What to Listen for in Music: The Elements of Music

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)

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