IB Music/Introduction

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Definition of Music

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In order to properly study music, we must have a working definition of what music is. Defining music is more difficult than it sounds. One has to distinguish between the well-known music of Mozart, the random noise of traffic, and the bizarre styles of contemporary music that might combine traffic and Mozart!

A particularly good example of music that pushes the traditionally accepted boundary of music is 4’33" by John Cage. This piece consists of complete silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The music of the piece is created by the audience in their shuffling, coughing, wondering what happened to the music, etc.

A definition of music is an individual definition, but it must discern between random street noise and contemporary music, or between the ordered music of Haydn and the ordered sound of a speech. One good definition that might serve as a starting point for the reader is:

Music is organized sound with musical intention.

First and foremost, music must have some sort of sound. Even in bizarre examples such as 4'33", there still is sound- it’s just not produced by the performer. This sound needs to have some sort of musical intention as well. A street corner produces noise, but there is no musical intention, so it is not music. The sound must also be organized in some manner. Otherwise, a composer could pronounce a street corner to be “music.” The composer must intervene at some point to control the sound. Though 4’33” is comprised of randomly produced sounds by the audience, Cage exerts his control over the sound by limiting it to four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Also, as obvious as it might seem, the intention needs to have a 'musical' intention, not just an intention. Otherwise, a speech, which is organized sound with intention, would be considered music as well. Sound can only be music if someone wants it to be music.

Elements of Sound

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The reason we can have music is because sounds can be different. There are three characteristics of sound that differentiate one sound from the next. These are:

  • Pitch
  • Timbre
  • Dynamic


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Formally defined, pitch is the frequency of a sound wave. More loosely, it is the "highness" or "lowness" of a sound. This is what distinguishes an A from a B.


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Timbre is also called the “tone quality” or “tone color.” This is the characteristic of a sound that makes a piano sound different from a trumpet or violin, even when they all are playing at the same pitch.


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The formal definition of a dynamic is the amplitude of a sound wave. Loosely, this is how loud the sound is.

Elements of Music

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IB analyzes a piece of music using seven characteristics. These are:

  • Melody
  • Harmony
  • Rhythm
  • Form
  • Texture
  • Medium
  • Context


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Melody is the most difficult of the characteristics to define. While there is no good formal definition of "melody," it is loosely, the “song of the song,” or the “hummable” part of a piece. A melody is comprised of multiple musical “sentences,” called phrases. These phrases are then made up of steps and leaps. Steps are short risings or fallings of the melody (e.g. an A to a B or an F to an E). Leaps are longer risings or fallings of the melody (e.g. an A to a C or an F to a D).

The melody of Mary Had a Little Lamb


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Harmony is the chord structure of a piece that supports a melody. While a melody can stand on its own, harmonies cannot stand on their own- they are only support. At any given point, a harmony has varying degrees of consonance and dissonance. Dissonance is a stressful sound that feels a need to find resolution. Consonance is the resolution of the dissonance and therefore the release of stress.

A melody and harmony of Mary Had a Little Lamb

The form of a piece is the overall structure it takes. For example, a piece might take the most common, ternary, form (ABA). In this form, a section of music will be played and a different section will follow it. After the second section is played, the piece returns to the original section of music and plays it over again.

This Bach Minuet is in ABA Form. One plays the A section, plays the B section, and in a traditional minuet, starts back at the beginning and plays the A section over again.


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The texture of a piece refers to the layers of sound that are heard. There are three possible textures of a piece of music:

  • Monophonic
  • Homophonic
  • Polyphonic

Monophonic Texture

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Monophonic texture is a single, unaccompanied melodic line.

This is Mary Had a Little Lamb with a monophonic texture

Homophonic Texture

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Homophonic texture is a single melodic line that is accompanied by a harmony.

This is Mary Had a Little Lamb with a homophonic texture

Polyphonic Texture

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Polyphonic texture are multiple melodic lines playing at the same time.

Polyphonic texture in an excerpt from Bach's Invention No. 1

Some useful sites with short listening examples of the different types of textures http://gmajormusictheory.org/Listening/textures/textures.html http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/music/musicalelements/texturerev1.shtml


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Medium refers to the instruments that play a piece of music. If the piece being analyzed is a symphony, then the medium will be an orchestra. If the piece being analyzed is a violin sonata, then the medium will be a violin and a piano. To analyze the medium of a piece, one needs to have a strong understanding of the various commonly used instruments. Instruments to know are as follows:

Orchestral Instruments


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  • Violin
  • Viola
  • Violoncello (abbr. Cello)
  • Double Bass


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  • Piccolo
  • Flute
  • Oboe
  • English Horn
  • Bb(most common)Clarinet
  • Bass Clarinet
  • Bassoon

Other, perhaps less used Woodwinds

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  • (Contra) Bass Flute
  • Oboe d'Amore
  • Bass Oboe
  • Contrabassoon
  • Contrabass Clarinet
  • Several Different Keys of Clarinet


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  • Cornet
  • Bugle
  • Trumpet
  • French Horn
  • Baritone
  • Euphonium
  • Trombone
  • Tuba
  • Sousaphone


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  • Snare Drum
  • Tympani
  • Bass Drum
  • Triangle
  • Chimes
  • Xylophone
  • Marimba
  • Glockenspiel

Other Commonly Used Instruments

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  • Harp
  • Guitar
  • Lute
  • Harpsichord (Found in Baroque Music, predecessor to Piano)
  • Piano (sometimes considered percussion)


  • Saxophone (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, Bass, Double Bass, Contra Bass, Sub-Contra Bass)
  • Recorder


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The context of a piece of music refers to the general time period of the work and external influences on the piece of music. E.g. the composer’s life, musical styles of the time, instruments of the period, political happenings, etc. There are six major musical periods we will study. In chronological order, these are:

  • Medieval
  • Renaissance
  • Baroque
  • Classical
  • Romantic
  • 20th Century

These elements will be used throughout our study of music to analyze specific pieces. A good understanding of these elements aids one in writing the analysis essay because it provides a starting point for writing your essay.

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