Aspects of music

From Academic Kids

An aspect of music is any characteristic, dimension, or element taken as a part or component of music. The traditional musicological or European-influenced aspects of music often listed are those elements given primacy in European-influenced classical music: melody, harmony, rhythm, tone color, and form.

  • Melody is a succession of notes heard as some sort of unit.
  • Harmony is the relationship between two or more simultaneous pitches or pitch simultaneities.
  • Rhythm is the organization of the durational aspects of music.
  • Tone color is timbre, see list below.
  • Form is the structure of a particular piece, how its parts are put together to make the whole.

However, a more comprehensive list is given by stating the aspects of sound: pitch, timbre, intensity, and duration. (Owen 2000:6)

These aspects combine to create secondary aspects including form or structure, texture, and style. Other commonly included aspects include the spatial location or the movement in space of sounds, gesture, and dance. Silence is also often considered an aspect of music, if it is considered to exist.

Often a definition of music lists the aspects or elements that make up music under that definition. However, in addition to a lack of consensus, Jean Molino (1975: 43) also points out that "any element belonging to the total musical fact can be isolted, or taken as a strategic variable of musical production." Nattiez gives as examples Mauricio Kagel's Con Voce [with voice], where a masked trio silently mimes playing instruments. In this example sound, a common element, is excluded, while gesture, a less common element, is given primacy. In classical music of the common practice period, for instance, melody and harmony are often considered to be given more importance at the expense of rhythm and timbre. John Cage considers duration the primary aspect of music as, being the temporal aspect of music, it is the only aspect common to both "sound" and "silence".

It is often debated whether there are aspects of music which are universal. The debate often hinges on definitions, for instance the fairly common assertion that "tonality" is a universal of all music may necessarily require an expansive definition of tonality. A pulse is sometimes taken as a universal, yet there exist solo vocal and instrumental genres with free and improvisational rhythms no regular pulse (Johnson 2002), one example being the alap section of an Indian classical music performance. "We must ask whether a cross-cultural musical universal is to be found in the music itself (either its structure or function) or the way in which music is made. By 'music-making,' I intend not only actual performance but also how music is heard, understood, even learned." (Dane Harwood 1976:522)

According to Merriam (1964, p.32-33) there are three aspects always present in musical activity: concept, behaviour, and sound. Virgil Thomson (Erickson 1957, p. vii) lists the "raw materials" of music in order of their discovery: rhythm, melody, and harmony; with the construction of these materials using two major techniques: counterpoint (the simultaneity and organization of different melodies) and orchestration. Rhythm does not require melody or harmony, but it does require melody if the instrument produces a continuous sound, harmony arises from reverberation causing the overlap of different pitches, and counterpoint arises from multiple melodies.

Kenneth Gorlay recounts that, "Writing of her own Igbo music, the Nigerian musicologist Chinyere Nwachukwu maintains that the 'concept of music nkwa combines singing, playing musical instruments, and dancing into one act' (1981: 59). Whatever concept of 'music' is held by members of wester society, it is highly improbable that, apart from forward-looking scholars and composers, it will contain all three elements. Nkwa in fact is not 'music' but a wider affective channel that is closer to the karimojong mode of expression than to western practice. The point of interest here is that Nwachukwu feels constrained to use the erroneous term 'music': not because she is producing a 'musical dissertation,' but because the 'one act' which the Igbos perform has no equivalent in the English language. By forcing the Igbo concept into the Procrustean bed of western conceptualization, she is in effect surrendering to the dominance of western ideas--or at least to the dominance of the English language! How different things would have been if the Igbo tongue had attained the same 'universality' as English!" (1984, p.35) He then concludes that there exists "nonuniversality of music and the universality of nonmusic."

Other common aspects and terms

Other terms used to discuss particular pieces include note, which is an abstraction which refers to either a specific pitch and/or rhythm or the written symbol; chord, which is a simultaneity of notes heard as some sort of unit; and chord progression which is a succession of chords (simultaneity succession).

For a more comprehensive list of terms see: List of musical topics


  • Erickson, Robert (1957). The Structure of Music: A Listener's Guide. New York: Noonday Press. Subtitled "a study of music in terms of melody and counterpoint".
    • Thomson, Virgil. "Introduction"
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1987). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie g�n�rale et s�miologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate (1990). ISBN 0691027145.
    • Molino, J. (1975). "Fait musical et s�miologue de la musique", Musique en Jeu, no. 17:37-62.
    • Harwood, Dane (1976). "Universals in Music: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology", Ethnomusicology 20, no. 3:521-33
    • Gourlay, Kenneth (1984).
  • Owen, Harold (2000). Music Theory Resource Book. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195115392.
  • Johnson, Julian (2002). Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195146816.

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