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10 Characteristics of Music

Music consists of several different characteristics.
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The 10 characteristics of music may be broken down into five main categories. Each category serves a distinct role in the music and the manner in which it sounds. By learning about the 10 basic characteristics of music, you will become a better and more informed musician or audience member.


There are three main characteristics of a melody in music -- motives, phrases and periods. Motives are the smallest complete music elements that combine to make up phrases. The phrase is the largest part of the melody and breaks up into two parts: the antecedent and consequent phrase. The antecedent phrase comes first and the consequent phrase follows. Both phrases should sound complete in themselves. Relating them to grammar, consider the antecedent phrase as the first part of a sentence separated by a semi-colon. Periods involve the combination of two or more phrases such as the first section of “Row Your Boat.”


The characteristics of harmony break down into two types -- chords and arpeggios. The notes of a chord sound simultaneously and appear commonly in rock, classical and jazz music. The classical period of music aimed for extreme melodic clarity, as do other forms of popular music. Chords may also be broken apart to create arpeggios. Arpeggios occur when notes of the chord are played consecutively rather than simultaneously.


Rhythm creates another three characteristics of music -- monorhythmic, polyrhythmic and tempo. Monorhythmic rhythms retain the most rhythmic clarity as there is only one rhythm playing at a time. In monorhythmic music, the melody, harmony and rhythm all move together. Polyrhythmic music contains several rhythms that juxtapose to create complex rhythmic textures. This type of rhythm is the most common as melody, harmony and rhythm rarely play identical rhythmic parts. Finally, tempo dictates the speed at which the piece plays. Tempo may have an extreme effect on the perception of the music.


Timbre is an extremely important characteristic of music and defines the overall texture and density of a piece. There are two sub-types of timbre: instrumental and orchestral. Instrumental timbre is the sound of a single instrument. For instance, a clarinet and an oboe both have different timbres, or tone colors, that differentiate each other. In orchestral or ensemble timbre, rather than focusing on specific tone colors, instruments will combine to create new sounds. A cello and baritone will combine to take on the characteristics of both instruments. There are numerous possibilities for combinations of instruments.


Form is the characteristic of music that places all of the elements into an intelligible structure making it possible to listen to and understand musical goals and destinations. Rock music usually follows a simple ABA form in which the first A section presents a specific melody, then the B section presents a new melody, followed by a return to the original A melody. In classical music, several types of forms dictate the structure of the piece. Rondos, symphonies, sonatas, binary and ternary forms are just a few of the multitude of available forms.

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