Elements of Music

From Daniel J. Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music     as related by Tim McKamey

     There are so many great takeaways from Levitin’s book, they simply won’t fit in a single article.    For example, see Restoration of the Missing Fundamental, and If a Tree Falls….

What I want to share here is his summary of the basic elements of music. Levitin is not only a leading researcher in music cognition and perception at McGill University, but has worked as a session musician, recording engineer and producer as well. So he knows the basic elements inside out. As we delve deeper into what the brain does on or with music, it helps to have a clear understanding of these musical terms.

     It’s easy to take music for granted. When we listen to music we are drawn to the overall sound. Especially when its played well, we don’t notice the parts, we notice the unified whole. But when Leonardo da Vinci began to explore the human form in drawing, he actually took an interest in cadavers so that he might acquaint himself with the moving parts inside a person. In a similar manner, as neuroscientists begin to explore the effects of music on the brain, they not only look at the parts of the brain, but also at the individual elements of music. The research is still at quite a primitive level, but it is progressing rapidly with advances in brain imagery made in the last 20 years or so.

     It is also useful for the practicing musician, and especially the practitioner of healing music, to understand the various parts of music as separate elements so that we may grow a fresh understanding for how we put all the parts together in the most effective, healing way possible. Synergy is a useful concept here. For as healing music practitioners the whole is truly greater than simply the sum of the parts. As we shall see, some of the basic elements of music exist as physical phenomena while other elements just as crucial to the overall musical experience are mental constructs that happen in the brain. Without the synergy of both, there is no music.

Note and/or Tone: a discrete musical sound is usually called a tone. The word note is also used but typically that is something that is notated on a page or a written score. A tone is what you hear, a note is what you see on the page.

Pitch: Pitch is a “psychological construct” related to the actual frequency of a particular tone and its relative position on the musical scale. For example when the sound wave entering our ear is vibrating at a frequency of 440hz we perceive it as the pitch “A”.

Rhythm: This refers to the duration of a series of notes (whole-notes, half-notes, quarter notes, etc…) and to the way they are grouped together into units; “dotted rhythms”, triplets, etc… When we play music at 50-70bpm for example, we are referring to rhythm, not meter (see below).

Tempo: The overall speed or pace of the piece.

Contour: The “shape” of a melody, how it rises and falls as an arch, or in a stepwise fashion, for example.

Timbre: The tonal “color” produced in part by the nature of the overtones produced by any particular instrument. Play the same note on different instruments, it will be the timbre that tells us which instrument is playing. Other aspects of timbre refer to how the tone is produced, attack, steady-state and flux.

Loudness: Another psychological construct that relates in poorly understood and nonlinear ways to the physical amplitude of a tone. The physical amplitude is an attribute of the sound wave, loudness is how we interpret that when it enters the ear/brain.

Spatial Location: Where the sound is coming from.

Reverberation: The perception of distance or nature of the space through which sound travels from the instrument to our ear.

Levitin notes how all these attributes presented so far can be separated. Each can be varied without affecting the others so scientists like to study these as the various dimensions of music. When these basic elements combine and form relationships they give rise to higher-order concepts such as meter, key, melody and harmony.

Meter: Meter is experienced by our brains by extracting information from rhythm and loudness cues. Meter refers to the way in which tones are grouped with one another across time. Waltz time in groups of 3, or a march in groups of 2 or 4.

Key: Key is a theoretical framework for how tones relate to one another in a musical piece. This hierarchy does not exist “out in the world”, it exists in our minds and functions in relation to the development of various musical styles and idioms which may differ across various cultures.

Melody: This is the main theme of a song, the part you sing along with. In popular music and folk music melodies are generally repeated in verses with a variation of the melody appearing in a chorus or refrain. In classical music the melody may be the starting point out of which a series of variations may be generated throughout the music in different forms.

Harmony: This has to do with the relationships between the pitches of different tones, and with tonal contexts that these pitches set up that ultimately lead to expectations of what comes next in a musical piece. Harmony may exist as simple parallel lines as when two singers harmonize or in the context of a simple chord progression (homophonic), or it may be more complex polyphony with multiple melodies weaving in and out of one another. 

Interval: This does not appear in Levitin’s list of elements although he does discuss intervals in some detail. Intervals are related closely to Key and Harmony. While we can identify the actual neurons that fire in relation to distinct pitches, we still do not know very much about how the brain responds to the harmonic intervals or distances that occur between tones. Whether we are talking about horizontal intervals as in the distance between succeeding notes in a melody, or vertical intervals as in the distance between notes in a chord, in either case every musician knows that it is the interval that gives each note its unique characteristic in any given context. This is because every time we respond to a particular pitch, we are at the same moment actually responding to the relationship between that pitch and the pitch that immediately preceded it, or the pitches occuring simultaneously above and below it in the case of a chord.

     A pitch by itself may have a direct effect on the brain. Why, for instance, do some people immediately see a distinct color associated with certain pitches? People with a condition known as synesthesia report this. Though it is rare, those people who do experience it are consistent and will always see the same color when a particular pitch is sounded, even if the pitch is sounded all by itself. But for most people, a pitch by itself has little if any meaning. For most of us, it is the harmonic interval between notes that gives a pitch its significance or emotional quality.

     Intervals are why any particular pitch can take on very different associations when played in a different harmonic context. The tone G will play a different role when it is the root or fundamental tone in the key of G than it will if it is the fifth in the key of C. This is due to the fact that the interval relationship between C and G is different depending on the key the music being played is in.

     But as Levitin points out, key is a theoretical framework that does not exist ‘out in the world’. Like pitch and loudness, key is a psychological construct, something that happens in the brain when it hears music. Intervals on the other hand, are physical phenomena that have to do with the physics of sound and the ratios between the various frequencies of the different sound waves.

     So we see that some aspects of music are physical manifestations and some are psychological. We actually co-create the music we hear along with the musician by simply listening. Music ‘involves’ us in real ways that have always been understood intuitively, but only recently are we coming to understand how this works in the brain.

     This has huge implications for the healing musician, for we can see that when we play for a patient, it is really all about entrainment rather than mere entertainment. As the patient entrains to the music, we entrain to the patient’s condition and alter the music as needed in order that the patient’s entrainment will lead to the most beneficial results. We know mirror neurons are involved, along with many other types of brain functioning, and that we respond to music in both conscious and unconscious ways. But there is much more to learn. It is a fascinating field of study.

For more insights and reflections on Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain On Music, see Restoration of the Missing Fundamental, and If a Tree Falls….

For more detail on THE ELEMENTS OF MUSIC themselves, see this wonderful little book of the same title from the beautifully illustrated Wooden Books Series published by Walker and Co., New York:

The Elements of Music; An Elegant Primer On The Principles and Theories of Music by Jason Martineau, 2008, Walker Publishing Co., NY


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