What is music?

Music is created by combining different elements

Music always involves combinations of pitch, timbre, rhythm, dynamics, tempo, texture, melody and harmony, which create an overall structure.

Putting these elements together in various ways creates a huge diversity of music – from African drumming to Johann Sebastian Bach, Inuit throat singing to Green Day.

Individual elements

There are many elements that refer to characteristics of an individual musical note.

Pitch – how high or low a note is – is a building block for music in all known cultures. Pitch (measured in cycles per second, or hertz) is linked to the acoustic structure of the sound wave, especially the regularity or rate of repetition. For simple notes, like that from a tuning fork, the repetition rate and pitch have the same value as the single frequency within that sound.

Most musical instruments and people’s voices contain a large number of frequencies: the fundamental frequency – the note we hear – and higher harmonics (notes at multiples of the fundamental frequency). For each doubling of wavelength, pitch goes up an octave, which is a musical interval of eight full tones (e.g. from C to the C above it).

The fundamental frequency can be removed only for listeners to still hear the same note – the ‘missing fundamental’ phenomenon. Pitch therefore does not depend just on the brain measuring some aspect of the stimulus: it is a perception that requires the brain to ‘abstract’ sound features.

Timbre is the reason why a note on a viola sounds different from the same note on a violin, even when it is played at the same pitch and loudness. Timbre is also sometimes called tone colour and refers to the quality of the sound.

There are other, less complex elements: duration refers to the length of the tone, while dynamics refers to how loud or quiet a note is, which is sometimes referred to as volume.

Compositional elements

In addition to the characteristics of an individual note, there are ones that describe the composition – or combination – of musical notes.

  • Harmony: Notes of different pitches put together to create a new (and ideally pleasing) sound.
  • Rhythm: A sequence of different notes over time that is repeated. (This term is also used in discussions of movement and the spoken word.)
  • Texture: Refers to the different layers of a piece of music, which can include instrumental sound and voice. This includes melody and accompaniment (all instruments playing together) or all instruments playing independent lines at the same time.
  • Tempo: The speed of the music, such as fast or slow, which can vary within a piece of music.
  • Melody: Combining notes of different pitches in succession to make a tune.
  • Structure: The arrangement of these individual and compositional elements, which forms the overall plan of a piece of music.

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Medicine, History
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
11–14, 14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development