Basic Musical Concepts - Beat, Rhythm, Melody and Harmony

Without getting to deep into music theory, periods, styles and all that (which is too western) we are going to explore some basic musical concepts.

Music can be said to be built by the interplay of melody, harmony and rhythm.

Melody is what results from playing notes of different pitches - sometimes pitches can be repeated too - one after the other in an 'organised' way. Melodies are very distinguishable and are often singable. However, just the succession of pitches doesn't make a melody. Each note played has a duration. The relation between durations refers to rhythm.

But, before rhythm, lets talk about pulse. Like every living organism, music has a pulse - beats (like that of the heart). And although we not always hear it, it is always there. Do you remember when children learn to clap their hands to follow songs? There is a constant, implicit, beat that happens periodically. In some cases, it is in fact played by instruments. For example, in Australian aboriginal music it is often played by clap sticks.

But rhythm is not just a constant periodic beat. The beat or pulse is like its skeleton. Rhythm is how you inhabit the pulse. Rhythm is what results of combining notes of different durations, sometimes coinciding with the beat and sometimes not. For example, if you can notice in Reggae or Ska music, the guitar or keyboards most of the times play, at times, exactly opposite to the beat.

And, last but not least: harmony. Usually, melodies are not just played alone by a solo instrument or a group of instruments playing the same thing. Very frequently there are 'lead' instruments which play melodies (such as the voice, wind instruments, etc.) and, at the same time, others that accompany them doing something else. This relationship between different notes played at the same time is what we call harmony.
Sometimes this can be done by one instrument such as guitar or piano, but other times by several instruments (like didjes or brass ensembles). There are many types of relations between two or more notes played at the same time, but they can be classified into two main divisions: consonance and dissonance.

Consonance refers to a sense of stability and 'relaxation' experienced when listening to some harmonic relations. Opposite to this, dissonance refers to the sensation of 'tension' or the feeling that something is 'unstable'. Depending on the 'distance' between one note and another, we can classify their relations into consonant and dissonant.

Now, if we think about the 12 tones of the scale (C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A# and B) and the possible relations between two or more notes, we arrive at the concept of intervals.

An interval is a number that represents the amount of notes between one note and another in the diatonic scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) - the one we all know without sharps (#) or flats (b).

For example, from C to G, there are 5 notes (C, D, E, F, G), from E to A, there are 4 notes (E, F, G, A), and so on. This way, we call the interval C-G a fifth, and the interval E-A a fourth. There may be unisons (where both notes played are the same), seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths and octaves (for example low C to high C).

Intervals can be further named according to the amounts of 'steps' that they contain:
A step is the distance between one note and another in the chromatic scale (the 12 tones mentioned before with sharps and flats). C to C# has one step, C to D has 2 steps (from C to C# and from C# to D), etc. Remember that in the westernised scales, C# is the same sound as Db, D# is the same as Eb, and so on. Just take a look at a piano and see for yourself. Find C# (the black key right to C) and Db (the black key left of D). There you go.

You must also remember that there are no black keys between E and F, and between B and C, so there is no such a thing as E#, Fb, B# or Cb.

So now, names are given to the different types of intervals:
0 steps = Unison (example: C-C)
1 step = Minor second (example: C-C#)
2 steps = Major second (example: C-D)
3 steps = Minor third (example: C-D#)
4 steps = Major third (example: C-E)
5 steps = Perfect fourth (example: C-F)
6 steps = Augmented fourth (example: C-F#)
6 steps = Diminished fifth (example: C-F#)
7 steps = Perfect fifth (example: C-G)
8 steps = Minor sixth (example: C-G#)
9 steps = Major sixth (example: C-A)
10 steps = Minor seventh (example: C-A#)
11 steps = Major seventh (example: C-B)
12 steps = octave (example: C-C)

Finally, these intervals just named can be classified into consonance and dissonance:
Most consonant: Unison and octave.
A little bit less (but still very consonant): Perfect fifths.
A little bit less consonant: Perfect fourths
Still less, but still consonant: Thirds and sixths (minor or major)

Dissonant: Seconds, sevenths, augmented fourths and diminished fifths.

Last of all, in western cultures, minor intervals are usually associated with sadness, thoughtfulness or interiorness while major ones have been related to feelings of joy, happiness, brilliance, etc.

But remember life is not always the same. Go ahead and play around. It's a matter of combining consonances and dissonances.

HOWEVER, if you're going to play for a meditation, it is highly recommended not to change intervals so often. It is better to do something somehow 'static' and consonant.

Remember when you play we are all part of nature and music is a way of uniting ourselves with Pacha Mama (mother nature).

Author: Carlos Alberto Manrique Clavijo


Playing with other Didjes in Harmony