The Basic Ingredients Of Music

I’m currently teaching a four-week class at my local community center. The idea is to provide a foundation in guitar that can help people start to play while also teaching them some basics about music in general. I haven’t done a class like this before, so it’s hard to know exactly what I will cover, but I have taken the time to build out an outline to keep myself on some sort of track.

The general premise behind the class is that music is made from three basic ingredients: melody, harmony and rhythm. This isn’t to say that music isn’t «music» if it is missing one of these things, but to get a complete sense of song, these three components really need to be there.

Have you ever given these concepts any thought? I mean, yeah, you listen to music all the time. You hum or sing along to the melody, you can hear the chords and supporting instruments in the background, and you can tap along to the beat of the song. But what about isolating these components and spending some time thinking about the individual pieces?

That’s what I aim to do in this class. Since you aren’t going to be able to sit in, I thought we could have a nice discussion about these three elements of music.

What is Melody?

Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?

Melody is the succession of notes that make up the main focus of the song. When we hear a singer, they are singing the melody. Of course, it doesn’t have to be voice that carries the melody, it could be piano or guitar or any number of other instruments. When we hear it played back in a recorded format, the melody is usually what you hear in the forefront of the song. It is purposely made the focus, not only because it is easiest for us to relate to when we hear it, but also during the mixing process. Mix engineers use many techniques to make sure listeners are guided to the «star» of the recording.

We begin learning the ins-and-outs of melody when we play scales. The most common scale we learn is the major scale, and we usually learn this long before we start studying music seriously. You might remember as a kid singing do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti and do? congratulations, the pitches (notes) used for that quick little scale are the notes from the major scale. It doesn’t matter what note you start from, whether you start with C of G# or Eb, the intervals (spaces) between each note stay the same.

This is really easy to see on a guitar. Each fret on the guitar neck segments the string so you play a different pitch as you move up or down the neck. If we were to compare notes to steps on a staircase, each fret is a «half-step», so two frets are a «full step». Another way you might see this idea written out is as «tones». One fret is considered a «semi-tone,» and two frets are a «tone».

So when you study melody on guitar, we focus on getting familiar with where the notes are on the neck and the patterns that allow us to play the music we enjoy. As we get comfortable with the fingerboard, it becomes increasingly easier to play improvised leads and make our playing more interesting.

What is Harmony?

When we begin learning about harmony, we’re starting to use multiple notes at the same time to create more dynamic sounds. This is where we get into playing guitar chords. Chords by definition combine three or more notes together (called triads), and each of these notes harmonizes with the root (or main) note of the chord. This root note is also known as the tonic, in case you come across that term.

Now I shouldn’t say that all the notes in a chord necessarily sound «good» when they’re played together. This is because there is a concept called dissonance that describes how a note creates discord within a chord or a scale, basically changing the feel of the song direction. It could be just an unexpected single chord or note that comes in once during the entire song. And yeah, I do mean feel, like an emotion. Because when you get right down to it, a song is designed to make you feel a certain way, whether it is a happy feeling, sad, anger, longing or desperation. And whenever there is a section of a song that changes the feel to something uncomfortable, we instinctively look to have that feeling resolved back to something more enjoyable.

It’s not uncommon for a song to take you on a little emotional trip, starting off on one end of the spectrum and leaving somewhere else at the end. Take for example the song «Diary», by Bread. Listen as you are taken from feelings of hope and longing to confusion and then sorrow, but then turning it around to peace and forgiveness. As you listen, pay attention to the finger-picked chords and how the notes are arpeggiated, taking you up and down the emotional roller-coaster.

What is Rhythm?

Rhythm is probably the most fundamental part of music. It is part of the human existence from the time we are conceived until the day we die. It is inherently within us and around us continuously. Think about it — your heart beats to a rhythm, our days follow a rhythm, the seasons form a rhythm. A rhythm is patterns and cycles. Even the sounds we create in music are cyclical energy waves following patterns that we can manipulate to create new and interesting tones. Speed up rhythm of a sound wave (its frequency) and you increase its pitch.

In a more listener-friendly context, rhythm is the beat, it is the tempo (the speed of the song), it’s the timing (playing on the beat versus ahead or behind the beat), it’s the guitar strum pattern used in the song and it’s even the delivery and articulation of the lyrics. Rhythm for the layman is really just the mechanism to get the audience on their feet dancing (or tapping their feet).

Rhythm is also used to create energy in a song. You could have a song where the rhythm sets a beat, but then at some point in the song adds a rhythmic pattern to change the complete feel of the song. Check out «Sometimes» by Bowling for Soup. The tempo of the song does not change, but listen to what happens during the chorus when rhythmic patterns are added to the basic drum tracks. You go from an easy-going, «Hey this is a chill song,» to wanting to jump up and join a mosh pit somewhere. That’s the power of rhythm…


So hopefully I can take these concepts and help get some new folks started on their musical journey in the class I’m teaching. I’m sure I’ll have some cool stories to share, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it all pans out. Y’all keep it rockin’!

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