The Family of Musical Elements

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a music textbook, or observed or even taught a music course that didn’t include plenty of instruction on the elements of music. Melody, harmony, pitch, rhythm, beat, and so forth all are rightly considered critical to any course on music. These things are the very raw materials out of which musicians create musical works. But what isn’t so likely to be included in these texts and courses are how the elements of music are interdependent; how they interact with each other and how absent this interaction, music looses its expressive power and its very meaning.

If the musical elements could truly be self-sufficient, then we would have symphonies played on non-pitched drums, and those symphonies would be just as expressive, powerful and masterful played on steel drums or kazoos as they are when played by a symphony orchestra. But we all know that isn’t the case. Even a great symphony played on pianos looses some of its masterpiece worthiness. For example, the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony sounds very different on piano than it does with an orchestra. By varying the timbre, all of the other elements, though not changed, create different effects. Listen to this version played by a flute ensemble with piano. It is instructive to compare students responses to each version to help them understand how orchestration, as it interacts with the other elements, creates certain expressions. The decisions a composer makes, in this case Beethoven, is part of the creative process that influences the character of the entire work.

Once can similarly find how tempo variances change the overall effect of the music. Remember though, without the other elements, there is no music to which a tempo can be assigned. Tempo does not exist without the elements present in the physical sounds of the music. With that in mind, compare the previous orchestral version to this one. This last interpretation brings in the element of articulation. It is less marcato, more gentle in introspective than in the first version. How does the change in articulation change the effect of the rhythm? What would this articulation sound like at a faster tempo? Here is the more marcato articulation a slower tempo? What difference does tempo make in the effect of the more marcato articulation? Do you see how investigating the interaction between elements illuminates the meaning and role of each? With an ensemble, teachers can answer these questions by trying them out with the student musicians. In other settings, the teacher can try them out on the piano and have the students respond with their answers.

What of pitch? Beethoven is known to have included the flute in the original orchestration, but then changed his mind and crossed it out of the score. He must have thought that the presence the upper octave would contradict the sound he was going for. It would have added a brightness that is avoided in the version we know today. In an admittedly extreme example of how this movement would sound in the upper octaves, listen to this version played on the accordion. While you’re listening, also notice how the addition of a folksy rhythmic accompaniment changes not only the overall sound of the music, but its style too.

In what ways would the musical experience change if this symphonic movement were played by low brass alone? Let’s listen. The pitch classes are preserved, but the octave is often transposed an octave lower. Other elements remain similar or unchanged. What effect does the change in octave (pitch) create for the listener?

Harmony is another element of music. The opening four bars of this symphony have no harmony, because all of the instruments that are used are written in unison or unison octaves. But very quickly we begin to enjoy the harmonies created by simultaneous tones, much of it the result of contrapuntal lines. To understand just how much is missing when those harmonies and contrapuntal lines are removed, listen to just the second violin part. Not only does the music sound empty when there are only rests being waited out, it sounds incomplete when the violinist is playing in the absence of the counterpoint. Remember all of the elements of music are still present, save harmony, yet without harmony, all the others loose much of their potency.

You see, like dear friends, the elements of music can easily be taken for granted or under appreciated until they are gone, at which time we suddenly realize their value, and miss them dearly. When we teach music composition, it is expedient to first have students write a melody, then harmonize it, then orchestrate it. But it is more true to what music really is to think of a melody with a certain timbre, tonality, and harmony right from the start. We can understand this in a kind of hindsight way by thinking of Chopin’s well-known funeral march from his piano sonata no. 2 in Bb minor. Can you really imagine it without the harmony? Without the timbre of those low pitches ruminating from the dark lower half of the piano? Or what about the opening bars of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus from The Messiah? Does it really pack any punch in your mind if you just think of the melody? No, it is the effect of all those voices singing all of the pitches that form the harmony that makes that chorus such a memorable experience.

Musical elements masterfully arranged, working together to delight us, the listeners. Music that is composed as if one element is just an afterthought of the previously considered one is bound to be mediocre at best. Even if a melody is intended to be monophonic, it still has to be sung by someone with a certain voice timbre, or played on an instrument with a specific sound in mind. We can’t pretend that composing music is just a matter of writing sequences of pitches and rhythms, and then retrofitting the other elements. The musical elements must stick together in a musical work, as one happy family, from conception to concert.

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