What to Listen for in Music: The Elements of Music

When you hear music, you can focus on specific details if you listen carefully. Generally, you can discern seven different aspects of music: melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, dynamics, texture, and form.

Melody is the “catchiest” or most memorable part of a song or piece. It is the earworm of a musical work, made up of a series of notes heard in succession. The melody can of course be passed from one instrument to another. When you attend the ACO concerts this season, see if you can spot the melody from moment to moment. Think about which musical part stands out the most. For example, one of the most famous melodies is the short-short-short-long motif of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

Another aspect closely related to melody is harmony, which can be defined as more than one pitch heard at the same time. So, for the most part, you almost always hear harmony at orchestra concerts. Consider when the music sounds stable (consonant harmony) or unstable (dissonant harmony). In the music, when do you hear tension (dissonance) and release (consonance)? For instance, think about the consonance of the “Star Spangled Banner” versus the dissonance of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.

A third component of music is rhythm, or the timing of music. The main component to listen for is the beat or underlying pulse of music that determines the speed and durations of sounds and silences. One way to listen for the beat is to see if you can find the pulse to which you can tap your foot. Listen for changes in speed—when does the beat get faster or slower in the music? Dance music is a great way to practice finding the beat. After all, you need a groove to which you can move your body!  

The fourth element of music is timbre. Timbre is like the tone of your voice—when you hear a familiar voice, you instantly recognize the person. The same goes for musical instruments—each instrument has a unique tone that distinguishes it from another one. For instance, a tuba sounds quite different from a violin. In an orchestra, the timbres of the instruments all come together to create a collective sound. It will help if you study the main instrument families (i.e., instruments grouped together by similar timbres) in an orchestra: woodwind, brass, string, percussion, and keyboard. The piece Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra highlights these families and, by extension, their timbres—check it out!  

Dynamics, the technical term for the volume of sound, are the fifth element of music. When is the music loud or soft? Are there gradual or abrupt changes in volume?

Next, we have texture, or how all the layers of music fit together. You can listen for these changes by noting when more or fewer instruments are playing at certain points. When do you hear a thin texture, or few musical lines are being executed? When do you hear a thick texture, or several musical lines being played?

Finally, the last element is form, the structure of the music. Musical structure functions in three days: repetition, variation, and contrast. By repetition we mean that the same section of music is played back-to-back. Variation means a section of music comes back, but with slight changes (e.g., the modified version might be a bit faster or slower than the original). Finally, contrast means two sections of music are completely different from one another (e.g., one section features a slow string melody and then switches to another with a fast brass melody). Think about your standard verse-chorus pop songs of today. The verse and chorus would be considered contrasting sections. The chorus is often repeated in exactly the same manner when it comes back; on the other hand, it may have some changes that result in variation.

Keeping these elements of music in mind, you might see if you can listen for some of these details are our concerts. Which elements are easy or hard to spot for you?

Written by Emily Ruth Allen, Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology (Florida State University)

Bandoneon vs Accordian

    The accordion and the bandoneon are two different instruments that happen to look extremely similar. The similarities in the instruments don’t stop at looks, since they are also both played similarly. Perhaps the biggest difference at first glance is the sizes of each instrument. The bandoneon is a smaller instrument than the accordion, so that’s one clue to let you know which is which. Aside from the size of each, the biggest difference between the two is actually sound. Although the instruments look like they would sound the same based off of their appearance, the sounds they produce are actually quite different!

    An accordion is known for having what are called, “changing registers” which are essentially just different numbers of switches that the instrument holds. This means that when it is played, it creates many sounds as a result of the changing registers. A Bandoneon doesn’t have any register switches, but instead changes sound by the amount of air pressure and the choice of specific keyboard when played. This actually allows the player of the bandoneon a little more control regarding how the instrument will sound, and can allow for techniques like ​vibrato​ to come into play. These two instruments look alike, but when close attention is paid, it becomes clear how unique each of them really are!

Written By: Rebecca Malloof

What is Classical Music

Did you know “classical” music technically only refers to music from approximately 1750 – 1800? That era is known as the Classical period in music history, hence why any songs or pieces from that time are dubbed as “classical” music. Semantics aside, in popular culture, “classical music” seems to be the preferred term for this genre as a whole. In that sense, orchestra-oriented music is called “classical” because it is perceived by many to be this music, while still performed today, from the distant past; it is timeless and “classic.” While this genre of music is indeed rooted in many ideas from the past, it should not be considered an archaic art form—people are still creating new “classical” music today! Take, for example, the pieces from present-day composers Jennifer Higdon and João Luiz that we are performing this season.

You may have also seen other terms used to describe the music we perform. Two other common descriptors are “art” and “concert” music. Art music is an older term used to designate this genre as one for artistic expression, as opposed to other categories of music that are geared toward entertainment. The problem here is that the designation “art music” comes off as elitist since it implies that other genres of music aren’t art (i.e., music that isn’t as “good”) (Von Glahn and Broyles 2012). Pop music, for instance, functions as both entertainment and art, depending on the context. This term is also contradictory in that what we call “art” or “classical” music can also entertain us, especially when used in films, video games, and other media (Gibbons 2018, 9). So, if “classical” and “art” music don’t quite suit this strange thing we do, could the term “concert” music work? Well, this label isn’t quite appropriate either—do musicians from other genres not also give concerts? The other issue is that this term also comes off as elitist since it designates this specific body of music as especially suited for the “professional” level, the concert hall.

Of these three labels, which is best? At the end of the day, it does not matter, barring any implication of value judgments. We’re here for the music, regardless of its name. Genres are more complicated than their designation; take, for instance, the discussion in the Piazzolla blog post. In other words, the lines between our categories of music are quite blurred. Look at classical/pop artists like Black Violin and Lindsey Stirling, for example. Additionally, when pop artists heavily sample classical music, what implications does that have for genre labeling and boundaries?

So, as you attend our concerts this season, think about when you hear genre bending. Additionally, going back to the most common label of this music as “classical,” think about which pieces or composers are part of the “older”/classical part of this tradition and which ones are contemporary. In which pieces or composers do you see the “classical” label enforced? What are the exceptions to it?

Written by Emily Ruth Allen, Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology (Florida State University)


Gibbons, William. 2018. Unlimited Replays: Video Games and Classical Music. New York: Oxford University Press.

Von Glahn, Denise, and Michael Broyles. 2012. “Art music.” Oxford Music Online.

Ástor Piazzolla & Tango

    Tango originally came from (at least in its Argentine form) brothels of the Buenos Aires working class (Moore and Clark 2012, 296). Male European immigrants in Argentina had to compete for women, so they danced to attract potential partners. Tango combines older Latin dances (zarzuela, habanera, candombe, milonga) and European ones (polka, waltz). The upper-classes of Argentina, France, and other European nations were unable to resist tango’s allure. Eventually, the bulk of society was drawn in by this innovative and festive dance:  the film Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and musician Carlos Gardel especially helped popularize the tango (Gorin 2001, 15). As tango became more mainstream, Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992) went on to be a master of tango. Starting in the 1950s, tango took a more radical turn, largely because of Piazzolla. While doing this, he retained tango’s…

…poignancy and lyricism while rejecting its tendencies toward sentimentality and bouts of morbid self-pity. He revised its harmonic language by incorporating influences of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Giacomo Puccini, and Olivier Messiaen, as well as the occasional nod to the cool jazz of Mulligan and Lennie Tristano. He moved away from the dance floor but infused the music with a new vitality by using three-part fugues, a walking bass, jazz-style improvisation, and urgent, brutish accents in echoes of Béla Bartók (Gorin 2001, 16).

    This description might seem eclectic, but it can be explained by his exposure to various styles. Piazzolla was an avid traveler and in turn absorbed a plethora of musical forms. He mainly went between four cities: New York, New York; Paris, France; Mar del Plata, Argentina; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Signs of talent and strong musical appetite became apparent unusually early. During his childhood in New York, he studied and gigged with local Argentine-American musicians, most notably the tango superstar Carlos Gardel (Azzi and Collier 2000, 12-15). But Piazzolla’s full immersion into tango truly began in Argentina. For example, he was an apprentice under respected tango band leader Aníbal Troilo (Azzi and Collier 2000, 24-25). 

    But, brimming with ideas and ripe to innovate, Piazzolla was no longer content under the tutelage of other composers. He was ready to display his own musical acumen. Piazzolla began to form his own ensembles, starting with Orquesta Típica de Astor Piazzolla in 1946 (Azzi and Collier 2000, 37). He would continue to lead small groups of tango musicians (duos, trios, etc.) for the rest of his career. Part of what made his ensembles pleasantly innovative were the arrangements and structures of his music, which harken back to his classical music training. He developed many of these skills during his lessons with the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, which is no small achievement: she taught many other classical composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and others.

    While talented, Piazzolla did face many challenges with his radical approaches to tango. For example, he formed an octet to perform and spread jazz-tango, which sparked a cultural war between the anti-piazzollistas (fans of traditional tango) and piazzollistas (supporters of his nuevo tango). The group’s use of electric guitar, a non-traditional tango instrument, sent many tango-puritans ablaze and crusading: Piazzolla even received death threats over this octet (Azzi and Collier 2000, 58-60). Another instrument that he emphasized, which also sparked fierce backlash, was the bandoneón, the first of which he received from his dad at eight years old (Azzi and Collier 2000, 8). The bandoneón (which you can hear at our Masterworks III concert) is similar to  the accordion. Think of tango’s diverse strands of influence as you listen to Piazzolla’s concerto at our concert. See if you can hear how it fits together like a puzzle—identify the tango, classical, jazz, and other components.

Written by Emily Ruth Allen, Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology (Florida State University)


Azzi, María Susana, and Simon Collier. 2000. Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gorin, Natalio. 2001. Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir. Translated, annotated, and expanded by Fernando Gonzalez. Portland: Amadeus Press.

Moore, Robin, and Walter Aaron Clark. 2012. Musics of Latin America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Beginning of Stravinsky’s Ballet Music

   Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) became well-known because of his ballet music (though he certainly wrote much more than that). This kickstart to his career is not surprising, as he was exposed to Russian ballet greats while growing up (Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ballets, dancers Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina, etc.) (Joseph 2011, 16). He worked on three significant productions with the company Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913) (Schouvaloff and Borovsky 1982, 9).

   The Ballets Russes revitalized ballet in Paris and set the standard for other productions (Joseph 2011, 28-29). This was a company founded by Sergei Diaghilev in 1909. He recruited designers, choreographers, and composers to create original content (as much as he was able to, at least) to do each ballet’s story justice (Harris-Warrick, Goodwin, and Percival 2001). This was an expensive but artistically strategic endeavor. The interdisciplinary, collaborative nature of this company was important, resulting in spectacles of carefully designed dance, elaborate music, imaginative staging, and detailed costumes. In his role as composer, Stravinsky had to work closely with the choreographer to coordinate the music and dancing.

   The first two Diaghilev-Stravinsky ballets included choreographer Mikhail Fokine (Walsh 2001). The Firebird premiered on June 25, 1910 (Joseph 2011, 1). Once the Ballets Russes became known from The Firebird, they went on to have a successful premiere of Petrushka on June 13, 1911 (Walsh 2001). The third major Stravinsky-Diaghilev collaboration was the Rite of Spring, which premiered on May 29, 1913 (Walsh 2001). This time the choreography was done by Vaslav Nijinsky. This ballet was initially not well-received because of the jarring nature of Nijinsky’s choreography. One of the misconceptions about this ballet is that there was a riot at the premiere (perhaps it should have been called The “Riot” of Spring); however, while there was indeed great dissatisfaction at the premiere, it is unlikely that a riot occurred.

   There are two general themes that can be seen in these three ballets. First, all three of these ballets used larger orchestras and more elaborate music than normal. Usually ballet music is straightforward and subservient to the choreography. While this is somewhat the case for these three ballets, the music is more complex and almost equal to the dancers on stage. That is why these three Stravinsky pieces, despite being originally for ballet, can be successfully performed as suites (i.e., just the music, no dance or costumes).

   Second, all three of these evoke a sense of Russian nationalism since they draw upon the region’s folklore (folk songs, dress, stories, etc.). This was an interesting choice on their part, as Russia itself was going through a political identity crisis at the time, transitioning from a Tsarist system through revolution and government reforms. However, these nationalistic, folkloric aspects cannot be as easily discerned in the suite versions of these pieces, apart from melodies.

   Because of these embedded meanings, it is important to understand that Stravinsky’s music for The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring was originally written for a multimodal experience, not just the orchestral concert hall. For example, you’ve likely already experienced two of these in an audio-visual context: Disney’s Fantasia incorporates part of Rite of Spring, and Fantasia 2000 uses some of The Firebird. You’ll notice that both scenes use fire, a fitting visual representation of the energetic, powerful nature of Stravinsky’s scores for these ballets.

   It was these three ballets that helped Stravinsky go on to write music for other productions like Pulcinella. Before you listen to the Pulcinella suite at our Masterworks II concert, read the program notes carefully. Can you pick up on how the music was written in conjunction with the plot?

Written by Emily Ruth Allen, Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology (Florida State University)


Harris-Warrick, Rebecca, Noël Goodwin, and John Percival. 2001. “Ballet.” Oxford Music Online.

Joseph, Charles M. 1999. “Diaghilev and Stravinsky.” In The Ballet Russes and Its World, edited by Lynn Garafola and Nancy Van Norman Baer, 189-218. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Joseph, Charles M. 2011. Stravinsky’s Ballets. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Schouvaloff, Alexander, and Victor Borovsky. 1982. Stravinsky on Stage. London: Stainer & Bell Ltd.

Walsh, Stephen. 2001. “Stravinsky, Igor (Fyodorovich).” Oxford Music Online.