Updated: Jun 3
Elements of music - Musical Analysis - Musical Elements
What are The 5 Elements of music?
Music Analysis is one of the most important tools for any composer. Even though we do something that could be considered unnatural, as we create an artificial situation when all the parts that in music are in constant motion, now they appear, let's say, "frozen" to be studied moment by moment by themselves, this method allows us to see how exactly each one of the musical elements contributes to the resulting piece, or better said, how all the moving parts of musical composition are combined to work as a clock would do.
Musical composition is nothing but an intricate architectural combination of five parameters: Sound, Rhythm, Melody, Harmony, and Growth. These parameters or musical features are unique among all branches of the arts, as their combination can mean an infinity of connotations either in the composer, the performer or the listener. These categories were coined by the great theorist Jan La Rue in his book “Guidelines for Style Analysis” and although it is not a book about the composition itself, it serves any composition student who wants to understand the intricacies of the musical phenomena on a deeper level.
The 5 elements of music:
The first category falls into the most basic and foundational one.
This contributing element includes not only the most obvious one: the raw material for melody, harmony, and rhythm, but should be considered as a "Sound Group". This can be classified into three headings:
a - Timbre: either vocal, instrumental and any other combinations chosen by the composer
b - Dynamics: The intensity of the sound
c - Texture and Fabric: how the timbres are arranged and how they unfold throughout the piece
Timbre refers to the quality of the musical tone, and how the composers combine them. This can be expressed in the choice of timbres (woodwinds, percussion, strings, electronically generated sounds, etc) the range (total spectrum of the frequencies used in a piece or set of pieces, tessituras, which are voice ranges or perhaps the interest in exploiting extreme range possibilities) the degree and frequency of contrast ( the amount of timbral contrast used by a composer and how fast or slow are these changes). Finally, the idiom (the exploitation of the capacities of the instruments explored by the composer).
Harmony is not only considered chordal phenomena but as well all successive vertical combinations including counterpoint and all dissonant procedures that may or not fall into conventions of harmonic behaviors, such as the well-known "Common Practice" devices.
Its contribution to the overall shape of the music can be classified in at least five important harmonic phenomena that can either cause or strengthen an articulation: change of mode, change of key, acceleration or deceleration in chord rhythm, intensification (or densification) of vertical complexity, and increase or decrease in frequency of dissonance. These changes in harmonic "pressure" affect the listener particularly strongly.
Melody refers to the profile formed by any collection of pitches. This is most recognizable of the contributing elements as the first and easiest to grasp. But even the apparent most "simple" melody cannot be taken for granted, there is nothing simple about even, the smallest melodic actions, since no interval can be regarded as an absolute value, but must be weighted according to its durations, accentual circumstances, position in the range, location in the phrase, relationship to critical notes such as dominants and finals cadences, and function in the contour or pattern as peak, low, turning point, pivot, and so on.
We can argue that rhythm encompasses many elements; we can relate it to the harmonic rhythm, to the melodic rhythm, the rhythm of the sound, texture and fabric itself as its parameter relates to the duration of different layers in the musical phenomenon, that is why we could consider it under an arch of ambiguity. By recognizing two axiomatic conditions, we will find some light into the matter:
-The rhythm is a layered phenomenon: To a large extent, rhythm results from changes in Sound, Harmony and Melody, in this respect relating closely to the fifth contributing element, the Growth, which will take on board on the last point of this article. This last element accomplishes an expansion of Rhythm on a large scale, just Rhythm controls the details of every small scale in the previous elements. Rhythm contains a larger proportion of specifically durational rhythmic effects such as patterns of surface rhythm (basically, the note values) while the movement of the harmony and sound contains more of the generalized resultants, such as contour rhythm and textural rhythm.
-Stress is variable in duration: Release of tension in not necessarily instantaneous, and as a result, durations of stress will ten to reflect the dimension affected: a motivic accent in Vivaldi may highlight only a single semiquaver, whereas in Beethoven may prolong a phrase stress for several beats by successive injections of his musical adrenalin like his most-known sforzando articulations.
These differing qualities and quantities within Rhythm deeply influence the processes of Growth.
The layers of Rhythm: We can't define rhythm comprehensibly without mentioning its layers: Continuum, Tempo, Surface rhythm, and interaction.
The Continuum is the consciousness of a continuing pulse from which we infer a multidimensional structure of motion that carries through sustained notes or intervals of silence.
The tempo is the speed of operation of the continuum, typically governed by the speed of the controlling pulse or "beat".
The Surface Rhythm includes all relationships of durations, assumed to be approximately as represented by the symbols of notation (note values)
Finally, the Interactions that result when the events in other elements approach a condition of regularity that can be felt either as reinforcement of the continuum or as patterning related to surface rhythms. The importance of these interactions is that they can give stress and directional movement to situations that are rhythmically undifferentiated, for example, the rhythmic flow produced by alternations of tutti and solo in concertos, or striking exchanges in fabric produce intermittent stresses without changing a single pitch.
The word “growth” delineates and contains beautifully the intricacies of the multi-layered phenomenon of a musical piece, as it includes both the feeling of expansive continuation so characteristic of music and also a parallel sense of achievement something permanent. These two aspects are decisively interactive and can be separated into two parallel functions: Movement and Shape.
Musical Shape is the memory of the Movement, and only by the accumulation of degrees of punctuation and articulation, we can recognize the growing Shape.
Music is essentially movement in every aspect of the word, even a single sound impacts on the air and makes it move. Every sound that is followed by another creates a melodic outline that itself defines a piece, having an abstract meaning to the listener.
Every one of the 5 basic elements of music mentioned in this article contributes to the overall Movement and Shape.
Subdividing the contributing elements to a piece aids the musical phenomenon in five manageable parts. Otherwise, the amount of information would be impossible to dissect properly to understand the complexity of the interactions of the different layers in a musical piece.