What are the elements of music? It sounds like a simple question, one to which you’d expect a straightforward answer; perhaps a list of seven or eight items. If you ask this question of most if any music teacher, you’re likely to get such an answer. The trouble is, if you ask several music teachers, you’re likely to get several different answers. There doesn’t seem to be any clear, precise list that everyone agrees is the list of musical elements. Many answers reveal a confusion in just what an element is. To begin our discussion, it is helpful to understand that an element is not the same thing as a concept. In Webster’s dictionary, you’ll find that a concept is “an abstract or generic idea generalized from particular instances.” An element, on the other hand is “a constituent part; the simplest principle of a subject of study: rudiments.” Upon reading these definitions, we immediately realize that a concept is broad and general, whereas an element is narrow and specific. A concept describes the sum of the parts, and an element is one of those parts.
Now let’s apply these definitions to music. When we hear a melody, is what we are hearing a generalization from particular things we hear, or is it a specific, constituent part of the whole? One could argue that the melody is a constituent part, as is harmony, and when those two are combined, music is formed. One could also argue that the melody is a generalization made from each particular pitch and duration of which it is made. If we accept that both are true, that melody is both a concept and an element, then we must conclude that music, even at the conceptual and elemental levels, is unavoidably hierarchical. Even if this is so, it is still possible to examine the levels of the hierarchy until we reach the level at which everything is an element. If we do so, we will be left with individual notes which by themselves make little or no musical sense, but which are purely elements of music.
So what are the elements from which a melody is generalized? They are pitch, duration, timbre, dynamics, and articulation. Every musical sound that can be included in a melody must have each of these elements involved. When they are combined, they form the concept of a melody. If you have seen other lists whose authors claim to be naming the musical elements, you may wonder where rhythm and meter are. Rhythm is a concept. It is generalized from a sequence of durations, just as melody is generalized from a sequence of pitches and durations. Meter is also a concept, because it is generalized from patterns strong and weak beats, which are in turn generalized from sequences of durations and articulations. So meter and rhythm are concepts, not elements.
What of harmony, key, and mode? What is harmony but the consecutive sounding of pitches; therefore harmony is generalized from simultaneous instances of pitch. In a similar manner, key is generalized form groups of pitches which indicate certain chords and chord progressions which in turn establish a tonic key, such as D or B, and a mode such as major, minor or Dorian. Keys and modes, and harmony in general are all concepts generalized from the elements of pitch; therefore harmony, key and mode are concepts, not elements.
Some claim that tone color, texture, and form are elements of music. Tone color is closely related to timbre, and is indeed an element; it cannot be viewed as a generalization of other elements. Texture cannot, by our reasoning, be an element, because it is the way in which simultaneous parts are presented. Two or melodies sounded at once is one sort of texture, called polyphony, while one melody accompanied by chords is another sort, called homophony. When one melody is played alone, that is another texture, known as monophony. All textures are generalizations of how the various parts are related, and must then be understood as concepts.
I agree with Sylvia Constantinidis that elements of music can properly be called properties of musical sound, and that they include pitch, dynamics, tone color, and duration. In defining musical elements with precision, we can begin to eliminate the confusion over the subject of musical elements. If one learns how these four elements are utilized in music, other vocabulary, including the numerous concepts so often misnamed elements, will become readily understood. Pitch is the property of sound that is measured in vibrations per second, and is perceived to have highness, like the piccolo solo in Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, or lowness, like the opening four measures of Schubert’s symphony in B minor (unfinished), or anywhere in between these extremes of highness and lowness. Tone color is the quality of sound made by an instrument, and is described with words such as dark, bright, shrill, or warm. A musician can vary the tone color of his or her instrument to make the music more expressive, and instruments themselves have characteristic tone colors, also known as timbre. A clarinet in the mid or low register is dark or mellow, whereas the piccolo in its high register is bright or even shrill. Dynamics are simply how loud or soft the music is, and duration is simply how much time a particular note lasts, measured in beats or seconds. These are the elements of music.