Unidade 1


Melodia, Harmonia, Timbre, Textura, Ritmo e Forma

When a chemist examines an unknown compound, there are a number of fairly easy tests he can perform to break the unknown material down into its basic components. Something as abstract as musical sound presents a few more difficulties, but there are certain parallel 'elements' of music that have individual characteristics. The treatment of these elements differs from composition to composition and composer to composer. To an accomplished listener, the way that these musical elements are used can exactly pinpoint the century or even the decade in which a composition was written.


MELODIA -- "any string of consecutive notes" (i.e., played or sung one at a time). A less technical definition is that melody is the musical line that one would recognize if played by itself. When you whistle a song, you are whistling the melody. The lead singer in a band sings the melody. In many pieces of music, the highest voice or instrumental line is usually carrying the melody.

Consider it the identity of a song. If the melody of a song is drastically altered, you probably wouldn't recognize the name of the song from the other parts--it's that important of an element. Jazz performers will commonly take the chord progression of a song, add a different melody, and come up with a whole new creation.

One of the characteristics that distinguishes individual melodies from each other is the set of intervals that separate each two notes. In simpler terms, an interval is the number of piano keys between two notes. Intervals can be a unison (the same note repeated), very small, or very large. These melodic lines can go up, down, stay the same, or be a combination of all of these. The overall shape of the melody can be choppy or smooth. Often this pattern or shape alone will get across much of the emotional content of a piece of music as it mimics the inflections and structures of speech.

A melody will often consist of a number of short phrases put together, much in the same way that sentences are. If the composition is sung, the musical phrases will almost always have a close correspondence with the grammatical phrases in the text. The number of phrases in a larger compositional structure will almost always be related to the powers of two (2, 4, 8, 16, etc.)

In the past, melody held a different role in our music. In the Baroque era, that one line that holds so much importance to our ears didn't stick out as much. There were a number of things going on simultaneously in a 'polyphonic' texture (see the notes on texture below). Later in the Classical era, the element of melody began to take on its present importance.

In recent popular music, the role of the melodic line has changed once more, becoming a little less important in the whole musical picture while rhythm has grown in importance. While this has caused a lot of people accustomed to the earlier role of melody in music to moan (namely, a lot of parents), similar trends have happened before, and will continue to happen as music evolves to fit the needs of its own time.

Popular music aside, not all compositions are tightly wrapped around the element of melody. There are many experimental pieces of music composed that almost ignore the melody line. For example, much Impressionistic music lacks a true melody. Earlier in this century, composers even experimented with the idea of a "melody" that consisted of changing instrumental tone colors instead of changing pitches!


HARMONIA -- "the effect created when two or more notes are sounded simultaneously". The practical definition of harmony is a little more abstract than that of melody. Someone singing a set of musical notes along with the melody that doesn't use the same pitches as the melody is commonly said to be "singing harmony". Or, many people will say that harmony is every note in a composition that isn't melody. While the above two definitions aren't exactly wrong, they really aren't as precise as definitions that deal with notes sounded together.

The occurrence of the word in common English usage suggests that the two or more notes sounded simultaneously fit together well, but technically, this isn't the case. When they do fit well, this is called consonance and is described as a consonant harmony. Two or more notes that clash when sounded together are called dissonance and are referred to as a dissonant harmony. There are differing levels of dissonant harmonies--some sound mildly unstable while others can cause listeners to grit their teeth. Dissonance is not necessarily bad--dissonance is found in virtually all types of modern music and can have a powerful emotional impact when used effectively. It is necessary to create feelings of tension and relaxation within a composition. This is a subtle, but an all important psychological effect. Certain types of music use dissonance as a structural strong point rather than a weak point, such as certain types of jazz or jazz influenced rock.

A particular note or set of notes is often the "home base" of a composition. Musically, this is called the "tonal center" or "tonic". This can be used as an important element of form, creating a subliminal sense of drama in a composition that starts with a certain harmony (called 'key' in this case), surges away from it, and returns to that home key, much in the same way as a movie or book will start with a set of characters, portray them going through a conflict, and have the conflict resolved at the end (the word 'resolution' is a common musical term meaning almost exactly what it does elsewhere).

The harmony of a song can have often have major changes done to it without causing a musical identity crisis (that is, changing the song completely).


TIMBRE -- "the characteristics of an instrument's sound, or a combination of instrumental sounds". 'Timbre' is a common synonym for tone color.

Imagine that two different instruments are playing the same musical line, the same notes, the same dynamics, etc. Even if they were played exactly the same way, a listener would quickly notice that one was played by a trombone and the other was played by a saxophone. That difference between the instrumental sounds is called the 'tone color'. A trombone has a different tone color from a saxophone.

If you were to play a single note on any instrument, the instrument would really be sounding more than one tone or air vibration. Due to the properties of vibrating matter, no acoustic (and very few electronic) sounds consist of just one simple vibration. Instead, they produce a series of mathematically related vibrations. Make even small changes in some of the components of this musical sound and we will be able to tell that the quality of the sound has changed.

An analogy--different combinations of radiation within certain limits (in other words, shades of light) are detected by our built-in radiation detectors (our eyes) and are sensed as being distinct from each other--in plain English, we recognize them as being different colors. The same thing happens musically. Different mixtures of air vibrations (sound) cause our frequency analyzers (the ones that stick out from the side of our heads) coupled with our nervous systems to tell us that two sounds are not the same. Again, that difference is a difference in tone color.

The term 'tone color' is used in a variety of ways, perhaps confusingly, but each one deals with the quality of sound. We say that different instruments or even different instrumental combinations have differing tone colors. A person skilled at producing imaginative combinations of orchestral instruments is referred to as a colorful orchestrator.

One more analogy--white light contains all frequencies of visible light. WHITE NOISE is a sound that contains all elements in the audible spectrum. Radio static, jet exhaust, a waterfall, wind, explosions, etc. are all examples of white noise. (Small technical and aesthetic note--NOISE is the term given to sound that has no organization or pattern. The next time someone refers to music that you listen to as 'noise', gently correct them--unless you really ARE listening to just static on the radio.)


TEXTURA -- "how the musical lines are woven". Often when music is composed, the composer will think in terms of a series of melodies, or lines. How he chooses the relationship between these lines is what will be referred to as the "texture".

Think of a comparison with cloth. Cloth is woven in many ways. A tight weave with many threads in a given area would be described as having a thick texture. A musical composition with many complex musical lines going on at once would also be described as having a thick texture. Very few lines in either the cloth or the music would be described as a thin texture.

Part of the style of a composer is his distinct treatment of the many musical lines used to make up a composition. While changing the element of texture will not alter a composition nearly as much as an alteration of the previous three, it will have a strong overall effect in the general sound.

A texture can and often will change within a piece of music. There is no reason that many of these elements can't change in a composition--in fact, its unwise to NOT have them change. Two common adjectives used to describe certain textures are HOMOPHONIC (one of two cases--all musical lines are alike and none of them has independence of the others OR a case of one line being very important and the others only supporting it) and POLYPHONIC (the opposite, with two or more musical lines having equal importance and interest in a composition; this can be the same line at occurring at different times--this is called a canon--or it could be completely different melodies).


RITMO -- "the time element in music". Musical sound can be said to fall into two basic domains--pitch and duration. Rhythm deals with the domain of duration--how long pitches last. A very crude, but almost workable system of musical notation can be made by dealing only with the pitch and duration aspects.

The musical notes in a composition have certain lengths relative to each other. These lengths are almost always again related to powers of two. These relative durations are represented by musical symbols called notes, some of which you will be learning. (Pitch is notated by the vertical placement of these notes on a five line grid called a STAFF.)

Now, here's where things might get a little confusing in this discussion, because like many other words the English language throws at us, rhythm has a number of different uses. A recurring series of irregular durational lengths, or note values, is called a rhythm.

A melody has a rhythm--listen to one and you'll recognize that not all of the notes are of the same length. Change the rhythm somewhat and even if you keep the pitches in the correct order, you will have an unrecognizable melody. A harmony usually has a rhythm incorporated into it. The drummer in a band is usually associated with the rhythm, as is often the case with the bass player. This helps to give a composition drive and life.

Contrasting with the above definition of a rhythm (but still falling within the general category of RHYTHM) is beat. Beat is the steady pulse which is felt, if not necessarily heard in a musical composition. It gives a sense of regular timing and a feeling of forward motion. If you begin tapping your feet or clapping your hands along with a piece of music, you are doing so courtesy of the beat. Music that requires or inspires physical movement almost always will have a powerful and prominent beat. Two examples of this are marching music and disco or other dance music.

To keep a clear understanding of what beat is, you must remember this--EACH BEAT IS SEPARATED BY AN EQUAL AMOUNT OF TIME.

Much of our music uses beat as a foundation, but begins creating a larger regular structure in the sound. Meter is the term used to describe this organization of regular beats by accenting (emphasizing) every third, every fourth, etc. beat. The melody and harmony will usually be closely tied to the most important beat in each grouping (these musical groups are called MEASURES). Almost always, the FIRST beat in each measure is the most important and the rest of the elements acknowledge that. An orchestral conductor's pattern is tied to the first beat of each measure. A feeling of meter helps to tie many of these elements together for a very unified musical effect.

Once again in this discussion, the powers of two come up. The most common meter in a song is usually two or four (which sounds like 2 x 2). Four or eight measures are usually used to build a phrase, four phrases usually build a large section, etc., etc.

Our music is so closely tied in with our physical and mental processes that some fascinating speculation comes up within a science fiction framework. If you have a chance, read "Rendezvous With Rama" by Arthur C. Clarke. It's a science fiction novel about contact with a civilization based on threes instead of twos. Although he makes no reference to the communications of that civilization, it would be interesting to speculate what their music would sound like. . .


FORMA -- "the mixture of familiar material with new or unexpected material in a composition."

I'm going to borrow the term "realtime" from the computer field here. A realtime operation is more or less one that has a fixed set of interactions with the user that must be executed in a fixed order. Often, the running of such a program is synchronized to a specific length of time.

If you think about it, music is very much a realtime operation. A painting or photo can be grasped in an instant. A book may be read in one day or over a period of months (and if you lose track of the plot or a character, you can flip back to refresh your memory). Music is unlike these two examples in that a five minute composition generally takes exactly five minutes to unfold. If you get lost in a piece of music, it's usually impractical to go back and listen to a section over again.

This places a bit of a burden on the composer who has a story to tell in sound. How does he keep the listener's attention during that five minutes, or perhaps twenty minutes, or perhaps two hours?

The answer is to establish a familiar idea, get away from it, return to it, perhaps transform it, and continue going through a series of cycles of changes. A strong sense of drama can be established by creating a sense of expectation in the listener--and then fulfilling it. Some of the most dramatic and climactic moments in music have been created when a familiar theme or idea returns. We instinctively crave the familiar in our musical structure. We also like the surprise or wit or even humor shown when a good composer throws the unexpected at us.

A quick lesson on understanding form: the letters of the alphabet are commonly used in the analysis of simple formal structures. When we hear the first important section, we label it as section "A". The next new section will be labeled "B". If the next music is the same as the first, we again label it as section "A". So far, the song I'm describing has a form of A-B-A. Let's say that the song has a fourth section that we haven't heard before--we label this as the next letter, "C". Assume that section B returns, followed by the music of the first section. Our analysis of the form of the song is A-B-A-C-B-A. Another composition that is assembled a little differently might have a form of A-B-C-A-B, etc. (Think--maybe you can answer why this written [visual] analysis of a piece of music would be necessary to help understand the form. . . two reasons might be that music is so much in the abstract, and that like a photo, it allows us to take it in all in one dose.)

The Golden Mean often comes up in a discussion of form. Listeners and composers for centuries have found that the summary section of a composition, called the recapitulation, should be about the last thirty-eight percent of a composition's length.

Again, does everyone who composes a piece of music think in terms of these proportions, or drama, or recurring form? Most probably don't. However, there's something to musical sound that, for lack of a better phrase, "just feels right".