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Musical Elements

Musical Sounds

Peter Kun Frary


Music is made of sounds organized in time. These sounds may have attributes such as pitch, dynamics, duration and timbre. We'll examine these attributes in this section of Musical 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 called musical tones. Musical tones may be written as notes or expressed as solfège (musical syllables): do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do:

Musical tones may also be expressed 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, mi. When you clap your hands or stomp your feet, you are creating indefinite pitch. Indefinite pitch is within the realm of percussion instruments such as the temple block, snare, tom and bass drum.

Happy Birthday with indefinite pitch:

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


The distance between two pitches is called an interval. Intervals are expressed numerically. Sing the do, re, mi, fa, so, la ti, do scale. The interval from do to re is known as 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, mi, fa, so, la ti, do starts over at the octave.

Sing the first two notes of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. The interval between the first two notes (some- to where) is an octave. The octave is heard again between the seventh and eighth notes:

The octave is also used as a unit 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, mi, 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.

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Degrees of loudness or softness in music are called dynamics. Dynamics can be subtle or extreme. They can also be sudden or gradual. Dynamics help shape the 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:

Italian words are used to label dynamics. Italian musicians were among the first to indicate dynamics and tempo in scores, so their terms 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 length of a musical sound is called duration. Specific aspects of duration such as rhythm, meter and tempo will be discussed later in this chapter.

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The unique character or quality of sound produced by an instrument or voice is called timbre or tone color. Human ears can readily distinguish a trumpet from a ukulele by their distinctive timbres. Because human ears are sensitive to minute changes in tone color, timbre is an integral part of musical expression.

Instrumental timbre is determined by which overtones are emphasized. What is an overtone? Smack a kitchen pot lid with a chopstick and you'll hear several distinct tones: the main pitch and lowest tone, called the fundamental, and softer sounding tones above it known as overtones. Voice and musical instruments all produce overtones above the fundamental. The relative volume of these overtones to one another determines the timbre of the instrument. Listen carefully to this bell and you'll hear several overtones, i.e., softer and higher bell tones above the main pitch or fundamental:

When a painter creates an image, he or she chooses and mixes color from a palette of many colors. Timbre plays a similar role for musicians: choice of a particular instrument or voice is an important part of the creative process. For example, a trumpet produces a strikingly different effect than the same melody played on a plucked (pizzicato) violin.


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, solfège, Hertz, frequency of vibration, interval, octave, pitch range, dynamics, dynamic accent, pianissimo, piano, mezzo piano, mezzo forte, forte, mezzo forte, fortissimo, crescendo, decrescendo, diminuendo, timbre, overtone

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