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The Components Of Music

Music can express an emotions, describe a scene (by imitating natural sounds) or be merely a beautiful pattern. Whatever the intent, the content can be seen as having four main components:


This is the most primitive component of music. It dates from prehistoric times and developed from speech patterns. Metre is the term used for patterns in verse or poetry. Rhythm is important in music but it shouldn't dominate. A beat can be subtle rather than obvious. Syncopation is an advanced form of rhythm that not everyone can manage. However, anything too abstract or complex is as pointless as no rhythm at all. Unfortunately, some pop music relies too much on this primitive component and has very little else.

A typical rhythm instrument is the drum. Musical notation uses a time signature and various note durations to indicate rhythm. The notation has changed a little over time, but the principles remain the same.


This was the next component of music to be introduced. It probably dates from about the same time as oral history started. What constitutes a melody varies just as the roots of language do around the world as it seems to be linked to speech. In all cases, the actual pitch or frequency of vibration of each note in a melody is unimportant. The relationship between the pitches of successive notes is what matters. A difference in pitch is called an interval. The pattern of intervals (in pitch and duration) is what gives a melody its character. So men and women can sing the same tune at different pitches.

Each culture has its own set of rules for creating melodies (see scales). Ornamentation or decoration of a melody has been called "coloratura", "melismata" or, more recently, "dirtying". However, anything too abstract or complex results in non-music. This has happened repeatedly in history. For example: some baroque pieces, the later works of Scriabin & Schonberg and scat jazz.

A typical melody instrument is the flute. The most successful musical notation has a 5-line staff with various clefs to indicate pitch. However, the tonic sol-fa system is still occasionally in use (by vocalists). Tablatures such as the 6-line lute staff are largely obsolete.


This is the most sophisticated component of music. It relies on a knowledge of the relationships between pitches. Not all cultures have developed the concept of harmony. Its simplest form is the drones of bagpipes at octaves and fifths accompanying the chanter.

In Europe, polyphony developed from plainsong between the 9th and 14th centuries. Initially the harmony created by polyphony was more accidental than deliberate. As voices moved apart from unison and pursued separate melodies, different notes were inevitably heard at the same time. The main tune was typically in the tenor part with other parts moving around it - descant on top and bass line underneath.

A group of notes at harmonious intervals and played together is called a chord. Chords can be constructed without the contributing instrumental parts becoming tuneful in their own right. The lowest note or bass line is very important and is the part most likely to retain some melodic qualities. Over time, more and more intervals have been regarded as acceptable in harmony. For example, thirds were originally regarded as discordant. Then major and minor triads (made from thirds) became the most well known chords. Now more notes are often added to triads. Counterpoint is an advanced technique that combines melodies to create harmony in a more deliberate fashion than polyphony. However, as harmony grows too complex it dissolves into dissonance.

A typical harmony instrument is the guitar. Modern musical notation can show a whole chord on one 5-line staff or across several parts. Figured bass (a single line of notes with numbers indicating the harmony above) for keyboard or harp is obsolete. Guitar chord notation as names or diagrams is in common use.


The structure or form of music can be seen as underlying or overlaying the other components. More than anything else, it is the identifying feature of music and therefore as old as any other part. Without it, rhythm is just a train bumping over rails, melody is just wind-chimes and harmony is just an aeolian harp. What makes music pleasant is a balance of repetetiveness and novelty. Too much repetition is boring but too much change from the familiar or lack of pattern is distracting and unmemorable. The noises of wind, rain and waves may be soothing but they are not intellectually engaging.

Unlike the other components, structure is not represented by any instrument. However, it does have a sort of notation. Large structures are built up from smaller structural elements. This can be seen by repeat marks and other such symbols that direct the flow of music.


Interval A pitch difference named for its written form rather than the ratio of frequencies.
Note A musical sound, having pitch and duration (notation being how this is written).
Pitch The main frequency of vibration of a musical sound.
Rhythm A pattern in time and volume of sounds - ie long and short, loud and soft.
Tone A musical sound, having pitch and quality dependent on its source.
Voice A musical thread that could be sung or played by an individual.

© Susan Foord ( 2010-06-24
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