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Paul Klee, Pastoral Rhythms, 1927
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A Vocabulary of Musical Terms For concise definitions and sound clips of important musical terms (allegro, fugue, syncopation, and more) visit Essentials of Music.

Compare musical compositions from different stylistic eras.

The Classical Collection
With hundreds of musical masterpieces to choose from, where do you start? Steven Brown of the Orlando Sentinel selects 15 works to get you started on a lifetime of classical listening.

Melody and Form
A discussion and examples of musical motifs, phrases cadences, and basic forms.

For Games and Crossword Puzzles on history and theory of music visit the ThinkQuest Music Site.


Paul Klee, Orchestration of Color, 1923

Welcome to the new and improved Music Gallery! Here we will explore the elements that take noise and instruments and ideas and turn them into music. From classical to rock to hip-hop, the building blocks of all the different kinds of music we love are basically the same. We're going to use all those kinds of music and many others to illustrate these building blocks. So sit back, relax, read along, enjoy the tracks, and most of all, listen!

One of the most important building blocks for music is melody. Melody is a complete statement of a musical thought, sort of like a musical sentence that gets repeated for emphasis. Melody is that identifiable part of music that you go home humming. It is said that Paul McCartney woke up one morning humming one of the catchiest melodies in pop music history, singing "scrambled eggs" to the tune so he'd remember it. It became the Beatles' hit Yesterday.

Combined notes give us harmony. Harmony is produced when several pitches are used, different notes that compliment each other when put together. Harmonies are pleasing to the ear, and are often used to add a fullness to a song. Listen to these two examples from the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack to see what we mean: Man of Constant Sorrow. Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby.

Rhythm is the way music is ordered in time. It is how long the notes last and the way silences work with the music. Rhythm applies to every voice and instrument in music: the number of times a guitar is strummed in a measure, the amount of time a singer holds out a single note over the rest of the music. Rhythm is also familiar to us as the beat of a song, the feel of a drum part that makes us want to dance. The beat is especially important in hip-hop music, where it is often the most prominent musical feature. It's hard not to recognize the rhythm in Wyclef Jean's Gone Til November or Lauryn Hill's The Lost Ones.

Tempo is the basic pace of the music, how fast it goes. You can pick it up or slow it down. Tempo markings are traditionally given in Italian. See Essentials of Music for listening examples of andante, vivace, presto, moderato, and others. Or, for a more modern example, listen to the way the quick beats of U2's Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For makes the song feel like it's being carried along by a fast current, and makes the listener feel the same way. By contrast, listen to the slower The Long Day is Over by Norah Jones. It doesn't make the listener feel the same sort of energy as the U2 song, but it invites us to linger over the individual notes.

Dynamics is the relative loudness or softness of a piece. Musicians might refer to a piece of music as "dynamic" if it features an effective build, say if a song starts off quietly and then bursts into a chorus full of loud instruments and multiple vocals. Any time a song moves from pianissimo to forte, for example, or the other way around, that's dynamics. Listen to the slow build in Ryan Adams' Touch, Feel & Lose.

If two instruments play exactly the same note at the same volume, we can still tell the difference between the instruments. Timbre is the sound source, or the particular voice of an instrument. Just like human voices, different timbres help us recognize familiar ones and tell them apart. We can tell, for example, just by listening for a couple of seconds, the difference between an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar, because they have different sounds. Bob Dylan famously uses both acoustic and electric sounds in his music. Notice how easily you can tell which is which: Blowin' in the Wind. Subterranean Homesick Blues.

Form is the structure or shape of a musical work, the organizing principle in music. Music Essentials has lots of examples how we traditionally think of form, like the theme and variations or fugue forms in classical music. Contemporary music also relies on the basic ideas of form: repetition, contrast. One of the most common forms in modern popular music is verse-chorus-verse-chorus. The verse is the same musically but always changes lyrically. The chorus is always the same both musically and lyrically. The chorus is the part of a song that we usually remember best, like this famous chorus to the Band's song The Weight. The most common variation on this form is the bridge, which usually comes before the last chorus. The bridge is literally what is says: a bridge between the beginning and end of a song. It is often meant to keep the familiar verse-chorus song from getting too boring, to throw something different in to change the way we hear a song. Sometimes it does this by using a key change. It is often where you'll find an instrumental break or a solo, like the one in Jimi Hendrix's version of Dylan's All Along the Watchtower.

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text: Abby Lane


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Paul Klee, Nocturne for Horn, 1921

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