One of the greatest things that music provides for the people who compose it, play it and appreciate it, is an outlet of expression that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Some might argue that the main purpose of music is to express emotions: taking the feelings that the composer or songwriter has and putting them into sound.
While the ways that an audio producer, musician or composer can manipulate sound to express their feelings are vast and nebulous, there are certainly ways to categorize these elements and break them down to be as accessible as possible. These elements of expression can be useful for anyone who wants to create and play music that moves people emotionally, or for anyone who just wants to understand why their favorite songs can induce such strong emotions.
As a quick reference tool, here are some of the most common elements of musical expression and their most rudimentary definitions.
Rhythm: the time of the music, including everything from note duration to the speed of the song.
Dynamics: loudness, softness, and the process of phasing between the two elements known as crescendo and decrescendo.
Melody: the main voice in a song; the part that the listener’s ear is most drawn to. In popular music, this is usually found in the vocals.
Harmony: played or sung at the same time as the melody at different complementary pitches.
Tone color: the unique voice that each instrument has and the expressive styles and flavors they can use.
Texture: the relationship between individual musical lines in an overall arrangement.
Form: the structure of a song, such as verse and chorus.
What are Some Elements of Musical Expression?
Here is a longer list of common elements and their descriptions for many different musical expressions.
Probably one of the most easily recognized musical elements, rhythm is everything that has to do with the time of the piece. Rhythm is the part of music that makes you want to tap your foot, nod your head, or get up and dance. The myriad rhythmic patterns and their infinite variations are a huge part of what makes different genres easily recognizable and distinct from one another.
Each foot stomp or hand clap represents a beat in the song’s rhythm. Audio producers will commonly use the phrase “keep the beat” when they want someone to lock in the tempo with a steady rhythm, essentially acting as a metronome.
Rhythm is an element broken up and organized into small repeating units called measures, also referred to as bars, particularly in jazz. Most of the time, you can easily sense or feel what the meter of a song is, as long as you know how to count to three or four. However, there’s an infinite number of ways that meter can be manipulated; audio producers are in no way bound by some musical or mathematical law to stay in a certain time signature throughout their entire piece. Meter should be seen merely as a way of expressing your musical ideas rather than a stifler of creativity.
This is the speed of the song, which plays a huge part in how the music feels. Altering the tempo just slightly can add extra energy or let the most sentimental chords ring out to their fullest.
A syncopated rhythm is one that emphasizes notes on the offbeat or upbeat. Many genres make use of syncopation, jazz being the one people reference most frequently. However, everything from reggae to rock includes syncopated rhythms. The easiest way to understand offbeat and downbeat is to tap your foot. When your toes are at their highest, that’s where the upbeat is.
A major way that the feeling of a piece of music can be changed is with loud and soft sections. This is what comprises the dynamics of a song. Dynamics can be expressed in many ways, but audio producers who can read music are familiar with a universally accepted set of terms that express specific dynamics.
- pianissimo (pp) – very quiet
- piano (p) – quiet
- mezzo-piano (mp) – moderately quiet
- mezzo-forte (mf) – moderately loud
- forte (f) – loud
- fortissimo (ff) – very loud
When you hear a song and want to sing along, the element you’re wanting to sing is the melody line. This is the main voice in any piece of music, and it should be the most distinct and easily picked out.
This is the frequency at which a note vibrates. The note names like C sharp or B flat are simply assigned names given to specific vibrations, or pitches.
When a distinct melody or motif recurs throughout a piece, it is known as a theme. Themes are often used in film scores to help the audience associate a certain feeling with the different characters and settings.
Conjunct – when a piece of music has smooth playability and is easy on the ears. Most happy background music has a conjunct nature.
Disjunct – when a song has disjointed rhythms that are jumpy and unpredictable. These pieces are markedly more difficult to play or sing.
Oftentimes, a melody is complemented by harmonies either with background vocals or instrumental accompaniment. The perfect harmony can help to emphasize the song’s emotion and bring the melody line all the way home for the listener.
When multiple pitches are played simultaneously, it forms what is known as a chord. Chords can have numerous variations in their qualities, such as diminished or augmented, but the most common are major – happy – and minor – sad.
A chord progression is when a number of different chords form a pattern and usually repeat in some way. The way the chords sound when played one after the other takes the listener on a journey that usually comes to some sort of conclusion.
Consonance and Dissonance
Most people already know that some notes sound good together and others don’t. Consonance is when two complementary notes are played together, such as a major third, and dissonance refers to two “bad” sounding notes like a minor second, which is highly useful in suspenseful music.
Any given melody can be played in every key in existence. The key of a song determines which pitch is the root note of the melody. Transposition is the process of rewriting a song and putting it in a different key, which is sometimes necessary to put it in the ideal range for a singer or instrumentalist.
Some pieces are more focused on chords and ambiance than specific melody lines. Songs with higher levels of tonality are the ones that have distinct melodies and counterpoints that carry the piece.
Every instrument has a different timbre. Knowing which instrument will give you which tone color can make it easier to control your musical expression.
When some instruments play in their high or low register, the color of their notes can change dramatically. Composers and songwriters always have to keep in mind how register affects the timbre of each of these different instruments.
This is how high or low an instrument can play. For composers and arrangers of large orchestral pieces, choosing the right key for a piece may include staying within every instrument’s range, quite the balancing act.
As its name suggests, this refers to the instruments playing on a given piece of music. Since every instrument has its own unique texture and flavor, instrumentation is an important part of musical expression.
When musicians are playing in a group, whether it’s a small jazz combo or a full orchestra, the context of the other instruments creates a texture to the sound. The voices playing the melody and the voices playing the bass will sound different when both are played together, and the texture can continue to deepen the more you layers you incorporate.
Monophonic, Homophonic, and Polyphonic Elements
When only one note is sounding at a time, such as an instrument playing solo, it’s known as monophonic. Homophonic is when two or more notes occur simultaneously but with a single main melody line. Polyphonic is where things get more complicated, which refers to multiple independent melodies occurring simultaneously, such as in a canon – or singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in a round.
Particularly in orchestral works, melody lines can be traded or handed off among different instruments and voices. This gives the listener a fresh and different way to hear the same thing.
When there is a simultaneous melody line that is less prominent than the main melody, it’s known as a counterpoint. These can be challenging to play or sing because you have to pay attention to the melody while not losing your own rhythm.
Every song, no matter how simple, complex, or chaotic, has some kind of structure or form. A song’s form can be seen as the outline of the piece, marking where the introduction is, the chord progressions of the verses and chorus, and essentially wherever there are notable changes. Understanding form makes it much easier to break down a piece and develop it to have maximum expressive impact.
One of the simplest forms, this is a piece with two parts. Both of these main sections are repeated, contrasting between the two. Verse and chorus are a common example, or A section and B section in jazz.
Songs with three sections are considered ternary. The most common way to apply three sections to a piece’s form is to return to the initial part after a section of contrast.
Songs in which the same music is used for many verses. This is common in vocal music and is popularly used in carols and hymns.
When no repeating pattern in a song emerges at all, it is considered to be through-composed. This is most common in classical music and can be difficult for many modern listeners to appreciate, but it can also be by far the most rewarding, and expressive.
Audio Production Program
Ready to put your knowledge of musical elements to work? The Audio Production and Engineering Program at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.
At the end of the audio production and engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.
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