Music Analysis and the Elements of Music

Like I have done for the last few years, I gave my annual lecture to my musicology class regarding the ways that the Elements of Music (EOM) can be a good starting point for analysis. In the UK, the EOM have been conversation points since the National Curriculum impacted music education in the UK during the mid 1980s – so most students starting higher education music courses in the UK are aware of them. Many students report during their school years that they learn to identify what the elements are – and then pin some sort of emotional response to them. Crude I know – but one of the ideas behind the National Curriculum was to bridge the gap between music and emotional response. As I mentioned in a post a couple of years ago – I find a useful starting point is to build upon this preexisting awareness, by initially giving students a list of elements to consider – such as the following

  • Melody
  • Harmony
  • Lyrics
  • Form
  • Texture
  • Tempo
  • Metre
  • Timbre
  • Dynamics
  • Mix
  • Groove

I then play a variety of music – and ask them to prioritize what they consider the most important elements are. It is here that the interesting debate starts – as this activity highlights the polysemic nature of music – where students can consider, and rationalize their own reasons behind their choices. What is particularly fascinating is considering something like tempo in a mid 70s disco track (For example ‘Car Wash’). The tempo sticks to around 120 bpm throughout – so does this mean that this element would be given a low priority? I find many students would say it is not important -as it adds no interest to the piece – while others suggest that the tempo is vital to the ‘dance feel’ of the song. If it was speed up or slowed down – it would be more difficult to dance to – so tempo is therefore given a high priority. This is the type of debate that can go on – but to me what is important is the ability to rationalize the reason behind your choice – whatever it is.

This year, for the first time, the conversation also turned to some elements being deliberately made simple so that other elements can stand out. In effect they sacrifice their dominance for the good of the other. For example, when listening to a solo Bob Dylan piece, it could be argued that the musical texture is simple/one dimensional in terms of elemental importance – but what would happen if Dylan’s lyric was juxtapositioned against complex harmonies, changing textures and fluctuating tempos? Would his lyric still impact us the way it  currently does?

I am interested in any thoughts/examples of this anyone can offer…..

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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2 Responses to Music Analysis and the Elements of Music

  1. Intriguing points Paul, especially with all the ‘what is a song exactly‘ talk going on in the wake of Allan Moore’s book Song Means. When you write ‘what would happen if Dylan’s lyric was juxtapositioned against complex harmonies, changing textures and fluctuating tempos? Would his lyric still impact us the way it currently does?’ I can report back that the song and lyric are very much alive, and if anything, highlight that the song (or conceptual idea / art) really doesn’t change that much, the arrangement (or craft) can enhance and improve, and sometimes even, detract, from the listening experience. You remind me that the arrangement is just that: an arrangement (no matter how excellent and vital) and the song an auteur (s) idea that some how has metre / lyric and melody caught up in a threeway dance (what ever the music, arrangement being played) Madeleine Peyroux does a lovely jazz version of Dylan’s ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ (off Blood on the Tracks) making it her own, but somehow without the lightness of touch of Dylan’s more basic original. Peyroux also does a brilliant version of a song called Between the Bars (by sadly dead by his own hand young indie slacker cult hero Elliott Smith) but she somehow manages to retain the melancholy of Elliott’s original version, without condescending to the original, or overcomplicating the new arrangement. I love it. But what reasserts itself for me, is that an arrangement is NOT part of a song,




  2. Paul Carr says:

    Cheers Richard – I will look forward to listening to these – I really like Elliot Smith. Although he does not mention it – I think Allan Moore’s thinking is based on an earlier book by Albin Zac – ‘The Poetics of Rock’. He has an excellent chapter on Song – Arrangement (what Moore calls ‘Performance’ and Track. Keep Well.


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