Six Things to Listen For: Rhythm; Melody; Harmony; Timbre; Texture; Form


NOTE:  this material is undergoing revisions AND reorganization as follows (for now), as indicated in red above each heading:

Now that your ears are open to listening to music in new and creative ways, you will want to learn some new vocabulary to help you identify, discuss, and understand exactly what you are hearing. Musicians often refer to the “elements” of music, and learning exactly what they are will give you specific things to listen for. Armed with these terms, you will be better able to think and talk about your musical experiences.
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Notes, Scales, and Keys
First, some broad definitions are in order. Music is sound in time made up of notes. A note may also be called a pitch or tone. These three terms are used interchangeably, and they all refer to the actual musical sound made by a voice or instrument. Pitch is the most technical of the three. It actually refers to the physical property of the sound, that is, how many cycles per second it vibrates in air. The sound of a note is designated by a letter of the alphabet A, B, C, D, E, F, or G. The musical alphabet only contains these seven letters, so that after G the cycle simply begins again on A.

The concepts of low and high further describe pitch. The faster the frequency of a pitch, the higher it sounds; the slower the frequency, the lower it sounds. One good example of frequency is the pitch given by the oboe when a symphony orchestra tunes before a concert. Known as “A 440,” this pitch vibrates in air at 440 cycles per second.

A pitch resource for a musical composition comes from a scale. The concept of scale (from the Latin scala meaning ladder) spans many musical cultures and historic periods. In its broadest definition, a scale represents an abstract collection of notes of a song or piece of music. For now, we will define a scale as a collection of notes arranged in step-wise ascending order by consecutive letter name that begins and ends on the same note. A scale is named for its first note, for example C D E F G A B C is a C scale.
You will often hear music described as being in a key, such as “C Major.” The term key is really related to scale, since a piece is in a specific key because it draws on the notes of a specific scale. For example, a piece in the key of C Major uses the C major scale
as its pitch source. Or, a piece in the key of C Minor draws its pitches from a C minor scale
Can you hear the difference between the major and minor scales beginning on C? They differ by their particular arrangement of half steps and whole steps. Many people associate minor keys with a dark and somber mood and major keys with a bright and happy mood. Of course, these are gross generalizations, since music in minor keys may sound quite energetic and music in major keys may sound quite tragic.
TO COME: audio examples for each parameter
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1. Listening to Musical Time: Rhythm, Meter, and Tempo

Music is not only an aural art, it is also a temporal art. Quite simply, music exists in time. Since time is a dimension we can all relate to, let us begin our discussion of the elements of music with exactly how music manages time.

The famous jazz stride pianist Fats Waller’s (1904-1943) supposedly gave this answer when asked to define rhythm: “Lady if got to ask, you ain’t got it.” George Gershwin’s (1898-1937) famous jazz standard, I Got Rhythm, asks, “Who could ask for anything more?” But how do we actually define rhythm? While we may feel it physically in our bodies and know what it is intuitively, rhythm is basically defined as duration, that is, how long or how short a note lasts in time.
For example, listen to the beginning of Louis Armstrong's performance of Dinah in Pod 5 (Link to The band introduces the song with a rhythm of two slow notes followed by a stream of very fast notes. When Armstrong enters, the first line of the vocal part repeats this same rhythm with the words "Di-nah" on the two slow notes; "is there anyone" moves on the fast notes; and "fi-ner" repeats the two slow notes (which seems to rhyme with "Dinah"!). As this pattern continues in the song, notice how the notes stretched out in time give particular emphasis to the words, and how they create contrast to the otherwise steady, fast rhythm of the song.
Since they both have to do with time in music, many musicians talk about rhythm and meter together (and often confuse their meanings!). They are actually different concepts. While rhythm is duration, meter, from the Greek metron, is simply measurement. In music, meter measures how beats form larger groups based on recurring strong and weak pulses. We tend to experience groupings when a strong pulse recurs in cycles separated by weaker pulses. Imagine you are standing on a shoreline listening to the waves. When they crash on the shore, this is like a strong pulse; when they recede back into the ocean, this is like a weak pulse. So, we hear a cycle of strong and weak, punctuated by the return of each crashing wave. Also, think of your breath as divided into strong and weak pulses. Inhalation is strong, and exhalation is weak.

In general, meter in music may be divided into duple or triple, that is, groups of two or three. Both the waves and breath examples are binary, since they are divided into two parts. Again, refer to Dinah (Link to Tap your foot this time as you listen, and you will experience an excellent example of duple meter. Triple meter consists of one strong pulse followed by two weak pulses. A great example comes from the classic dance form of the waltz: ONE – two – three, ONE – two –three, etc. You can even watch how dancers will take a big step on one, the strong pulse, but smaller steps on two and three! (Find an example in the audio list of a piece in triple)

Meter not only organizes beats into groups, it also describes the regular subdivision of the beat. If you hear the beat regularly subdivided into two, or multiples of 2, it is simple meter. If, on the other hand, the beat is regularly subdivided into groups of three, it is compound meter.

In notated music, both the groupings of the beat and the regular subdivision of the beat are indicated at the beginning of the score with a Time Signature, where two numbers are stacked on top of each other like a fraction without a line. The top number indicates how many beats are in each group, called a measure, and the bottom number indicates what note value gets the beat. (Insert link or sidebar?)

Tempo describes the pacing of music in time, that is, how fast or how slow it is. In classical music, composers usually used Italian terms to give the players an idea of the speed of a piece. For example, allegro means fast, lento means slow, and moderato means moderate.

Again, listen to "Dinah," and tap your foot to the beat. The tempo is quite fast! Now listen to the piano introduction to Der Tod und das Madchen in Pod 5 (link to for an example of music in a very slow tempo.
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2. Listening to Melody

A melody is simply a tune. More technically, though, we can define a melody as a linear series of notes that form a musical idea. They “hang together.” We talk about melody in terms of contour, range, and shape. In general, a melody expresses more or less a complete musical thought. A shorter musical idea, say 2-5 notes, that is used as a building block to make a melody is called a motive.
OK to exclude an example here? Or, make a general reference to all the melodies in Pod 5?
Vocal music always adds the dimension of words. As you listen to songs, be aware of the relationship between the text and the melody. If a composer uses a preexisting text, the words often dictate the rhythm and meter of the melodic setting. Or, if a songwriter conceives of the words and melody simultaneously, the two dimensions are usually wedded together in a perfect marriage. You can often recall the melody of a song by thinking of the words, or vice versa. Sometimes the music expresses and dramatic or emotional meaning of the music, a compositional technique called text painting. For example, the slow, ponderous introduction to Schubert's Der Tod und das Madchen (link to evokes an atmosphere of death.
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3. Listening to Harmony

Harmony is basically two or more notes sounding together. While there are many ways we use this term in relation to a vertical sonority, we usually talk about harmony in parts – usually three, four, or even five parts. So, for example, a barbershop quartet, or your own student a capella group, may sing in four-part harmony.

When two notes sound together, it is called an interval. Listen to this series of intervals.

When three or more notes sound together, it is called a chord. Listen to this series of chords.

While melody and harmony interact and rely on each other in music, indeed, the two elements form a perfect musical marriage; we can separate them to understand their distinct music features. Think of melody as the horizontal dimension of music, and harmony as the vertical dimension. Often you will hear chords underneath a melody to support it, or accompany it, but sometimes you will hear a succession of chords alone as vertical blocks of sound. This movement is called a progression (link to Overview Pod 6).

We use the terms consonance and dissonance to describe tonal stability or instability in an interval or chord. Some listeners perceive dissonant sounds as clashing and consonant sounds as restful. Listen to these two intervals
. The first is unstable, or dissonance, and the second is stable, or consonant. In fact, we hear the second interval as a resolution of the first interval's tension. In tonal music, dissonance creates tension and consonance release, and this push-pull effect helps creates musical motion.
Many 20th-century and contemporary composers write in a post-tonal musical language, where the rules of consonance and dissonance do not govern musical motion. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)(link to side bar) was one of the first composers to write music in an "atonal" idiom.
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4. Listening to Timbre

Timbre means sound color, and it may refer to a particular instrument or voice quality. For example, although a trumpet (a brass instrument) and a flute (a wind instrument) may be able to play the same note, their sound colors, or timbres, are completely different.

For example, in Pod 5 (link to first listen to piano introduction of Schubert's Der Tod und das Madchen, then listen to the the beginning of the 2nd movement of his string quartet “Die Forelle.” Notice that, while the music is essentially the same in the two clips, the sound color is completely different due to the timbre of the piano and the timbre of string instruments.
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5. Listening to Texture

Texture in general refers to the fabric of music, and specifically it refers to the number of parts in a musical piece. We use adjectives such as “thick” or “thin” to describe whether there are many parts or only a few parts in a musical texture. Furthermore, specific names identify musical textures.
If there is only one part it is monophonic (one voice, like an unaccompanied solo song. Is the version of Machaut “Douce dame jolie” unaccompanied? If so, this can be the example.) If the parts all sound together in a note-against-note style, it is homophonic (voices sounding together at the same time, like a hymn). For a vocal example, listen to Tallis, “Glory to Thee, my God, this night,” (Pod 6: European Harmony), and for an instrumental example listen to the chordal piano opening of Der Tod und das Madchen (link to For a rhymically more elaborate example of a homophonic texture, listen to Handel, “Surely He Hath Born Our Griefs" from Messiah. If the parts have staggered entrances, the texture is polyphonic (voices sounding at different times, like a round. For an example, listen to the next chorus from Messiah "And With His Stripes We Are Healed.” Counterpoint, a style of composition we will explore in Pod 9, is a type of polyphonic texture. Melody and accompaniment is another type of texture, where the tune predominates above a supporting harmony. Somewhere Over the Rainbow ( as example. Finally, the melody and bass lines may sound equal, and we can call this melody/bass polarity. For example, a walking jazz bass line often moves in tandem with a top-line. For an example, listening to the double bass against Billie Holiday's vocal line in Fine and Mellow, beginning at 1:23. (link to
REVISED - more succinct definitions
Monophonic - one part, like an unaccompanied solo song. For an example, listen Machaut “Douce dame jolie” (Pod 2, Songs and Dances)
(Is there a better example, where the song is actually unaccompanied, in the Music Library?)

Homophonic - all the parts sound together at the same time in a note-against-note style, like a hymn. For a vocal example, listen to Tallis, “Glory to Thee, my God, this Night,” (Pod 6, European Harmony), and for an instrumental example listen to the chordal piano opening of Der Tod und das Madchen (Pod 5, The Art Song link to For a rhythmically more elaborate example of a homophonic texture, listen to Handel, “Surely He Hath Born Our Griefs" from Messiah (Pod 6: European Harmony).

Polyphonic - parts have staggered entrances and so many voices sound at different times, like a round. For an example of staggered entrances, listen to the next part of “Surely He Hath Born Our Griefs", when the voices sing the words, “he was wounded for our transgressions,” and again on the words, “the chastisement of our peace was upon him." Now listen to the next chorus from Messiah, "And With His Stripes We Are Healed” to hear another example of polyphony. This is imitative counterpoint, a type of polyphony we will explore in Pod 9 (insert link later).

Melody and Accompaniment - the tune predominates above a supporting harmony. For an example, listen to Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Pod 5, MyRoutes/World/Devotional Singing

Melody/Bass Polarity – the melody and bass lines sound equal, like a pole and counter pole. A walking jazz bass line moving in tandem with a top-line is such a texture. For an example, listen to the double bass against Billie Holiday's vocal line in Fine and Mellow, beginning at 1:23 (Pod 5, MyRoutes/Jazz/The Jazz Singer link to
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6. Listening to Form

Musical form addresses the structure of a piece or song, that is, how it is actually put together. You can perceive form on different structural levels and within the parameters of melody, harmony, rhythm, and meter.

Big Picture: Overall Formal Structure
The overall formal analysis divides a song or piece into sections or parts. We usually use capital letters to refer to these large formal sections. Often music is constructed in two or three parts, that is, binary (AB) and ternary form (ABA). Terms related to form in popular songs include verse, chorus, bridge, and refrain. (Link back to “OVERVIEW: Popular Song, section on form). Simply using the same letter from the first time designates repeated sections of music. Formal divisions may have clear beginnings and endings, or they may be linked together with short melodic runs to create a seamless connection.

Details: Phrase Structure
The smallest formal unit, a phrase is like a musical sentence. As in language, a phrase may have various degrees of completion, so we can say it expresses a more or less complete musical thought. We usually use lower-case letters to designate phrases. You will hear various weights of musical punctuation to mark the end of a phrase, like a comma, semi-colon, or period in a sentence. But, when you hear a momentary rest or repose in the melody, you will know the phrase has ended. We call this a cadence (link to Pod 6 Overview definition of cadence).
For an example of a phrase structure you will probably recognize by sound, listen again Fine and Mellow, beginning at 1:23 to 1:55. (link to The three phrases form a 12-bar blues structure of a a b, where the first a phrase is on the words, "My man he don't love me he treats me oh so mean," the second a phrase repeats these words, with a slight variation of "awful mean" for "oh so mean," and the b phrase is on the words, "He's the lowest man that I've ever seen."