The Building Blocks of Music

What elements do we need to make music?

Its melody

Frequency and pitch

When a cat purrs in delight, the vibrations in its vocal folds produce sound waves that travel through the air at a certain frequency. These vibrations enter the brain as signals, which are then perceived as sounds of a specific pitch. In this case, it’s likely to be a high-pitched sound, in contrast to the low growl of a tiger.

Though frequency and pitch are closely related, they are distinct from each other. Frequency is a physical characteristic that is measured objectively. Pitch is a subjective perception, a mental representation in our mind, similar to how color is our perception of different wavelengths of light.

In any case, the pitch we perceive from a sound wave is primarily dependent on its frequency. For example, the note C4, which is the middle C key on a piano, has a corresponding frequency of 261.6 Hz. The key to its left, B4, has a frequency of 246.9 Hz.

A range of sound

When we play instruments, we produce different pitches to create interesting sounds. After all, hearing the same note on repeat gets boring after a while.

We vary the notes played on a recorder by pressing onto one or more of the instrument’s tone holes. By enclosing part of a recorder’s tube, we slow down the vibrations produced when we blow into it.

The slower the vibration, the lower the frequency and the lower the frequency, the lower the pitch that we hear. By controlling vibrations, we are able to play different notes or different pitches on an instrument.

Just as there is an infinite range of colors in the light spectrum, there is an infinite range of frequencies and pitches in the sound spectrum. The human ear can detect frequencies between 20–20,000 Hz.

We are physiologically incapable of hearing beyond this range, similar to how we cannot see beyond a visible light spectrum. For instance, dog whistles usually emit frequencies above 20,000 Hz. Since dogs have a wider range of hearing than humans, they can hear the sounds made by dog whistles while we cannot.

The alphabet of music

Given the sheer number of frequencies and pitches detectable by the human ear, it’s important to have a system, or at least a common language, for identifying distinct pitches. The Ancient Greeks had their own musical system, but the system we know today, called ‘solfège,’ commonly referred to as ‘do-re-me,’ was developed in 1000 AD by Guido of Arezzo, an Italian music theorist, and Benedictine monk.

Western music is rooted in twelve notes – seven note names, plus five sharps or flats in between. This is best illustrated on a piano keyboard. The white keys represent the seven note names – C, D, E, F, G, A, B or do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si in some European countries. The sequence repeats as we go from left to right on a piano, each key representing a letter in the musical alphabet.

The duality of black keys

Unlike white keys, which are considered natural, black keys represent sharps or flats. The identity of a black key is tied to the white keys on either side of it. It is half a note higher than the white key to its left, which is why it is considered a ‘sharpened’ version – pitch is slightly higher. For example, the black key to the right of C is a half a note higher, so it’s a sharpened version of C. In musical notation, we’d label it C♯, read as ‘C-sharp.’

The same black key we know as C♯ is also half a note lower than the white key to its right, which is D. As such, it is considered a ‘flattened’ version of D and is thus equivalent to D♭ or ‘D-flat.’ It is half a note lower, registering a lower pitch than the natural D.

Why 12 notes?

How can Western music have only twelve notes when the human ear can detect an infinite number of pitches? A standard piano has 88 keys, far more than twelve! The keys of a piano show a recurring pattern of white and black keys. The twelve musical notes repeat themselves throughout the 88 keys – just as different versions. So, if you start on a C and keep moving right, every 13th key will also be a C.

The distance between two notes is called an ‘interval.’ When you go from one key to the next on a piano, you move by a semitone, the smallest interval in Western music. Of course, there are more frequencies and pitches in between, but these ‘microtones’ are not officially recognized.

Each interval in music has a corresponding name. A common interval you may have heard of is an ‘octave.’ An octave is an interval made up of twelve semitones, like the distance between one note and its next iteration twelve keys to the right, which we would say is an octave higher.

What’s so special about an octave?

Curious music students, especially as they’re starting out, may find music arbitrary. Natural notes are notes that are neither flat nor sharp. Why do we use seven letters to represent them? Why are there twelve notes in an octave? The simple explanation is that, perhaps, it is arbitrary – that it’s just how music has evolved over centuries of refinement.

Except, when we hear two notes an octave apart, they sound similar. This part of music is not arbitrary. Instead, it comes down to the relationship between pitch and frequency. A note one octave above another has twice the frequency of the lower note. Another octave higher, and the third note has twice the frequency of the middle note. Middle C has a frequency of 261.63 Hz. The C an octave above is 523.25 Hz, while High C is 1046.50 Hz.

This 2:1 ratio underpins the octave. Pitches separated by octaves sound similar because they are. Their sound waves fit together because of their mathematical relationship. Music “just works” because of these underlying mathematical concepts. Part of the magic is seeing how these numbers come together to create a system; the other part is listening to the resulting beauty we call music.

Finding E♯ and B♯

Why aren’t there B♯ or E♯ keys? If an octave has twelve notes, why not just use six musical letters instead of seven so each letter has its equivalent half-note?

The answer to this question takes us back to music history. Plainchant or Gregorian chants, the earliest form of church music, used the seven white notes exclusively. There was no need for sharps, flats, or black keys. Over time, B♭ became necessary to resolve what is called a ‘dissonant interval,’ or a pair of notes that sound inharmonious when played together. Placing a B beside an F created an unpleasant sound because the notes clashed. Adjusting the B note down to a B♭ solved this auditory tension, and thus B♭ came to be used as an alternative version of B whenever played with an F.

As music evolved, four more alternative versions, or ‘flats,’ were used to resolve the same issue of the dissonant interval. But because of how the math worked out, there was never a need for keys between B and C or E and F. Thus, we only have five black keys in each octave.

Arranging notes into a melody

Stringing together different pitches into a melodic sequence creates a certain magic. Take notes C, D, and E. With just three pitches, we have a tune universally recognized, the popular nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

‘Melody’ is one of the most identifiable parts of a song. It’s what we usually pick up first when hearing a new song, and it’s often what lingers in our memory. When asked to sing a particular song, we usually hum or sing its melody. The way notes are arranged conveys a story, even without the accompaniment of lyrics. When music tugs at our emotions, we have a melody to thank.

Melodies are composed of different pitches, but it’s not so much the specific pitches the songwriter chooses that is important. We can hum “Mary Had a Little Lamb” two whole notes higher, at G♯, and complete the rest of the song with E and F♯, or alternatively, two whole notes above at C and D, respectively. The notes have changed, but the pattern remains, and we still recognize the melody as the original. After all, melodies are not about the notes used but how they are arranged relative to each other.

Grooving to the music

At its base, songs are built on an evenly-paced ‘beat,’ which forms the music’s pulse. This beat keeps the song moving forward, like a clock going tick-tock. When we tap our feet to a song, we’re often tapping in time to the beat. When we sing the letters “L-M-N-O-P” just a bit more quickly than the rest of the letters in the alphabet song, it’s because it’s a part of the song’s ‘rhythm.’

Rhythm provides a richness to music by adding a temporal aspect to the pattern of notes in a melody. Some notes linger, others skip across lightly, and sometimes, notes give way to a purposeful silence.

Rhythm transforms sound into music by spelling out the relationship between the lengths of two notes within a tune. A regular rhythm provides a structure to songs, a pattern that listeners can anticipate. Meanwhile, creating a break in this pattern adds an element of surprise and prevents a song from diving into monotony.

A widely underappreciated skill

There is a common misconception that hitting all the right notes creates a perfect run of a musical piece. After all, misplaced notes can make a melody sound awkward or, worse, painful to hear. Just as important but often overlooked, however, is the skill of timing notes correctly. Sadly, some students may rush through a piece, ignoring its rhythm, with the idea that speed indicates skill.

Rhythm organizes notes into a temporal pattern. A lack of rhythm may not seem like a big deal when playing solo, but it’s a huge barrier to playing music properly with other musicians. Imagine listening to an orchestra where everyone is keeping perfect time, when all of a sudden, the tuba player goes rogue and zooms through the rest of the piece, leaving everyone else behind.

Developing a good sense of rhythm entails practice. This starts with counting beats out loud – “ONE-two-three-four, TWO-two-three-four” – and progresses into counting the beats in one’s head while playing a musical piece. Most musicians also practice with a metronome, a device that makes clicking sounds based on a set interval.

Finding rhythm in musical notation

When performing, how do musicians know which notes to play, and for how long? Classically trained musicians, especially those in orchestras, rely on sheet music. These printouts use musical notation, a visual way of marking down how music is intended to be played. Musical notation includes a range of symbols, like a language of its own.

A key piece of information musical notation provides is a song’s ‘rhythm.’ Each note in the sheet has a relative time value or duration indicated by its shape. In between the notes, we might also find rest symbols. Notes and rests throughout the piece are separated by bar lines into smaller groups called measures. These vertical lines serve as visual aids for keeping pace with the song’s beat.

Standard musical notation allows classical musicians to play music together, even songs they’re unfamiliar with. Indeed, the ability to read sheet music is an important skill – essential, in some cases – but it’s not a requirement for all musicians. Many rock bands succeed without knowledge of standard musical notation. Their music tends to be simpler, so they can get by practicing the same set of songs as a group.

Stacking notes into harmony

Performed by a single vocalist, the song “Amazing Grace” sounds beautiful. But when several vocalists come together as a choir, the resulting harmony, produced by notes layered atop one another, adds color and mood to the piece and lends complexity to the song.

Think of harmony as placing garnish on a chocolate cake. The cake is delicious alone, but adding whipped cream and strawberries elevates it. You can’t just add any topping to a chocolate cake on a whim, though. Some flavors won’t go well with it, like a lemon glaze. Likewise, with musical notes, some combinations may not work. You’d need either an exceptionally skilled composer to make it sound good, or additional elements to make it palatable.

That said, what sounds good is influenced by cultural factors. If we’re not used to hearing a certain combination of notes, it may sound odd at first. As it becomes familiar, it starts sounding more harmonious. Likewise, chocolate cake and matcha might taste odd initially, but with repeated exposure, we might learn to enjoy it as an acquired taste.

Texture, dynamics, and form

The way melody, rhythm, and harmony come together in a song produces another ingredient of music – ‘texture.’ Texture describes the overall sound quality of a musical piece. When instruments and notes overlap in several layers, we say their texture is “thick.” When the overall sound is sparse, and we can identify and distinguish individual instruments or melodies, the texture is “thin.”

The loudness or softness of music, called ‘dynamics,’ also adds a type of flavor. “Fix You” by Coldplay starts out soft but builds up, creating a climax that brings great satisfaction to the listener. In classical music, composers use Italian words like pianissimo (very soft), forte (loud), and crescendo (gradually increasing in loudness) to convey specific instructions to musicians on sheet music.

Though most pop songs these days seemingly follow a structure of intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge, songwriters can arrange different parts or sections of a song however they choose. Take Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a sweeping six-minute musical journey that’s part piano ballad and part operatic masterpiece. In contrast to modern popular music, six minutes is short for classical music standards. Songs can be hours-long and take on a range of forms, including arias, concertos, sonatas, and symphonies.

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