Music can be thought of as a series of sounds that range from high to low (pitch), are held for a proportionate amount of time compared to other sounds (rhythm) and flow at a certain speed (tempo).
In other words, music uses:
- Pitch – is the sound high or low?
- Rhythm – is the sound longer or shorter than other sounds?
- Tempo – how quickly or slowly does the music move?
Let’s explore each of these musical building blocks.
Pitch is the highness or lowness of a sound. We perceive the sound of a flute to be higher than the sound of a tuba.
Pitch is created from very fast vibrations moving through the air until the reach our ears and we hear them. People hear pitches that range from about 20 vibrations each second (or Hertz) to 20,000 Hertz. When we perceive a pitch to be higher, its number in Hertz (also called frequency) is higher; a low sounding pitch has a lower number in Hertz (frequency). So, the frequencies of pitches produced by the tuba are lower than the frequencies produced by the flute.
Noteworthy – Notice that the word pitch describes the highness or lowness of the sound that we hear (not what we write on paper to represent that sound). We hear a pitch; we read a note.
Greater Understanding – This online tone generator allows you to enter a frequency number and hear what it sounds like. Observe that when you enter a lower number you hear a sound that is lower and vice versa.
Rhythm refers to how long or short a sound is compared to other sounds in the piece of music. A sound may be twice as long, or half the length. It may be three times longer, or one third of the length.
An important aspect of rhythm is that it is proportional to the other sounds. Rhythm does not measure the length of a sound using an exact length of time, such as seconds. Instead, it measures length using a beat which can vary in length. Different note values are used to represent different numbers of beats, which tells a musician how long or short to play a note compared to the other notes in the piece of music.
The length of time for which a beat lasts depends on the tempo.
Tempo is how fast or slow the steady beat for a piece of music moves. The tempo determines how much time one beat receives. If the tempo is fast, then one beat receives less time. If the tempo is slow, then one beat receives more time.
Tempo is measured in beats per minute, so a tempo of 60 means that 1 beat is 1 second long. The following audio is a click track set at 60 beats per minute.
The click track below is at 100 beats per minute.
Notice that there are more beats in a minute for 100 compared to 60. This means that each beat takes less time at 100 compared to 60. We say that 100 beats per minute is a faster tempo than 60 beats per minute.
Note that regardless of the tempo, the proportion of note lengths (rhythm) remains the same. By measuring rhythm using a beat, musicians can change the length of the beat and still perform the same rhythm. When the length of the beat changes, we say that the tempo has changed.
The blue and green boxes below represent the same rhythm performed at different tempo. The rhythm in each case has 3 sounds, the first sound is twice as long as the last two. Notice that the blue boxes take more time overall (because the tempo is slower, meaning that the beat takes more time) than the green boxes. Also notice that both the blue and green boxes have the same rhythm or proportions of the sounds to each other (first one twice as long as the other two).
Musical notation allows us to communicate through a written musical language the pitch, rhythm and tempo that a musician should perform. Let’s explore how that works!