Music is the best. It communicates what’s in our soul in a human way that perhaps no other medium of expression can do.
Music is special, and uniquely human. If you’ve ever spent time with a little kid, you know what I mean. Our understanding of music is inborn. We even respond to it as babies, bobbing our heads or trying to sing along. It can calm us, inspire us, can make us sad or fill us with hope. For nothing more than the vibration of air molecules, it seems like magic.
But why does it do this? And how?
Who cares? We all know that it does. Isn’t that enough?
I would say “yes,” except for one thing: People want to know. I am musician myself and have had formal musical training, so I’ve learned a bunch of this stuff. Does this mean that I appreciate music more? No. It just means that I know the vocabulary of it, the words we use to try to describe what is going on in what we are listening to.
Lots of people seem to think otherwise, as if being a musician confers extra taste and discernment. I’m always having friends and family who are not musicians say to me, “Well, you enjoy music more because you ‘get’ it,” or “you understand music better.”
This makes me sad because it is totally false.
Anybody can “get” or appreciate music. It’s easy, really. And you don’t have to go to music school for it, or be a neuroscientist.
Let’s get into some key terminology and how each piece can help you appreciate music a little bit more–I’ll leave the psychological and physiological stuff for your own research, since that is way out of my wheelhouse.
That said, I firmly believe in music education, and find it a travesty that, much like with the classics, we ignore our musical legacy and traditions.
I’ll break my how-to guide into rhythm terms and note terms, before putting it all together in part three. Here goes!
Part I: Rhythm Terminology
Measure: A unit of music. Also called a bar. You’ll hear people talk about “four-bar” or “eight-bar” phrases. Measures are the little chunks of time that make up a phrase, and the phrases go together to make up a piece. How long each measure is depends on the time signature.
Time Signature: If you’ve ever seen sheet music, you’ve probably seen that funny thing that looks like two numbers, usually fours, stacked on top of each other. This is the time signature. The bottom number means which kind of note gets the beat, and the top number means how many beats there are per measure.
So for 4/4 time, the quarter note (4, quarter, get it?) gets the beat, and there are four beats per measure.
All you need to know is how to feel it.
Can you count to four at a steady pace and then repeat it? Congratulations, you understand time and beat. I told you, anybody can understand this stuff!
The overwhelming majority of Western music, especially popular music, is in 4/4 time. Next time you listen to the radio, count “one-two-three-four” as you nod your head. You will understand exactly what this means.
Why is this good to know? Because you’ll then be able to feel the pulse of the music better.
Tempo: The speed of the music, how fast or slow. Think punk rock versus Pink Floyd. Tempo is measured in beats-per-minute (bpm). Most popular music–think disco–is at 120 bpm.
Dance music tends to have a steady tempo and a steady beat; techno, house, and trance come to mind. So does a waltz (ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three). I’m telling you, now that I’ve pointed this out you’ll never be able to unhear it.
The Importance of Two and Four: The old musician joke is that black people clap on “two” and “four,” while white people clap on “one” and “three.” Leaving aside the racial implications of this, the idea is that whitey is stiff and awkward while the brothers have soul.
But what does this mean?
Think about our beat: “One-two-three-four, one-two-three-four,” etc. Music would be pretty boring if played with a mechanical pulse in metronomic fashion. That’s why certain beats are accented, or given more emphasis.
As you count “one-two-three-four,” either to music or on your own, clap as you say “one” and “three.” Remember how that feels. Then do the same thing on “two” and “four.” If you’re like most people, accenting “two” and “four” will immediately feel right, like you’re swinging. Even your pitchless claps will have more energy.
This is called the backbeat. Most of the music you like has an accent on “two” and “four” because it just feels cooler. Now that I’ve told you, you’ll notice it everywhere.
(Hint: Listen for where the snare drum hits!)
Beat versus Rhythm: Beat refers to what we talked about in our discussion of time signatures: what is the “pulse” of the music. Rhythm refers to where and how the actual notes in a measure are played (See? It’s all connected). Sing “Happy Birthday.” Then sing “The Star Spangled Banner.” They’re both roughly the same tempo but the notes fall in different places. That’s rhythm.
So when people talk about liking a song’s beat, they’re really referring to the rhythm. Don’t bother correcting them since it’s futile, but at least you’ll know the difference.
Syncopation: You know the difference between beat and rhythm. Now you can arrogantly look down your nose at those who don’t, right? That’s the point of this, isn’t? Musical snobbery.
While it’s true that musicians tend to be snobs, this is good to know because now we can understand why some music makes you want to get up and dance while some music bores you to tears. There’s a concept called syncopation, which refers to rhythms that emphasize the off-beats.
Off-beats? What are those? Simple. In our “one-two-three-four” count, you are hitting the downbeats. What about the spaces in between them? There are other types of notes besides those quarter notes–whole, half, eight, sixteenth, thirty-second, etc. (see the trend?). Playing on these off-beats can make the music sound livelier, jumpier. Listen to “Pomp and Circumstance” (the “graduation” song). Now listen to some James Brown and pay attention to the guitar and the drums, particularly the hi-hat and the snare, as you do your four-count. Which one makes you want to dance? That answer is obvious. But now you know why.
So there’s the beat and rhythm stuff. What about the actual notes?
Part II: Note Terminology
You don’t need to know how to read music to get this stuff. My job is to make it as unintimidating as humanly possible. The goal here is to understand.
Pitch: The note itself. Why’s it called “pitch”? It doesn’t matter. So much music terminology is completely arbitrary.
Anyway, this is what people mean when they say “C” or “G” or even “B-flat.” All you need to know is that, in Western music, there are 12 notes–A through G–with sharps and flats in between. All you need to know about sharps (#) and flats (b) is that they involve the notes between the letters of the alphabet.
Don’t leave now, this is easier than you think.
Let’s say you play the note C. You can do four things: go up, go down, repeat it, or stop playing.
If you go up or down, you can go a whole-step or a half-step. A whole-step up from C is D. A half-step up from C is C# (C-sharp). Again, arbitrary terminology, but there’s no letter in between C and D, is there?
Conversely, if you start on D and go down a half-step, it’s technically the same note as C#, but we call it Db (D-flat).
Let’s stop here, since this is all you need to know.
Octave: The same note, just higher or lower. This makes sense when you remember that our “A-through-G” system of notes repeats once you get to the top–what’s after G#? A.
The best way to “get” this is by example. Think of the song “My Sharona” by the Knack. That main riff, “bah-bah-BAH-BAH-bah-BAH” is the same note, a G, played in different octaves. You hear it now? Easy.
Riff: A short, repeatable phrase that’s often used as the backbone of a song. Think the part of a song–the hook, if you will–that you can’t get out of your head. Led Zeppelin was the master of the riff.
Melody: A musical phrase that forms the backbone of a section of music, or the entire piece, longer than a riff. Quick, what comes to mind immediately when I say “Ode to Joy”? That’s an example of a melody.
The bassline from the “My Sharona” example given above is a classic riff, not a melody.
Chord: Three or more notes played at the same time. Come in many favors, or qualities, but all we need to know are major and minor.
This short video does a good job of illustrating the difference.
Arpeggio: A chord where the constituent notes are played separately.
Harmony: The relationship between two or more notes–not necessarily notes that make up a chord, though a chord is a type of harmony–sung or played together. Think about the Beatles, the Beach Boys, or the Motown girl groups that inspired like the Supremes.
I’m dating myself here, but Boyz II Men were masters of four-part harmony.
Timbre: Pronounced “tam-ber” (don’t ask). The quality or tone of a note. Think a note played on a saxophone versus the exact same note sung by a person. They’re the same notes, but they sound completely different. That’s timbre.
Key: Which collection of notes is used. Think about your scale–an arrangement of notes, starting at one end–let’s say a low B–and ending the other–a high B. The key signature lets the musician know what to play in between–which sharps and flats to use, if any.
For our purposes, think of the key as the dominant note. All other notes are built off of it. If you listen to something in the key of E right after something played in the key of B, you’ll hear the difference.
(Just a side note, once you know all of these rules inside and out, any note can be played over any other note, but the rules are great starting points to make sure everything doesn’t just sound like a mess.)
Key becomes important because, like a chord, they can be in all sorts of different qualities. And as with chords, all you need to know, broadly speaking, are major and minor.
Part III: Putting It All Together
So you’ve gotten your crash course in music terminology. Great! Now . . . why?
Think about some of your favorite music. Some songs might bring certain words to mind, words like bright, cheerful, happy, peppy, or upbeat. I can almost guarantee you that those songs are in a major key, relying on major chords.
Now think about some others, songs you would call sad, somber, or even depressing. Those are likely minor key, chock-full of minor chords.
The fun comes when the two types of chords are interspersed to help control the mood or feel of the music. I’m dating myself even more, but “Every Breath You Take” by The Police is a great example of this, and it comes right at the beginning.
It kicks off with two bars of a major chord, two bars of a minor chord, one bar of a major chord, another bar of a major chord, before cycling back–or resolving–to the same major chord the song started on for two more bars. This resolution just sounds right, doesn’t it?
If you do the math here: 2 + 2 + 1 + 1 + 2 = 8. Say! That’s an eight-bar phrase!
Also, now you know that these chords are played as arpeggios. I can’t stress it enough: This stuff is easy!
But listen to the second time through: Instead of ending at the same stating major chord, the band instead plays a minor chord, right as Sting sings “I’ll be watching you.”
Creepy, right? Hitting that beginning chord would just sound perfect, but by going to that other, minor, chord, your expectations aren’t fulfilled.
That’s the idea! That’s how music works!
And matching the feel of the music to the content of the lyrics is a classic musical trick as old as time itself. The next time you listen to the radio, you’ll hear the matching of music to lyrics all over the place.
Recently, Adele has been a master of this. Just listen to “Hello.”
I’ll leave you with one last idea, one of the classic musical tricks that’s all over pop music. The technical term is appoggiatura, but all we need to do is think of it as delayed gratification.
In music, as in life, delayed gratification is a wonderful skill to master.
Here’s a perfect example, from what I consider to be one of the best pop songs of the past fifteen years, “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers. I’m not the biggest fan of the band, but they knocked it out of the park with this one.
That chorus! Listen to how the singer, Brandon Flowers, sings the same melody while the band changes the notes they play under him. On and on it goes until the end–“I’m Mr. Brightside!”–where the music resolves where you expect it to be with the sung notes. It just sounds and feels so satisfying. It also gives an example of the music matching the lyrics: The turmoil of the chorus matches the shifting instrumentation, but on that word “Mr. Brightside,” the major chords come crashing down.
Brightside . . . major chord . . . resolution . . . you hear what they did there?
You’re probably getting sick of this, but I cannot stress it enough: THIS IS EASY.
Now that you know this stuff, you could probably write a pretty good pop song yourself. Get to it!
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