Music Fundamentals

Some music fundamentals

To be completely reductionist about it, music consists of tones arranged in time. Melodies are linear sequences of tones. Harmonies are simultaneous groupings of tones. Rhythm is the temporal pattern.

Here are some useful definitions and explanations of the fundamentals of music:


Most people think of pitch as the quality of highness or lowness of a tone. In general, pitch corresponds to the frequency of sound waves, but the actual perception of pitch is a psychological phenomenon. Most musical tones are a combination of many frequencies, but we hear them as a single pitch (see the Overtones discussion in the physics section for more on this).

A note on pitch:
Strictly speaking, the tones we refer to with the names A, F-sharp, G-flat, etc. are pitches, while the black dots on a sheet of music are notes. Notes symbolize pitches (and durations, but that's another matter). In common usage, however, most of us use the word "note" to describe both pitches and the symbols for pitches.


Pronounced "tam-ber" (it's French; what can I say?). Sometimes defined as "tone color" Timbre is the quality that makes middle C sound different when played on a trumpet, oboe, clarinet, flute, organ, guitar, Hammond B3, and harpsichord. The pitch in each case is the same, but the timbre is different. Differences in timbre are the result of variations in the strength and tuning of the various overtones. See the physics section for more details.

Scales and keys

Oo, this one's slippery! If you take all the notes (argh! I mean pitches) of particular tune, say "Inna Gadda Da Vida" and arrange them in order from lowest pitch to highest (or highest to lowest), eliminating repeated pitches, you end up with a scale. A scale has a definite internal relational structure, with a "home" pitch called the tonic. The tonic is the note a melody usually ends on; a melody that doesn't end on the tonic usually sounds incomplete, as if it had broken off somewhere in the middle. The tonic of "Inna Gadda Da Vida" is the second note of the main melodic pattern (the pattern that gets repeated over and over and over...); you'll notice that the pattern has an incomplete feel to it, since it doesn't end on the tonic. If you're not familiar with that song, try "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" which both begins and ends on the tonic. There are many different kinds of scales. Some of the more familiar ones to us are major (as in "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"), minor (as in "Greensleeves" or "Inna Gadda Da Vida"), pentatonic (for example, all the black keys on a piano), and chromatic (all the black and white keys). Other scales use other arrangements of notes, including some that fall between the notes of the chromatic scale. A key can be thought of as the tonal environment of a particular melody or scale. If a song is in the key of A major, it means that the song is based on the major scale beginning on A. Now, for reasons shrouded in the dim veil of history (or is that veiled in the dim shroud of history?) the names we give to the pitches in the Western European music system are based on the major scale, in particular the C major scale. These names are the first seven letters of the alphabet, but just to make things difficult the C major scale starts on C. The notes of that scale in order are: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. To play the A major scale, though, you need some notes that fall in between the notes of the C major scale. These are the sharps and flats. The notes of the A major scale are: A, B, C-sharp, D, E, F-sharp, and G-sharp. A really important thing to remember in all of this is that music is really based on the relative relationship of pitches. You can sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" starting on any pitch you feel like (that is, in any key), and it will still be the same song.


An interval is the relative distance between two pitches. Intervals are measured in terms of those dratted C major note names. To figure out what kind of interval you're looking at, just count the distance in the alphabet between the two notes, including those notes. For example, the interval between Middle C and the G above it is a fifth: C(1), D(2), E(3), F(4), G(5). However, to further complicate things most intervals occur in different incarnations. C to G is a fifth, but C to G-sharp is also a fifth, as is C to G-flat. These don't all sound the same! C to G is a perfect fifth, while C to G-sharp is an augmented fifth and C to G-flat is a diminished fifth. There is a list of all the common intervals at the end of this section, including handy tunes you can sing for examples of them. You may have noticed that there are only seven letters for naming the notes, but there are many more notes than that in music. The note names are like a modulus arithmetic, repeating themselves over a special interval called an octave (i.e. an eighth). Pitches an octave apart have a quality of "sameness" to them, and hence they have the same name. You can demonstrate this with an experiment: sing a song with someone of the opposite sex. If you are female, start fairly high in your range; if you are male, start low. When you and your partner sing the song together, you are singing in different octaves (usually one or two octaves apart, depending on your voice ranges). Here's a list of some common intervals with demonstration songs. The words in capital letters indicate the notes of the song with the desired interval. I've intentionally picked dumb, familiar songs. I have also only chosen ascending intervals. Descending intervals sound the same, but backwards.
Example song
[perfect] unison This just means two of the same note.
minor 2ndSing the "Jaws" theme! Here are the words: DAA-DUMP, DAA-DUMP, DAA-DUMP...
major 2nd FRE-RE Jacques... [or, ARE YOU sleeping...]
minor 3rdI AM Iron Man... [or, for non-metalheads, WHAT CHILD is this...]
major 3rdOn TOP OF Old Smokey...
perfect 4thHERE COMES the bride...
augmented 4th
& diminished 5th
MA-RI-a, I just met a girl named Maria...
perfect 5thTWINKLE, TWINKLE, little star...
minor 6th"Love Story" theme: WHERE DO I BEGIN....
major 6thMY BON-nie lies over the ocean...

Handy music tip:
For fun and amusement, try turning your intervals upside-down! This process is called inversion. What happens to an inverted interval?


Chords are groups of three or more notes played or sung simultaneously. Each different kind of chord has a distinctive sound, but this is the point where words fail to communicate the necessary information. The notes of a chord can be played all at once or played one at a time (a style called arpeggio in the manner of the harp. Every chord is built on a pitch called the root. The particular sound of a chord depends on the intervals between the root and the other notes of the chord. Chords are named by the root and the sound quality, with romantic names like C major, F minor, or B-flat diminished seventh.


The simplest kind of chord is called a triad. It consists of three notes. The sound of a triad differs depending on the intervals between the notes. The most common triads have the names major, minor, augmented, and diminished. Each one sounds different, but, again, you really have to hear them. Find a musician and ask for a demonstration.

Other chords

Other, more complex chords are built from four or more notes. It's not uncommon for jazz chords to use as many as six or even more notes.


Rhythm is the placement of sounds in time. In most music this placement is not random; it occurs in patterns. Usually these patterns are periodic; that is, they repeat.The rhythm of a piece of music can be broken down into beats or pulses. Think for a moment about the Bee Gees' masterpiece, Stayin' Alive. In the background of that song you can hear pulses of rhythm: the drums go thump-chukka thump-chukka thump-chukka thump, etc., until you get really, really tired of it. Every time the 'thump' comes around, you're at the beginning of another repeating group of beats.


Now, it happens that the repeating pattern of beats exists on a psychological level, even if the drums or other instruments don't happen to play on each one. The repeating pattern of beats is called meter. The meter can be a grouping of almost any number of beats, although most people's brains don't handle numbers past 13 or so.

Beats can also be subdivided into almost any number of sub-beats, but again the perceptive abilities of the ear and brain put a limit on this. The repeating patterns of beats are called measures. Meters are differentiated by the number of beats in each measure, as well as the way the beats are subdivided. Here are some examples:
Two or four beats per measure, subdivided into groups of two This is the typical meter of most of the music you hear on teenybopper radio. It's also the meter of marches, polkas, the Hustle, and many others. The 'Beer Barrel Polka' is a fine example. If you don't like that one, Stairway to Heaven is another.
Two beats per measure, subdivided into groups of three This is the meter of the 'Mickey Mouse Club March.' (You know: Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me)
Three beats per measure, subdivided into groups of two This is waltz rhythm, also useful for such dances as the mazurka and hambo. The Blue Danube waltz is a good example.

Other meters are more unusual in our bland American society. Here are a few examples:
Three beats, subdivided into three Morning Has Broken (Cat Stephens)
Two subdivided into three, alternating with three subdivided into two; this Latin beat is called Nañigo. America (Sondheim/Bernstein - you know: I like to be in A-me-ri-ca...)
FiveTake Five (Dave Brubeck)
SevenMoney (Pink Floyd; doesn't stay in seven all the way through), Unsquare Dance (Dave Brubeck)
ElevenHmm. Well, this one's common if you listen to Bulgarian music. It's the beat of a dance called a Kopanitsa.

Note: The shorthand way of naming meters, with names like 3/4, 4/4, 7/8, etc. is based on the music notation system, which I'm not going to go into here.

Copyright Pacific Science Center 1996
If you have any questions or comments please contact (