The elements of music work together like a recipe. When the components of music work together, they create a pleasant sound. But, when the parts do not function well, it is easy to distinguish them. Ideally, the elements of music need to work together seamlessly, so you only notice the complete package.
Musicians might disagree on the total number of elements, with the complete list of pieces ranging from five to twelve. Once theorists move beyond eight elements, several of the terms become synonymous. For example, these terms are all related: rhythm, beat, and pulse—as they refer to the repetitive pattern that sets the piece’s pace.
The order of the elements does not matter. The pieces should complement each other to create a sound that musicians want to play and audiences want to hear.
Why Elements of Music Matter?
Understanding the elements of music helps you write and perform music successfully. Music can be simple, like the song “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” or complex like a Beethoven Symphonies. Good musicians know how to mix elements to create music people enjoy hearing.
When one element is missing, it can be challenging to still recognize a composition as being musical. For example, can music exist without rhythm? Is it still a song when it does not have a melody? Will people choose to listen to music that does not have dynamics?
The elements work together as a recipe. Consider how to bake bread, as a baker must use a special list of ingredients that includes at least one grain. Music must have its required elements.
Without the elements, it no longer is music. Just like grains are a building block of a bread recipe, the pieces of music build the song. They work together to create the whole. When something is missing or misplaced, listeners will notice.
Common Elements of Music
The common elements appear in popular music. Instructors frequently teach them music theory classes. Most musicians agree that these elements are necessary to compose a complete song.
The volume of the music is called the dynamics. Some songs have one dynamic, while others can have a range. Within dynamics are several Italian terms, like pianissimo for very soft, forte for loud, and crescendo for increasing in loudness.
The form of a song involves the order of parts in the composition. For example, pop songs often have verses, a repetitive chorus, and a bridge. Some have solos as well as intros and outros. The structure of music includes lyrics, the progression of chords, and the role of instruments in the piece.
Musical sounds that work together create harmonies. A harmonious sound occurs when musicians play two or more pitches simultaneously. Some harmonies sound discorded, so they have a less appealing sound. Voices and instruments can play chords together. Harmonies can also work in concert with the main melody by adding undertones and chords.
The melody is the main component of the song. It is the part that people hum or sing along within a composition. The singer or a solo instrument carries the tune. The melody often sets the rhythm and the harmonies to create a rich sound.
The rhythm of a song involves the repetitive beat within it. Time signatures often dictate the rhythm. Drums and bass guitars set the pace. The rhythm can be slow, upbeat, syncopated, or random, to name a few. The rhythm is the beat that gets people to clap or tap their toes as they listen.
This element of music involves the richness and density of the sound. When a soloist performs with a single pianist, a music critic will say the sound has a thin texture. A symphony orchestra will have a dense texture. The various layers of music create sounds that range from monophonic to polyphonic.
The timbre is the quality of the sound coming from an instrument. Instruments from different categories have unique tones. Consider how clarinets and guitars have distinctly different sounds. Their timbres vary so much that listeners can often distinguish between them, even if musicians play them in the same piece of music.
Voices can have timber, too. Listeners can distinguish between a soprano and a tenor voice through the distinctive qualities these high and low voices bring to a song.
Combinations of instruments can also deliver a unique timbre. Consider how instruments in a punk song might vary from instruments in a folk song. The role of the instrument and the way the musician plays it contribute to tone or timbre.
This element of music involves the overall sound of the music. If it sounds pleasant, the music could have a harmonic tone. If the music does not sound pleasant to the listeners, it could have dissonant tonal qualities.
Concepts of Music
While music has similar elements, the concepts composers use can vary. These concepts can affect the elements like harmonies, rhythm, and texture, so they are worth discussing as secondary elements of music.
The time of a sound indicates its duration. Musicians can play quick staccato notes or long whole notes with holds. They have other notes available—like half notes and quarter notes. Drummers and bass guitarists set the rhythm, which determines the duration of individual sounds.
When musicians play, they can use expressive techniques to individualize their songs. Expressive dynamics include how musicians phrase sounds together and the pressure they use to achieve a certain sound.
Expressive techniques often include dynamics like trills, decrescendos, and diminuendos. Good musicians include expressive techniques to differentiate their sound from other musicians.
The pitch is the high or low sounds that include sharps and flats. When a singer is on-pitch, they are hitting the notes as written in the score. If they are off-pitch, they are usually singing notes that are sharps or flats off of the desired sound. When someone is off-pitch, the music becomes dissonant and unpleasant to hear.
The structure includes the arrangement of the piece of music. It is similar to form but often includes notes for different instruments and vocal parts. The structure will include harmonies, rhythm, dynamics, and melody. When everything is put together, the listeners are hearing the structure.
The tempo is the speed of the rhythm. Songs can be played quickly or slowly using beats per minute or BPM. The higher the number, the faster the pace of the song.
Listeners can easily recognize the differences in tempo with the song Mrs. Robinson. The original artists, Simon and Garfunkel, performed the song at about 90 beats per minute, while the Lemonheads made a remake with a speed of around 102 beats per minute.
The elements of music matter. When you understand how the pieces work together, you have the terminology for evaluating the sounds you hear with more accuracy.
If you are a musician or a composer, knowing the elements help you create unique sounds that others will want to hear. You will know what components improve the quality of your composition and how the pieces work together to create a structure that defines your preferred musical style.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.