The Four Elements of Music – Musical DNA, and How Music Works
Music is many things. We feel it. We analyze it. It can blend into the background, or we can lose ourselves in it. But what is it, really?
What makes up music? Below, you’ll find the four elements that are the building blocks of music. Like DNA, these four ingredients combine to create infinite possibilities.
And when you know these four, you can find specific and immediate ways to improve your playing and pieces. Enjoy!
Quantifying the Ethereal: What is Music
Music is sound. Music is vibration. Music is math. As Viktor Hugo said, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
Music means different things to different people. But we can also quantify what goes into music. We can tease apart the threads and look at each one on its own.
And when we explore the separate elements, we come to hear more in music. Like the tongue of a fine chef, we learn to recognize the subtle hints and flavors. We appreciate it more because we are aware of more.
Music has four main elements. Each is a study unto itself. And when we combine them, they become larger than the sum of their parts. They become magic.
Element #1: Pitch (What Note Is It?)
The first element of music is pitch. Pitch is the relative highness or lowness of a note. The question here is “Which note is this?”
When we look at a piece of sheet music, the positions of the dots on the page denote the pitch. The position on the lines and spaces of the musical staff point to this.
We then transfer this to the guitar. On the guitar, many pitches are found in more than one location. For example, a certain E could be played as the open first string. We could also play it on the 5th fret on the second string, the 9th fret on the third string, etc.
Element #2: Tone, or Sound Quality (aka “Timbre”)
The second element of music is the sound quality. The official name for this is “timbre” (pronounced “tam’ bur.”
In the wider world of music, timbre is the particular sound of an instrument. A tuba has a different timbre than a clarinet. This is how we can tell them apart. Likewise, we recognize people’s individual voices. What we recognize are the different timbres.
On guitar, we can further slice timbre (aka tone color) down to the various possible tone qualities. For example, we can make the sound bright and tinny. Or we can make the sound warm, thick, and wooly. How or whether we use fingernails can affect this. And where we play the string also changes the tone.
There are many other examples of this. Notes fretted at different places on the guitar neck have different tone qualities. Notes played high on the neck have a different sound quality than open strings and lower frets.
Element #3: Volume
The third element of music is volume. We could also think of this as intensity. In music, the word for volume is “dynamics.”
On a non-amplified guitar, we have a limited range of volume possible. Our loud is not as loud as a piano or bagpipe. But we have the ability to play much more quietly than either of these as well.
So within the range of the guitar, we can create great levels of contrast between loud and soft.
In addition to playing every note at the same volume, we can also swell and fade the volume level. This is one of the key ingredients in creating expressive and captivating music.
Mastery of volume dynamics on the guitar allows us to bring more interest and artistry to our music.
In a section or piece of music, we often have an overarching dynamic level. This is the general volume of the section.
We can think of this as speech. An “outside voice” is loud. An “inside voice” is medium loud. And our “someone’s sleeping voice” is very quiet – a whisper.
Common musical terms for these general dynamics include forte (play loudly), mezzo-forte (medium-loud), mezzo-piano (medium-soft), piano (soft).
Localized Dynamics (note to note volume levels)
Within the larger dynamic mentioned above, we also may vary the volume from note to note. The volume may change constantly to better communicate the melody or phrase.
The classical guitar often has many voices playing at once. We have the melody, bass, and accompaniment voices. Usually, we want these to occupy different dynamic zones.
For example, the melody is most often the loudest voice. The bass is next loudest, with the accompaniment or interior voices the quietest.
Likewise, in a chord, when several notes are played simultaneously, we may have one or more notes that need to be heard more clearly than the others. This is called chord balance.
Element #4: Time (Rhythm)
The fourth element of music is time. We usually think of time in music as rhythm. Rhythm organizes music across time, and meter regulates the rhythm.
And rhythm has a few different qualities. When we explore each of these, we form a richer understanding of musical time. We can then use it to create special effects to reflect the emotional content of the music.
Duration speaks to how long we hold a note. In sheet music, this is notated using quarter notes, half notes, whole notes, etc.
Duration is measured in beats. Beats mark the predetermined pulse of the music, continuing at a steady speed. Some notes are very short, others very long.
Also in our study of duration, we can notice how one note connects to the next. There may be a space between notes, or they may connect smoothly one to the next. We can do this intentionally for different musical effects.
Space occurs when no note is played. This could be a long interval of time between notes. Or it could be an extremely small gap between two notes.
Space has the ability to create emotional and visceral effects on a listener.
For example, take a piece of music with a continuous loud sound. If we suddenly stop all sound (dampening the strings completely), it creates a vacuum. Listeners feel pulled forward by the effect. Tension is created by the absence of sound. The notes that follow release that tension.
On guitar, string noise has the ability to fill space that would otherwise be silent. So in important moments of space, we need to be careful that extra sound or noise does not cancel that space.
Placement is where we play the note in relation to the beat. We can place a note directly on the beat. Or we can place it slightly before or after the beat.
The note is still in time and on the same beat with all three of these options. We have not moved the note. But we do have the ability to place the note in creative ways.
Not all notes are equal. Typically, strong beats occur at the beginning and middle of the measure. Although this is rule can be considered common musical thought, there are countless exceptions. Not all accented beats (or notes) fall on one of the strong beats.
Note placement creates different musical effects. For example, we can place one note differently than the notes around it. This can bring attention to that note. This is called an agogic accent.
When we play all the notes just behind the beat, the music may feel relaxed and “laid back.” And in the same way, if we play all notes just ahead of the beat, the music may sound urgent or exciting. Consistent note placement informs what we sometimes call the “feel” of the music.
Rubato is the musical term for slowing down and/or speeding up. How and when we use rubato creates emotional effects in the music. Rubato is a form of musical expression. It can give psychological insight into the character of the music.
The rate at which we slow down or accelerate affects the outcome. Rubato, like all the elements of rhythm, can be taken to artistic heights. When done well, music sounds organic and inevitable. When done poorly, it can break the musical spell and alienate listeners. In this sense, there is a natural connection between the material essence of a musical composition and of spoken language. Think schmaltz.
Artful Combinations = Musical “Color”
The art and craft of music are in combining these elements. First, we learn to master each element. Then we blend them for emotional effect.
For example, a masterful musician rarely just slows down. Instead, we slow down AND get louder or softer. We may also change the tone quality as we do. We may connect some or all the notes while setting others apart.
Beautiful playing consists of molding these four elements into the larger structure, creating something special.
To play music to its potential, we need to have an intimate knowledge and mastery of each element. Then, when these become ingrained and easy, we can create gestures.
We mix and match to create intentional effects in our music. We elicit the intended emotions using effective combinations. This becomes art. And like in art, there are formulas and patterns that yield consistent results.
But it all starts with focused practice with an eye to the elements. Beautiful music lies within a carefully balanced cocktail of the four elements. The deeper our understanding and ability in each, the more able we are to experiment and create.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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