A Historical Approach to the Elements of Music

While there are many different approaches to describing the building blocks of music, we often break music down into five basic elements: melody, texture, rhythm, form, and harmony. While it’s true that not every piece of music contains all of those elements, it is very likely that every piece of music you have listened to recently does.

Of these five elements, there are two that almost always come first: melody and rhythm. They are not only the two most fundamental parts of music, but they are very probably the very first components of music experienced by human beings. It is a matter of pure speculation whether the first music involved a melody being sung or a rhythm being tapped, but it is easy to imagine that these two experiences were some of the earliest human musical creations.


Let’s begin our brief study of these elements with melody—not because it is more important than rhythm, but because the first music we will study in the Middle Ages will be Gregorian chant. Also known as plainsong or plainchant, Gregorian chant is a musical genre that emphasizes the element of melody, often to the exclusion of any other elements.


We will continue to let history guide our survey of musical elements by moving to texture next. One of the most significant musical developments was the medieval experiment of adding a new melodic line to an existing Gregorian chant melody. As you’ll soon learn, this practice was called organum, and it introduced a new texture, known as polyphony, to the sacred music of the Middle Ages that had been dominated by the monophonic texture of plainchant.


As far as we can tell from the sparse historical record, Gregorian chant was sung without a regular beat. This gives plainchant a flowing, freedom that can be loosely described as having no rhythm. This is certainly the way we most commonly hear chant performed today. However, with the arrival of organum, it was necessary for the singers performing the two melodic lines to be able to stay together. This made a more regular beat or pulse (rhythm) necessary.

Around the late twelfth century, a particular style of organum developed in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. This style involved holding out the notes of a Gregorian chant while a very active new melody was sung above it. To create that activity in the upper part, and to keep the two (or more) parts together, regular rhythmic patterns of short and long notes were used. This can be thought of as the beginning of an important component of rhythm: meter.


Repetition, contrast, and variation are the the basic principles of form in music. Form refers to the way in which sections of a musical piece are organized. Form, or structure, in music becomes much more specialized and standardized in later periods of music history. However, since we are beginning with the music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, we will stick to general concepts of form for now It wasn’t until later periods that  composers placed greater emphasis on form, so we will study particular structures later in this class.


Speaking of elements that won’t be covered until later in the class, harmony as it is most commonly taught today, is a musical element that developed in the Baroque period (1600–1750) and evolved more and more complex constructions in the Classical and Romantic eras. Since the composers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance did not think of their music in harmonic terms (major and minor keys, chords, chord progressions, etc.) we will wait until later to introduce this very significant musical element.