What is "your" music?
Musically speaking, where do you live?
I have designed this article to serve as a gateway to more informed and insightful listening for two kinds of people: those with no musical training that would like to better understand music as a listener, or those who had musical training a long time ago and have found that much of their learning has become lost in the disordered files of distant memory. The descriptions and short demonstrative videos below provide quick access to the musical basics in simple terms that require no musical background what so ever. These concepts will give the reader the power to listen more thoughtfully and purposefully to any style of music.
Before we begin, be aware that there are a large number of terms here covering many topics in a pretty short space of time. Prior familiarity with them will make it easier, but there is still a lot to take in all at once. Keep in mind that the goal of this is not to memorize all these terms as if there were going to be a test. Walking through them, even if most of the finer points are quickly forgotten, will hopefully open your mind to new and different ways of thinking about music when you listen to it, which is the point of this discussion.
Lastly, I highly recommend listening to the video examples included. I know your time is valuable, so I have purposefully made them extremely short, but it is difficult to clearly understand musical concepts without musical examples. The videos will provide this support.
What is Music?
Music is a carefully designed sound experience ordered over time. All basic musical concepts can be divided into these two categories:
- Sound Concepts
- Time Concepts
Pitch & Scale
The Definition of "Pitch"
The most basic element of musical sound is pitch. Pitch is simply how high or low the frequency of the sound is.
The Definition of "Scale"
In most forms of music, pitches are arranged into a scale, which is simply a selection of pitches arranged into a specific order. In the music of the western world, the two most common scales are the following:
- Major Scale
- Minor Scale
There are many other scales with a variety of structures and fancy names. Knowing the specifics on these in not important unless you are a musician, but it is helpful to be aware of the fact that there are different kinds of scales. This is important because the scale used in a particular piece helps to create the feel of the musical landscape through which the piece will move.
The Definition of "Melody"
Composers arrange the pitches in a scale to focus our attention on continuous musical lines known as “melodies.” The “melody” of a pice of music can most easily be described as the musical line that belongs to the vocalist in a song. Purely instrumental music often has melodies as well, though they are not strictly “sung.”
Melody, Motive & Phrase
The Definition of "Motive"
Musical phrases are made up of smaller units called “musical motives” or “musical gestures.” These short bits of musical meaning function like words inside the musical line. They are quite short and represent the most basic units of musical meaning that a composer or performer works with.
The Definition of "Phrase"
A musical phrase is the musical equivalent of a sentence in language. They have a logical beginning and end that one can sense because of the way that musicians play with the tension and release that musical scales naturally create (listen to the demonstration video for a more complete discussion of this).
The Definition of "Chords"
A chord is created when three or more notes sound at the same time. Harmony is created through the use of chords. Chords share a strong relationship with scales and create a similar sense of movement and direction through the development of tension and release (listen to the demonstration video for a more complete discussion of this).
Chords, Harmony & Texture
The Definition of "Harmony"
Harmony is the collection of musical notes that run underneath the melody and are primarily responsible for establishing the emotional feel of the musical landscape. If a musical melody were a hike through the woods, then the harmonic accompaniment would be the shifts in the weather and the movement of the sunlight through the trees.
The Definition of "Texture"
Texture is a word that describes how many notes (or instruments in larger ensembles) are used to create the harmonies within a given section of the music. “Thin” textures use only a few notes or instruments to create harmonic accompaniment where “thick” textures use many notes or instruments to get the job done.
Dynamics, Crescendo & Diminuendo
A Piano "Did You Know?"
The instrument that we know as the “piano” today was originally called the “pianoforte,” literally the “soft-loud.” It was given this name because the harpsichord, which is the keyboard instrument that preceded it, was only capable of playing at one volume. With the introduction of the pianoforte, composers had a new keyboard instrument that was capable of expressing a wide range of musical dynamics.
The Definition of "Dynamics"
Dynamics refers to the volume of the music—loud and soft. Musicians refer to musical volume using the Italian equivalents for these two words:
- forte = loud (by strict translation, “forte” means “strong”)
- piano = soft (by strict translation, “piano” means “gentle”)
In truth, the strict Italian translations of the words, “strong” and “gentle,” are better descriptions than “loud” and “soft” for how musicians approach musical dynamics.
Adding “…issimo” to the end of either of these words adds emphasis to it. That is, “fortissimo” becomes “very strong” where “pianissimo” becomes “very gently.”
The Definition of "Crescendo" & "Diminuendo"
A crescendo is when the volume of the music gets gradually louder. A diminuendo is when the volume of the music gets gradually softer. While simple in concept, mastering the application of them takes a lifetime.
There are two basic elements to musical time:
Since all musical rhythms are subject to the tempos that run beneath them, we will begin with a look at tempo and a few of its key terms.
The Definition of "Tempo"
Tempo is simply the speed of the beat. Musicians keep track of the tempo by using what they call a “metronome marking,” which is a measurement of beats per second. Here’s a chart of the most basic musical tempos including the terms musicians use to name them, the metronome marking and a brief description of how each one feels:
Musical Term (Italian)
Mentronome Marking (in beats per second)
Around 52 or Less
A very slow tempo, sometimes used for funeral marches or deeply contemplative music
52 to About 70
A slow tempo, but fast enough to maintain a tangible forward movement, used in slow songs and slower, song-like classical compositions
72 to 104
Literally, "to walk." This is an steady and clearly forward moving tempo that is in no way rushed.
108 to 144
A noticeably fast tempo with an aggresive beat. Used for marches or more upbeat and aggressive tunes.
Higher than 144
A very fast tempo with driving forward movement. Used in very exciting especially aggresive sections of music.
Tempos in music, working along with the harmonies, have a strong effect on the emotional atmosphere of a given piece of music. Tempo in music is like the heartbeat of a person, and it both reflects and responds to the influence of emotion in a similar way.
Tempo, Accelerando, Ritardando & Rubato
The Definition of "Accelerando"
Accelerando is the Italian term for acceleration. Musicians use this term to describe the places in music where the tempo needs to speed up.
The Definition of "Ritardando"
Ritardando is the Italian term for slowing down. Musicians use it to describe the places in the music where the tempo needs to slow down.
The Definition of "Rubato"
As a general rule, tempos in music need to stay very constant. Sometimes, however, in order to allow for certain kinds of musical expression, a composer will indicate a place in the music where she wants the performer to stretch and condense the tempo to emphasize certain musical lines. This is yet another tool that musicians use to create and influence tension and release.
The Definition of "Rhythm"
Rhythm is the pattern of sound over time. Rhythms can be fast or slow and come in an infinite variety of patterns.
Rhythm & Articulation
The Definition of "Articulation"
Articulation refers to how long or short the individual notes are and the ways in which they are either woven together or distinctly separated. Articulation is an extremely difficult concept to describe in words. Musical examples, however, make it obvious right away. If you do not watch any of the other videos in this article, I suggest you watch this one.
How to Listen Like a Musician
As mentioned in the introduction, I have presented a huge number of concepts here that musicians spend a lifetime integrating and perfecting. So of what value is all of this to you, who may well be a non-musician who just loves listening to music? What I suggest is this:
What I have just gone over covers a great many of the things that musicians, composers and song writers think about when they are writing and performing their music. It does not matter if you remember what “dynamics” means or if you can identify a “ritardando” when it happens.
What does matter is that you understand how important it is to listen for musical patterns—patterns of rhythm, melody and harmony—and also that you begin to consciously notice shifts in the music that affect the emotional landscape of what’s going on.
There are many people who do not listen to music this way; they simply let the music wash over them, listening to lyrics and singing along. It is my hope that this article helps you to develop a relationship with music in which you no longer simply listen “to” the music, but you begin to listen “for” something within it.
Crossing this bridge is the gateway to understanding and appreciating classical music in particular, but also the beginning of a much deeper appreciation for every kind of music in the world, from rap to folk music to country to hip hop to jazz.
If you have made it this far, thank you for taking this journey through music with me. Should you be interested, I have developed a few articles that take the material presented here and apply it to specific pieces of classical piano music. In each article I provide a brief history of the composer along with an introduction to the piece explaining how it came about. I then use many of the concepts presented here to present a brief analysis of each piece, once again using simple and fast explanatory videos to make the music easily accessible.
If you are interested in learning how to listen “for” things in classical music, these articles are a great place to start. Whatever you do, love the music you love with all that you are; it is one of the great gifts this life has to offer us.