Previous PageNext Page

Elements of Music - Part One

by Danlee Mitchell

The html code, hyperlinks, and linked knowledge webs associated with this chapter are not part of the original chapter cited above, and are authored by Jack Logan, Ph.D.

All music is said to be either theoretical or practical. And the theoretical is that which is distinguished by the artificial relationship between the head and its parts. It investigates the more remote principles, the natural causes, and the entire concert. The practical, indeed, is that which effects artificial computations and attains the goal. Therefore it is called erudite. The theoretical is divided into the natural and the artificial. Under the natural are arithmetic and the comprehensive discussion of everything as a whole. The artificial is in three parts: harmonic, rhythmic, and metric. The practical is divided into a section on usage and one on performance. Usage is subdivided into three types of composition: melodic, rhythmic, and poetic. Performance is also subdivided into three types: instrumental, vocal, and dramatic. Harmonic theory is divided into seven parts as follows: sounds, intervals, systems, genera, tones, mutations, and melodic construction.

--Aristides Quintilianus (A.D. 2nd century)

Preliminary Ideas

Music has been an important part of the activities of humankind since the beginning of recorded history. It is likely that music existed as an essential tool of human culture from the time higher consciousness first formed in humans. Today, music is important in ways that were unimaginable during earlier times. Listen to this movie trailer with the sound present, then absent, to hear, see and understand the importance of music.

Today, music (Example: Carmen's Theme-Desert Nights, Benedetti/Svoboda Guitar Duo) plays a vital and important role in the lives of human beings. It is found everywhere in our world -- on television and radio; in our homes, automobiles, airplanes, and offices, and it manifests itself on various levels of intellectual and emotional activity as one more stimulus in the vast ocean of stimuli gathered by our senses daily.

Humans use music variously -- for everything from personal entertainment to contemplative activities. Music has the power to influence psychological aspects of behavior both consciously and unconsciously and acquiring a knowledge of music may create a deeper sensitivity in humans for their environment and social culture and it is believed to enrich life generally.

There are many diverse cultural groups that comprise the fabric of humankind, each with their unique musical instruments, practices and styles. Many of these cultures will be considered in the following pages to reveal the relationships (both similarities and differences) these cultures have to the Western world. Indeed, the Western world has consisted of vastly different cultures from one chronological time period to another. For example, a great number of cultural distinctions may be drawn between the Baroque and Classical periods in the West.

Through modern communication devices (e.g., telephones, facsimile machines, airplanes, and others), Earth has become a smaller planet. In the future a knowledge of the various peoples of the World and their cultures will be an essential ingredient in everyone's education. In this interrelated "world village" music will become an important force in developing understandings among various cultural groups.

This introductory material focuses on "the essential elements of music" as these elements relate to a more detailed understanding of music and musical materials to be found in later portions of this work.

Language and Terminology of Music

The language of music is, unfortunately, not as precise in meaning nor as sharp in distinction as could reasonably be assumed. It consists of a "hodge-podge" of words and phrases that have developed from many different cultures and languages over many centuries. For example, the word lute


Paul Odette Plays the Lute

derives from the Arabic word al-'ud and the word piano is an abbreviation of the Italian word fortepiano (meaning loud/soft and originating during a time when the instrument was first developed and made distinct in name from another instrument, the harpsichord, which could not play both loud and soft).


Glenn Gould plays Bach on the Piano

Like all language musical language continues to evolve with both words and phrases being added and deleted irregularly to form a unique realm of human understanding.

Transmission and Reception of Sound

Begin your journey of understanding sound by listing to a trailer of Touch the Sound, a film by Thomas Riedelsheimer about the life of deaf percussionist, Evelyn Glennie.


Evelyn Glennie Teaches Us How to Listen with our Entire Body!

There are three requirements for sound to "occur" in an environment: (1) a vibrating source to initiate sound, (2) a medium to transmit sound vibrations throughout the environment and (3) a receiver to hear or record sound vibrations.


Ben Underwood Teaches Us How He Sees with his Ears!

Sound is initiated in an environment by a vibrating source. Vibrating sources are many and varied in the World -- vocal cords, a membrane of animal hide or synthetic material, a stretched string that is plucked or bowed, objects such as wood, stone, clay, metal and glass that are struck, rattling of beads in a small enclosure, clapping of hands, singing of birds, grunts and groans of animals, buzzing of lips in a small resonating tube, splitting of an air stream, small pieces of reed attached to a tube and set in motion by the action of human breath, and many, many other natural vibrating sources. Sound may also be produced artificially by electronic synthesis.

To create vibration there must be a certain amount of surface tension in the vibrating body. Solid objects or reeds possess inherent tension. Strings or membranes must first be stretched to sustain vibration.

A medium of sound transmission must be present to transmit vibrations of a sound source to a receiver. Two efficient mediums of sound transmission are gases (such as air) and liquids (such as water). Sound is not capable of being transmitted in a vacuum. Water is a more efficient transmitter of sound compared to air as sound travels faster and further in water.

A vibrating source transmits its vibrations through a medium by causing the medium to move, or vibrate, at exactly the same speed of vibration as the source itself. The movement of the gas or liquid medium is identical to surface waves found on any large body of water. Surface waves on water move up and down, and they transmit energy from one point to another Û from a source (tidal action, wind, a passing ship, an earthquake) to receiver (the shoreline). Sound transmission through the air is accomplished by a similar physical process. The sound source initiates waves in the air, and the air moves up and down (like surface water waves) at the same rate of speed as the sound source. This motion of the medium is sensed by a receiver, such as the human ear or a recording microphone. One complete up-and-down movement of the sound source is called a cycle and the rate of speed of the vibrations of a particular sound source is measured in the number of complete cycles that the source moves per second (cycles per second or "cps"). In recent years the expression of cps has been assigned to a proper name, Hertz (Hz), after Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894). Hertz generated and detected electromagnetic waves across the length of his laboratory on a wavelength of approximately one metre. To detect the electromagnetic waves Hertz employed a simple form of oscillator, which he termed a resonator. Cps is now expressed as Hz (i.e. 1000 Hz, rather than 1000 cps).

A Sound receiver senses vibrating motion from a source which is transmitted through a medium. The human hearing organ, the ear, is a sound receiver, as is a recording microphone. The human hearing network consists of the outer ear chamber, the ear canal, the eardrum (the tympanic membrane), and the inner ear (cochlea) in the shape of a spiral. The inner ear contains innumerable minute hair (cilia) outgrowths of graduated sizes that respond to different speeds of sound vibrations transmitted by the tympanic membrane. The network of minute cilia receptors is directly connected to the nervous system, which sends the information sensed by the cilia directly to the brain, where it is processed and reacted to by different parts of the body.

In summary, sound is a phenomenon of vibration from a source through a medium to a receiver. Sound is ultimately processed by the nervous system of the hearer, and, according to Evelyn Glennie, is experienced by the entire body.

Measurable Characteristics of Sound

Measurable characteristics of sound are: Duration (length and periodicity), Pitch (highness and lowness), Amplitude (loudness and softness), and Timbre or Harmonic Profile (tone quality or tone color).

Duration of sound means length of sound in time. Duration of sound also deals with sound periodicity. Length of sound is self defining; however, periodicity is the aspect of duration wherein sound occurs in repeated patterns of lengths. Periodicity is the most useful aspect of duration because it gives beat and rhythm to music. A steady, periodic pattern gives beat or pulse (beat and pulse are interchangeable words) to music while repeated patterns of varying periodic lengths gives rhythm to music.

Periodicity is basic to life. It is experienced in every life cycle; for example, chronological age, heartbeat, walking, running, seasons of the year, months of the year, days of the month, hours of the day, and others. Sometimes the periodicity of life is steady and even, while at other times it is more or less uneven Û both can be energizing. Music can be a metaphor for the life process, especially for its periodic aspects. Humankind enjoys the stimulus of music Û it is a concentrated portion of life experience in sound.

Much music contains a steady pulse or beat. This pulse or beat occurs as a steady, reoccurring pattern of sound (for example, a heartbeat). "Beat" in music is very appealing because of its energizing quality - it provides a sense of inner security within the body while at the same time it inspires movement and dance.

If a steady beat is played with an accent (a longer and/or louder note) superimposed over the beat every second, third, fourth, fifth, or sixth beat the musical effect that is produced is called meter.

Sound may be measured by the number of vibrations per second or cycles-per-second (cps), also known as Hertz (Hz) produced by the vibrating body. If the vibration is steady (for example, 440 Hz), the musical effect produced is known as pitch, tone, or note (all three words are interchangeable). Faster vibrating objects have higher pitches while slower vibrating objects have lower pitches. Pitch highness and lowness is relative. Many humans are capable of hearing pitches that range from 20 Hz. to 20,000 Hz. Human hearing acuity deteriorates with age.

A series of different pitches with one following the other in time creates the basic musical element of melody. Producing different pitches all of which occur at the same time creates the basic musical element of harmony.

There are some very interesting aspects of pitch that relate to the physical world when comparing one vibrating object with another. If the pitches of two solid objects of the same material were compared, the smaller of the two would be higher in pitch when set in vibration. If the vibration of two equal lengths of string were compared, the tighter one would be higher in pitch when set in vibration. If the vibrations of two unequal lengths of string were compared with each having the same tension, the shorter one would be higher when set in vibration. Stating these relationships in another way, smaller or tighter vibrating objects are higher in pitch, and conversely, larger and looser vibrating objects are lower in pitch.

Amplitude is the physical measurement of levels of loudness and softness in sound, and, in music, the psychological term used to describe gradations of amplitude is dynamics. Loud sounds are generally associated with vigor, turmoil and conflict, while soft sounds are associated generally with repose, tranquillity and calmness. Various degrees of loudness, can sometimes cause a particular passage of music to have the foregoing characteristics. Amplitude also has a periodicity aspect about it in that music may have patterns of dynamic intensity as well as patterns of pitch length.

Timbre (Harmonic Profile) is the quality of a sound or sonic event. A few questions may lead to a more practical understanding of harmonic profile or timbre. Is it possible to determine the identity of a friend in a dark room by the "quality" of their voice? Is it possible to know who says "Hello" on the telephone before they identify themselves? Is it possible to identify the sound of a neighborÌs automobile as it approaches? Is it possible to hear the difference between the singing voices of Michael Jackson and Prince? Is it possible to hear the difference between a flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet or saxophone if they play the same note with one instrument following the other in time? Is it possible to hear the difference between an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar? If the answer to any of the preceding questions is "yes," it is probable that humans have a natural sensitivity to timbre.

Sound vibrations are also known as sound waves or sound wave forms. The simplest sound vibration or sound wave is illustrated below.

Representation of a Vibrating Body Producing a Tone
(Apogee is the highest point of a vibration - perigee the lowest point)

When sound waves vibrate through the medium of air, they form themselves into patterns an example of which is found below.

Sound Waves Vibrating Through Air

An electronic oscilloscope provides pictures of sound waves: (1) nodes are non-moving points along the field of movement, (2) the nodal axis is an imaginary straight line between nodal points, and (3) the nodal axis represents the vibrating source at rest.

The intensity (loudness or softness) of a sound is known as amplitude. A louder sound has a wider wave form than a softer sound. The illustration below shows a comparison of two sounds (one louder-one softer) each with a different wave form.

Comparison of Two Sound Waves with Different Amplitude

A louder sound has more energy (force) than a softer sound. Faster oscillations are higher in pitch and slower oscillations are lower in pitch.

Comparison of Wave Lengths of High and Low Tones and Loud and Soft Tones

The Harmonic Series


Rubens Tube Physics Experiment

If a listener concentrates well while hearing a single, sustained pitch (or looks at the sound waves of the pitch on an oscilloscope) the listener hears not only the strong tone of the pitch but also higher and softer pitches above the more noticeable lower tone. These additional higher and fainter pitches that occur above the stronger and lower pitch are produced by the vibrating object. Because they are softer than the lower tone they are much harder to hear. A listener must concentrate intensely to be aware of these acoustical phenomena; however, they are seen quite easily on an oscilloscope.

These higher and softer pitches occurring above the lower and louder tone are called harmonics, overtones or partials. With subtle distinctions, the words are used interchangeably. The lower tone is called the fundamental . Sometimes the word "sympathetic" is attached to the word "harmonics" because harmonics are generated (produced) by the fundamental itself and therefore vibrate sympathetically above (and faster than) the fundamental. The word "overtone" is formed from the combination of the words over and tone; thus, the reality of the physical phenomenon is made apparent in the word used as its descriptor.

Every vibrating object in nature vibrates a pitch comprised of a fundamental (the lowest and most predominant pitch) and higher sympathetic pitches called harmonics (softer and less noticeable pitches). Harmonics are generated (produced) by a fundamental sound wave that divides its length into smaller vibrating sections (which sound higher and softer). This series of divisions begins with a division of the whole wave into two (2) equal parts; then, in order from low to high: three (3) equal parts, four (4) equal parts, five (5) equal parts, six (6) equal parts, seven (7) equal parts, eight (8) equal parts and continues successively to infinity. These divisions of the whole fundamental sound wave are called harmonics, overtones or partials.

The harmonic series is illustrated below with the fundamental at the bottom and harmonics above the fundamental.


The Harmonic Series as the Basis of Intervals, Melody, Harmony, and Timbre

The "distance" between two pitches is known as an interval. If two different objects are vibrating at exactly the same pitch, the interval produced is known as a unison and has a mathematical ratio of 1:1 (one to one). If one of two different pitches vibrates at exactly twice the speed of the other (a 2:1 ratio), the interval produced is known as an octave.

The octave is the lowest interval in the harmonic series and enjoys its unique and characteristic sound quality because of the distance between the fundamental tone and the first overtone of the harmonic series. Most World music cultures recognize the music interval known as the octave and most divide the octave into sub-intervals that comprise the particular pitches for the scales unique to each World culture.

Scale may be defined as the number of pitches that divide an octave and the intervals between those pitches. All World music cultures have different numbers of pitches in their scales, different intervals between pitches and different methods of creating scales. However, scales of all World cultures have two elements in common -- they use some division of the octave and the interval between the first and last tones of all scales is the octave.

Harmonic Profile, Sound Signature, and Voice Print

When listening to a tone with its fundamental and overtones a listener should be aware that certain harmonics are stronger than others or they are missing entirely. The visual pattern (generated on an oscilloscope) of relative strength of harmonics of a given pitch, produced by a given source, constitute what may be called the harmonic profile or sound signature of that source.

Every individual, whether speaking or singing, produces (with each pitch spoken or sung) a fundamental plus a series of harmonics. The pattern of relative strength of these harmonics is different in each individual voice and this individual harmonic series pattern determines the voice quality of an individual. Sound "quality" is determined by the harmonic profile or sound signature as a direct result of the specific pattern of intensity of individual components of the harmonic series of the sound source. The friend-in-the-dark's voice or the initial "Hello" on the telephone are both determined by the quality (harmonic pattern) of the voice. The human ear is very sensitive to harmonic profile or sound signature. In the world of crime detection, the unique quality of a specific human voice is called a "voice print". Individuals may be identified accurately by electronic analysis of their recorded voices.

Musical instruments also possess a unique harmonic profile and individuals discern the difference between musical instruments by their unique tone quality. All musical instruments of the same family have the same general tone quality.

If a natural sound source has its harmonic profile electronically filtered and the harmonics of the source completely removed (or even partially removed), it is very difficult for the human ear to determine the source of the sound. A sound wave without any harmonic content is called a pure sine wave. Artificial sounds may be produced by electronic synthesis, and, for a given electronic sound, any number of harmonic profile combinations may be synthesized. By electronic synthesis the sounds of natural, acoustic instruments and human voices may be approximated, but individuals can often differentiate between natural sounds and electronically synthesized sounds. Synthesized sound technology is used extensively in all types of current musical activity, from the musical fine arts to popular culture and from movies to rock and roll.

A Definition of Music

Music may be defined as the organization of sounds in time (MUSIC - 1. Organized sound (New: 1940s), 2. The art of organizing sound so as to elicit an aesthetic response in a listener (from 1700 to present), 3. Aesthetically pleasing or harmonious sound, 4. "Sound that moves the human soul" - Christopher Hogwood). Natural sound sources derive from musical objects fashioned by humankind. Synthesized sound derives from electronic instruments. A philosophical position may be taken that "music" is not made by sound sources such as animals, waterfalls and others, although such sound may be considered to be music if a more liberal philosophical position is adopted.

Music is traditionally arranged in forms. Form is the entire body of the "musical event" which has a beginning and an ending. A complete "form of music" is called a composition, piece or a work. These terms are used interchangeably by musicians and others who speak and write about music.

Music may be compartmentalized into components and organized according to various techniques. In Western music (music of European and European-influenced cultures) the "idea" source (the starting point that interrelates all the material in a musical work) is melody. This is also true for most non-Western musics. However, a few World musics exist wherein pure rhythm, played on non-pitched percussion instruments, serves as the source of "idea".


Previous PageNext Page