Music 101 (part 3)



Last time, we looked at the concepts of pitch, octave, and semitone.

This time, we’ll take a high-level look at rhythm, melody, and phrasing.


Unless the music solely consists of percussion, rhythm is intimately tied up with pitches and this is especially with melody.

A melody is made up of several pitches, one after the after (as opposed to plucking several strings on a guitar at the same time, which is an example of harmony, discussed next time)

Nearly all music these days has a beat … something we feel, conveyed by the music, that makes us want to tap our foot regularly, staying in time with it.  There needn’t be any percussion for this to happen.

Think about a singer …each pitch she sings in the melody lasts a certain duration depending how fast she wants to sing (this speed is known as the tempo … think of this as meaning the number of beats per second … this is a little inaccurate, but good enough for now).  She’ll need to draw breath, and will use silence as well, singing each pitch when she wants it to occur. The way she does all of this is what creates the beat we tap our foot to.

A melody rarely changes from pitch to pitch by more than two semitones, partly because singing two successive pitches several semitones apart can be very challenging.  Melodies frequently rise up from pitch to pitch by one or two semitones, until at some point, this reverses. Try listening out for these points to vocal music you like. 

Notice that, if the singer can’t accurately perform the pitches she’s asked to, then the entire set can just be shifted up or down some number of semitones so it isn’t a struggle, as discussed in part 2.

Recognisable, memorable melodies never use random pitches. Our brains hate randomness and tends to filter it out so we don’t remember it.  As an analogy, what’s easier to remember? 123 123 1234  or 172 900 8751? The first number is far less random.

To get an idea of how a singer does this, try the following example…

If you have a metronome, set it at around 90 bpm, and if you can, have it emphasise every fourth click. When you hear the emphasis, start to sing four words (“here” “we” “go” “now”), over 4 clicks. Start each when the click sounds, and stop just before the next click, when you sing the next word. Then sing nothing for the next four beats. Repeat the whole thing several times. Turn off the metronome, but keep singing as you have been. You are creating the beat from what you are now doing.  If you don’t have a metronome, try walking at a steady pace, and start singing each word as each foot lands on the ground for the first four steps, then silence for four steps, and repeat.

Even when the music stops, we still have an awareness of this beat in our brain, until it fades. This is our internal sense of time at work.


Phrasing is loosely defined … roughly, a phrase is made up from the first pitch after silence, until the last pitch before silence (ignoring very short silences). In the example above, the phrase has four pitches, lasts for four beats and is followed by four beats of silence, all of which then repeats.  A phrase may last for several beats (four, eight, twelve and so on)

With phrasing, the rhythm is critical. If a phrase is repeated, with different words, say, we recognise this similarity. If the rhythm at the end of the phrase is altered slightly, we still recognise it. It the pitches are changed slightly, we still recognise it. Pop tunes rely on this … and this is what makes us sing along.  Songs are made up various sections, each with its own set of phrases, often different from other sections in the song.

Finally, when music is written down, the duration of each pitch is indicated by different symbols, given different names, such as whole note, half note, quarter note, and several others. Typically, the quarter note has the same duration as the beat.  The pitch is indicated by placing the rhythm symbol on different horizontal lines. I recommend you learn to read rhythm, even if you cannot read pitch, as this can turn up with some guitar tab … it’s either that, or listen to the song that has been tabbed.  However, we can get a long way without reading written music, if we use technology.  emuso/Practice Suite has a tool called RhythmX that lets you study rhythm visually and aurally, in great detail,  and practice rhythmic concepts, without needing to read notation.


You’ve learned that melody is made up of non-random pitches, with few large jumps (3 semitones or more), occurring one after another, as opposed to harmony when they occur at the same time. You’ve learned when pitches are sung, their duration imparts something we feel as the beat we tap our foot to.  You’ve learned that phrases are made up of several beats, and from repetition are recognisable within a tune.

Next time we’ll quick look at the meaning of scale, key, harmony and chord.

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