Music has been around for thousands of years, and is evident in the histories of every single culture on earth. In this post, we will look at some of the elements and keywords associated with music. Let’s start with a very basic one… “music“!
So what is the etymology of the word music? That means, where does the word music originate? Well, as we mentioned above, all cultures on earth have music in their history. But the word music actually originates from ancient Greek culture. Ancient Greece had a polytheistic culture, that means they believed in many different gods, deities and other supernatural beings. Each god or deity usually had a specific domain of power. The Furies were those involved in causing anger, Aphrodite was the goddess of love, Ouranos was a sky god, and The muses were goddesses that inspired all forms of arts, science and literature, especially songs and poetry, and so yes, that’s where we get the word “music”, from “The Muses”!
There are differing traditions in ancient Greece as to how many Muses there were, but usually they are counted as nine, or three triads. Specific functions were even assigned to each Muse. By Hellenistic times, although there might have been some variation, the Muses were arranged as follows¹:
Calliope inspired Epic Poetry
Clio inspired History
Euterpe inspired Flutes and Lyric Poetry
Thalia inspired Comedy and Pastoral Poetry
Melpomene inspired Tragedy
Terpsichore inspired Dance
Erato inspired Love Poetry
Polyhymnia inspired Sacred Poetry
Urania inspired Astronomy
Ok, so now we know where the word music comes from, so let’s explore some of the many facets of music. As we mentioned there are many different traditions of music and there are still new ones being born every day. When we talk about any category of art, including music, we can organize different styles into what we call genres. Today there are many genres of music including but not limited to:
Of course there are many more genres not listed above and even more sub-genres as well, for instance Rock music could be divided into Glam Rock, Jam Bands, Progressive Rock etc. Different genres can have very, very different features and be nearly unrecognizable from one another with the exception of a few fundamental similarities. In order to find out what these are, let’s talk first about the anatomy of music.
Usually anatomy means studying the different parts of a body, but here we can use the word to mean studying all the different parts of music and how they fit together and work. Here is a list of vocabulary words and explanations to help us out:
Rhythm– The one defining quality of rhythm is that it contains some sort of regular repetition, in this case, repetition of certain sounds. Usually rhythm is associated with drums and percussive instruments, but really anything could produce rhythmic patterns including guitars, vocals or simply snapping ones fingers.
Although not all music may have rhythm, such as certain forms of ambient music, almost all of it does. In fact, it is so important to music that most systems for writing or composing music are built around rhythm. Let’s take a look.
Rhythm is usually organized into beats and measures. A beat is one unit of sound, usually but not always a type of hit, as in a drum strike. So if you hit any drum with a stick one time, that would be considered one beat. In fact, you might not realize it, but you are rhythmic, because your heartbeat constantly beats in a rhythmic pattern. A measure is one set of beats that go together. Once you start repeating the same beats, measure after measure, you will hear a rhythm. Measures can also be called bars.
Most modern musicians and composers use a time signature to indicate or understand what the basic rhythmic patterns are in a song. A time signature is usually expressed with two numbers and a slash for instance: 4/4, 2/4, 6/8, 3/4, or 7/8. The first number in a time signature means how many beats are in a measure, and the second number indicates what type of beats (how long or short) are counted.
So, 4/4 time, which is the most standardly used time signature means: 4 beats in one measure, where the quarter note (the second 4) gets the beat. A 2/4 time signature would mean: 2 beats in one measure, where the quarter note gets the beat. 6/8 time would be: 6 notes to a measure, where the eighth note gets the beat. So what about 3/4 or 7/8 time, can you guess what they would be?
So what’s the difference between a note and a beat? Why are we calling beats quarter notes and eighth notes? Well a beat has more to do with time where a note has more to do with pitch. However there is a bit of crossover since all beats must have some sort of pitch, and all notes must have a certain length. However, a beat is only used to measure time and rhythm. Notes can be and are beats but we focus on how high or low their pitch is.
Notes as we just mentioned are defined by both their length and their pitch. Here are some basic lengths of notes assuming that we are in 4/4 time, meaning a measure gets 4 beats and the quarter note gets the beat:
A whole note will be sustained an entire measure, so there can only be one whole note in a measure (unless two or more are played simultaneously in a chord). A half note is 2 beats, and so in 4/4 time there can only be two half notes played consecutively. A quarter note in 4/4 time gets the beat, and is one quarter of a measure, so there can be four of them played before a new measure starts. You could divide those further into eighth notes, sixteenth notes, thirty-second notes and even 64th notes.
But just how fast do you actually play these notes? Well, for that we need to define the tempo. In pre-modern times, for instance like when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was composing and performing music, tempo was defined using Italian words like Adagio, Andante, Moderato, Allegro, and Presto simply described the pace (very slow and emotional, walking pace, moderate, quick and bright, very fast). But in the modern world we have precision tools and computers to tell us exactly how fast or slow to play, and this is measured in bpm or (beats per minute). A very slow pace, like Adagio, would fall between 66-76 bpm, Moderato would be around 108 -120 bpm, and Presto would be super fast ranging from 168 – 200 bpm.
The pitch of a note, as mentioned before, is standardly indicated in two ways. One is as a letter, for instance A or B. There are eight notes in an octave. An octave is a set of eight notes and is named after the first one played. The eight notes have a natural way of ascending, descending or being played simultaneously. Any other notes added to an octave consecutively or simultaneously will either sound “wrong” or they will add a less standard (although possibly beautiful) sound in contrast to the notes that belong to the octave. We also add certain symbols to these letters in some cases, the most common of which are sharps♯ and flats ♭. Usually when we go from one note, C, to the next note D, we move one step from one tone, or pitch, to the next. But sometimes we only want to move one half-step, or semi-tone, and in that case we add a sharp to go up one half-step, or a flat, to go down one half-step or semi-tone. So from C, we could take a half-step up to C♯ and then another half-step up to D. Or, from B, we could go down one semi-tone to B♭and then down another one to A. Sharps and Flats only exist in between certain notes, and to really learn all of that, you probably need a music teacher.
When we play all the notes in an octave in succession, its called playing a scale. Here are some written and audio examples of scales:
Some instruments, like pianos and guitars, can play more than one note at the same time. There are certain sets of notes that sound good when played together. These are called chords. A chord is named after the tonic, which will carry the main tone of the chord. In a C chord, the tonic is C, where as in a C♯ chord, C♯ is the tonic. There are also different types of chords, the most common of which are major and minor chords. The difference between them is the spacing of the notes.
Before we go any further, we should probably make a quick mention of instruments, which are the things we use to make notes, beats and sounds. There are thousands of instruments in existence, many that have been lost, and new ones being designed every day. Nearly anything can be made into some sort of instrument, and we can put them into various categories as follows:
Brass– As the name indicates, these instruments are usually made out of the metal brass, and also are played producing the sound from the mouth and breath using a metallic mouthpiece. Common brass instruments include the Tuba, Trombone, Trumpet, English Horn, and French Horn.
Woodwinds– Woodwinds might be made from brass, plastic or other materials, and are also played from the mouth using one’s breath, but most of them feature a reed that vibrates in the mouthpiece differing them from the Brass. Examples of these would include the Saxophone, Clarinet, Flute (although it has no reed), Oboe, and Bassoon.
Strings– Stringed instruments produce sound from strings which might be made from traditional materials such as horse hair or cat gut (yes, you read that correctly), or more modern materials like Nylon. Strings can be plucked and strummed with fingers or a pick. Or they can play longer notes by applying a bow to them. Typical stringed instruments include Violins, Violas, Cellos, Guitars and Ukeleles.
Percussion– Percussive instruments are meant to be struck with a hand, stick, mallet or almost anything else. Nearly any physical object, including the human body, can be used, or made into a persussive instrument. Usually persussion instruments make up all or most of the rhythm section of a musical piece or performance, although sometimes they are just used as an accent, instead of as a rhythm. Typical percussion instruments include all forms of drums such as Bass Drums, Snare Drums, Toms, Bongos, Congas, and Tympanies, as well as thousands of others such as Shakers, the Cowbell, the Xylophone, the Tambourine or just using hands to clap or snap.
Acoustic– An acoustic instrument is any instrument that does not require electricity, such as an acoustic guitar or violin.
Electric– An electric instrument requires electricity, such as an electric guitar or electric violin.
Vocal– Vocals are produced only by voices of people (or, in some rare cases animals). Anyone (or thing) that produces vocals can be called a Vocalist or Singer. In many cases there are more specific roles such as Lead Singer or Lead Vocalist, Backup Singer or Vocalist, Opera Singer, etc.
When we talk about instruments and vocalists, we can also categorize them by their range. The range of an instrument or singer indicates the range of pitches from low to high that can be produced by them. These could be categorized by traditional words, namely:
Soprano– Very High
Mezzo-soprano– Quite High
Bass– Very Low
In modern times, we can also scientifically classify a range of pitches using the Hertz (Hz) system which measures the frequency of a sound wave, so a Soprano voice might range from 210 – 1000 Hz, where as a Bass voice might range from 90 – 310 Hz.
Ok, so what about the music?!?! Let’s get to it! A piece of music can fall into numerous categories as well. The most common and famous of which is the song. Usually a song is characterized by a fairly short length ranging from about 2 minutes to maybe 8 minutes or so (there could be and are shorter and longer ones). Songs usually contain both music and lyrics, which are words sung, spoken or performed by a vocalist. Songs that do not have lyrics can be called instrumentals. A song usually can be broken down into different parts or sections. These could be categorized as:
Intro– The very beginning, which leads you into the song. Sometimes an intro may not even contain music, but sound effects like wind blowing, or people talking.
Verse– A verse is usually one section of lyrics. A typical pop song might have 2 or 3 verses. Usually each verse has the same or similar structure in terms of rhyme and meter. Rhymes are when two words that sound similar, like “ball” and “wall” are spoken, usually at the end of lines. This is true for both Poetry and Lyrics. Meter would indicate the rhythmic structure of the words used.
Chorus– The chorus is a series of lines that gets repeated exactly, or almost exactly several times in a song, occurring between verses. The chorus also often carries thematic significance and gives away the point or summarizes the expression in the artist in a few memorable lines. In many cases the chorus even contains the title of the song. Some famous repeating chorus examples are:
“Born in the USA, Born in the USA”
“…for the times are a changin'”
“We will, we will, ROCK YOU!!! We will, we will, ROCK YOU!!!”
“… but she’s always a woman to me.”
Bridge– The bridge in a song is a section where often the key and/or rhythm and tempo changes, before returning back to normal. The bridge can build tension that is later released, or can add character and relieve a song from being overly repetitive. Essentially it is a “detour” from the main flow of the song. If the bridge contains lyrics, they also often take a “detour” and might delve into some tertiary details or explore content that supplements or contrasts the main ideas of the lyrics.
Finally, music must be produced. That means aside from the music being composed and performed, it must be recorded, mixed and mastered. Recording requires either analogequipment, like tape recorders and consoles, or digital technology, like computers and a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). This phase of music production needs for the music to be arranged as well. The music arrangement determines which parts go in what order, or go together. This can be part of the mixing process as well, which also includes adjusting the volume of each track, using effects like reverb, compressors, and E.Q, and also panning the balance of different tracks from left to right in stereo. In some cases a track will be recorded in mono, in which case panning is not possible. Finally the track will be mastered, which means putting the final touches and adjustments so that it is prepared for commercial sale, radio play or use in TV, videos and movies. Mastering also includes putting different songs in order and adjusting their transitions so that they flow together well as an album.
This article is only an introduction to music and there is a wealth of more in depth information you can find out there in addition to tens of thousands of great music recordings. There’s also always some sort of instrument within reach, even if it is your own voice and hands, and lots of free and premium software to use. If you can’t afford a new instrument, you could probably find a decent used one. So what are you waiting for? Get out there, learn, listen, and play some tunes!
1 This post cites some information from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muses