The Primer for People Who Want to Listen Good (and Maybe Do Other Stuff Good, Too)
This primer is a rundown of basic concepts that help us break down and understand the music we listen to. It does not aim to be exhaustive. It does not aim to be technical. It merely aims to introduce.
Important note: you do not need to know these concepts to enjoy music. Enjoying music is so reflexive it is almost instinctive. That’s a whole book, right there, so I’m not going to get into it. Just to say, if you’re happy with your understanding of music, keep on being happy about it!
I would say this article, as brief as it may be, would serve better as a reference until you get the idea. It will be linked back to in blog posts, in the event you need a refresher.
It seems obvious, no? Music consists of sound. But what is sound? Physics classes will teach that sound is a wave moving through some substance. Sure, but not quite. It’s missing two crucial elements: our ears and brains.
For my purposes, sound is the intersection of a physical wave, the substance it moves through, how it arrives in our ears, and how it is interpreted by our brains into the experience we call sound.
Altering any of these elements will alter the sound we perceive.
Tone vs. Note
A distinction I wish I had learned much earlier as a musician. Tone is the quality of the sound we hear. Quality not in the sense of “good” or “bad,” but quality in the sense of differentiating the sound of one instrument from another.
Notes are the way we write down music so that it can be remembered, passed on, and reproduced by somebody else. There are many ways music is translated into notation, so many that it is worth its own blog post.
Historically, most music was, and is, passed on and learned by ear. Even if something is written down, notation does not necessarily communicate how the idea is translated into sound. Many, sometimes most!, of the details are lost in translation.
Pitch vs. Noise
A real can of worms, this. In broad strokes: pitches are sounds whose waves have a regular form and pattern to them; noise are sounds which don’t. Both are used in music.
Pitch and noise exist on a spectrum. Most instruments produce complex sounds containing some combination of each.
Instruments like the voice, the violin, the flute – these generally make music using pitch mostly containing pitch.
Instruments like the cymbals, the snare drum, the clave – these generally make music using sounds mostly containing noise.
Important note: “noise” is often used to denigrate music. This is not the sense I will use the term. If you want a historical sampling of negative musical critiques, check out the fantastic “Lexicon of Musical Invective,” by Nicolas Slonimsky.
You can have music without pitch, but you can’t have music without rhythm. Rhythm is the pattern of note lengths over time. If you want to get really philosophical about it, because pitch is a wave with a regular pattern repeating within it, pitch is also rhythm.
Is that strange? That pitch is rhythm? Well, check out Adam Neely's talk, Pitch is Rhythm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tRAkWaeepg&ab_channel=AdamNeely
Rhythm can be more or less regular, more or less complex. The pattern can repeat often or not. Patterns can be layered on top of other patterns.
Tempo vs. Beat
Tempo is the speed at which we perceive musical change. When music changes slowly, we tend to hear a slow tempo. When music changes quickly, we tend to hear a fast tempo.
The beat is a more or less regular pulse which underlies the music. The beat might be audible, as is the case in almost every dance ever, or it might be hidden. Even when the beat can’t be heard in the music itself, musicians very often have a sense of beat going on within them.
Re: the beat – I say “more or less” regular because, since the invention of the metronome, many musicians have the sense that the beat is a strictly defined pulse. For electronic music, the pulse is strictly defined and unchanging because a computer is doing it. For most of the rest of music of all time, it’s a bit squishier.
Never underestimate drumming, though, especially in groups. Even without metronomes, humans have an uncanny ability to hone in on a regular pulse when drumming is involved.
Melody vs. Harmony
I feel like these terms are thrown around so often, we have an instinctive understanding of what they are. But just in case (because you can never be too sure), melody is a sequence of tones made by a single voice, while harmony is produced by two or more voices creating different tones simultaneously.
While English speakers would be comfortable think of melody as a “horizontal” element and harmony as a “vertical” element, that’s probably a bit too simple for our needs. You can think of melody as the pattern which unfolds in time and harmony as the sound stacked in the moment. Another way to think of it is, harmony results at the intersection of multiple melodies.
With my definitions, I made the deliberate choice to use tones instead of pitches. It is true that the majority of music we interact with in English speaking countries consists largely of pitched music, but melodies and harmonies can be created even with “unpitched” percussion. Drum circles depend as much on the tonal difference between percussive instruments as on the interlocking rhythms created by the players. Which brings us to our next term...
There are loads of instruments. So many. Too many? Maybe. They all have unique sounds. Timbre is the qualities of the sounds which allow us to differentiate one instrument from another. The actual details involved get… involved. Probably too much so. But if you like physics, you can learn more by reading up on the harmonic series!
When all of the previously mentioned elements combine, they form Captain Planet! Ah, wait. Wrong. Wrong blog. They form texture, is what I meant.
There is still a bit missing – how many people* are playing, and how they relate to each other musically. Texture can be thin, like a single flautist playing a single melody, or it can be dense, with lots of people playing lots of different things. The spectrum in between is, I hope, implied.
Out of all the possible ways musical elements can be combined, four come up with such regularity they have been named. They are monophonic, homophonic, polyphonic, and heterophonic.
Vast diversity lies within these categories. They are bucket definitions, not surgical tools.
Monophonic – one instrument, one tone. A single singer singing a cappella. A shepherd playing a flute all by their lonesome.
Homophonic – A melody with some amount of harmony. A singer accompanied by a strumming guitarist. Almost all pop music.
Polyphonic – Multiple voices playing multiple melodies. Harmony results, but is not the main focus. An organist playing a fugue. Renaissance motets. Drum circles.
Heterophonic – Multiple voices playing slight variations of the same melody. An Irish session. Japanese gagaku. Indonesian gamelan.
Last, but not least, form is the structure of patterns over the course of an entire musical work. It asks the question, “What repeats and when?” Over time, certain forms occur often enough we give them their own names. There are far too many forms to cover here. Individual forms will receive their own posts at a later time.
From Here to Later
That's plenty to get us started. This primer will grow new sections over time, so if there isn't anything you thought should be covered but isn't, that's probably because I haven't written it yet. Or I forgot. That happens a lot, too. Until next time!