hand on piano keys

The Basic Elements of Music

This is the first in a set of posts that are meant to help you become more literate in the language of music. Like many other detailed subjects, music truly has its own language and it can be quite confusing for a beginner to understand what’s being said.

In this article I want to focus on just the basic elements that make up what we call “music”, including that term in itself! My intention is to give you a more in-depth understanding of what’s at play so that the next time you have a discussion about music you know exactly what you’re talking about.

Sound

In order to start at the very basics of music, we must first discuss sound. A sound is a vibration that travels through the air or another medium and is then heard by the ear.

The vibration can also be felt, as you’ve perhaps experienced if you’ve ever sat too close to a large speaker or had neighbors that really like to bump that bass. In this way, even those who are deaf or hard of hearing can still experience sound and enjoy music.

Music

Music is generally defined sound that has been organized into specific pitches and rhythms. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. At its most basic level music can be any sound that is appreciated on an artistic level.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Those words are music to my ears”? The phrase is meant to express the speaker’s joy at whatever was said, to the point that it’s like music.

We often refer to the sounds birds make as songs, even if there’s very little definable pitch to them. In a similar way all sound can be music if considered in the right context.

Noise

If all sounds were plants, noise would be the weeds. Noise is the sound you don’t want to hear, whether that’s your neighbor’s lawnmower or a Mozart symphony. Is it still music? I would argue yes and no.

Yes, music can also be noise, just like a beautiful flower can also be a weed. And just like one can still appreciate the beauty of a flower, even if it’s a weed, we can still appreciate the qualities of sounds we don’t normally define as music.

All this is simply to say that you don’t have to have a narrow definition of music vs. noise. Embracing the sounds of nature, for example, as a kind of music can be both rewarding on its own and informative for your musical endeavors.

One music teacher friend of mine likes to assign his students to listen to this piece by John Cage called 4’33” as an exercise in defining “music”.

The Two Most Basic Elements in Music

There are many different definitions of the elements of music. The list is generally some combination of pitch, timbre, texture, volume/dynamics, duration/rhythm, expression/articulation and form/structure. However, when you’re just starting out, this list can be further simplified into just two factors: pitch and rhythm.

The other elements are definitely important, especially as one’s musicianship develops, but the basics of music theory are all focused on just those two categories so those are what will be discussed in the rest of this article.

Rhythm

Rhythm is the pattern a sound has in time, un-related to pitch. Although we often think of pitch as the most fundamental aspect of music, there’s a strong argument that rhythm is of equal, or perhaps even greater, importance.

Think of the sound of a drum beating in time. Immediately this has an effect on us and we perceive it as music. There’s something carnal about rhythm that has a physical effect on us. We often find ourselves moving to the beat, even if it’s just a tapping a foot or bobbing our head.

There are two aspects of rhythm I want to define here because they can be easily confused, and those are beat and tempo.

Beat

The beat is what we call the basic unit of time that usually pulses steadily throughout a piece. If you’re tapping along to a piece of music, most likely you’re tapping to the beat.

The beat can be thought of as the heartbeat of music. It may speed up or slow down but it continues steadily throughout the piece.

When we talk about rhythmic notation, the length of time each note is held is often in the context of the beat. For example, we say to hold a half note for two beats. Depending on how fast the beat is, this could be a long time or quite a short time.

Tempo

Tempo is the pace at which the beat pulses. A high tempo means a fast beat and a low tempo means a slow beat. This could be compared to our heart rate. As our heartbeat continues constantly, our heart rate may fluctuate faster or slower.

Quite often the terms “rhythm,” “beat,” and “tempo” can be confusing for beginners. They are all related, but each define individual aspects of timing in music.

To help you keep them all clear in your head, here’s a review of all three terms:

Rhythm is what we call any pattern that sound has in the context of time, steady or not.

Beat is an individual unit that is usually repeated with what one could call a steady rhythm throughout a piece like a heartbeat.

Tempo is the pace at which the beat is repeated, like a heart rate.

For much more information on rhythm as well as how it is notated, check out my article, How to Read Rhythm: A Foundational Approach.

Pitch

A pitch is the frequency at which a sound vibrates, a fast vibration will make a high sound and a slow vibration will make a low sound. Sometimes this is referred to as a music note, but that can be confusing as we also use the term “note” to identify the symbols we use for written music.

Both pitch and rhythm have separate but equal importance in music. They work in tandem with each other to create the intricate tapestry of sound. Where rhythm deals with the location of a note in time, pitch specifies the note itself. In other words, the rhythm is “when” and the pitch is “what”.

For much more information on pitch as well as how it is notated, check out my article, How to Read Music Notes.

Make Practice Time Easier By Planning Ahead!

Hands playing piano keys with a metronome and pencil nearby

Learn how to plan exactly what you need to do each day to accomplish your goals. Then all you have to do at practice time is sit down and play!

The Piecewise Practice Planner will help you make meaningful progress every time you practice, even with as little as 5 minutes per practice session.

Best of all, it’s completely FREE–to opt in, click the button below!

I hope you’ve found this article informative and enlightening as you forge your path into the many fascinating aspects of music. As always, feel free to ask any questions or share your thoughts in the comments below!


Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

Related Articles:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *