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Elements of Music - Part Three

Basic Elements of Music: Rhythm


Antonio Sanchez

Rhythm is sonic action in time. More specifically, rhythm is the arrangement of durational sonic patterns or tone lengths that fall on or between the beat. Try clapping the melodic rhythm of a favorite song. Sense the rhythm of the melody without the additional element of pitch.

Rhythm is shaped by meter. Composers arrange rhythms so that count one of the meter gives the point of reference of the rhythm. Musicians say that a rhythmic pattern originates with count one, and the rhythmic pattern itself indicates where count 1 falls in the beat. Clap the rhythmic melody of your favorite song again. Tap your foot to the beat. As you clap and tap, can you tell where count 1 is?

Rhythm is generated by divisions of the beat. When music has a steady beat, the rhythmic patterns that comprise the music are generated by sounding tones on the beat, and between the beat. This is accomplished by dividing each beat into groups of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and sometimes more, divisions. These divisions are called duplets, triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets, sextuplets, septuplets, and octuplet divisions, respectively.

Many music cultures have verbal (mnemonic) counting systems for rhythm, which sound like an abstract language of numbers and percussive syllables. One of the most complex verbal counting systems is found in India. The rhythmic system used in the West is of modest complexity only by comparison to the South Indian system of rhythm. This example uses Moorsing sounds alternating with solkattu syllables.


The Moorsing is an East Indian mouth-harp

Rhythmic patterns are often repeated. Rhythmic patterns most often undergo a process of repetition in music. Repetition of material is a very important procedure in music, more so than in any other artistic discipline (for example, drama, literature, poetry, dance, painting, sculpture, cinema, or others). Music tends to wander aimlessly if its component material is not repeated. Repetition in music creates a sense of structural continuity and cohesiveness within any given composition. Repetition also allows musical material to assume an abstract sense of "identity", or a sense of musical personality. Of course too much repetition leads to predictability, so the processes of variation or contrast (new material) may be introduced. Repetition, variation, and contrast are the foundational procedures on which music composition rests. These foundational procedures are used in the creation of all the basic elements of music.

There is a total number of notes that comprises the rhythms of the melody and harmony in any measure of music. The actual number of notes in a particular measure constitutes the rhythmic saturation of that measure. Greater rhythmic saturation of a measure of music adds more rhythmic energy to that measure, while lesser rhythmic saturation of a measure of music lowers the rhythmic energy of that measure.

Rhythm is articulated by implied dynamic and agogic accents. Musicians seldom play a piece of music exactly the same in repeated performances. Each time a performer plays a piece he/she "interprets" the piece by playing certain notes slightly louder or softer and longer or shorter than during previous performances. The specific manner in which notes are played describes the articulation of those notes. Articulation is one of the interpretive areas of music because the performer plays certain notes slightly differently in length or loudness. Articulation is said to be "interpretive" in music because it imparts spontaneity and animation to rhythm.

The articulation of music notes by length or loudness is accomplished by accent. An accent is defined as an intensification of length or loudness of tones when those tones are compared with surrounding notes. There are two types of accent in music: agogic (length), and dynamic (loudness).

An agogic accent is a stress of length, whereby a certain note is played longer than other notes within the rhythmic pattern. It is very natural to accent the notes that fall on the downbeat of a measure with an agogic accent. This gives the downbeat a "feeling" of greater weight and intensity. Other notes of the measure may be accented agogically to make the rhythms of the passage "come alive".

Playing notes shorter and separating them from each other is called staccato, or staccato articulation. Playing notes longer and connecting them to each other is called legato, or legato articulation. In general, notes are played more staccato in faster tempi, while, for slower tempi, notes are played with more legato articulation.

A dynamic accent is a stress of loudness, whereby a certain note is played louder than other notes within the rhythmic pattern. Again, it is very natural to accent the notes that fall on the downbeat of a measure with a dynamic accent, as this too gives the downbeat a "feeling" of weight and intensity. Other notes of the measure may be accented dynamically to make the rhythms of the passage "come alive". Of course, a downbeat may receive both an agogic and a dynamic accent, but successive repetition of this dual articulation may cause the musical passage to sound awkward.

The performance of music by "interpreted" accent brings an "implied" component to accent, in that such accents are not notated in the music. These accents are interpolated (inserted) into the music by the "interpretation" (free choice) of the performer and therefore are implied accents. Interpolative articulation adds components of spontaneity, changeability, and improvisation to music and makes music that is notated have more "life" during performance.

Rhythm may mask meter through syncopation. A special compositional procedure in music happens when notes occur only between beats and do not occur on beats. This effect "masks" the prevailing meter and the downbeat of the meter is difficult to identify. This compositional procedure is known as syncopation. It is heard in most musics at climax points in rhythmically active passages. Ragtime, Blues, Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, and Rap are examples of styles of music that are defined by the use of syncopation.

Syncopated notes usually receive additional "implied" accent by the performer and syncopation imparts a very energizing yet unstable mood to any passage of music.

Rhythm contributes to the effect of motion in music. Rhythm and rhythmic patterns are a direct contributor to the effect of movement (motion) in music. The repetition of a rhythmic pattern creates a sense of forward motion by the appearance of successive sounds in a continuum of real time (sound exists in an environment of actual time from one second to the next). The interplay of different note lengths is perceived as sonic motion by a listener and the forward thrust of this sonic motion is sustained by variation and contrast of the initial rhythmic pattern. If a person speaks a sentence in a foreign language, it is possible to sense the forward momentum, or "motion" of their words even though the meaning of the words is unintelligible. This same effect is achieved in music by the occurrence of rhythmic patterns of musical sound occurring in real time.

Basic Elements of Music: Melody


Frank Sinatra Singing My Way

Melody may be defined as a series of individual pitches one occurring after another in order so that the composite order of pitches constitute a recognizable entity. A melody as a "recognizable entity" implies that a well written melody does not wander aimlessly, but seems to stand by itself as an abstract "idea" and can be remembered. Repetition of pitch and rhythm patterns is an important factor in any melody existing as an "entity." Melodic pitches are not randomly ordered, but are subject to basic principles of design. This example of melody is performed on an ocarina, an instrument from Latin America, which has a flute-like sound. Melody is often supported by another melodic line or an instrument playing harmonic sequences "against" the melody, which is the case at differing points in this example.

In most musics melody and rhythm are intimately bound up together. In certain styles of religious music, notably chant, melody and musical rhythm are separated. But in most musics, when melody is mentioned, musical rhythm is assumed to coexist with it. Such will be the case in all uses of that term in this unit.

Melody is sometimes called melodic line, line, theme, or subject. Melodic line and line are often used in a general sense, while specific melodic entities are called melody, theme , or subject, depending upon the point of reference.

In an abstract sense, melody is the repository of "subject matter" or "idea" in many world music traditions. Melody is very important as "idea" in Western music. The Western view of melody is that it "means something" -- it is what the music "is about." The melodic material of a given piece of music is what the overall piece is based upon and it is this basic "idea" to which all other elements in a composition relate.

Music that has a strong melodic component takes on a linear character, as if the melodic line were tactile in space and time. Well written melodies greatly contribute to the effect of goal-oriented motion in music, and they "move" in real time with direction and purpose. Western melody is highly goal-oriented and is therefore a condensed mirror of Western language, behavioral traits, and philosophy, all of which are goal-oriented in their makeup.

Melody has a sense of "line" in its presentation -- it has linear profile. Melodic pitches rise and fall and are perceived as high and low. Imagine melody as a curvilinear line, like the profile of a mountain range ? but occurring in time instead of space. A melody conceived in this way might look like this:

Melodic Profile

The up and down travel of melodic pitches is called melodic curve. Upward-moving melodic lines build tension and create the effect of goal-oriented forward motion. The highest point in the overall curve is called the climactic point -- one of the "points of arrival" in goal-oriented motion. Downward-moving melodic lines dissipate tension.

Melody has "range." Melodic range may be defined as the distance between the lowest and highest pitches of a melody. If there is a large number of notes between the lowest and highest pitches, the melody is said to have a wide range. If only a few notes separate the lowest and highest pitches, the melody is said to have a narrow range.

Melodies with wide ranges have an animated character and contribute to musical motion while melodies with a narrow range are less animated. "Range" is also a factor in the mood of a melody.

Melodic Range

Melody has scale "infrastructure." The choices of pitches for composing a melody are determined by a pattern of pitches known as a scale. Most music cultures have scales that vary remarkably in complexity.

The distance between any two different pitches is known as an interval. All intervals have specific names. The interval between the fundamental and the first harmonic in the harmonic series is called an octave.

An octave may be expressed mathematically in that the higher pitch is vibrating exactly twice as fast as the lower pitch or conversely the lower pitch is vibrating twice as slowly as the upper pitch -- a 2:1 ratio to each other. In musical usage all pitches that are in octave relationships to each other (one octave, two octaves, three octaves, etc.) are considered to be the same "letter-name" pitch because their vibrations are in an exact relationship of a multiple of 2 and therefore sound the "same".

Scales are derived by dividing the octave interval into different pitches. A scale may be defined as a pattern of different pitches that divide the interval span of an octave. All world music cultures derive scale pattern for their musical use and many divergent scale patterns are found worldwide. There are different methods for deriving scales and the method for deriving scales is called a tuning system. Scales are "tuned" to a specific tuning system. The primary tuning system of Western music for the past three hundred years is known as equal temperament.

Some musical cultures divide the octave into many different notes and then select a lesser amount of notes from the total for scale patterns. The West divides the octave into twelve equally spaced pitches (tuned by equal temperament), and, from these twelve pitches, a scale of twelve equally-spaced pitches form a chromatic scale. Further, a pattern of seven pitches of different intervals are generated that comprise the traditional Western major and minor scales. In India the octave is divided into twenty-four pitches. From these twenty-four pitches, Indians derive scales from five to nine notes with the possibility of adding more notes at the discretion of individual artists.

Scales are usually "built" by starting with a given note and going upward (ascending) to additional scale notes; then, stopping on the note that is an octave above the starting note. In most musical cultures, scale notes are identified by names, such as letter names, abstract syllables, or numbers. In Western music all three forms are used (in the United States letter names are used most often). Western letter names are: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C; abstract syllables (called solfege) are: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. Numbers are, of course, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Scale pitches are often called scale degrees.

The scales of Western music have been comprised mostly of seven-note scales since the beginning of Christianity (these scales and other musical materials were derived from Jewish musical practices). About five hundred years ago (during the Renaissance) two scales emerged as the scales most favored in the West ? major and minor ? creating the major-minor tonal system. From these two scales evolved our present tuning system -- twelve-tone equal temperament (the octave divided into twelve equal parts).

Western major and minor scales are built by starting on any one of the twelve notes of our equal tempered octave divisions and building ascending patterns of notes, stopping on the note an octave above the starting note. The interval between each note of our octave of equally spaced pitches is called a one-half or "half" step. Two half steps comprise a "whole" step. Major and minor scales are built by an ascending pattern of half and whole steps. A system of symbols called sharps and flats is employed with the letter names of notes, to allow for all possible combinations of major and minor scales within the letter system of C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. The pattern of half and whole steps for a major scale is: W - W - H - W - W - W - H. The minor scale has three slight variations, but the basic minor scale is: W - H - W - W - H - W - W.

The starting note of any scale is extremely important and assumes a central role in relation to other scale tones. As a personal example sing (in your "mind's eye" or "inner ear") My Country 'tis of thee three or four times. Be very cognizant of the specific pitches being sung. Notice that this melody is shaped into two phrases which parallel the two lines of text. Notice (1) the pitch at the beginning of the song, (2) the pitch at the end of the first phrase (on the word "sing") and (3) the pitch at the end of the second phrase (the end of the song). Are all of these pitches the same pitch?

Notice the strong "gravitational" attraction to this pitch (it has a strong attraction for the other melodic pitches). The other melodic pitches seem "attracted" to this pitch much like a musical solar system. Sense the role of this pitch as a melodic point of departure and also a point of melodic return. Sing the scale of this melody. This pitch seems to have a central influence over all of the other pitches that surround it in the melody. This phenomenon in music is called tonality. The word Key is often used to refer to specific tonalities; for example, the key of "C" major refers to the tonality of "C" major and the key of G minor refers to the tonality of G minor. The central tone of a tonality is known by various names including tonal center, tonic, keynote all of which are used interchangeably. In a melodic solar system the component "planets" not only have a primary attraction to the center but they also have secondary attractions to each other.

Melodies are constructed from the raw material of scales and enjoy a musical attribute refered to here as scale infrastructure. This scale infrastructure may be described in the following way. Melodies that employ major and minor scales have the tonal attributes of the major-minor system. These attributes include a pitch that assumes the attraction of a tonal center, attended by satellite pitches which are controlled by and attracted to the tonal center pitch. All melodies written in the major-minor scale system have this dynamic gravitational "aura" about them, and, as a result, such melodies exhibit a strong sense of goal-oriented movement in real time. This is accomplished by the tonal center being the point of departure and return in the melodic line. The tonal center also defines the separation points between large sections in a musical composition. Tonality imparts states of tension and relaxation in music. The effect of tonality is not only central to melody but also central to another element of music - harmony.

Other than all scale pitches having primary gravitational attraction to a tonal center, certain scale pitches have a secondary gravitational attraction to each other. This hierarchy of primary gravitational attractions and secondary gravitational attractions found within a major scale (and melodies written in a major scale) may look like the following representations.

Primary Gravitational Attraction Among Notes of a Major Scale
Secondary Gravitational Attraction Among Notes of a Major Scale

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