Music Toolkit

Like art, music composers combine a series of discrete elements in the production of a unified work. Unlike art, these elements are sonic and temporary; we must experience them in time and through a less descriptive sense. This means that it is very difficult to concentrate on any one moment in music in any detail (like we might with an artwork). Early musicians developed notation as a way to capture and communicate musical content, but let us be wary of thinking that musical notation is tantamout to music. It is not; musical notation is more like a calligraphic transliteration of a musical work (like seeing a painting that was inspired by a poem). Thus, any exploration of music requires significant time and attention to its sonic content. Let's look at some of the elements of music in order to decode its meaning.  


Melody is the basic building block of the European tradition of music. It consists of a coherent sequence of pitches that has a clear beginning and an end. It is the "tune." Recognizable melodic patterns that are too short to satisfy this definition are called motives. Thus, a melody may consists of a string of motives or two melodies might conclude with similar motives (constituting a kind of musical rhyme). In addition, melodies can have a distinct character; they can be bright and joyful, dark and sober, or monotone and uninteresting. In literary terms, we might think of melody as the statement of a single idea, a sentence, or we might think of them as a character in a narrative. 

Questions to Consider

When evaluating a work's melody, consider the following questions:

  1. How would you describe the character of the melody?
  2. What are the components of the melody in this particular work? (Are there motives?)
  3. In what ways does the melody contribute to the coherence of the overall work?  


Harmony occurs when two or more pitches sound simultaneously. In music that is built upon a harmonic scaffolding (most art and popular music since the 1800s), the melody drives harmony, and the harmony takes a supporting role. Composers often use harmony as a way to add "color," opting for pitches that create various combinations of combined sounds and that transmit generally understood emotional gestures (we often perceive minor harmonies, for instance, as sad). Harmony can have a rhythm that is independent from the melody, progress at a faster or slower rate, anticipating or responding to melodic movement.    

Questions to Consider

When evaluating a work's harmony, consider the following questions: 

  1. How frequently does the harmony change in this piece? 
  2. How many pitches does the composer combine to produce the harmony? 
  3. Does the composer establish and frequently return to recognizable harmonies? Why?
  4. How does the composer's use of harmony contribute to the overall work? 


Often composers will vary the way melodies or harmonies interact with one another. This is called musical texture. There are a few textures that you should know. Monophony consists of a single unaccompanied melody. In this texture there is no harmony at all. Composers employ polyphony by presenting multiple independent melodies at once. This might be through a technique like a round (such as "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"), through a more robust version of a round called a fugue, or through deploying unrelated simulantous melodies called counterpoint. Often composers weave these melodies together like a musical braid. Most popular music today uses a texture called homophony, in which the composer engages only one melody with harmonic support (often through a sequence of chords). Finally, improvised musical styles, like jazz, often employ musical texture called heterophony, in which two identical melodies sound simultaneously, one with embellishments that are often improvised. 

Questions to Consider

When evaluating a works texture, consider the following questions: 

  1. What kind of texture(s) does the composer employ? 
  2. How does the composers choice of texture affect your experience of the piece? 
  3. In what ways does the texture interact with other elements of the work (including the poetry if it is a song)?


Timbre is perhaps the hardest musical element to master. Timbre refers to the quality of the sound produced by the various instruments that participate in a musical work. It is present at two different levels in a musical work. The first is at the level of a single instrument. Every instrument has a variety of timbres that it can produce. A piano, for instance, can produce low sounds and high sounds, each of which have different sound qualities. In addition, a composer employ alternative methods to create non-traditional sounds from the instruments, such as pounding on the piano cabinet, plucking the strings with your finger, or by installed objects inside of the piano that will vibrate as various strings are hit. The second is at the level of the ensemble. Composers will combine the sounds of various instruments together to create new timbres. In many ways, timbre is to a composer what color is to the painter. By mixing together timbres, composers can create variations and shades in a way that resembles the use of color and value in the visual arts.   

Questions to Consider

When evaluating a work's timbre, consider the following questions: 

  1. What instrumental or ensemble timbres does the composer employ throughout the work? 
  2. How does timbre contribute to the overall work? 
  3. How would this work be different if the composer had opted for different timbres? 


Rhythm refers to the presentation of the sequence of musical elements through time. Composers often employ a complicated set of notational symbols to indicate precisely when a musical element should occur. Melody and harmony may have rhythm that is independent of one another.  

Questions to Consider

When evaluating a work's rhythm, consider the following questions: 

  1. What is driving the composer's choices concerning rhythm? 
  2. In what ways does rhythm provide extra clarity or memorability to a melody or motive? 
  3. How does rhythm contribute to the coherence and unity of the overall piece? 


Dynamics refers to the loudness or softness of the sound. Composers often employ dynamics in an effort to clarify sections of the work, add direction, heighten anticipation, or emphasize a particular melody or motive. Dynamics may change abruptly, suddenly changing from loud to soft, for instance, or they may change gradually over time. Sometimes composers will intentionally restrain dynamics in order to create emotional or narrative content in their work. 

Questions to Consider

When evaluating a work's dynamics, consider the following questions: 

  1. What is the dynamic range of a particular work? (What are the loudest and softest parts of the work?)
  2. How do the dynamics clarify the other elements of the work to the audience? 
  3. How would the work change without the dynamic contrast? 


As in poetry, form refers to the overall structure of a musical work. There are many important forms that composers regularly employ in their compositions. A few common forms are: binary (a work that has two distinct but related parts), ternary (a work that has three related parts, often in an ABA format), strophic (a work that has a series of "verses"), theme and variations (a work that states a clear theme—often a melody—followed by a series of variations on that theme), and through composed (a work that has no predictable structure). 

Questions to Consider

When evaluating a work's form, consider the following questions: 

  1. What form has the composer given the composition? Why? 
  2. In what ways does the form contribute to the purpose of the composition? 
  3. How does form affect your experience of the work? (Do you anticipate certain elements?)


Tonality in music refers to the particular scale and tonal family the composer employs in the work. This is often a very informative feature of a musical work; however, it is an element that requires a certain level of musical literacy that is outside our purpose here. For us, we will think of tonality through understanding two opposing musical components. The first is consonance (the sense of music being "at rest"), and the second is dissonance (the sense of music being unsettled or in motion). We can describe much of the musical content of compositions as a journey away from and toward rest (consonance). Indeed, most of the music we hear today contains the story of musical elements becoming unsettled (dissonance) and ultimately finding resolution (consonance). 

Questions to Consider

When evaluating a work's tonality, consider the following questions: 

  1. How does the composer employ consonance and dissonance throughout the work? 
  2. Where do you notice the greatest amount of dissonance in the composition? 
  3. How does the use of consonance and dissonance contribute to the work's meaning? 

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