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Elements of Music - Part Five

The tonal-gravitational forces for harmony are more complex and powerful than those of melody yet they originate from the same source — the scales of the major-minor tonal system. The term functional harmony defines the gravitational harmonic tendencies found within the major-minor tonal system.

Functional harmony uses terms that clarify additional understandings about the major-minor tonal system. Harmony that limits itself to the seven tones of a scale is known as diatonic harmony. Harmony that admits additional tones beyond the basic seven-tone scale is known as chromatic harmony. Harmony is the primary ingredient in the phenomenon of modulation (change of key center) in Western music. It is mostly the harmonic materials of a musical passage that accomplishes modulation and indicates modulation to the ear. This is accomplished by introducing chords of the new key (most notably the dominant chord of the new key) by using the "tools" of chromaticism (chromatic harmony).

Harmony contributes to the effect of motion in music. Since harmony is derived from scale pitches, harmony automatically assumes the gravitational properties that scales display. The gravitational attraction of scale pitches impart goal-oriented motion to the effect of harmonic progressions that are designed with this gravitational effect in mind.

Chords that move by root movement up an interval of a fourth, down a fifth, down a third or up a second, give a strong sense of goal oriented motion to passages of music. When chords progress by root movement that is contrary to natural gravitational tendencies the effect of forward motion is actually prolonged. Since rhythm is also an integral part of harmonic accompaniment, harmonic progressions contribute a strong and sustained sense of movement to music.

Harmony contributes to the structural design of music. The arrangement of melodic material lends itself to hierarchical design more noticeably than does harmony. This is because repetition of patterned material is more obvious in melody than it is in harmony. When melodic material repeats so may the accompanying harmony, and it often does. In this sense harmony does support the structural design of melody and overall musical material generally. However, harmony is the material composers most often vary when harmony accompanies repetitive portions of melody.

Harmony supports the structural design of musical components by helping to define climatic and cadential points in each phrase. Unstable chords may occur at climatic points and the traditional dominant (V) - tonic(I) chord progression is found at cadential points.

Harmony contributes directly to the structure of strophic songs (songs that repeat melodic material for each stanza of new text). In such songs the harmony may vary in each stanza. However, composers are usually sensitive to how the harmonic accompaniment mirrors the organizational structure of the text.

Harmony heightens the meaning of text. Certain words are more emotionally charged than others in both prose and poetry. When setting music to text more stressful words may be accompanied by chords of more intensity or key words that imply love and passion may be accompanied by more "passionate" harmonic material. This harmonic technique gives a “heightened” effect to highly charged words of text intensifying the emotional meaning of the words for the singer as well as the listener.

Basic Elements of Music: Dynamics

The term for gradations of amplitude (louds and softs) in music is dynamics. Dynamic levels are often "interpreted" by performers who add subtle dynamic "shading" to music.

Dynamic levels are a natural indicator for emotional mood. Loud dynamics are associated with vigor, turmoil, conflict, valor, et al. Marches, fanfares, and triumphal music tend to be loud. Soft dynamics are associated with tranquillity, repose, calmness, sensuality, et al. Love songs, lullabies, wistful and melancholy songs and certain sacred music tend to be soft. The wrong dynamic level has the effect of making a piece of music ineffective and illogical as an indicator of mood.

Dynamics are a part of the articulation of "accent" in music. Dynamic accents (accents of loudness) breathe life into all musical passages. Agogic accents (accents of length) draw attention to specific tones and clarify those tones as distinct from other surrounding tones in a melody.

Dynamic levels are a factor in the repetition - variation - contrast process of music. Patterns of dynamic levels may be repeated in corresponding repeated melodic patterns. This supports the profile of the melodic pattern itself.

As with tempo, spoken and written terms relating to dynamics are expressed mostly in the Italian language. These terms include:

Dynamics contribute to the effect of motion in music. Dynamic levels that contrast between motives or phrases of music contribute to the sensation of motion and movement in music. A contrast of dynamic levels creates a state of change in musical material which automatically produces the effect of motion in sound. Goal-oriented motion through dynamics may be created by levels of dynamics that successively become louder, phrase after phrase, or by a gradual increase in loudness through a more subtle technique known as crescendo (the Italian term for "gradually louder").

Basic Elements of Music: Timbre (Tone Color)

The harmonic profile or sound quality of a sound source is timbre or tone color in music. Certain descriptive words may be used to express the effect of musical timbre or tone color such as: dark - brilliant; opaque - transparent; rich - mellow; fuzzy - clear; dull - sharp; complex - simple, et al. As a metaphor, musicians consider sound in the same manner that painters consider "color" (hence the term "tone color") and respond to the mixing of sound sources much the same as a painter responds to the mixing of oils. Music timbre contributes greatly to the effect of mood in music.

Timbre is determined by the harmonic profile of the sound source. Every sound source has an individual quality that is determined by its harmonic profile.

Timbre influences human mood. Sound sources which have a complexity of harmonic profile enjoy a psychological "richness" of sound. Timbre stimulates human energy levels without regard to rhythmic or harmonic saturation. Sound sources that have simple harmonic profiles have "darker" timbres and tend to soothe human emotions.

Bright or rich timbres coupled with loud dynamics affect moods of vigor, turmoil, conflict, and valor. The same timbres coupled with soft dynamics affect moods of sensuality, passion and compassion.

Dark or simple timbres coupled with loud dynamics are encountered only occasionally in music and affect moods of starkness and loneliness. The same timbres coupled with soft dynamics affect moods of mystery and terror. These combinations are subjective to all listeners but are well understood by theater and movie composers.

Timbral combinations provide unique possibilities for music. Often composers assign successive segments of melody or other material to different instruments. Certain orchestral combinations of instruments sound very much like other non-orchestral instruments. Instruments of music have long been associated with the natural world. Flutes, for example, very often represent the songs of birds.

Basic Elements of Music: Instruments

Musical instruments are the "colors" of music. Musical instruments of all traditions have evolved over many centuries and each has a colorful history of development. Organology is the term used for the study of musical instruments and is one of the most fascinating aspects of the study of music.

String Instruments (aka: strings)

Bowed: violin, viola, cello, doublebass, viola da gamba Plucked: guitar, lute, mandolin, harp

Woodwind Instruments (aka: Woodwinds)

piccolo, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, saxophone, English horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, recorder

Brasswind Instruments (aka: Brass)

trumpet, French horn, trombone, tuba

Percussion Instruments (aka: Percussion)

cymbals, triangle, bass drum, xylophone, timpani or kettledrums, snare drum, tom-tom, bongos, timbales, congas, claves, tam-tam, tambourine, castanets, wood block, temple blocks, marimba, glockenspiel, chimes, vibraphone, plus a wide assortment of noisemakers.

Curt Sachs' Classification System for Musical Instruments

The musicologist Curt Sachs formulated a system of music instrument classification based on the material of the vibrating source. This system is very useful in the classification of all musical instruments world-wide and especially useful in those areas of the world where there are a few similar instruments with many different names a good example of which is Africa.


Instruments made of naturally sonorous material not needing additional tension to create sound.

Examples: xylophones, bells, cymbals, gongs, claves, scrapers, rattles.


Instruments creating sound by stretching a membrane over an opening.

Examples: All drums.


Instruments usually referred to as "wind instruments" and most often needing the breath of the player to create sound.

Examples: flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, horn, trombone.


Instruments creating sound by the vibration of a stretched string under tension.

Examples: violin, viola, cello, harp, guitar.


Instruments creating sound by the oscillating of amplified electric circuits.

Examples: electronic music instruments.

Fundamental Level of Music Making: Meter, Tempo, Rhythm, Melody, Harmony, Dynamics, Timbre, Instrument(s)

The combining of meter, tempo, rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, timbre, and musical instruments creates a sense that music is "organized". The combination of any or all of these elements to form "music" provides for the notion of musical unity. There are Eight Basic Elements of Music — meter, tempo, rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, timbre, and instruments. It is these Eight Basic Elements which constitute the primary materials for the composition of music at the fundamental level, and it is the combining of these Eight Basic Elements that creates a composition of music. Once a composer begins combining the Eight Basic Elements into a work of music, there are various procedures by which the Eight Basic Elements are transformed. Three of these procedures exist as a mid-level group known here as the Three Foundational Procedures. The upper-level group of procedures is known here as the Four Combinational Operations.

Any music must automatically contain two of the Eight Basic Elements — timbre and dynamics. Any sound source will automatically have an harmonic profile and will produce a certain intensity of sound. The six remaining Basic Elements are more variable in a piece of music. Some music may lack one or more Basic Elements. Some music may include all of the Basic Elements.

Mid-Level Music Making: Three Foundational Procedures: Repetition, Variation, Contrast

There are Three Foundational Procedures in music that are basic to the composing of music. These three foundational procedures are repetition, variation and contrast. These procedures constitute a "method of procedure" for every operational dimension of music. They are foundational procedures seen not only in music but also in other art as well as all aspects of nature.

Composers weave and mold the Eight Basic Elements into small patterns of material which become larger patterns of material that ultimately make up the complete structure of a work. One or more of the Eight Basic Elements functions as "idea" (usually melody) in any given passage, while the remaining elements serve as "accompaniment" to the "idea". Musical structure has various layers of complexity in any composition and these various layers exist in a continuum ranging from the micro (small) level, the mid (intermediate) level, to the macro (large) level of musical structure.

At the micro-level, the smallest complete unit of musical structure, is a phrase which is comprised of patterns of material fashioned from the Eight Basic Elements. A phrase is a length of musical material existing in real time with a discernible beginning and ending. Phrases are usually eight to sixteen measures in length but may be longer. When relating musical phrases to melodic lines, it is important to realize that while melodies are comprised of complete phrases of patterned tones, each individual melodic phrase may be broken down into smaller incomplete units of melodic structure known as motives. Melodic motives are usually two- or four- measure patterns of melodic material. In sum, the micro level or musical structure is comprised of two units — the smaller and incomplete motive, and the larger and complete phrase.

The mid-level of musical structure is made up of sections of music. Phrases combine to form larger sections of musical structure. The length of a section may vary from sixteen to thirty-two measures in length - often, sections are much longer. Sections are punctuated by strong cadences. Longer songs and extended pieces of music are usually formed into two or more complete sections, while a shorter song or melody may be formed of phrases and have no sectional structure.

At the macro-level of musical structure exists the complete work formed of motives, phrases and sections. Both phrases and sections are concluded with cadences; however, the cadence material at the end of a section is stronger and more obvious in its punctuation.

These are the micro-, mid- and macro-levels of musical structure — motives, phrases and sections and the complete composition. This is the manner in which Western music is conceptualized as structure. Many other world musics are conceptualized in a similar manner. This approach of musical "mapping" may serve as an excellent "entry" to the unfolding of the architectural structure of any piece of music whether Western or non-Western.

Musical structure has a close affinity with architecture and mathematics. As a metaphor, music composition is often described as "architecture of sound" or "mathematics transformed into sound". Many compositional decisions that involve pitch relationships are mathematical in nature. Computer software programs - e.g., MatheMatica et al- now allow mathematic's equations to be transformed into sound.

Repetition of the material of music plays a very important role in the composing of music and somewhat more than in other artistic media. If one looks at the component motives of any melody, the successive repetition of the motives becomes apparent. A melody tends to "wander" without repetition of its rhythmic and pitch components and repetition gives "identity" to musical materials and ideas. Repetition is also used in chord progressions and in patterns of dynamics and timbre. Whole phrases and sections of music often repeat. The following illustration represents musical repetition.

a - a - a - a - a - a - a - a - a - a - a - a - a - a - a - etc.

Variation means change of material and may be slight or extensive. Variation is used to extend melodic, harmonic, dynamic and timbral material. Complete musical phrases are often varied; however, whole sections of music are usually not treated with variation. If one were to symbolize musical variation in a simple way using lower case letters of the alphabet, it would look like this:

a a1 a2 a3 a4 a5 a6 OR a a' a'' a''' a'''' a''''' a'''''' etc.

Contrast is the introduction of new material in the structure or pattern of a composition of music that contrasts with the original material. Contrast extends the listener’s interest in the musical "ideas" in a phrase or section of music. It is most often used in the latter areas of phrases or sections and becomes ineffective if introduced earlier. If one were to symbolize musical "contrast" in a simple way using lower case letters of the alphabet, it would look like this:

a-b-c-d-e-f-g-h-i-j-k etc.

Basic Patterns of Repetition, Variation, and Contrast

Repetition, variation and contrast may be seen in basic patterns. These patterns have been found to be effective at all levels of music structure, whether it be shorter melodic motives or extended musical compositions. These basic patterns of repetition, variation and contrast may be found not only in all world musics, but also in the other arts and in the basic patterns of nature.

Basic patterns of repetition, variation, and contrast:

These six basic patterns of repetition, variation, and contrast form the basis for the structural design of melodic material, the accompaniment to melodic material, and the structural relationships of phrases and sections of music. When these basic patterns are reflected in the larger sectional structure of complete works of music, this level of musical structure defines the larger sectional patterns of music.

The conceptualization and fashioning (planning, design, implementation) of a piece of music begins with the organization of the "Eight Basic Elements of Music" by the "Three Foundational Procedures". A music "idea" is conceived and extended by the materials and processes of these two "levels" of conceptualization. There is a third and higher level of conceptualization wherein other components are fashioned by the composer. This third level is referred to here as the Four Combinational Operations of Music and it is at this level of thinking that the composer fashions certain overall structural relationships of a work of music.

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