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Music's DNA: Melody, Harmony, Rhythm

Updated on February 22, 2017

Explaining the unexplainable magic of music

ALL Songs Share 3 Characteristics

Every song has its own musical DNA, made up of three elements which are present in every popular song from every genre.

Those three building blocks of music's DNA which exist in every song are MELODY, HARMONY and RHYTHM.

Melody. Harmony. Rhythm. Pay special attention to those three words. They are common to all songs. In fact, a song cannot exist without all those three elements, interwoven in a unique way to form a unique piece of music (a song).

In fact, if music were a person, melody would be its "face", harmony would be its "meat", and rhythm would be its "bones".

To help you evaluate all music you've ever heard or ever will hear, make sure you understand these three terms, and the difference between each of them.


(1) MELODY - the primary sequence of notes in a song. Usually the melody is the part people sing along with. In songs with vocals, words will be assigned to the notes and the lead vocalist(s) is/are performing the melody.

During instrumental songs, and during non-vocal parts of vocal songs, the melody will be played by one or more musical instruments.

Sometimes in songs the melody is prominent and very "singable" (example: country or rock songs), while in other songs the melody is not as much a sequence of notes than an expressive chanting series of words (example: hiphop or rap songs)


(2) HARMONY - the secondary series of a particular sequence of notes or chords which occur simultaneously with the melody.

A song's harmony always has a different series of notes from the melody, although sometimes when the harmony is played simultaneously with the harmony the notes in both may be the same briefly. When two singers or intstruments are playing the same notes instead of harmonizing notes, they are no longer harmonizing but instead said to be playing "in unison" or together.

Harmony can be provided in a song either by voices or instruments, but either way, harmony is added to a song to compliment or enhance the melody.


(3) RHYTHM - The percussive and/or non-melodic sounds within a song which do not necessarily have specific notes or chords, but exist to define the impact points and beat structure of the song.

Depending on the instrumentation of the song, its rhythmic elements can be provided by any or all of VOICE, CHORDS, or by PERCUSSION INSTRUMENTS. More about that in the next chapter.

If music were a person, its MELODY, HARMONY & RHYTHM correspond to a person's "FACE", "MEAT" & "BONES". This analogy applies to all songs.

Here's an exercise to help you practice describing these three characteristics in your own words, before we cover each characteristic in detail.

1. Select three songs from three different genres. Write down the title and artist of each song. Use either your own music collection or find links online you can easily access (from Spotify, YouTube, etc.).

2. Using these three songs to discuss the melody, harmony and rhrythm you hear in each one. The songs do not have to have anything in common, but if they notice a similarity, point it out. This is your practice in trying to write descriptively about music.

Simply say what you hear in each song, in terms of each song's melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Tips in writing about MELODY: First, try to describe the melody in your own words. What do you like about the melody? Why is it interesting? Is it easy or hard to sing, for example? What pattern, if any, does the melody have? What do you like about the melody, in your own words. One sentence or so on each song's melody is fine.

Tips in writing about HARMONIES: Next, try to describe the harmonies used in each song. For example, what instruments are providing the harmonies and how do they interact with each other? Do those instruments seem to be playing the same notes or different ones? How do the song's harmonies enhance or improve the song? One sentence or so on each song's harmony is fine.

Tips in writing about RHYTHM: Finally, try to describe the rhythms of each song. Just focus on the percussion instruments or any other instrument that provides percussion effects in the songs you've chosen. Is the rhythm fast or slow? Do the rhythms seem simple or complex? Is the rhythm a key part of the song or does it seem secondary, like it's in the background? One sentence or so on each song's rhythm is fine.

Do this for a number of songs you know well. This will help develop your ability to describe the songs you hear.


In selecting songs, stick to the very popular, mass-appeal hit songs by well-known artists. This will help others understand or relate to what you're saying if they already are familiar with the song.

Last note:

Here's why learning these terms is important: In other blogs, we will be examining many musical genres from a historical perspective, and you should become familiar with using these terms, so that (a) you'll know what they mean, and (b) so that upcoming musical discussions you have or articles you read about music will have more value to you for the rest of your life.

That's it for now. Thanks!

Tom Z

(c) Copyright 2009 Thomas R. Zarecki. All Rights Reserved.


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