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Musical Elements

Musical Sounds

Peter Kun Frary


Music is made of sounds organized in time. These musical sounds may have attributes such as pitch, dynamics, duration and timbre. We'll consider each of these characteristics in this section of Elements.

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The highness or lowness of a musical tone is called pitch. Sing the beginning of The Star-Spangled Banner. The lowest pitch is sung on “say” while the highest pitch is on “see.”

Sounds with definite pitch are referred to as musical tones. Musical tones may be written as a notes or expressed as solfège (musical syllables): do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do:

Musical tones may also be expressed numerically as frequency of vibrations or Hertz (Hz). For example, the note la (6) is 440Hz or 440 vibrations per second. The faster the vibration, the higher the pitch.

When you sing Happy Birthday, you are creating definite pitch:

Happy Birthday with definite pitch:

Indefinite Pitch

Indefinite pitch exhibits irregular vibration patterns and, thus, can't be expressed as Hertz or as a musical tone such as do, re, me. When you clap your hands or stomp your feet, you are creating indefinite pitch. Indefinite pitch is the realm of percussion instruments such as the snare, tom and bass drum.

Happy Birthday with indefinite pitch:

Indefinite pitches have three properties: dynamics, duration and timbre. Definite pitches have four properties: pitch, dynamics, duration and timbre.


We call the distance between two pitches an interval. Intervals are expressed numerically. Sing the do, re, me, fa, so, la ti, do scale. The interval from do to re is called a second. From do to mi is a third. From do to fa is a fourth, etc. The interval from do to do is an octave. The scale pattern of do, re, me, fa, so, la ti, do starts over at the octave. Sing the first two notes of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. The interval from some- to where is an octave.

The octave is also used to express the pitch range of a voice or instrument. For example, a piano has a seven-octave range. In other words, the do, re, me, fa, so, la ti, do scale can be played seven times from the bass to the treble side of the keyboard. In contrast, the guitar has a three and one half octave range.


Degrees of loudness or softness in music are called dynamics. Dynamics can be subtle or extreme. They can be sudden or gradual. Musicians use dynamics to help shape the expressive or emotional characteristics of music. For example, a steady increase in volume may create excitement. In contrast, a steady decrease in volume may suggest relaxation. If a single tone is emphasized by playing it louder than surrounding tones, it's called a dynamic accent.

Pianissimo passage with dynamic accent:

Musicians use Italian words to indicate and describe dynamics. Because Italian musicians were among the first to indicate dynamics and tempo in their scores, they became an international standard. Here are the basic dynamic terms and abbreviations from very soft to very loud:

pianissimo or pp (very soft)
piano or p (soft)
mezzo piano or mp (medium soft)
mezzo forte or mf (medium loud)
forte or f (loud)
fortissimo or ff (very loud)

There are also terms to indicate gradual changes in dynamics. For example, crescendo indicates a gradual increase in volume whereas decrescendo and diminuendo are gradual decreases in volume.


The placement in time and length of a musical sound is called duration. Specific aspects of duration such as rhythm, meter and tempo will be discussed later this chapter.


The term timbre means tone color. People can recognize if their friend has a cold after hearing only one or two words. Likewise, human ears can readily distinguish a trumpet from a saxophone by their distinctive timbres. Because human ears are sensitive to minute changes in tone color, timbre is an integral part of musical expression.

The choice of a particular instrument or voice is an important part of the creative process of music. For example, the choice of a trumpet for a Haydn melody produces a strikingly different effect than the same melody played on a plucked (pizzicato) violin. Press the arrow icon on the audio player below to hear the examples:


Pizzicato violin:

Unlike tempo and dynamics, there is no specialized terminology to describe timbre. Instead, subjective terms from everyday language are used: dark, nasal, muffled, thin, rich, bright, etc.


pitch, definite pitch, indefinite pitch, musical tones, pitch, solfège, Hertz, frequency of vibration, interval, octave, pitch range, dynamics, dynamic accent, pianissimo, piano, mezzo piano, mezzo forte, forte, mezzo forte, fortissimo

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