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the nucleus

Music Elements

Most sources, such as Aaron Copland's What to Listen For in Music [which is a terrific book], say that there are 5 music elements. As we've considered this over the years, we think there are four.

The 4 Music Elements [Building Blocks]

  1. Rhythm = Beat; the pattern of beats.
  2. Melody = Tune; musical line, a succession of single pitches that create a cohesive tune. Melody is the horizontal dimension of music.
  3. Harmony = Chords; Combination of simultaneous tones. Tones played together whether arpeggiated (broken) or blocked (played at the same time as in a strum). Harmony is the vertical dimension of music.
  4. Timbre = Tone Color; the shape & spectral frequencies of tones. 2 types: the difference between instruments (e.g. a saxophone & a guitar, you can tell the difference), & the way tones are colorized on a particular instrument. On the guitar, timbre could be between the strings (the way the same note sounds different, elsewhere on the fretboard); or, when picking at the bridge (ponticello) or over the fretboard near the 12th fret (tasto). Timbre is pronounced 'tam-ber'.

The '5th', according to some sources, is texture. Yet, we consider texture as a usage or combination of the the 4 elements. Texture can also mean the overall sound, such as an abrasive or plush texture.


Texture is the existence, usage, or combination of the music elements. Again, the term can also mean 'feel' or 'tone' of a given section or instrument. In this usage, it is closely linked with timbre. In my professional experience lately, I've heard texture replaced with 'style'.

  • Monophonic - a single melody, whether one or one million people are singing it in unison.
  • Polyphonic - 2 or more melodies occurring at the same time (counterpoint).
  • Homophonic - a melody with harmony as accompaniment (most of our popular music).
  • Homorhythmic - music moving in the same rhythm.
  • Polyrhythmic - multiple rhythms simultaneously

Sometimes, we've seen the following terms grouped with elements, but again, to us, these aren't building blocks [elements], rather, the application of the building blocks [ways to play and how they are arranged or utilized].

  • Dynamics - the relative volume of music or individual parts, whether soft or loud, or in between.
  • Form - Structure in music. The organization of the sections of music. A common rock tune's form is Intro, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Chorus, Outro (or Tag). Of course, there can be transitions, such as Pre-Chorus'. There can also be interludes, etc. There are many versions of this basic form, & there are many more types of form.