The terms listed below will give students concrete ways to discuss the music that they hear. Every piece has a particular character formed by a combination of many elements: rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, instrumentation, dynamics and tempo. Sometimes one element is most obvious and characteristic, but usually some combination of several elements will lend the music its distinct flavor. By carefully listening and focusing their observations, students can sharpen their powers of perception and learn to appreciate new levels of interest within any music they enjoy.


When we describe the chuga-chuga, chuga-chuga of a speeding train or the boom-boom, boom-boom of our heartbeat, we are talking about rhythm. In general terms, rhythm is the organization of sound into patterns of long and short values.


Whether we are speaking of She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain or This Land is Your Land, we all know what it means to sing the melody. In more technical terms, melody is a "musical line," created by a combination of pitch and rhythm. Pitch refers to the precise note we sing. Rhythm tells us how fast each pitch is played. Sing the opening of She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain all in equal values: in that case, you are singing the pitches—but not the rhythm—of this folk melody. Now, tap out the melody on a tabletop: This time, you are performing the rhythm, but not the pitch. It takes both pitch and rhythm to create the melody: Change one or the other and you change the tune. For instance, sing She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain with the correct rhythm but with new pitches—it's a new melody!


When the monks in medieval times gathered to sing together, they all chanted the same melody together. There was no "harmony:" It was as if they were speaking with a single voice. Harmony arises when more than one pitch is being played at the same time. Almost all the music we listen to, be it jazz, rock or classical, has harmony. In a typical popular song, the singer performs the melody while the piano or band plays the supporting harmony. Some types of music use a very limited number of harmonies or chords, others have much more variety. Progressive composers throughout music history have experimented with incorporating new combinations of sounds—new harmonies—into music's vocabulary.


Is when many melodies are heard simultaneously. A good example is when a single melody is sung by several people but each beginning at a different time. This musical procedure is called a round or canon. Row, Row, Row Your Boat is a round: when three people sing it, they each begin with the opening line, but their entrances are staggered. The resulting sound is polyphony. Whereas in melody and accompaniment, one voice clearly predominates, in polyphony, the voices are considered to be of equal importance. In the Fifth Movement of his Second Symphony, Ives creates polyphony by layering pre-exisiting folk tunes on top of his own composed music.

Timbre or Tone Color

Refers to the instrument or voice that is being used. The violin, cello, flute, clarinet, and piano are all examples of different timbres. Timbres range from very pure, clearly pitched sounds to ones that approach noise. The tone color of a flute is very pure. The timbre of a clarinet, violin or cello is more complex. The timbre of a cymbal crash is the most complex of all: It is a burst of noise.


Refers to what instruments are playing. For instance, Roy Harris' Black is the color is scored for solo piano. On the other hand, Luciano Berio's setting of Black is the color is scored for voice, viola, cello and piano. Thus, the two settings share the same melody but have different instrumentations.

Register and Range

Both refer to aspects of pitch. Range is the array notes an instrument is capable of playing. Some instruments, like the flute for instance, have a relatively small range; others, like the piano, have a very large range. Register refers to the height of sounds: music in a high register features pitches with a high frequency; music in a low register features pitches with a low frequency. Register can also be used in a relative way to specify segments of a particular instrument's range: for instance we might speak of the clarinet's "low register" or the piano's "upper register."


Refers to the music that supports and underlies the main melody. When the band plays behind a jazz or pop singer, when the orchestra plays behind the piano soloist, they are playing the accompaniment. The accompaniment is usually designed to not call too much attention to itself, so as not distract from the main melody. For this reason, the accompaniment is usually more repetitive and predictable than the melody itself. However, the accompaniment can go a long way towards creating a "mood" or feeling for the melody. The accompaniment might be mellow and serene, or very rhythmic and upbeat. The harmonies might be more straightforward or more sophisticated. Arranging a folk song consists of creating an accompaniment for the melody. In the section of "Setting a Folk Song," we will compare four different accompaniments for the melody Black is the color.


Refers to the loudness or softness of music. Italian terms are usually used to describe the overall volume of a passage of music: when music is loud, it is forte; when it is soft, it is piano. Dynamics can change instantaneously or gradually. A gradual increase in volume is called a crescendo; a gradual decrease in volume is called a decrescendo.


Refers to the speed at which music moves. Speeds can range anywhere from extremely slow to very rapid, and are also commonly indicated by Italian terms: Andante (a moderately slow tempo, literally 'walking' in Italian), Allegro (a brisk tempo, meaning 'merry' in Italian) and Presto (a very quick tempo). Like dynamics, tempos can change instantaneously or gradually. A tempo which speeds up over time is called an accelerando; the opposite is a ritardando.


Refers to how the music is distributed among the instruments. A texture can be thin (with few instruments playing) or thick (with many instruments playing). Whereas timbre refers to the sound of an individual instrument, texture refers to the relationship between all the instrumental parts in a given passage. Many of the considerations above in combination—including instrumentation, rhythm, register and tone color—can help in creating a distinctive texture. In addition to the above terminology (we might speak of a "polyphonic texture" or a "chordal texture") any number of other adjectives can also be used to describe distinctive textures (delicate, undulating, bubbling, brittle, undulating, dense).


Refers to how a note is played. It can be played short and clipped (staccato), accented (marcato), stressed (tenuto), or smoothly connected to the next note (legato).

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