Music can be divided into genres and subgenres, although the dividing lines and relationships between music genres are often subtle, sometimes open to individual interpretation, and occasionally controversial. Within "the arts", music may be classified as a performing art, a fine art, and auditory art.

To people in many cultures, music is inextricably intertwined into their way of life. Greek philosophers and ancient Indians defined music as tones ordered horizontally as melodies and vertically as harmonies. Common sayings such as "the harmony of the spheres" and "it is music to my ears" point to the notion that music is often ordered and pleasant to listen to. However, 20th-century composer John Cage thought that any sound can be music, saying, for example, "There is no noise, only sound." According to musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez, "the border between music and noise is always culturally defined—which implies that, even within a single society, this border does not always pass through the same place; in short, there is rarely a consensus.… By all accounts there is no single and intercultural universal concept defining what music might be, except that it is 'sound through time'."

Music has many different elements. The main elements are: rhythm, melody, harmony, structure, timbre, dynamics, and texture. Each element—and each of its sub-elements, if any—is discussed below.


A melody is a series of notes sounding in succession. The notes of a melody are typically created with respect to pitch systems such as scales or modes. The rhythm of a melody is often based on the inflections of language, the physical rhythms of dance, or simply periodic pulsation. Melody is typically divided into phrases within a larger overarching structure. The elements of a melody are pitch, duration, dynamics, and timbre. In the context of theory, a piece of music may be melodically based. In this instance, a composer will first take a melody, and use that to create his work. A harmonically based piece, on the contrary, will focus on a chord progression, with the melody as a secondary or incidental factor of composition.


Pitch is a subjective sensation in which a listener assigns perceived tones to notes on a musical scale based mainly on the frequency of vibration, with a lesser relation to sound pressure level (loudness, volume). The pitch of a tone typically rises as frequency increases. At and below 1,000 Hz, the pitch of a tone gets lower as sound pressure increases. Above approximately 2,000 Hz, the pitch increases as the sound gets louder. The process of assigning note names to pitches is called tuning. Historically in Western music, a number of competing pitch standards have existed to define the tuning of an orchestra. "Concert A" was set at 435 Hz by France in 1859 while in England, concert A varied between 452 and 439 Hz. A frequency of 440 Hz was recommended as the new standard in 1939 and in 1955 the International Organization for Standardization affirmed the choice.
The difference in frequency between two pitches is called an interval. The most basic interval is the octave, which indicates either a doubling or halving of the base frequency.

Scales and modes

Notes can be arranged into different scales and modes. Western music theory generally divides the octave into a series of 12 notes that might be included in a piece of music. This series of twelve notes is called a chromatic scale. In the chromatic scale, each note is called a half-step or semitone. Patterns of half and whole steps (2 half steps, or a tone) can make up a scale in that octave. The scales most commonly encountered are the seven toned major, the harmonic minor, the melodic minor, and the natural minor. Other examples of scales used are the octatonic scale, and the pentatonic or five-toned scale which is common in but not limited to folk musics. There are scales that do not follow the chromatic 12-note pattern, for example in classical Persian, Indian and Arabic music. These cultures often make use of quarter-tones, half the size of a semitone, as the name suggests. In music written using the system of major-minor tonality, the key of a piece determines the scale used. Transposing a piece from C major to D major will make all the notes two semitones (or one full step) higher. Even in modern equal temperament, changing the key can change the feel of a piece of music, because it changes the relationship of the composition's pitches to the pitch range of the instruments on which the piece is being performed. This often affects the music's timbre, as well as having technical implications for the performers. However, performing a piece in one key rather than another may go unrecognized by the casual listener, since changing the key does not change the relationship of the individual pitches to each other. A key change, or modulation, may occur during a piece, which is more easily heard as a difference of intervals in sound.


Rhythm is the arrangement of sounds in time. Meter animates time in regular pulse groupings, called measures or bars. The time signature or meter signature specifies how many beats are in a measure, and which value of written note is counted and felt as a single beat. Through increased stress and attack (and subtle variations in duration), particular tones may be accented. There are conventions in most musical traditions for a regular and hierarchical accentuation of beats to reinforce the meter. Syncopated rhythms are rhythms that accent unexpected parts of the beat. Playing simultaneous rhythms in more than one time signature is called polymeter. See also polyrhythm. In recent years, rhythm and meter have become an important area of research among music scholars. Recent work in these areas includes books by Bengt-Olov Palmqvist, Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, Jonathan Kramer, Christopher Hasty, William Rothstein, and Joel Lester. Rhythm is one of the most central features of many styles of music, especially jazz and hip-hop. Both of these styles of music involve an underlying repeated rhythm or beat into which more complex patterns are interwoven.


Harmony is the study of vertical sonorities in music. Vertical sonority refers to considering the relationships between pitches that occur together; usually this means at the same time, although harmony can also be implied by a melody that outlines a harmonic structure. The vertical relationship between two pitches is referred to as an interval. A larger structure involving multiple pitches is called a chord. In Common practice and Popular music, harmonies are generally tertian. This means that the interval of which the chords are composed is a third. Therefore, a root-position triad (with the root note in the lowest voice) consists of the root note, a note a third above, and a note a third above that (a fifth above the root). Seventh chords add a third above the top note of a triad (a seventh above the root). There are some notable exceptions. In 20th century classical music, many alternative types of harmonic structure were explored. One way to analyze harmony in Common practice music is through a roman numeral system; in Popular Music and Jazz a system of chord symbols is used; and in post-tonal music, a variety of approaches are used, most frequently set theory.

Consonance and dissonance

Consonance can be roughly defined as harmonies whose tones complement and increase each others' resonance, and dissonance as those which create more complex acoustical interactions (called 'beats'). A simplistic example is that of "pleasant" sounds versus "unpleasant" ones. Another manner of thinking about the relationship regards stability; dissonant harmonies are sometimes considered to be unstable and to "want to move" or "resolve" toward consonance. However, this is not to say that dissonance is undesirable. A composition made entirely of consonant harmonies may be pleasing to the ear and yet boring because there are no instabilities to be resolved. Melody is often organized so as to interact with changing harmonies (sometimes called a chord progression) that accompany it, setting up consonance and dissonance. The art of melody writing depends heavily upon the choices of tones for their nonharmonic or harmonic character. "Harmony" as used by music theorists can refer to any kind of simultaneity without a value judgement, in contrast with a more common usage of "in harmony" or "harmonious", which in technical language might be described as consonance.


In music, dynamics normally refers to the softness or loudness of a sound or note, e.g. pianissimo or fortissimo. Until recently, most of these dynamics and signs were written in Italian, but recently are becoming written or translated into English. However, to every aspect of the execution of a given piece, either stylistic (staccato, legato etc.) or functional (velocity) are also known as dynamics. The term is also applied to the written or printed musical notation used to indicate dynamics.


Musical texture is the overall sound of a piece of music commonly described according to the number of and relationship between parts or lines of music: monophony, heterophony, polyphony, homophony, or monody. The perceived texture of a piece may also be affected by the timbre of the instruments, the number of instruments used, and the interval between each musical line, among other things. Monophony is the texture of a melody heard only by itself. If a melody is accompanied by chords, the texture is homophony. In homophony, the melody is usually but not always voiced in the highest notes. A third texture, called polyphony, consists of several simultaneous melodies of equal importance.

Form or structure

Form is a facet of music theory that explores the concept of musical syntax, on a local and global level. The syntax is often explained in terms of phrases and periods (for the local level) or sections or genre (for the global scale). Examples of common forms of Western music include the fugue, the invention, sonata-allegro, canon, strophic, theme and variations, and rondo. Popular Music often makes use of strophic form often in conjunction with Twelve bar blues.



Music is an art form whose medium is sound organized in time. Common elements of music are pitch (which governs melody and harmony), rhythm (and its associated concepts tempo, meter, and articulation), dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture. The word derives from Greek μουσική (mousike), "(art) of the Muses". The creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of music vary according to culture and social context. Music ranges from strictly organized compositions (and their recreation in performance), through improvisational music to aleatoric forms.

When I first started studying the history of music, I did not realize what I was getting into. I had thought that music history was somewhat of a trivial pursuit. In fact, I only took my history of classical music class because I needed the credits. I did not realize how completely fascinating music history is. You see, in our culture many of us do not really learn to understand music. For much of the world, music is a language, but for us it is something that we consumed passively. When I began to learn about the history of Western music, however, it changed all that for me. I have had some experience playing musical instruments, but I have never mastered one enough to really understand what music is all about. This class showed me.

When most of us think about the history of music, we think of the history of rock music. We assume that the history is simple because the music is simple. In fact, neither is the case. The history of music, whether you're talking about classical music, rock music, jazz music, or any other kind, is always complicated. New chord structures are introduced bringing with them new ways of understanding the world. New rhythmic patterns are introduced, bringing with them new ways of understanding time. And music reflects all of it.

Even when the class was over, I could not stop learning about the history of music. It had whetted my appetite, and I wanted more. I got all the music history books that I could find. I even began to research forms of music that had not interested me before in the hopes of enhancing my musical knowledge further. Although I was in school studying toward something very different – a degree in engineering – I had thought about giving it up and going back to get a degree in musicology. That is how much I am fascinated by the subject.

If you have never taken a course in the history of music, you don't know what you are missing out on. The radio will never sound the same to you again. Everything will seem much more rich, much more luminous, and much more important. A new song can reflect a new way of being, and a new way of imagining life in the world. This is what learning about the history of music means to many of us.