I realized recently that most of my writing is aimed at people who are interested in reading music, or might have some reference to enter into music theory that way. However, many people are interested in talking about music intelligently that may not have time or resources to devote to learning to read, play an instrument, etc. This post is meant to be an introduction to talking about music, using the terminology musicians should generally understand, even if there’s no score to look at or anyone in the conversation doesn’t read music.
Music has 4 primary elements: Pitch, Rhythm, Texture, and Timbre. Each of these break down into various other things, but we’ll sort the conversation around these terms. This is a long-ish post, but only a very beginning overview. Each of these categories could lead to a full doctoral dissertation in Music Theory on one/any of many topics.
Timbre (pronounced TAM-ber) is also sometimes called tone. This is the various qualities of sound that let us differentiate a flute from a trumpet from a violin from a voice. Some will use various words borrowed from other artistic fields to describe different tones: colors, shapes, textures, but all sorts of other types of words come into play. For example, I think an oboe sounds penetrating, or I might describe a flute sound as having soft edges. If you are trying to explain a sound you heard or like etc, think about using art words as if you were describing a painting or other visual work.
This leads to the next thing: the beginning of a note is known as an attack. The end of a note is a release. Sometimes a note is started with a soft attack, sometimes with a forceful, hard, edged, sharp, or dry attack. The release can be sudden, smooth, gradual, etc. A wet sound usually has more reverb (bounced echos from the room), where a dry sound leaves more space between the notes. Most instruments have a tendency to be more dry or more wet, but can use techniques to go one way or the other.
When we’re dealing specifically with recording of instruments, some things can effect the attacks in particular, because you will hear more of the action of playing the instrument: the bow hitting the string, the finger landing, etc. Woodwind keys make a clicking noise, excess noise of bowing strings is sometimes described as scraping. Sometimes this can be mitigated with equipment, placement, high-quality performers, but to some extent working with human musicians means there’s only so much one can do.
How loud a sound is also effects its tone. Dynamics is how we call loud and soft. The fancy musical terminology is Forte for loud and Piano for soft.
Words for tone can matter, because most instruments have words that describe a younger player less favorably. An accomplished violinist has a warm, full sound, where a fourth grader might have a screechy sound, but calling it a thin, piercing sound with extra bow noise is more specific and comes across as less judgmental. Piccolos when played poorly and loud can be shrill, but piercing works better here too. Tubas might be blatty, but we could specifically describe the attack/release that is causing that tone. Finding descriptors that get as specific as possible without using words that have negative connotations will make conversations more productive. If you don’t have a specific instrumentalist to ask about what words not to use, imagine being back in middle school and stay away from words that the catty type of student would use. Then again, some composers specifically go in for those types of sounds, so one never knows!
Texture deals with how many instruments or voices are involved. (A voice can literally be a person singing, but it is also used to mean a contiguous line of music.) This can be as simple as describing the number of people playing — one singer with piano — but it can get more complex because many instruments (especially piano) can play more than one voice of music at a time.
We can describe texture as simple or complex, or we could say orchestral to indicate many voices and instruments. If we say the texture is chordal, that means many voices are playing similar rhythms, but different notes (to make up chords) like with many hymns. If all the parts are playing the same notes, we say unison. Multiple independent lines is referred to as polyphonic, and melody with accompaniment is also a texture.
Texture can have contour: smooth and jagged, gradual addition, abrupt, static, growing or diminishing in complexity etc. This describes transitions between different types of textures in a multi-instrument piece.
Rhythm also includes tempo, beat, and meter. When we talk about rhythm, we talk about how the music plays out in time. Tempo tells us how fast or slow. But to talk about how fast, we have to agree on the beat or recurring pulse. Some pieces have multiple levels of beat, so we often tap out what beat we hear as the steady and recurring beat to double check we’re talking about the same one.
Rhythm/notes that happen more frequently than the beat are called subdivisions. These are typically either in 2s or 3s (duple or triple).
When beats are consistently grouped in a pattern, we talk about meter.† Most common meters are grouped in 2s and 4s, but 3s are common in some types of dances (waltz being the most obvious), and modernly some irregular meters have become more common, grouped in 5 or 7, or groups of 8 that instead of being divided evenly into 4s and 2s, are 3+3+2 for example. A group of beats within a meter is a bar or measure.
When the meters are grouped consistently on a larger level, we talk about hypermeter. This is common in dances from the medieval era to the present, especially where there are a set number of steps or moves, so mostly the bars are grouped in 4s or 8s. This can get confusing a fast tempos, because sometimes people will hear the bar as the beat, but that’s why we tap or describe a beat when talking about rhythm.
Pitch is usually described by high and low. Notes aren’t literally higher or lower, but that is the analogy that has stuck in western academic music writing for a very long time.* “High” notes are to the right on a piano keyboard, farther away from the tuning pegs on string instruments, or flutes and trumpets rather than tubas. “Low” notes are the opposite: left on the piano, close to the tuning pegs, tubas and other larger instruments. Bass voices are low, sopranos are high. And, to be fair, they are higher and lower on musical staff notation.
We also talk about the contour of a line of pitches, smooth or jagged, going from low to high or from high to low, stagnant,
More than one pitch at a time creates many more things to talk about (which is most of the rest of this blog). Quickly, multiple notes that group together are usually referred to as chords.‡ Certain types of pitch pairings or chords are said to be consonant and dissonant. Generically speaking, these two words align with open/blending/sweet sounds (consonant) and clashing/harsh/crunchy sounds (dissonant).*
Hopefully that is a useful place to start! Please let me know if you have comments or questions. If this piece sparked some interest in other types of musical discourse, there are more posts about basic music notation and concepts here:
†Two technical posts on different types of meter:
‡More technical info on chords and consonance and dissonance:
*Scientifically speaking, high notes have more cycles per second (Herz). A pitch, say the note called A, might have 110Hz, 220Hz, 440Hz, 880Hz etc. As a low voiced singer, I can sing 110 and 220 fairly easily, but 440 and 880 take specific training.