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In Western music, a composer employs five basic elements in creation of a piece of music. These elements are:

Notes: These are musical sounds of definite pitch. Most music is based on a scale, a particular pattern of notes arranged according to rising or falling pitch. Western musicians name the notes of a scale by labeling them with the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. This cycle of seven letters is repeated as the scale is continued upward. The distance between a note and the next highest note having the same letter name (for example, from C to C) is called an octave. There are eight scale notes in an octave, including both the repeated notes. The note at the upper end of an octave has exactly twice as many vibrations per second as the note at the lower end.

The distance between one note and another is called an interval. The adjacent notes in a scale are separated from each other by one of two types of interval - a whole tone or a semitone (half a whole tone). In many countries, a whole tone is known as a whole step and a semitone is called a half step.

Most Western composers have based their musical works on diatonic scales. A diatonic scale has the eight notes of the octave arranged in a pattern that uses both whole tones and semitones.


There are two chief types of diatonic scales:

The scales differ in the location of the semitones. A major scale has a semitone between the third and fourth notes and between the seventh and eighth notes. All the other intervals are whole tones. The natural minor scale follows a pattern of one whole tone, one semitone, two whole tones, one semitone, and two whole tones. Two other minor scales, the harmonic minor and the melodic minor, have different arrangements of whole tones and semitones. But all minor scales have a semitone between the second and third notes.

Sometimes composers need to raise or lower the pitch of a note in a scale by a semitone. A note raised in this way is called sharp. A lowered note is called flat.

The notes of a diatonic scale, which are also called degrees, vary in importance. The main note, called the tonic, is the first degree of the scale. The tonic serves as the tonal centre of the scale, and all other notes are related in some way to the tonic. The tonic also gives the scale its name. For example, C is the tonic in the C major and C minor scales.

Next to the tonic, the most important notes of a scale are the fifth degree, called the dominant, and the fourth degree, called the subdominant. The seventh degree is called the leading note because it leads to the tonic at the octave.


A chromatic scale consists entirely of semitones. It has 12 notes to an octave, rather than 8. You can hear the chromatic scale if you play all the white and black keys from one C to the next C on a piano.

Rhythm: It is the way the composer arranges notes in time. Some notes may last a short time, and others a relatively long time. Rhythm helps give music its character.

Another important element of rhythm is accent. Most composers build their music on a pattern of regularly occurring accents. For example, a waltz follows a strong-weak-weak pattern, ONE two three ONE two three. A march has a strong-weak pattern, ONE two ONE two.

Melody: The composer combines pitches and rhythms to create a melody, or tune. Some short pieces of music have only one melody. Longer pieces may consist of different melodies to give the music contrast and variety.

Harmony: Most Western music is based on the idea of sounding notes together. The sounding together of two or more notes is called harmony. Harmony involves the use of various intervals in a scale. Intervals are named according to the number of degrees they cover in a major scale. For example, an interval from A to C covers three degrees--A, B, and C--and is called a third. An interval spanning five degrees, such as A to E or C to G, is a fifth. Fourths, fifths, and eighths are called perfect intervals. Seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths can be either major intervals or minor intervals.

Most Western composers use a harmonic system based on the tonic and dominant notes of the scale. The composer fixes the tonic and thus a specific key (tonal centre) firmly in the listener's mind.

Another important element of harmony is the cadence. This is a succession of chords that end a musical work or one of its sections. Most pieces of classical music end with a perfect cadence, which consists of a dominant chord followed by a tonic chord. A plagal cadence consists of a subdominant chord followed by a tonic chord. The "Amen" ending of a hymn is an example of a plagal cadence.

Tone colour: It is also called timbre, is the quality of a musical sound. Tone colours produced by different musical instruments vary widely. For example, a flute has a smooth, bright sound, while an oboe has a more nasal quality. Composers take account of tone colour in orchestration (writing or arranging music for a group of instruments) just as an artist combines paints to create a picture.


Musical notation

Through the years, composers developed a system for writing down music so it could be performed by musicians.

Notation indicates:

Indicating pitch: The simplest way to express pitch is to use the letters A to G. This kind of notation, however, cannot show rhythm. Since the 1200's, composers have used staff notation to express both pitch and rhythm. In this system, signs called notes represent musical sounds. The notes appear on a staff, which consists of five horizontal lines and the four intervening spaces. Each line and space represents a certain pitch. Short ledger lines indicate pitches above or below the staff.

A clef sign at the left end of the staff determines the names of each line and space. Most music is written in either treble clef or bass clef. High notes, such as those for the violin and flute, appear in treble clef. This clef is often called the G clef. It fixes he G above middle C (the C nearest the middle of the piano keyboard) on the second line from the bottom of the staff. Lower notes appear in bass clef, also called F clef. The bass clef fixes the F below middle C on the second line from the top of the staff.

A staff signature, or key signature, appears at the right of the clef sign. It consists of sharp signs or flat signs that indicate which notes should always be played sharp or flat. Each staff signature can indicate either of two keys - one major key and one minor key. For example, two sharps can mean the key of either D major or B minor.

The composer may show a change from the staff signature by placing an accidental in front of a note. An accidental is the sign for a sharp, a flat, or a natural. Any note not marked by a sharp or a flat is a natural.


Indicating time values: Staff notation enables composers to indicate how long each note should be held. The semibreve has the longest time value of any note. The second longest note is the minim, then the crotchet, quaver, semiquaver, demisemiquaver, hemidemisemiquaver, and so on. Each time value is divided by two to find the next smallest note value.

The shape of a note shows its time value. Semibreves and minims have an open oval shape. Notes with shorter values have solid oval shapes. All notes except semibreves have stems. To indicate notes with shorter values than the crotchet, composers attach flags, or tails, to the stems. A quaver has one flag; a semiquaver has two, a demisemiquaver has three, and so on.

A dot on the right of a note increases its duration by half. For example, a dotted minim equals a minim plus a crotchet. Duration may also be increased by a tie, a curved line that connects consecutive notes of the same pitch. The total duration of tied notes equals that of the notes combined.

Periods of silence are an important part of a piece of music. The composer uses marks called rests to indicate silence in music. The various shapes of rests indicate their time values.

A composer groups the notes and rests in a piece of music into units of time called bars, or measures. The composer uses bars to separate measures on the staff. The way in which beats are grouped in bars is called the metre.

Metre is indicated by the time signature, a fraction that appears at the beginning of a piece of music. The numerator of the fraction tells the number of beats in a bar. The denominator tells what kind of note - minim, crotchet, quaver - receives one beat.


Another important element of time in music is tempo. The tempo tells how slowly or quickly the beat unit should be played. Composers sometimes show tempo by a metronome mark, which indicates the number of beats per minute. The musician can then follow the tempo by using a metronome, a timekeeping machine that can be adjusted to tick off each beat. Composers also may use a number of Italian words to indicate tempo. For example, the word adagio means slowly, and the word presto means fast. These Italian words are used because Italian musicians had the greatest influence in Europe during the 1600's and 1700's, when composers first used words to indicate tempo.

Indicating expression: To affect a listener's feelings, music must be expressive. Composers use various words and symbols to indicate the kind of expression they want in a piece of music. A curved line over or under notes means that the notes should be connected smoothly. This style of playing is called legato. A dot over or under notes indicates that they should be played as short notes with silence between them. Musicians call this type of articulation staccato.

The word pianissimo (or pp) means very soft, and the word fortissimo (or ff) means very loud. Other directions, also in Italian, concern the emotional quality of the music. For example, dolce means sweetly, allegro means lively, and cantabile means songlike.