The Musical Elements I study

My analysis procedure is more or less standardized. I wrote about it here. Basically, I start with the big picture (form, sections, phrases) then drill down to finer and finer detail.  When writing it up there are several categories, specific musical components, on which I organize the presentation. The table below lists the main aspects I write about. While they are not absolutely distinct categories – there is overlap – they are foundational. The list is somewhat tailored to studying tango music, but generally all music contains these elements.

Elements for Analysis

  • identify the s
  • what is their character, their musical qualities
s
  • identify the phrases, on several levels, within the section
  • what is their character, their musical qualities
  • how the instruments are used
  • what is their function
  • the , is the sound thick, full or light, sparse, or in between
Tempo
  • the speed, in beats per minute, fast, moderate or slow
  • how the tempo contributes to the character
s and
  • what are the keys, major or minor, and do they change
  • identify the s
  • where and what type are the s
  • what is the
  • how do harmonic aspects contribute to the character of the  music

  • its character
  • identify the s
  • its
  • is it or an , or both
  • the shape, the rhythms, the
Counter Melodies
  • when present, describe them as per Melody above
  • their effect, how do they change the character of the music
Melodic Elaboration
  • is the melody altered, in what way
  • what is the effect
  • does the music get louder or softer
  • are there sudden changes
Accompaniment and its Rhythm
  • how it creates the or pulse
  • are there distinguishing rhythmic patterns
  • is there , describe it
  • how does the accompaniment support or contrast the melody
  • what is the
Other Features
  • anything else not covered above

 

 

How the music is organized, structured; the number of sections and the way they  are constructed, the number of bars and phrases in each, and the order they are performed. more...

Sections are the top level element of music's form. They are the the large building blocks of tango music, typically lasting around thirty seconds or so. Each section is a unique segment of music, having a distinct musical character.

Tango music has two, occasionally three, primary sections, which we may label  “A”, “B”, “C”. Sometimes there is an "Introduction", "Bridge", a short section between two larger ones, or "Coda", a short concluding section.

Usually each section will be played consecutively in order (A then B then C), followed by various other orderings. Typically in tango songs each section is played instrumentally then each is sung, then section A is played instrumentally: A-B-A (vocal)-B (vocal)-A. But there are many exceptions and other possibilities.

Phrases exist within a section.

A short section of music with a clear start and end quality, with a consistent or complementary musical character. Generally, the character is different from what comes after or precedes it, anywhere from subtly to very obvious. more...

Phrasing is both how the phrase is constructed to accomplish the composer's objectives and how the music is played, that is, interpreted.

Depending on the context, when I write "phrasing" I may be referring to how the music is written in phrases, such as Question and Answer Phrasing, or how the orquesta interprets and shapes the music, or both.   more...

Orchestration or instrumentation is how the instruments are used; which instruments are playing at any given time and what is their function, such as melodic, accompaniment, creating the pulse, linking phrases (fills).

Texture is the overall "size" or "weight" of the musical sound, using descriptive terms such as "large", "thick", "full", or "thin", "sparse" or "light".

Many musical elements contribute to texture, including: the way notes in the harmonies are spread out into different octaves and instruments; whether different instrumental sections (strings, bandoneons, piano, bass) are playing simultaneously or alone; whether the sections are playing in unison (the same notes) or in harmony (playing chords).

More information and audio examples are available, here.

The key specifies the first note in the scale and the interval, or distance, between successive notes. Keys are either major or minor and have strikingly different musical qualities. Major keys are "bright", "happy". Minor keys are "sad", "melancholic". (Very generally speaking!)

Keys are identified by the key signature, the sharps (#) or flats (b) (or lack of them in C major/a minor), that are positioned on the lines and spaces at the beginning of each staff, after the clef sign. The key signature alone tells us only which major or minor key the music is in. Not until we read or hear the music is it possible to know whether the music in a major or minor key, because every major key has a relative minor and vice versa. That is, relative keys - one always major, the other always minor - share a common key signature.

more...

There are several definitions for "harmony". For my purposes I use this one: harmony is three or more different notes sounded together, also called a chord. When I write "the harmony" or "the underlying harmony" I am specifically referring to the notes in a chord.

A harmonic (or chord) progression is a sequence of two or more chord changes, identified by name and type.

Harmonies may change to any other harmony or type, although there are traditional guidelines in their selection based upon the scale and intended function. There are many commonly used progressions. One being tonic (i)- subdominant (iv) - dominant (V#) - tonic (i). In C minor, for example, the harmonies are: c minor - f minor - G major - c minor.

Cadences are standard chord progressions, such as the Perfect Cadence, in c minor: c minor (tonic, i) - G major (dominant major, V#) - c minor (tonic, i).

The harmonic progression largely determines which notes the melody uses and is a primary element in how the music sounds and effects us. Typically, to achieve a consonant sound, the melody primarily uses chord tones, ie. notes in the chord. Melodies which sound dissonant use more non-chord tones. Very generally speaking.

(The elements of harmony are complex. See Harmony for more detailed explanation with music and audio samples).

A cadence occurs when the music comes to a pause, a resting point, a complete stop, or resolution of tension. It is achieved by a few specific harmonic progressions. Often there is a rhythmic change which helps create the sense of pause or resolution.

The most obvious cadences happen at the end of phrases and sections, and almost certainly at the very end, where the harmonies move from I-V(7)-I.

More information about harmonies and cadences is available on the Harmony page.

Harmonic rhythm is the rate harmonies, or chords, change.

Harmonies may change at a regular pace, for example on the first beat of every bar; that being a slow harmonic rhythm. Or there may be more than one harmony within the bar, a faster harmonic rhythm, or the harmony may last for more than one bar, a very slow harmonic rhythm.

When the harmonic rhythm is slow, changing only on beat one for example, the music feels regular and evenly flowing. When the harmonic rhythm is fast the musical character has more action and movement. Typically during more dramatic moments and at cadences the harmonic rhythm increases.

(The elements of harmony are complex. See Harmony for more detailed explanation with music and audio samples).

Melodies are a succession of notes moving through time, one at a time. Melody is the proper term for what some some call the "tune".

Melodic shape and melodic rhythm are two factors every melody uses in some way. Melodic shape is the general direction the melody moves in terms of pitch: up, down, sideways. Melodic rhythm is the rhythm(s) applied to the pitches.

Many other elements fall within these two categories. Some are: tessitura, interval spacing (the distance between two notes), the use of arpeggios, chord tones, scales, non-chord tones, syncopation, and many others.

A short melodic and/or rhythmic figure having distinct musical character and qualities. A motif is often a component of the larger melody.

An example, Carlos Di Sarli's Bahia Blanca:
The first 2 bars

Notice how the last few notes, the melodic shape and rhythm, are used to create the echo-sighing effect in the next couple of bars. Those notes are a motif.
Bars 3-4

Tessitura is a term used to describe two things, both concerning pitches in a melody or portion of music. One aspect specifically describes the pitch range, for example from the lowest to highest note in a melody. The other aspect is the music's overall pitch level, its register, such as mostly low sounding notes or mostly high sounding notes.

For more information and audio examples, click here.

When a melody or segment of music moves mostly in step-wise fashion using notes of the underlying scale. A scalar melody uses both chord and non-chord tones, compared to an arpeggio which uses only chord tones.

Scalar and arpeggiated melodies have distinctly different sound qualities. Composers blend the two together to create melodies of vastly different and varying character.

Music examples are here.

An arpeggio is a chord (a harmony) that is broken up into individual notes, that is, the notes are heard one at a time in succession, not simultaneously. Arpeggios are frequently heard in the melody and somewhat less in the accompaniment.

More information, music and audio examples are here.

The way the notes are played and connected to one another: anywhere from gently played to heavily attacked; held for the full duration of the note value or clipped short; smoothly connected to the notes before and after, or continuously separated.

There are many technical terms for these differences, but for tango we mostly need to be aware of two broad kinds of articulation, the extreme ends of the spectrum: a connected legato, which often creates a lyrical quality, and an accented, clipped short marcato. Generally, the strings and singers have a legato articulation, while the bandoneons have a marcato one.

Dynamics is the volume factor in music. There are two broad categories: a relative volume level which does not change until some marking specifies it does; and a volume that changes gradually or suddenly.

Beat is the underlying and regularly spaced pulse of the music, measured in beats per minute. There are a fixed number of beats in a bar, indicated by the time signature. Tango (2/4, 4/8, 4/4) has 2 or 4 beats per bar, vals (3/4) has 3 and milonga (2/4) has 2.

(There may be a sense of 4 beats even though the time signature is 2/4. Tango very often subdivides the 2/4 beat, doubling the count from 2 to 4, effectively using a 4/8 time signature. Some tango music is explicitly written in 4/8, most are in 2/4. See Tango Time Signatures and the Beat).

Notes between the primary beats or emphasizing normally weak beats. In tango almost always as part of a rhythmic pattern, most frequently the habanera or its variations. Often the syncopated notes are emphasized or accented in a marcato style, but not necessarily so.  more...

The way the notes are played and connected to one another: anywhere from gently played to heavily attacked; held for the full duration of the note value or clipped short; smoothly connected to the notes before and after, or continuously separated.

There are many technical terms for these differences, but for tango we mostly need to be aware of two broad kinds of articulation, the extreme ends of the spectrum: a connected legato, which often creates a lyrical quality, and an accented, clipped short marcato. Generally, the strings and singers have a legato articulation, while the bandoneons have a marcato one.

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3 Responses to The Musical Elements I study

  1. male dancer says:

    For a non-musician your analysis is very interesting, indeed. Being “only” a dancer, I do try to make notices of the RITMO of the (tango) music I listen to, i.e. the tempo, accents on-two or on-four, syncopations etc. However, even more important for a dancer is the COMPAS, which is a rather more subjective thing. To mark the COMPAS of a piece of tango music, I am using six definitions, from “Sloppy” to “Choppy”, i.e.: Sloppy—Smooth—Lighter rhythmic— Harder rhythmic— Marching — Choppy. In addition, the MOOD of a piece of music is immensely important for a dancer. Personally, I have used the following MOOD markings in my record listings: Mundane — Upbeat — Lyrical — Romantic — Melancholic — Dramatic. Also, I make a mark on the VARIABILITY of the musical texture (none, some, much), and this attibute seems to coincide rather much with the more elaborate details of your MUSICALITY analysis! And yes, please carry on with your interesting work!

    • tangomonkey says:

      Thanks!

      The important thing is to always pay attention to the music – hear it AND feel it. You are doing that and have a good systematic approach, identifying how the music sounds and feels to you.

  2. Awesome site – thanks for making such a great amount of research available online

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