Exploring the Concepts of Music
Music, as described in the Oxford Dictionary, is considered to be sounds combined to achieve “beauty of form, harmony and expression of emotion.”
Although this might be true, the theory within music is more complex, consisting of a number of different concepts. Of these concepts, music scholars have distinguished six which are most key. Concepts included within this essential group include duration, pitch, dynamics, tone, texture and structure.
Duration refers to how long or short a particular sound is. Duration does not necessarily refer to how long the entire piece of music is, but rather the length of the sounds being made. The combination of different durations determines the rhythm or beat of music within a piece. For example, a note stretching over two beats, followed by a one-beat note, may indicate a waltz timing, or 3/4-time signature.
Different durations of sounds can change the speed of the beat or tempo within a piece. One phrase of the piece may have many fast, short sounds, which could indicate the tempo allegro or vivace while a piece with longer, drawn out sounds may be more lento.
Students can learn duration by studying different notes and phrases while adding a physical action to each note, such as a stomp and clap. The clap can represent he note while the stomps can represent the beat. Using simple actions like this is a straight forward way to help students recognize different durations and note values.
Pitch is crucial to developing a tune as it refers to how high or low the notes are. Music is rarely just one pitch – it would be hard on the ears to hear the same note over and over again, even if it was varying in duration and dynamics. The pitch of the note also includes their tone and the key signature. A note that is played even slightly off pitch will stick out and cause even untrained listeners to cringe!
Pitch also refers to intervals, triads, major and minor scales. Scales – both minor and major are made up of tones and semi-tones. These variances in pitch can change the mood of a piece of music. An interval may sound happy – a major scale – or sad, a minor scale. A diminished triad may leave a sense of suspense that there is more to come. Pitch can also dictate mood.
Teaching pitch is a crucial aspect of music education as this concept adds variety and complexity to a piece of music. Playing chords and encouraging students to determine whether they are major, minor, diminished or augmented will help them understand how pitch works to create atmosphere and harmony.
Dynamics is a crucial aspect of musical expression. It refers to how soft or loud a sound is – known as piano or forte in a musical score. It includes crescendo or diminuendo – the process of increasing or decreasing the loudness of the sound.
Dynamics create drama and atmosphere within a piece of music. Sounds can be long and smooth, called legato, or short and sharp, staccato. Dynamics also refer to the way a piece of music is played. For example, a string instrument may play pizzicato which is when they pluck the strings with their fingers, rather than using the bow to make the sound.
Accents are also part of the concept of dynamics, where emphasis is placed on certain notes within a phrase. Accents help create rhythm.
Dynamics are relatively straight forward to teach. A music phrase can be played loud or soft for students then to repeat. If they are able to recognise the dynamics in the piece they will be able to repeat it as instructed. If they struggle to create a loud of soft sound themselves, they may not be able to understand different dynamics and may require further instruction.
Tone can be considered as the colour of a sound, or quality. Tone depends on the instrument being played. For example a violin might be considered as having a bright, sharp tone while a tuba may be described as having a warm and rich tone.
Different tones play an important part in the dynamics of a piece of music, and can help create atmosphere or moods. A harp might be described as having a magical tone, and therefore creating a mystical atmosphere.
In vocal training, the tone of a singer’s voice can vary from person to person. Tone may change depending on a person’s breath control and from which part of their body they are using to produce the sound. A person singing through their nose or head can sound ‘tinny’ or ‘nasal’ but singing using full and deep breaths gives resonance and a rich tone. Students can test this out by trying to sing firstly with an exaggerated nasal-sounding tone by singing through their nose, followed by singing while breathing out and pushing out their stomach muscles to help them understand the difference.
The texture of music is about how thick or thin the sounds are and takes into account the number of sounds there are.
There can be single notes played one at a time, or notes played together to form a chord, which produces a more complex harmony. Sounds can be played in unison or may be layered. This could be in the form of a ‘call and response’ or in a round – where the same tune is repeated by different groups, starting at different points in the phrase.
A solo is when one person plays an instrument or sings on their own, carrying the main melody. In a group setting, the lead instrument or voice may carry the main tune, but others may form background sounds and tunes to compliment the melody.
Educators may wish to play different music with different textures to students to see if they can pick out how many instruments or voices they can hear, and whether it is ‘thin’ or ‘thick’. Students need to be thinking about how different sounds can be brought together to create harmony.
Structure is how a piece of music is put together, or the order of the parts of the song. There are many different structures to music, but one of the most popular forms is a chorus/verse form, with an intro and bridge also forming the overall structure.
Binary form is another type of musical structure commonly used. Binary form is where there are two different parts to the song. The first part may be repeated before the second part of the song is played, rather than alternating like the chorus/verse structure. Ternary is a three-part music structure. There are a number of music structures – and some pieces of music have no structure whatsoever.
Students should listen to music pieces carefully and decide what kind of structure the piece has. Teachers can play certain pieces and have students say which part is the introduction, the bridge, the verse and so forth.
Learning these concepts will help music students understand their own practice and performance. Students should be encouraged to consider all these concepts with composing or performing a piece of music. A memorable piece of music will have distinct aspects from each of these concepts to create something unique and expressive.