Music and art are hard to classify.
Does music have to conform to a set of expectations or criteria? Are whale songs music? What about trees rustling and cars driving by an open window? In many ways, music is in the ear of the beholder.
Academics and researchers, however, have spent a lot of time thinking about this problem and have come up with six “Elements of Music”. These six elements make up music – or “organized sound” as composer Edgard Varese defined it.
The nature of music means that your music already has these six elements. You don’t need to work on incorporating them into your music. But you can work on improving each of these elements. Paying attention to each will help you make better music.
Let’s look at each of these elements and talk about how you can use them to improve your craft.
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The Six (Sometimes Seven) Elements Of Music
The six elements of music are pitch, timbre, texture, volume, duration, and form. Sometimes, people add reverberation to this list, although from academic articles I’ve read, this is not as widely accepted.
Other types of art have foundational elements as well – if you look up the Elements of Design you will find a similar breakdown of the visual arts. These definitions can be useful in your journey to understand what makes good music and how to make good music yourself.
Understanding Pitch & Melody
Pitch is an easily understandable element of music. Pitch refers to the frequency of a tone. Pitch can be high or low, steady, or changing. When you talk, you talk at a certain pitch. When you sing, you sing at a variety of pitches.
Similarly, specific notes on an instrument create pitch. Playing a note on the guitar is creating pitch. Playing a note on the saxophone also creates pitch.
Pitch is everywhere in music. In more accessible terms, “pitch” could also be called “melody”. In popular music, the melody is incredibly important. The melody is a huge part of what sticks in your brain, builds and releases tension, and brings interest to the song.
When you are performing, pitch should always be on your mind. Even the best natural singers work for years to develop their pitch both on and off the stage. People think that pitch is something you’re born with, and this is true to some extent, but there is no question you can improve your pitch over time.
Warming up before shows and singing your songs a cappella can help your pitch at live shows. When you are at home, record yourself singing or playing your instrument. Listen carefully to your pitch – where do you get uncertain? Over time you will improve your pitch.
Beyond pitch, is melody. Creating interesting melodies is important. I would recommend singing along to songs with melodies and hooks you love. Writing often and in different styles will help you diversify your melodies and come up with more interesting melodies.
Understanding Duration and Rhythm
What academics call “duration” is more commonly called “rhythm”. Rhythm refers to how long are notes held, and how long the spaces between notes are. These notes of varying duration are then grouped into patterns, creating rhythm.
Rhythm and pitch are the most important elements of music to understand. Rhythm is everything. It is what makes a song “groovy”, “dance-y”, or “fast and slow”. Developing your sense of rhythm is a lifelong practice. Drummers spend their whole lives trying to deepen their sense of rhythm and their understanding of rhythmic patterns.
Having a good sense of rhythm is crucial when you are songwriting as well as playing live. Good songwriters can use a memorable or “hook-y” rhythm paired with a simple melody to write an impactful song. Rhythm is just as important as melody in songwriting. Great live players also spend years practicing with metronomes to create better grooves and to play with others better.
Not everyone is born with a naturally good sense of rhythm and pulse. I always struggled keeping a steady beat. Again, just because you were not a natural, does not mean you will never have rhythm. You can practice and improve!
When you are practicing, try to play with a metronome as much as possible. The act of practicing with a metronome will inevitably improve your sense of rhythm. It will also help you in the studio, when you are more likely to end up playing along to a click track (“click track” is another term for metronome).
Playing with others is also a good way to improve your rhythm. When you are jamming with others, don’t focus so hard on what you are playing. Keep your ears wide open and try to groove with your fellow musicians.
Timbre (pronounced “tahm-bur”) is more commonly described as the “tonal quality” of an instrument, voice, or overall musical piece. Timbre is what makes different instruments and different voices unique.
Imagine you play a melody and a rhythm on a saxophone, and then play the exact same thing on a guitar, and then you sing that exact same melody and rhythm. Despite playing the same combinations of pitch and duration, each version would sound completely different.
This is timbre. It is the tonal quality of whatever you are playing. Some instruments like the cello sound dark, moody, and romantic. Others, like the trumpet, sound brash and bright. Others still can sound scratchy, smooth, shiny, dull, airy, or thick.
Different timbres can be achieved even on the same instrument, by playing the instrument differently. Think of the difference between strumming and palm muting a guitar – same instrument, same notes, but a completely different sound.
It's important to consider timbre, especially when recording music. Always listen for the timbre of each individual instrument as well the timbre of the song. When people record DIY music, it can be tempting to just go with the first thing that sounds good. Instead, consider if the part you’ve just recorded fits with the rest of the song.
For example, I was in a session last week recording vocals. We tried out a few “classic” vocal mics, all were large diaphragm condensers. The sound was good and professional, but just didn’t fit with the timbre or the song. It was too “Hi-Fi” sounding. Instead, we recorded the vocals with a cardioid mic, and it fit the song perfectly.
Pay attention to the timbre of the song throughout the process and you will create a “vibe”.
Texture refers to the number of distinct musical lines being played at the same time. This gives a song texture. Consider a simple song with a melody and some accompaniment played on the guitar. This would be called “homophonic” texture.
Now, if there was a melody being sung, a counter-melody, a harmony on that melody, accompaniment on a guitar, a bass line, and guitar lines, this would be called “polyphonic” texture, because of all of the melody lines that come together.
Texture is incredibly important, and you are probably already using this element of music. If you produce music on a computer, you will be familiar with layering different parts over each other to make beats and songs – this is the art of adding texture to your songs.
Here are two ways you can improve your understanding of texture and create more interesting music. First, search for stems of the songs you love. Google search “[Your Favorite Song] stems download” and open the files in your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, like Logic or Ableton).
Dive into these stems and figure out what the producer/artist has layered into the song to create texture. Listen for doubles of vocals, various instruments playing the same lines, synth pads stacked on top of each other, and different kick and snare samples layered to create the final sound.
This isn’t texture in the traditional sense, but it is in the modern age of production. There will also be more traditional examples of textures, especially in modern vocals. Modern vocals often have tons of ad-libs, extra vocal lines, and extra vocal hooks. Pay attention!
Beyond downloading stems, I would encourage you to listen carefully to music you love and attempt to decipher all the parts going on. In jazz school, you end up transcribing a lot of songs. This is tedious, but useful.
Try doing this with a song you love – listen carefully and decipher every different part of the song. Learn each part. Either write down and transcribe each part or create a recording of yourself playing each part. This will improve your understanding of texture in modern music.
Volume is more commonly referred to as “dynamics”. The concept is simple: how loud or quiet are you playing or singing? Volume changes note by note, bar by bar, and section by section. These changes in volume are a huge part of what makes music interesting.
If you play a song at roughly the same volume the entire time, the song will probably get boring. Human ears naturally tune out noises that are happening at the same volume for too long, it is essential to vary the dynamics of the song.
Consider volume and dynamics when you are producing a song. Do all the instruments need to be playing at the same time? Should you leave some of them out during the verses and bring them in at the chorus? Which part of the song is the climax? Should the climax by loud or quiet?
Also take dynamics into consideration when you are singing or playing an instrument. Listen to Billie Eilish – her vocals are incredibly soft and dynamic. It brings you into the song and makes you listen.
Playing without dynamics is a hallmark of an amateur band or artists. Great music has dynamics because life has dynamics. Life and music should have highs and lows, moments of quiet and moments of loud. Remember this next time you are playing live or producing a new song.
Form describes the overall structure of the music. Form is the architecture that brings different sections of music together. A song can be made up of a combination and patterns of verses, choruses, bridges, intros, outros, interludes, and more.
It is important to understand the forms that make up most of the songs in your genre. Not so that you copy them exactly, but so that you understand what works. Form is a huge subject, so we have written an entire guide on form available here.
Reverberation is not a traditional “element of music”, but especially in modern musical production, it is important. Reverberation could also be called a “sense of space”. Does the music sound far away? Does it sound like it is in a big room? Or is the music near, direct, and present?
Getting better at using understanding reverberation is a matter of understanding when and how to use delay, reverb, and echo. You can achieve this with pedals and effects, or you can playing in a large room or from different distances.
The Elements Of Music: Putting It All Together
The elements of music are present in all music. You don’t need to worry about leaving one out or forgetting one of them.
Once you understand these elements, however, you can ask yourself the question – am I making the most of each element of this song?
When thinking about pitch and melody, ask yourself: is the melody interesting? Is the melody memorable? Am I singing or playing with good pitch, or does it waver and falter?
When thinking about duration and rhythm, ask yourself: do the rhythms in this song make the song better or are they distracting? Are the rhythms catchy? Does the rhythm and tempo of the song make the song more impactful? Am I playing with the same feel as the rest of the instruments?
When thinking about timbre, ask yourself: does this song have a consistent timbre/vibe? Does every instrument fit into that vibe? Does every new part add to the vibe, or does it distract?
When thinking about texture, ask yourself: does the texture of this song make it better? Sometimes a simple texture is more effective than a complicated one!
When thinking about volume and dynamics, ask yourself: are the dynamics in this song boring? Do I get tired of listening to it?
As you grow more experienced, these things will come naturally, and you will get better at immediately applying them to songs.