Basic Elements of Music

Music has distinct elements that audience members should learn to identify and recognize. This knowledge improves the listening experience and provides the basis for communication. The basic building blocks of music composition will help the listener develop a greater appreciation for and interest in new music.

Music is an abstract art that defies complete explanations, but learning to communicate with the appropriate terminology allows you to more accurately express your opinions. Appreciate the richness of music and bring more fulfillment to your life by developing a basic knowledge of the elements of music.

Melody and Countermelody

Melodies and countermelodies consist of three basic characteristics -- phrases, periods, and motives. The melody is the part of the composition that can be sung back. Most melodies, or tunes, follow a stepwise motion and can be sung by the average person. Skips and leaps are difficult to sing and create a disjunct feeling in the music and are typically avoided.

As the music becomes more advanced, melodies commonly become more abstract and skips and leaps are found more often. The melodies of Webern, Schoenberg, and Berg consist of wide leaps while the melodies of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven tends to stick to a stepwise motion.

The antithesis of a melody is the countermelody. As the name suggests, a countermelody plays against or counter to the melody. Most countermelodies are played in the higher registers. For instance, the piccolo countermelody in the John Philip Sousa march, "Stars and Stripes Forever" provides a contrasting and separate secondary melody. In Western Art Music, the countermelody is commonly found in the bass.


Starting with the smallest element, motives are short fragments of a larger melody. They can consist of as few as two notes. Beethoven's 5th Symphony provides an excellent example of a motive that is later pieced together into a larger work. The simple four-note motive, in the beginning, provides the basis for the first movement of the work. Composers combine motives to build, expand, and develop melodies in a composition.

Phrases and Periods

Periods are the largest part of the melody and consist of a combination of antecedent and consequent phrases. The antecedent phrase is the first half of the phrase, and similar to a compound sentence, it addresses a complete thought but sounds incomplete on its own. The consequent phrase completes the antecedent phrase and provides a sense of conclusion.

Some phrases may have more than one antecedent phrase, but there is typically only one consequent phrase since the consequent phrase successfully ends the melody. The ending of an antecedent phrase usually sounds weak and incomplete, in classical music, a specific cadence called a half-cadence is usually used. Half-cadences generally move from the tonic to the dominant of the key.

The consequent phrase ending generally has an authentic cadence that ends on the tonic or first chord of the key. A period that has only one antecedent and one consequent phrase is considered a single period. Periods that have more than two phrases are generally described as double and even triple periods.


There are two main characteristics that determine harmony -- arpeggios and chords. Chords consist of three or more notes that are played simultaneously. Arpeggios are just chords that have been split into individual notes and played successively. Rock, classical, jazz and other styles of music often use chords and arpeggios to provide a backdrop for the melody. Musicians that discuss harmony will talk about chords and the quality of the chord.

Tonal music provides for four basic chord qualities -- major, minor, augmented, and diminished. Each of these chords are used to create a different effect in a composition. Major and minor chords appear most commonly in music. Major chords typically sound brighter, while minor chords sound more compressed and darker. The less commonly used augmented and diminished chords are based on major and minor chords.

An augmented chord is a major chord with the fifth raised. Diminished chords are minor chords are minor chords with the fifth lowered. Due to the tritone that occurs in the augmented triads, composers traditionally avoided using them in music. Modern composers have used augmented chords to create jarring musical effects. “Pierrot Lunaire,” by Arnold Schoenberg, uses augmented chords to help enhance the atmosphere. Diminished chords commonly appear in minor keys.


Rhythm creates the beat of the music and can be classified as either monorhythmic, homorhythmic, or polyrhythmic. Monorhythmic music consists of a single instrument playing the rhythm. Homorhythmic music is similar to monorhythmic, except several instruments will play the same rhythm. Polyrhythmic refers to several rhythms played simultaneously by more than one instrument.

Another aspect of rhythm is the tempo of the piece. The tempo determines how fast or slow a piece is performed. Rhythms provide the basic structure for a piece and push the piece forward. Rhythm helps to give melodies form. Without rhythm, melodies would just be a series of notes that lack a sense of pulse. Maurice Ravel’s “BolĂ©ro” provides an example of how a steady rhythm can gradually help a melody build throughout a piece to eventually create a climax. In contrast, Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” provides erratic and exciting rhythms that help to color the melody and create dynamic contrasts in the music.


The color or unique sound of the instrument is referred to as the timbre. An oboe or flute both have their own characteristic sounds. The ability to identify a flute versus an oboe is because each instrument has its own timbre. Learning to identify these timbres requires practice and listening to each instrument individually.

When trying to learn to identify instrument timbres, it is good to purchase recordings of solo instruments. This way you can become familiar with each instrument sound by concentrating on the sound of the instrument. Instruments in an orchestra often combine to play the same melody. When done correctly, this creates a new timbre that takes on the characteristics of both instruments. For instance, cello and euphonium when played at the same time will create a smooth and dark timbre.


The form provides the container for a musical composition. Without form, the work would have no structure and would be difficult to make sense of. In the simplest forms, there is a beginning, middle, and end. Each part is given a letter name to indicate the place in the composition that it occurs and the materials in the music. A piece that has a form of ABA will have three sections. The first section will be called A. The B section will consist of different material and finally a return to the original material from the A section. Complex forms may have several sections, and could include several additional letters. It is not uncommon for a piece to have the form ABCADEA, where each letter represents a new section. Specific forms have names such as sonata, symphony, rondo, binary, or ternary form.


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