise as a metronome indication – instead, they will state that the piece should be played ‘quickly’, ‘slowly’, ‘with fire’, or in any way the composer thought was suitable!
Performance directions for tempo are primarily written in Italian, but you can also find them in French, German or English. Standard Italian terms for tempo include:
- lento – very slow;
- largo – very slow and ‘broad’;
- adagio – slow;
- andante – at walking speed;
- moderato – at moderate speed;
- allegro – fast and lively;
- vivace – lively.
As you can see, these descriptions are open to interpretation, and that is part of the fun of playing music and interesting a piece for yourself.
Does tempo always stay the same in music?
No. In music, the tempo is as changeable as we are. It alters the mood of a piece and changes with the emotion of the music. A change of tempo can occur in the middle of a piece. In classical music, works with several movements will each be in a different tempo. For example, Mozart’s famous ‘Turkish March’ (Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331) is made up of these three movements:
- Andante grazioso (slow and graceful);
- Menuetto (at the tempo of a minuet);
- Alla turca – Allegretto (Turkish style – moderately fast).
Words like ritardando and rallentando, which appear in the middle of a piece, tell musicians to slow down the tempo in an expressive way to convey emotion. The instruction of a tempo primo would mean the players resume the original tempo after the slowed-down passage.
Timbre is the particular tone that distinguishes a sound or combinations of sounds. Every sound – whether musical or not – has a timbre. When we talk about timbre, we can describe it in terms of color and shape. A sound could be warm, silvery, round, or sharp – how would you describe different sounds?
When you sing your favorite song, think about how your voice sounds different from the singer in the recording. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of various instruments – do you get different colors, feelings, or images from the sounds of these instruments? How do these compare? Can you notice differences between the timbre of two of the same instrument?
The texture of music indicates the layers of sound in work and their relationship. A full orchestra might sound swollen and heavy, while a solo ukulele could sound light.
A sequence of notes and rhythms – these complement but are not identical to the notes and beats of the accompanying sounds. They work together to make a layered sound.
The melody is what we usually sing along to (and the pulse is what we tap our feet to). In your favorite song, the voice doesn’t necessarily sing the same rhythm and notes as the backing music, but it sounds like it belongs with them. They work together to create texture.
As a novel is structured into paragraphs and chapters, and a poem is formed of lines and stanzas, this refers to the different sections of a piece and their order.
In most music, there is a formal structure – think of how pop songs have different verses and a repeated chorus which they return to in between. The various verses explore the theme of the song and develop it.
The chorus usually returns for one final rendition, which is altered or extended in some way. It is the same in other musical forms – all have a structured way of exploring their melodic or lyrical themes.
This is the sounding of two or more notes at the same time. A piece of music harmonizes with one another to produce a (typically) pleasant sound. How can you tell when you have played or sung the wrong note? It was probably because it did not harmonize as you expected!
Some 20th and 21st-century classical compositions can be described as sounding ‘jarring’ or ‘scary’ – often because it deliberately avoids pleasant-sounding harmony.
Dynamics are one of the core elements of musical expression. Learning about them will help children to listen critically and get a more nuanced sense of meaning from the music they study.
Dynamics are how we describe how solid or soft a sound is. Dynamics don’t necessarily represent volume – all live music needs to be loud enough to be heard – but about how hard or gentle the notes sound.
In written music, dynamics are indicated with words and symbols, which you can see in the chart below: