Music has eight elements that composers and performers manipulate to create pieces that stir hearts and minds. The elements—rhythm, dynamics, melody, harmony, tone color, texture, form and text—form the "language of music" and influence our interpretations of what we hear.
Element No. 1: Rhythm
Rhythm is the way in which time is expressed in music. Rhythm is the combination of the length of time a note is played, the song’s speed (tempo) and the song’s meter. Consider "The Star-Spangled Banner." Some sections are played faster or longer than others and the meter is a pattern of three repeated beats.
Element No. 2: Dynamics
Dynamics relates to how loud a note or section is played. Additionally, dynamics help the performer know how quickly to change the loudness of the music. Typically, the last notes for "The Star Spangled Banner" are sung loudly and with force (“AND THE HOME OF THE BRAVE”). Doing so makes a declarative patriotic statement. Imagine the change in impact if the last line is sung quietly by the grieving father of a fallen soldier.
Element No. 3: Melody
Melody is the sequence of notes, which have different pitches (high or low) that are played at different times, within a piece of music. Melody tells you that “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and “Satisfaction” are different songs, even without lyrics. Like the painter who creates a piece of art using primarily the colors on her palette, the musician creates a melody with the palette of notes from a specific scale.
Elements Nos. 4 and 5: Harmony and Texture
The fourth element, harmony, adds color to the melody and enhances it. If the melody is a sequence of notes arranged horizontally through time, then the harmony is the layering of notes during a single point in time.
A closely related notion is texture, which is the fifth element. Texture indicates the number of independent parts of a song. Textures can be monophonic (melody alone), homophonic (less intricate harmony with melody) or polyphonic (several different melodies playing at once). Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" has rich polyphonic texture.
Element No. 6: Tone Color
Tone color or “timbre” refers to the quality of the sound. Imagine "The Star-Spangled Banner" being played on a flute. Now, imagine the anthem being played by Jimi Hendrix on an electric guitar. Emotional response changes based on the tone color.
Element No. 7: Form
The form is the architectural structure of the song. In building, architectural elements indicate whether it is a Cape Cod or a gymnasium. Similarly, the structure of patterns, tempo, rhythm and melody determine the type of song.
Element No. 8: Text
Text is the final element of music. Because not all musical pieces incorporate text, this element is optional. However, lyrical content is often vital. Although the melody of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is based on the drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” when paired with the stirring poetry of Francis Scott Key, it becomes an inspirational anthem.
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