Chapter 3
Domain and Elements of Music

This chapter presents an overview of the elements of music, as commonly found within the context of recorded popular song, and some analysis methods or techniques that might be particularly relevant to recording analysis. To more deeply understand how the record shapes the song, an understanding of what comprises the song (which is in large part ‘music’) is central. Within any recording analysis, an examination of music elements (in any level of detail deemed appropriate) may be within the goals of an analysis. Traditional analytical techniques, theory and common practice may or may not apply or be relevant, depending on the individual song. Popular music has many styles; its materials have many places of origin and roots of style; those who write such music come from innumerable backgrounds and levels of training. Further, intuition can drive creativity much more deeply than traditions, or an understanding of conventions and theoretical principles. For the analysis of popular music—and analyses incorporated into recording analysis—analytic methods may need to be devised, or established methods may need to flex in order to address the music in meaningful ways.

Contained here is an overview of the variables that are present in popular music, of basic concepts of their content and organization, and of how they might contribute to or impact the track and how it is perceived. Some commonly found practices and a few underlying traits will be identified and explored. The elements of the music domain will be presented as:

  • Rhythm
  • Melody
  • Harmony
  • Dynamics
  • Timbre
  • Arrangement
  • Texture

This is not a book about the analysis of popular music—about how to analyze or to make sense of the music of an individual track. I do not seek to cover the analysis of popular music substantively, but rather to open the door toward an understanding of ‘how the song shapes the record,’ which is the mirror of this book’s central focus. The subject of the musical materials and practices of recorded song is very broad, and eludes generalization necessary for broadly applicable analytical methods. Some notable experts from music theory and musicology fields have dedicated years of study to covering popular music analysis extensively; the breadth of their work cannot be adequately condensed into this book, let alone into one chapter. Many of these sources (that do not always speak in the same voice) are referenced throughout; they should be consulted to provide guidance in understanding the vast potential materials and practices of popular music, and to provide additional vocabulary and methodology to facilitate analysis.1

While existing approaches and methods of music analysis may produce some guidance for entry into understanding a specific piece of music, it is important to

Few popular songs are substantively aligned with the structures and syntax of art-music, for which existing analysis techniques were devised to address. The qualities that characterize individual popular songs are traits that often push the envelope of existing popular practice—let alone art-music constructs of centuries past. Creative voices seek unique ways of expressing themselves, as well as creating the new substantive ideas within the song—this encompasses all participants in the creative process. These ‘unique ways’ are often reflected in the syntax of the elements, and in the new combinations of syntax content when elements are combined.

The goal of this chapter, then, is to identify and discuss the elements of popular music and its potential characteristics and practices. Through this, additional framework concepts and points of reference will be introduced here (and more will appear in later chapters). Using the concepts that appear here—pursuing an approach of inquiry based on established methods (as appropriate) and based on conforming methods/approaches to the materials, language and musical practices of a particular style or song—an appropriate approach to analysis might coalesce to allow discovery of the unique qualities of an individual song. In this process of examining specific elements, it is helpful to remember they do not operate in isolation. Allan Moore (2001, 33) has framed this:

This chapter begins with popular music’s most visceral element: rhythm. Rhythm is also the element that functions with or exerts influence on all others. Further, rhythm is also a factor in the elements and characteristics of lyrics and the elements of recording.


Rhythm is a driving force in much popular music, and records. Popular music’s strong, regular beat is a characteristic trait, and hard to ignore. Rhythm is immediately evident sonically, and felt in the body, or perhaps “through the body” (Roholt 2014, 2). Rhythm is temporal; its substance is time. Simple, prominent and pervasive, rhythm provides the point of reference for the experience of the record.

Discussion of all individual elements begins with rhythm because it is the organization of and the perception of time; rhythm’s sequential durations appear within the many sound qualities of the record, and provides the platform for their activities. While rhythm is presented here as a musical element, all of the elements in music, lyrics and recording take place in time; their materials and changing values have the potential to establish rhythmic patterns. Rhythm is generated by iterations of sounds, bringing a repetition or change of an element’s characteristics—of any characteristic of any element, such as (as example) a changing pitch, or a repetition of a drum sound. What is discussed here under rhythm applies to all elements, and is adapted to all domains and at all dimensions. Concepts of rhythm will reappear often within discussions of all elements (over the next few chapters). Its many applications and subtler characteristics will be revealed throughout.

Pulse, Rhythmic Layers and Metric Grid

Rhythm is the pattern of durations, groupings of discrete impulses that underlay most forms of communication. Durations are unified by a common point of reference: an underlying recurring pulse. This underlying pulse is an ever-present time reference; a time reference reflected in an established speed of its repetitions (tempo). Meter organizes this incessant pulse as a recurring pattern of strong and weaker beats (pulses), and thus establishes the reference pulsation of the metric grid. It is against this metric grid that the durations of rhythm can be accurately calculated and perceived.

Rhythm can be conceived in three layers. Each level of the multidimensional structure carries its own rhythmic expectations—whether at the pulse level, measure, phrase level, hypermeter, or larger levels. This is reflected in all different structural levels; it can appear as the ‘rhythm’ of major sections, as the waves of the prevailing time unit and of the hypermeter, within the recurrent patterns of phrasing (such as 4+4+4 measures), as consistent divisions of the beat into two or three equal parts, and so forth.

Hypermeter plays a central role in popular music. Hypermeter is the song’s meter of measures. It is a large-scale meter where measures act as beats, where several measures are combined into one unit, a hypermeasure. In popular music groups of bars are normally four measures, and often the measures have different levels of stress similarly to stronger and weaker beats in a measure (Moore & Martin 2019, 42). The pattern of hypermeter establishes the prevailing time unit—the two may be one in the same at this structure level—and combinations of hypermeasure groupings can functions on higher hierarchic levels (Kramer 1988).

The first layer is below the surface; this layer contains the underlying pulse and its divisions and the larger units it forms. The point of reference is the metric grid and the “hierarchy of expectations and implication” (LaRue 2011, 90) of motion and rhythmic patterning it generates. The incessant pulsation of some tracks—especially evident in dance musics—although blatantly present, resides below the surface in this layer.

The second layer is surface rhythm. This includes all relationships of durations in the record’s elements and materials at the level of perspective of the individual sound source, or musical idea. This is the level at which sounds are most visibly represented in the flow of traditional music notation. This is the rhythm of melody and accompaniment patterns, and of changes of harmony and drum parts, as examples.

The third layer is comprised of the rhythms created as elements (and their materials) interact. Rhythms may be generated by cross-referencing the activities of elements as they relate to one another (such a relationship is sometimes found between a lead vocal and backing vocals); in this instance they fuse into a single expression. A grouping of the elements must be established for these interactive rhythms to be perceived; some similarity or connection must be present to create cohesion, otherwise the elements (materials) will tend to separate into independent streams (Cooper and Meyer 1960, 9). The instruments of a groove will often exhibit this type of interactivity, and establish rhythmic gestures between sound sources.

The traditional idea of the metric grid defines the pulse as “one of a series of regularly occurring, precisely equivalent stimuli. Like the ticks of a metronome or a watch, pulses mark off equal units in the temporal continuum” (ibid., 3). In popular music, the pulse is often not so rigid; it is alive and it can breathe. In contrast, some styles have a mechanized, electronically produced and exacting beat; “some artists . . . are attracted to generating grooves of the square feel of quantized evenness and an exaggerated tempo” (Danielsen 2010a 2). The exacting precision of digital and electronically generated pulses will reflect this traditional definition, though many other styles are fluid. Most exhibit a slightly relaxed pulse, and some reflect great elasticity in the pulse and microrhythmic deviations from the metric grid;2 this can be especially noticeable in lead vocals.

Figure 3.1 Underlying metric grid, surface rhythmic pattern, hypermeter and phrase structure.

Figure 3.1 Underlying metric grid, surface rhythmic pattern, hypermeter and phrase structure.

Tempo (the speed of the recurring pulse) is as pervasive as the beat. Although it can often flex in some styles, in others it is mechanically constant. Tempo provides a consistency and point of reference in contributing to the metric grid. Gradually increasing speed (accelerando) or slowing (ritardando) tempo—the entire ensemble moving from one tempo to another, appearing quite regularly in art music—are not common in popular music “outside a more sensitive rock music, such as in retransitions to verses in Paul Simon’s ‘Something So Right’ (1973)” (Everett 2008, 131). Tempo and meter can ‘modulate’ into another tempo and/or meter, usually relying on some common beat division to serve as a pivot relationship; though not typical, a metric modulation of this sort is clear in the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (1967).

The stolen time of rubato provides a flexible pulse that can be subtle or pronounced. Rubato’s influence often appears as a rhythmically flexible solo melodic line accompanied by an ensemble holding the steady pulse of the metric grid (though perhaps not rigidly), or with accompanying instruments (especially common for drum parts and related reflected in the ‘groove’). These are common in records, where there are much deeper flexibilities of pulse and meter found in much popular music that in art music. This might go so far as to establish layers of different rubato streams between lead vocal, groove instruments and other independent vocal or instrumental parts.

The human qualities of performing rhythms can use duration relationships to bring expression to the line. Performing styles, techniques and expression influence rhythmic patterns and the beat. The pulse might be dragged at one moment and pushed the next, or consistently pulled by one part and pushed by another to establish equilibrium; rhythms of vocals flex to interpret the sounds and message of sentences, words and syllables. Perhaps no other element is shaped by performance as much and as subtly as rhythm, and in so doing rendering the rigidity of traditional notation increasingly inadequate in its reflection of rhythm’s subtle motions.

These subtle undulations characterize many records, and are often loosely addressed as ‘the groove’ of the song:

The groove establishes a rhythmic context for the record. It may function as a continuous point of reference, or as a subtle backdrop; in some songs the groove is a dominant driving force and a primary material. It is the regularity, subtlety and the nuance of the slight deviations from the metric grid that characterize the individual groove, and that contribute to the unique character of the track. Consider the rhythms of the piano, acoustic guitar, bass drum and hi-hat within the introduction of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (1968). Careful listening will recognize rhythmic notation would be pressed to capture the subtle pushing and pulling of the pulse within the piano and the rhythmically moving timbre of the hi-hat; while the pulse is grounded by the acoustic guitar and bass drum, there is elasticity of pulse within each as well. Notice, too, the rhythms established by interactions of these sources.

Similar to a groove, rhythmic ostinatos and beat patterns pervade recorded songs. These are incessantly recurring patterns that may be part of a groove, or separate material; ostinatos can be short riff-like patterns, a single measure drum groove or drum kit pattern, or longer phrase-length patterns. The ‘beats’ of hip-hop are typically a combination of groove and ostinato patterns, often emphasizing backbeats.

Table 3.1 Variables and characteristics of rhythm.

 Tempo Speed(s) (beats per minute) 
 Number of tempos 
 Pulse/Beat Underlying recurring pulse 
 Surface rate (notes per minute) 
 Metric Grid Organization of pulses (strong and weak beats) 
 Sub-divisions of pulses (i.e. two or three divisions of the beat) 
 Reference for duration patterning 
 Rhythmic Patterns Duration patterns in all elements 
 Between sources, materials or elements 
 Exist at all structural levels 
 Pattern groupings: patterns of patterns, sub-patterns 
 Performance Alterations Stretching and compressing pulse 
 Hypermeter and Structure Prevailing time unit and characteristic phrase lengths 
 Meter of measures 
 Hypermetric groups at all structural strata 
 Regularity of hypermetric unit lengths 
 Surface rhythmic patterns of elements 
 Rhythmic interaction of elements and materials

Remembering that elements fuse with other elements to create more complex materials, we can understand no element functions in isolation. For example, ‘melody’ and ‘melodic lines and materials’ result from patterns of pitch in conjunction with patterns of rhythm; these patterns that may not remain aligned between the elements, and that in their union will create another set of characteristics (a typology) that combines the activities and states of pitch and rhythm of that particular melody. The melody will involve other elements as well, as its emphasized pitches imply harmony, and as it is delivered by an instrument or voice, it is shaped by its dynamics and timbre. The web of relationships is intricate, and elements fuse in perception—though distinguishable upon study and reflection, and as abstract activities. All of the record’s materials are comprised of more than one element, whereby a change in one element brings a change to the whole.

The musical elements of harmony and melody are organized by the conventions and principles of tonality. More precisely, melody and harmony adhere to (or perhaps define) the varying principles of function within one of the various tonalities found in popular music.


In its simplest definition, melody is the linear succession of pitches in rhythm. When experiencing music, we hear melody as a single percept dominated by pitch and temporal relationships in some type of successive motion, but also with other dimensions. We engage melody as intervals of pitch and time between the notes, as organized into patterns that are perceived as shapes, and as an overall contour and impression that also contains qualities of performance (dynamics, timbre and other sound qualities).

Relationships of pitch receive the most attention in many forms of analysis. Walter Everett (2008, 111) offers the position “that pitch relationships are of central importance, forming the core of the structure, the identity, and even many of the expressive qualities of pop-rock music.” While equivalence opens our perception to potential of all elements, we also recognize which elements present materials of central importance—and pitch is often, though certainly not always, central. Pitch relationships are based on the assembly of pitches in use, organized into scales or modes; the functions of the pitches are reflected in the song’s tonal system. Such functions are established by convention, as relative levels of stress or significance, and more.

Harmony plays a crucial role in the song’s tonal system. Harmony is often framed as the vertical aspect of pitch (with melody the horizontal); with its chords of simultaneously sounding pitches, built on pitches of the scale degrees of the scale or mode in use, and containing various intervallic content (though based on diatonic thirds). Harmony is also linear. In ways somewhat similar to melody, its chords carry functions and levels of tensions largely in parallel to the scale degrees of melody. Chords form patterns that are the sequences of harmonic progressions. Progressions are stylized within various types of tonalities, and carry conventions of use within those tonal systems; they also represent an important characteristic of the song.

Thus, harmony is comprised not only of vertical sonorities, but also of their horizontal movement from one chord to another. The influence of harmony is felt even in the absence of clearly articulated vertical sonorities.

Counterpoint appears at the intersection of melody and harmony. In popular music it typically manifests as two or more melodic lines with clearly independent identities—such as a vocal and a bass line. The lines are interdependent harmonically, but are separate ideas in rhythm, shape and function. This harmonic interdependence is the underlying chord progression—which can be veiled at times and clear at others. These streams of independent melodic lines produce harmony (chords and progressions) by their harmonic suggestions and melodic motion. Voice leading links the notes of one chord to the next with melodic motion and melodic lines’ implied harmony; conventions of tonality carry expectations of how some pitches are to resolve into the chord that follows.


Engaging tonal systems gets complicated. The tonal system plays a defining role in the song’s pitch language—language that communicates through the song’s scale material(s) and chord choices and successions. This language generates the syntax for motion and relationships of tones, and establishes expectations within the listener—expectations generated from learned convention as well as from materials of the song itself. Before progressing forward, we need to define some matters of tonality.

At a base level, a tonal system (or tonality) is a hierarchical system for organizing pitch. In a tonality one individual pitch has the greatest stability; the remaining tones are related to that tonic pitch. Those remaining tones are the aggregate of the scale in use, and they are defined by scale degree and their relationships to the tonic. With relationships come functions (such as the common-practice functions of tonic, dominant and subdominant) inherent within the system; this establishes a hierarchy of perceived relationships and functions between the pitches of the tonality and between the chords built on the pitches of the tonality. These relationships of pitches and chords carry expectations inherent in the tonal system, and induce stability and tension, directed motion and points of arrival, and so forth. The cadence is a sequence of harmonies that bring musical motion and tension to a point of rest or resolution; this point of arrival can have varying degrees of strength and stability depending on the chord functions in the tonality, and other factors of the musical texture. This generic definition of tonality opens to include the many tonal systems found in recorded song.

Tonal systems take many forms. Popular music tonalities incorporate a wide variety of modes or scales and related chords and progressions. Further, with the inventiveness of popular music composers (and perhaps the creative impulse to stretch or even to defy conventions), it is not unusual for an individual song to have a tonal system that combines modes, or that is otherwise unique in some subtle but nonetheless significant way. A very large percentage of popular music is tonal, likely more than 98% (Everett 2007b, 303). With so many songs and such a variety of tonal systems, the details of tonality in rock and popular music have received numerous interpretations. There are any number of informed and somewhat diverse concepts and approaches in current and recent studies; this plays out most noticeably in identifying which existing analytical tools might appropriately be used, and in how relevant tools might be devised. The many tonal systems within popular music nearly all differ from the common-practice major and minor tonal principles of art music in some way—some slightly and some profoundly. All recorded songs will benefit from an examination that conforms to their unique system, materials and qualities; an examination in which the analyst ignores biases of all types and origins as much as is possible, and one that allows the song to reveal how it can most easily be understood (Cone 1989, 54).3

Modes and Scales

While major and the forms of minor scales (modes) are reflected in the majority of popular recorded song, a significant number of other modes are commonly found. Diatonic or church modes, pentatonic major and pentatonic minor modes, and blues scales are all typical; each generates unique organizational features and inherent qualities and characteristics.

Of these modes, Dorian, Mixolydian and Aeolian are quite common in popular music; see Figure 3.3. Mixolydian is very common, and is used in the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966). Also from Revolver, “Eleanor Rigby” provides a clear example of combining modes within a song, as it alternates Dorian verses in contrast with an Aeolian chorus. The influences of the remaining modes are certainly found in popular music,4 though pure, unaltered Phrygian and Locrian are rare; “Wooden Ships” (1969) by Crosby, Stills & Nash contains a clearly Phrygian verse, and the lowered 5th of Locrian is strongly evident in “Army of Me” (1995) by Björk. The Beatles’ “Blue Jay Way” (1967) represents a clear example of a song in the uncommon Lydian mode.

Peter Winkler (2000, 30) notes:

Pentatonic scales, with minor and major third scale degrees, contain five pitches; notice these scales contain only the intervals of major second (M2) and minor third (m3). The pentatonic minor scale may be the most common pop-rock scale after major, and it also often occurs through substantive melodic inflections within major mode (Everett 2008, 158). The most common forms of pentatonic and pentatonic minor scales appear in Figure 3.2.

The blues has had a significant impact on rock and popular music genres. Scales are often altered to incorporate 'blue notes,'which usually appear as the lowered third, lowered fifth and/or lowered seventh scale degrees. 'Blue notes' can be incorporated into scales, or superimposed on major modes creating "the possibility of blue alterations of the third scale degree in pieces with major tonic triads: in many rock styles, it is common in melodies to tune the third scale degree so low that it forms a m3 [minor third] with the tonic" (Stephenson 2002, 37). A blues scale will typically appear in one of three forms: (1) a hexatonic, six-note scale that consists of a minor pentatonic scale plus the ♭ 5th scale degree, (2) a seven-note conception is the major scale with lowered third, fifth, and seventh degrees, and (3) a chromatic variation of the major scale incorporating a flat third and seventh degrees which alternate normal third and seventh scale degrees (in context this can manifest as the Dorian mode occurring simultaneously with major mode, its minor quality superimposed over the major-key chord changes).

Figure 3.2 Blues, pentatonic and pentatonic minor scales commonly found in rock and popular music.

Figure 3.2 Blues, pentatonic and pentatonic minor scales commonly found in rock and popular music.

These blue notes appear to conform to equal temperament when considered as incorporated into these scales. Musical practice can change this substantially for any instrument capable of bending pitch (such as stringed and wind instruments) and for singers. Blue notes often appear as microtones, flattened by a variable amount smaller than a minor second (half-step). This ‘worried note’ is sung or played slightly differently from conventional tuning, both for expressive purposes and for tonal effect. This alteration differs among performers and styles (jazz, blues, etc.); though it is often a quartertone or somewhat less, it is noticeably and distinctly flat. These microtonal blue notes are typically integral to the substance of melodies, though they may instead provide ornamental qualities.

Blue notes are just one example of microtones in melody. Microtones are often incorporated into vocal performance styles and melodic lines. There they can provide or support speech-like inflection of lyrics, embellish pitches or add tension and expression. As flat pitches create tension of anticipation that the performer will reach the target pitch, or a sharp pitch can represent the stress of perceived over exertion, embellishing the line by intonation and microtones can add direction and motion to melody. Thus, being ‘out-of-tune’ is not necessarily poor performance technique, but rather an integral part of performance technique, interpretation of the line, and its musical materials. The current widespread use of auto-tune erases microtonal inflections; the resulting inhuman pitch accuracy (described by many as mechanical) is a core characteristic of other popular styles.

Recorded song can take great liberties with tonalities and scales. The unique qualities of tracks can reside in modes that morph between forms, bend pitches ambiguously, as well as countless other activities. Blues or folk music origins can influence mode usage in certain genres significantly. The recording medium often accentuates the presence of shifting modes’ subtle changes.

Chords and Progressions

Chords and harmonic progressions are formed from the pitch resources of modes. The conventions of tonalities are reflected in the qualities of chords and the sequences of progressions. Chords built on the scale degrees of modes reflect the unique qualities of the mode’s sequence of whole-and half-steps. These unique qualities are imbedded into the chord sequences (progressions) that characterize the music written within or utilizing the mode. Figure 3.3 presents the triads built on the successive scale degrees of Dorian, Aeolian (natural minor), Mixolydian, and major (Ionian) modes. Chord letter names and the nomenclature often found in popular music are listed above the staff; chord quality is indicated by uppercase alone for major ‘C,’ for minor ‘Dm,’ and for diminished B°. Below is the system (with roman numerals) that relates numbered roots of chords to illustrate their relationship to the tonic; this system also provides indication of chord quality.

Both forms are provided here to draw attention to identifying the names (based on the pitch of the root) and qualities of chords as a separate step from identifying the functions of chords—functions that can only be identified after the tonality has been determined. Further, Roman numeral analysis places the chord within the tonality and within the context of the song; simple chord names identify the chords themselves and not their functions or relationship to tonic, allowing ambiguity to be embraced and explored. Both approaches have value at different times. Tones added to these basic chords are reflected in chord symbols. Chord symbol notation and nomenclature has many variables. It can become very involved quickly; all nomenclature used herein will follow one of these accepted systems. A source that lists and explains systems of nomenclature will prove valuable.5

Notice there is a second line of roman numerals under Mixolydian; these denote how the chords on those scale degrees relate to their counterparts in the major mode. Some quotations below will use this approach. Notice all roman numerals are in uppercase and a ♭ VII chord is present; this signifies the chord is one half-step flat from the seventh scale degree of major. This system is a clear example of how a well-meaning approach to use traditional major/minor scales as a reference to characterize modes might (depending on usage) undermine the mode’s perceived status as a norm in the context of rock and popular music.

Figure 3.3 Chords built on the scale degrees of Dorian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and major modes, with designations of chord qualities and scale degrees.

Figure 3.3 Chords built on the scale degrees of Dorian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and major modes, with designations of chord qualities and scale degrees.

Harmony is the element of music that has been most thoroughly systematized. Analyses of music often emphasize harmony, and dedicate the most space to its materials. Early opinions of most academics identified pop-rock’s chord types and functions, and the content of harmonic vocabulary, as simple and limited; even those most accepting of popular music framed their observations with a clear implication that art music should be the point of reference, as it is somehow superior, more complex and more sophisticated (Mellers 1973). We now know this is far from accurate, though aspects of this position still persist.6 An abundance of general tonal systems are used, as we have seen from the diverse scales, above. Each of these general tonal systems can generate a unique harmonic syntax for the individual song—even the well-used ‘major’ tonality can spawn an array of harmonies and harmonic relationships that may create a unique vocabulary for a track—especially with the addition of chromatic harmonies. Further, the ways a tonal system is used within a critical mass of songs can generate subsets of styles and establish conventions that are widely shared, and that establish specialized tonal systems with certain characteristics.

Walter Everett (2007b, 304-320) has organized the richness of rock’s harmonic vocabulary into nine ‘classifications of rock’s preeminent tonal systems’ that “progress from traditional major-minor and modal systems through pentatonic patterns, ultimately ending in chromatic relationships that may bear little resemblance to any normal established tonal centricity.” Of these, four classifications are major-mode systems, one classification each of minor-mode systems and diatonic modal systems, and three classifications related to pentatonic systems. A review of the classifications confirms the striking differences of harmonic languages and other characteristics, and their levels of complexity. Tonal systems are not only diverse, explaining them can become very involved. Identifying chords and the actual function and classification of those harmonies can become complicated or ambiguous (indeed, sometimes this mystery is part of the allure of music that can be ‘heard’ in different ways upon repeated hearings, though it can frustrate analysis). This can become further complicated when songs move between tonal systems—more specifically, between major or minor tonal systems and modal or pentatonic systems—or are resident in a modal tonality. Fixation on how a song fits into one or another system, though, can miss the point: analysis is to identify what is going on in the song, not to identify to what tonal family the song belongs. Often a song can seem to defy clear classification, not because it is somehow flawed, but because its unique language is not clearly reflected within existing classifications—and this may simply be part of the process of the artist pushing boundaries, though perhaps the methodology is inadequate or has been misapplied, and other possibilities certainly exist. Every song sets its own context, defines its own rules—even if some of those rules are borrowed (or adapted) from conventions.

Classifying and describing works within major or minor tonalities are the focus of traditional music analysis (steeped in common-practice conventions that originated in a different century). This approach to analysis is not always useful, or at all pertinent, for some tracks—or for recording analysis. In some songs, harmonies difficult to reconcile within major or minor tonalities might be explained in the context of modal usage. Moore (2001, 55) identified, “this obviates the consideration of some chords (such as the Mixolydian VII) as aberrant. Mixolydian VII is far more common in rock than Ionian VII.” Similarly, a major IV chord within a minor tonality evokes the impressions of Dorian influence. Still, our established theoretical/analytical methodologies are typically misleading for the songs that are clearly modal—that contain no tangible presence or influence from major or minor tonalities. Modal scales and progressions have unique qualities—often reflected in chord root movements by seconds, and sometimes thirds; their characteristics cannot be fully recognized or appreciated within the context of tonal analysis (that emphasizes concepts of harmonic relationships based on fifths). These unique qualities are fully formed within the contexts of individual songs, as well as within modal systems; that modal songs do not have the tonalities’ directed motion of fifth relationships (which may well be more of a learned association than an inherent tendency) does not make them without tension or direction, these are simply achieved by other means. It is clear that modal progressions are unique and stand on their own—with their characteristics and intrinsic tendencies. Given this, it seems most relevant for valid understanding of the song that they not be considered as substitutes for major/minor, or even aberrant in their nonconformity. It follows that “modal progressions might themselves be elevated to the level of paradigm or norm”; that “a knowledge of modal idioms comparable to our knowledge of tonal idioms is valuable as one attempts to analyze popular music” (Burns 2008, 67–68).

Clearly, accessing the tonal and harmonic language of the individual song may not be a simple process.

Characteristics of Harmony

Tonality is a system of organization at the large dimension. Tonality provides the relationships of pitches and chords that generate harmony’s characteristics in nearly all popular songs. A governing tonality is the defining tonality of the song and its key; the tonal center is the point of reference for all of the pitch and chord relationships, and any new keys that might appear. The characteristics of the governing tonality—which, to be clear, includes modalities—include its system of pitches, their organization and relationships. It also includes the aggregate of influences from any additional tonal centers and their modes. In a major or minor song, the degree to which it conforms to common practice principles could be a factor of significance. Modes may be superimposed or appear successively; the resulting tonality is comprised of the qualities of both when recognized at the large dimension level. There is vast tonal/ modal richness available to popular music.

The relationships of some tonalities (especially common-practice major and minor, and some blues traditions) are fraught with a “particular cluster of conventions” (McClary 2000, 63) all their own. This extends to include how tones and chords are to function in harmonic progressions and cadences, how tonal centers are to relate, and how harmonic tension can directly create motion (departure, travel, arrival). This motion generates and directs tensions (of varying degrees of strength) toward full and partial resolution and stability. The tonalities of rock and popular music may carry some of these common-practice expectations, though its listeners are easily accepting of their absence—and willingly embrace popular music’s wide palette of replacements. Further, the conventions of tonality carry a deep ideological stigma due to their history within European classical music; its principles and terminology carry loaded definitions, relationships and expectations into popular song that often imply (or overtly promote) it is the accepted way against which all other systems must be compared.7 References to tonal systems in popular music need not carry this weight, though it is easy for an analyst to unconsciously find oneself in this position.

Modulation is the movement between tonal centers (such as from the tonic key to another). New tonal centers are identified by their modality/tonality, tonal center, and their relationships to the tonic; traditionally these might be subdominant, dominant, or parallel major/minor relationships, though popular song may modulate as it wishes, with mediant movement common and second relationships not unusual. Structural use of tonal areas is common in popular song, with it being common for a new key to be introduced in a bridge or a middle eight, a modulation to occur between verse and chorus, and so forth. Lori Burns (2008, 86-89) explains the shifting tonal focus in the four main sections of Tori Amos' "Crucify" (1992) as verse in G# Dorian, pre-chorus in B major, chorus in G# Aeolian, and bridge in G# major/minor; this demonstrates modulation as taking place between modes as well as between tonal centers, with tonic shifts to relative major and parallel major relationships to G# Dorian. The large dimension governing tonality of "Crucify" reflects these modes, and the upper strata of the middle dimension organizing the sections by tonal centers as well as acknowledging the individual modal scales.

Modulations occur as harmonic pathways between the keys. A path of modulation might be a common chord between the two keys, a slightly altered chord in one key that pulls into the new, movement between relative keys common to the same scale, paths that are ambiguous in common-practice but ‘work’ within the language (or modality) or unique context of the song, or any other means. Songs may even oscillate freely between keys with no hesitation or effort to reconcile the two by common tread; such a ‘double tonic’ relationship with keys a tone apart can allow the flat seventh scale degree to be prevalent (Mellers 1985, 39–40). Brief excursions outside the key are ornamental in function—especially those with duration of less than the prevailing time unit. These are transitory embellishments, providing a ‘flavor’ of another tonality without its established presence. Modulations that bring a new tonal area to an entire song section are structural; a new pitch level is tonicized, and perhaps a new mode established. Number of tonal centers, duration of each center, modulations path(s), relationships of the keys(s) to the governing tonality, structural placement and frequency of returns of keys, are some of the characterizing factors of tonal areas and modulation.

Harmonic progressions are, simply, sequences of chords. They are central to establishing and reinforcing tonality, reflect or produce the governing characteristics of the song’s mode, and the chord patterns they establish and reiterate are typically defining characteristics of songs. Harmonic progressions are stylized within the specific song, and might reflect a certain style of rock or popular music—such as chord motions by descending perfect fourth (that reverse the usual functional progression of common-practice harmony) and parallel shifts by step that frequently occur in rock songs (Koozin 2008, 267). As we have encountered, many languages of harmonic progressions (based on modes and tonalities) exist, and their content and contexts can be very complex.

Here I wish to make clear, popular music is extremely forgiving about harmonies (chords) that do not conform to any ‘language’ of harmony that might be in play. When intuition is the guide for creativity—as is often the case with recorded song—any ‘rules’ of harmony (or conventions of style) are irrelevant. Indeed, even the vertical sonorities of chords can morph to resemble something closer to timbre than superimposed discrete pitches. The guitar line within the introduction of U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky” (1987) is one such example; this line has tension, directed motion, a sense of departure and of arrival, movement between established points—all qualities of harmonic progressions.

Progressions play a significant role in musical movement within the majority of musical styles. Their qualities can be characterized in this way. Progressions contribute significantly to the track through the types of motion they provide—speed of motion, strength of motion (resulting from tension), amount of motion (separation from the tonic note), among other attributes.

The characteristics of harmonic progressions that establish motion and tension are typically directed toward some type of resolution or stability. Tension does not need to resolve, however (Everett 2008, 145–149); some chords, contexts and songs exploit this, hanging tension without the release of resolution. The tension of harmonic relationships that creates movement is intrinsic to language, some modes providing less obvious movement than others. This may be a result of root movement between chords, as the fifth movement within major/minor creates (for some listeners, in certain contexts) more of a sense of direction than the modal conventions of movement by a second or third. Musical languages with their built in tensions are cultural and learned (Sloboda 2005, Handel 1993). Tensions that may be clearly heard by a skilled listener well versed in common-practice principles, might well be heard differently by a skilled listener that conversely is experienced in the modalities of folk music; one might recognize little directed motion with a divergence from common-practice, where the other might notice the tensions within a root movement by thirds with only one common tone. This is central to calculating and understanding the continuum of maximum tension to unwavering stability that characterizes progressions and the chords they contain.

Thus, progressions are characterized by type and strength of motion. The unique syntax of an individual tonal/modal language provides the organizational cohesion and coherence for progressions; the same progression can function differently—mean something different—in different songs given a different context of syntax. The listener brings experience, listening skill, knowledge, attentiveness and more to the listening experience; thus a degree of uncertainty and subjectivity is present in the functioning of tonal systems. The interpretation of the analyst can often reflect this, intentionally or not—as the analysis itself is an interpretation.8 The possibilities for chord progressions in popular music, then, might be seen as broad, with numerous ways to make sense of them—some ways are specific to the song, some are based on the conventions of the past (perhaps preceding common-practice), some borrowed between conventions (such as major borrowing from minor pentatonic), some particular to a style within popular music, and new ways are likely currently emerging.

Progressions are also characterized by chord content—chord types in use, which chord types and roots dominate, and how they are sequenced. Triads and added note chords, seventh chords and ninth chords, chords built on fourths or fifths, and chords without thirds all appear in progressions—and this list is sorely incomplete. These chords all function within the movement of the progressions—or not, depending solely on usage and context. The dominant seventh chord is perhaps the chord that demands the most attention and has the most stylized function within much of our culture. “Function” has been determined largely by common-practice principles, and a chord like the dominant seventh has a deeply engrained function—its sound quality demands resolution, movement in a preordained voice-leading path to a singular goal.

This motion is typically directed to a cadence of some varying strength—cadences are points of arrival and of closure, of resolution and of stability—usually near the end of a hypermetric unit. These are often marked by slowing rhythmic drive, a pause, and descending melodic motion, and are strongly reflected within harmonic progressions. Cadential progressions immediately precede such points of arrival. Certain cadential progressions have emerged in common practice that are deeply engrained and stylized—these are progression patterns ending with V, V-I(i), vii°—I(i), or V-vi. When these formulae appear they may be adapted to popular music by voice leading or rhythmic emphasis. Modal progressions can also generate cadence types; one common cadence is the ♭ VII to I (Moore, 2007a). In widespread use in the late 1960s and continuing onward, the stylized double-plagal cadence (♭ VI I—IV—I) is unique in the many forms this pattern has generated in popular music (Everett 2008, 154-155). Allan Moore (2007a, 193) offers: "Clearly, the VII—I cadence does not have the finality of the traditional V-l, although it is articulated as a full close ... In terms of poetics, it seems to me to qualify the certainty of V-l with 'nevertheless'."

Principles of common-practice function simply do not apply to some (perhaps many) popular songs;9 chords and progressions in these instances are characterized in other ways. Chords will not always have a function, or predisposition of how they must move. Some chords will be found that do not fit into constructs of triad-based sonorities, or within the construct of having a role within a progression. Power chords and color chords are examples.

Power chords do not contain a third, and are comprised of solely a perfect fifth or fourth (typically sounded by two adjacent guitar strings, often open); this staple of metal, new wave, grunge and punk can generate progressions of parallel-motion fifths, often moving by seconds. As Robert Walser (1993, 43) describes, “Power chords are manifestly more than these two notes, however, because they produce resultant tones. An effect of both distortion and volume, resultant tones are created by the acoustic combination of two notes.” The two-note chord generates an additional tone at the frequency that is the difference of the two tones; for example, two pitches, one at 147 Hz (D3) and one at 110 Hz (A2) would generate the pitch 37 Hz (D1) which is below the range of the guitar but will be audible. Further, the typically distorted guitar amplifier that plays the chord generates other frequencies, many unrelated to chord tones; this distortion adds considerable harmonic complexity to the sound.

Color chords typically function for their abstract sound quality (they can be a type of sound object inserted into the flow of an event); their sonority can vary widely, and may not be comprised of stacked thirds; the chord will be unique in some way. Color chords might make tension, but not resolve fully or expectedly; they can bring either instability or stability, to varying degrees. An example is the opening chord to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) with its D in bass and piano, and F-A-C-G on electric 12-string guitar. Examples of non-functional chords abound. Non-functional progressions can be found as well.

As noted, modal progressions exploit the unique qualities of the mode. They are functional in their own unique ways, and their characteristics place emphasis on those unique relationships to create tension and motion—in ways distinctly different from major/minor. Modal progressions and modal systems, of course, have a rich history dating back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Modally derived harmonies and progressions are the primary tonal language of the sixteenth century and earlier—and have survived and thrived in the folk musics of Europe and the Americas, reappeared in concert music from the late nineteenth century onward, and exist in a great many forms throughout the world, including the musics of Africa whose influences are deeply felt in popular music.10 Modal conventions have new roots in today's rock and popular musics—whether intentionally imported and adapted or intuitively uncovered. The characteristics of all modes have been explored in a wide variety of contexts; three examinations of Aeolian mode will serve as examples here. Alf Björnberg (2007) examines numerous works with Aeolian harmonic progressions; he notes the harmonic progressions the mode can generate, including the cycling i— ♭ VII — ♭ VI- ♭ VII Aeolian progression of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" (1967). Lori Burns (2005) demonstrates how the verses in Sarah McLachlan's "Ice" (1993) use the F Aeolian progression "i—VI I—VI—V";11 further, voice leading within the Aeolian mode plays a central role in the analysis as a whole. Finally, Stan Hawkins (2000, 58-65) examines how the Aeolian voice leading, chords, and derived chords appear in Prince's "Anna Stesia" (1988); he presents a 'macrocosmic cellular sequence' of how the various scale degrees of C Aeolian establish a sequence of tonal emphases that function structurally throughout the song—providing a set of relationships that clearly maps out how these tonicized areas within the governing Aeolian modality are akin to a 'key rhythm' (see below) for the song.

Figure 3.4 A typical twelve-bar blues pattern indicating harmonies, harmonic rhythm and four-bar hypermeter.

Figure 3.4 A typical twelve-bar blues pattern indicating harmonies, harmonic rhythm and four-bar hypermeter.

A progression does not always elicit directed motion—simple chord patterns might simply repeat, instead of progress (Mellers 1973, 36). Cycling chord patterns is a characteristic of harmony that also brings structural and duration (hypermeter-related) aspects into play. The incessantly repeating twelve-bar blues harmonic pattern is a common example, and one that is commonly modified in pop and rock. Note the pattern’s three-chord vocabulary; a vocabulary of three or four chords (or fewer) has appeared in a wide variety of songs. This principle of circular motion with repeated harmonic progressions has been explored as various types of ‘chord loops’ by Philip Tagg (2016, 401–414), and identified as ‘repeated circles’ of chords by Richard Middleton (1990, 113). These patterns may create and resolve tension in waves by their repetition rather than (or perhaps in addition to) any functional characteristics the chords might carry.

Voice leading’s melodic movement from one chord to the next reflects the harmonic relationship between simultaneous melodic lines; it is the synergy of horizontal melody and vertical harmony. This motion articulates or implies harmonic progression and its chord functions, and may bring directed motion of increasing or wavering tension, but is resident within and responsive to the character of the melodic line. These and more can shape and be reflected within voice leading, and are responsive to the governing tonality and its conventions. The voice leading and contrapuntal relationships between the vocal line and bass is especially significant, as noted by Lori Burns (2008, 67): “[T]he specific way in which a vocal line is staggered contrapuntally with the bass is a very important feature of popular music performance and one that contributes in large part to the distinctive sound of a given song or artist.”12 These lines and their relationships typically appear in the recording in ways that provide them with space and clarity, allowing them to be apparent and readily appreciated. Voice leading and counterpoint can serve other important functions. All harmonic activity in single chord songs—or most activity in songs with two chords as in Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984)—are generated by counterpoint, such as “rap vocals . . . laid over tracks involving contrapuntal ornamentation of a single harmony” (Everett 2008, 145). Voice leading can establish non-triadic added tones to chords, in major/ minor tonalities it can bring successions of chords that are outside common-practice relationships, can bring accompaniments to provide compatible support to the vocal line with chords containing its focal pitches, (ibid., 145–152) and can provide motion and energy without reliance on major/minor harmonic conventions. One prominent, general feature of popular music’s harmonic practice is the suppression of the diatonic leading tone (thereby severing close connection to common-practice tonality’s strong pull to tonic); this is often called to attention by voice leading (Moore, 2007b).

Table 3.2 Variables and characteristics of harmony.

 Tonality Governing tonality: tonal center/key 
 Governing mode 
 Aggregate of modes in play: number, how related 
 Tonal Center(s) Governing tonal center 
 Number of tonal areas 
 Relationship of tonal areas to governing tonal center 
 Structural locations(s) of tonal centers 
 Key rhythm 
 Modulations Structural modulations: durations and key 
 Ornamental modulations: durations and key 
 Relationships of modulation to governing tonal center; 
 Path of modulation: harmonic progression, transitional process 
 Repetitions of modulation paths 
 Chord Types Chords types in use, which dominate 
 Recurrence of specific chords (characteristic of song) 
 Unique chords, color chords, power chords 
 Progressions Chord content of progressions 
 Recurring characteristic chord pattern(s) throughout the song 
 Placement of unusual or characteristic chords within progression(s) 
 Chord types in use: appearance of unusual chords 
 Characteristic chord root movement 
 Root movement and common tones between chords that dominate 
 Relationship of progressions to modal and tonal conventions 
 Tonal progressions: degree of divergence from common-practice 
 Number of different sequences 
 Variations within recurring progressions 
 A specific characteristic chord within a recurring progression 
 Patterns of relative intensities (stability to tension) 
 Progression as theme 
 Harmonic rhythm 
 Cadences Location of cadences related to hypermeter, phrases, and sections 
 Stylized cadential progressions: used repeatedly, Cadence progressions used at important structural points 
 Voice Leading Melodic resolutions at cadences 
 Counterpoint of voice and bass 
 Enhancing or replacing harmonic motion 
 Harmony in Rhythm Harmonic rhythm 
 Key rhythm 
 Chord rhythm

Like cycles of chord patterns, other harmonic characteristics contain temporal elements, falling into rhythmic patterns. Harmonic rhythm is the rhythm of chord changes. As seen in twelve-bar blues Figure 3.4, harmonic rhythm can establish a rhythmic pattern of chord changes that can recur; patterns might also shift between song sections, or may vary (develop) in recurrences. Chord rhythm is a pattern of iterations of the same chord, common in many rock styles, and is a strong stylized trait in others. In songs with modulations, especially songs that modulate frequently between sections (such as when verse, chorus and bridge are all in different keys), ‘key rhythm’ can be significant; key rhythm will be at a structural level in the upper middle dimension or large dimension, and will manifest as a rhythmic pattern established by the durations of tonal areas.

It may now be evident, for some songs, harmonic language might be a minor, insignificant or even irrelevant factor. Pop/rock benefits from tonal ambiguities, chord progressions unrelated to traditional harmonic structures or progressions. Further, it is not at all obliged to progress from a propulsion of harmonic tension and to resolve harmonically like art music. Motion in the music can be a product of any musical element—and any element of the recording or the lyrics.

Characteristics of Melody

Melodies carry many characteristics, utilizing the grammar of the scale and resulting tonal influences. Melody can be characterized by its contour, melodic framework, structure and phrasing, and (for vocal lines) how the melody presents the lyrics. The characteristics of melody are summarized in Table 3.3.

Table 3.3 Variables and characteristics of melody.

 Contour Shape of the line 
 Direction and motion 
 Pattern of peaks and lows 
 Range, register, 
 Stepwise or leaps 
 Melodic Framework Tonality 
 Mode(s): governing, others 
 Intervals, activity, articulation, duration 
 Density of pitch changes and rhythmic durations 
 Pitch and interval content: patterns, focal pitches 
 Articulated and implied harmonies 
 Rhythmic flow and patterning 
 Compound melodies 
 Short-duration pitch/rhythm patterns: riffs and melodic ostinatos 
 Linking Melody and Lyrics Number of pitches per syllable, or syllables per pitch 
 Syllabic and melismatic 
 Speech-like, linking of melody with speech 
 Structure and Phrasing Rhythmic effects of phrase lengths 
 Regular phrase lengths and sequences 
 Irregular phrase lengths 
 Relationships of phrases 
 Repeating, variation and completion phrases 
 Contrasting phrases

Melodic contour characterizes the shape of the line that is created by pitch levels over time. Shape is the overall pattern of the contour, and any division of that pattern into shorter patterns—whether interrelated or contrasting. Contour variables include direction, interval change (changes in ascending or descending movement), frequency of direction change and the timing of direction changes. Contours may be classified as ascending, descending, pendulous (in moving in one direction then the other), oscillating (melodies that alternate between two structural notes) terraced (melodies in which entire phrases move between structural pitch levels), axial (melodies that circle around a structural pitch), static or chant (melodies that remain fixed on a repeated note); these are general classifications that might often be elaborated upon.13 Range is the interval (or distance) between the lowest and highest pitches of the melody; an important consideration is the distribution of pitch materials within this range, whereby the melody concentrates its activity within an area—or register. In this way the pitch range emphasized by the melody can be identified. Related is the rate of pitch change, and any variation in the speed (or rate) of pitch change.

Melodic framework is established by the interval content of the melody (the predominance of steps, skips, especially leaps of specific intervals), the speed and amount of rhythmic activity, patterns, the use of silence to articulate pitch activity, and the relative length of the melodic ideas and how they are sequenced. It is also defined by focal pitches within the melody—pitches that are emphasized in some way, whether by metric accent, relative length, or some other means) and their tonal functions. This gestural outline might provide directed motion to the melody, establish pitch terraces (registers) for the phrases of compound melodies, or be reflected in sequenced melodic lines (repeated melodic patterns transposed to other pitch levels) (Everett 2009b). A short melodic or rhythmic pattern that is repeated over and over is often called a riff; a riff can function as a melodic ostinato. Changes in other parts will take place at the same time as the riff repeats unchanged; a multi-level process is established where “sections of riff-based circularity are set against sections of cadential closure” (Middleton 1990, 195).

Related to this melodic framework is the relationship of lyrics and music. The vocal melody dominates songs. This is a by-product of the singer’s persona, language grabbing the listener’s attention, and of the many other dimensions of the lyrics. While these are covered in detail in the chapter on lyrics, the connection of melody and lyrics is important to note here.

Lyrics influence vocal melodies. The rhythms of speech can influence the rhythm of melody, and the tonal inflections of speech might often be reflected in pitch. These can be structurally incorporated into the melody, appear within the pitch, dynamics and rhythmic materials of melodic shape. These might also appear in performance as nuance of pitch and rhythm. Range and register also assume particular importance within the characteristics of a vocal melody, as the singer’s voice sounds and communicates differently in different areas. It is common for singers to shape lines subtly, to breathe the definitions of words and phrases into melody; shaping the sounds of words and in so doing shaping (interpreting and communicating) the meaning of the lyrics. Singers also add body sounds, vocal gestures and other nonverbal sounds around the lyrics, within their performance and the lyrics.14

The complexity of the vocal melody tends to conform to the nature of the lyrics, often reflected in the number of pitches per syllable, or syllables per pitch. When content of the lyrics is important (telling the song’s story), syllabic rhythms dominate, and often on or focused around a single pitch; this may be taken to the point of the vocal line appearing nearly speech-like, creating a connection between speech and song. More ornamental and even melismatic settings might present recurring ideas in the lyrics, as in the chorus sections. The manners in which syllabic and more ornate melodies appear and are shaped relative to speech is a defining characteristic; speech inflections and intonations provide important insights into this link between the lyrics and the vocal melody. In performance, inflections of pitch, dynamics and durations provide substantive characteristics of the line. Hip-hop and other genres take this in a different direction, as lyrics are rapped with varying degrees of indefinite pitch in the lead vocal; pitches are suggested, and they become more apparent in their repetition.15 There will be more on all this later.


Dynamics, timbre and performance-related alterations of timbre, and arrangement and texture are the remaining elements of music. All aspects of music other than rhythm, melody and harmony have been grouped, here, into one of these three elements. These elements are elevated in significance in recorded popular and rock music, especially pronounced in comparison to live classical music. This is largely due to two primary matters related to the record being a permanent performance.

First, these characteristics are fixed and unchanging upon completion of the recording. Therefore, they are integral to the performance, and fused with its qualities and expression. The interpretation of the song is fixed, and how these elements contribute to that interpretation has been carefully evaluated and crafted to best suit the recorded song. Remembering the record not the score becomes the canonical version, the recorded performance emphasizes relationships and qualities beyond the capability of notation.

Second, these elements can contribute to the musical materials of the track in ways not possible in live unamplified performance. Records provide the opportunity to reveal these elements more clearly, and to draw the listener into them. These elements can assume any of the four functions carefully crafted to contribute substantively to the track.

These other elements are also most closely linked to the elements of the record. There will be much interplay between these elements of music and their complements in the elements of recording. This is reflected in the ways the recording transforms dynamics, sound qualities of sources and groups of sources, and the track’s arrangement; the elements of the recording transform these traditional concepts with added characteristics—from subtly to profound.

The many styles of popular music make any generalized statement suspect, and anyone that has listened carefully for any length of time will be bursting with exceptions. The statements that follow will be riddled with examples that do not conform.


Loudness and dynamics can be a powerful element in some rock and popular music. Dance music, rap, heavy metal, some rock music, whatever music is current for adolescents, and many other popular music genres will find substantial loudness as a primary element within the listener’s overall experience. Dynamics are loudness in musical context. Dynamics can be a dominant element at the highest dimension, strongly shaping the listening experience—it can make music scream. Dynamics may also bring some sounds to be barely present within a sparse texture, other sounds vibrant with subtle complexities of dynamics within their timbre, and rich expression to musical materials.

Dynamics appear as loudness levels and as relationships between levels—just as pitch has levels and the ear processes the relationship (interval) between pitch levels. Dynamic relationships are typically comparisons of one dynamic level to another, allowing one to recognize one musical part as being louder than another. Dynamics in music can be significant, and will function independently in all dimensions and structural levels.

Traditionally it has been used in supportive or ornamental roles for expression and subtle shaping of a line, supportive for the process of balancing lines, parts or instruments with other, and in a more central role for dramatic purposes. Dynamics can serve an important syntactic function to articulate and shape patterns, and to structure at all strata (Meyer 1973, 35); by itself it can create a cadence for a single line or for all.

Recorded song retains these functions; in addition, the dynamic subtleties of performance take on more relevance with the performance meticulously shaped and its expression is permanent. Dynamics in recorded song have many qualities that are the result of the recording. Those qualities will be considered within the elements of recording and discussed later, and many of the traits described below will carry over in dynamics in recording.

Traditional analysis techniques rarely approach the impacts of dynamics in understanding the work; if discussion appears it is likely related to drama. Dynamics may add direction to the line, create tension, and more—though rarely is such activity apparent in the musical score. Dynamics are largely implied in scores—by the number and ranges of instruments for example—or identified in vague and incomplete terms. Musical dynamics are manifest in great subtlety in performance; general instructions and relative levels are resident in the score, even in the detailed scores of modern concert music, give little direct indication of the experience of loudness. The score represents the experience of pitch and rhythm in some detail, everything else, not so much.

Dynamic accents regularly occur in meter. These subtle changes in loudness establish a pattern of stressed and un-stressed beats. In performance, dynamic accents take many forms within musical lines—syncopation, backbeats, marking a moment’s significance, etc. The strength and placement of accents may help characterize a record or a line.

Changes in dynamic levels may be immediate or gradual. Crescendo and diminuendo are obvious examples within middle dimensions—whether the entire group changing together, the rhythm section as a unit, or the vocal line. Dynamics function at all structural levels, and these gradual and immediate changes can be traced throughout all dimensions. The overall dynamic shape of the song may exhibit sudden changes in level or gradual increases and decreases of loudness; these exist at the small dimension as well.

The subtleties of the groove are reflected in dynamic changes as much as rhythm changes, as meter is the result of varying stresses of beats. This is a clear example of subtle changes of loudness. Performances in records are carefully crafted for their musical materials and for the expression; dynamics plays central roles in shaping and in communicating both. Much dynamic shaping of musical lines happens in performance, and that shaping can be studied as important to the content and character of the musical material. This is especially important to vocal lines. Subtle, sudden and gradual shifts in loudness are difficult to describe—and difficult to notate. Our vocabulary to describe dynamics, and our notational nomenclatures to write them, are inherently insufficient; both struggle to reflect what happens in the music, within the sound of the music.

Dynamics is the musical application of the perception of loudness. Dynamics and loudness are difficult to engage conceptually and practically, for good reason. The way the ear processes loudness does not readily allow loudness levels to be compared accurately; we do not recognize specific loudness levels, and our sensation of loudness varies with the sound’s frequency level. Loudness perception is complicated and nonlinear. Further, loudness is readily confused with prominence—we are prone to assume that if something grabs our attention it is loudest.

Our weak vocabulary for all things related to sound is especially pronounced with dynamics. The indeterminate language we use with dynamics makes analysis difficult. Dynamic levels are conceived and discussed in very imprecise terms: loud, soft, moderately soft, or moderately loud; very soft or very, very loud, and very, very, very soft. Discussing the relationships of loudness levels is not better: we are apt to say ‘louder than’ or ‘softer than,’ but are at a loss as to ‘how much.’ ‘Twice as loud’ is meaningless, as we do not know the starting level of ‘loud’ in any meaningful way. This is largely the way we talk about dynamics and evaluate dynamics, though a deeper examination can be possible.

This imprecision leads to more general observations, grouping many perceptions of loudness into a few categories of piano, mezzo-piano, mezzo-forte, forte, and so forth. These loudness ‘levels’ have become loudness ‘areas’ in use. We have many graduations of ‘moderately-loud’ (for example); while all can be categorized as ‘moderately-loud’, each graduation is readily recognized at a different loudness level—a difference that may be pronounced as well as subtle. This establishes a continuum of innumerable ‘loudness-es’ within these ‘dynamic areas’ that provides great extremes of loudness to exist within each. Silence is the lowest dynamic level; it is one that can stop motion, suspend it with anticipation, be a recurring musical presence, and much more.

Dynamics are not only about loudness. Dynamics also carry a sense of energy, intensity and expression—traits that are reflected in timbre, not in loudness. Loud is significant energy being expended, and soft significant energy being withheld. Robin Maconie (2007, 71) framed this as: “the sound of a musical instrument combines force and resistance.” ‘Moderately’ then is a matter of degree of loudness and a degree of intensity. ‘Moderately loud’ asserted with some force and ‘moderately soft’ restrained with some resistance.

Loudness and performance intensity (the energy of the performance) do not follow in parallel. It is within the experience of many performers that a ‘high mezzo-piano’ may have a higher sound-pressurelevel loudness than a ‘low mezzo-forte.’ The difference is in the intensity of the sound’s timbre; its sense of urgency expending forward or sense of restraint and holding back. The threshold or tipping point that separates mezzo-forte and mezzo-piano might be conceived as a level of energy, intensity, loudness that is neither pushing forward nor holding back; a level of energy that has no effort (as withholding energy requires effort) and that might be able to be engaged indefinitely. This can provide some tangible way to process dynamics and intensity, and bring some clarity to subtle changes within and differences between dynamic areas. The question becomes a matter of degree, moving from ‘moderately soft’ to a more substantial restraint within ‘soft;’ just in to the area of ‘soft’ or more towards the threshold where ‘soft’ transitions to the more extreme restraint of ‘very soft.’ Loudness and intensity (the degree to which energy is exerted or restrained) fuse to become our impression of dynamics—an impression carries complex information not only of loudness, but also of the expression and energy provided by performance intensity (and manifest in timbre, see Chapters 7 and 9). We find engaging our perception and understanding of dynamics into any meaningful discussion is thwarted, because we have no point of reference on which to base discussion, by which we might gauge levels with any precision, or begin to calculate changes in level.

The reference dynamic level provides such a reference. It is one of the dimensions of crystallized form that embodies the entirety of the track; within this perception and recognition is a specific level of intensity, energy, and expression. The track’s form and essence has a dimension that is the energy, drama, level of urgency and quality of expression of its singular level of intensity; this is a significant quality of the global, sound object form—crystallized form. Every work can be conceived as having a single, overall reference dynamic level (RDL); this is a specific dynamic level reflected by a track when its global form is envisioned. The RDL is a single, specific dynamic level that represents record’s intensity and expression—the record as a complete entirety, as realized in an instant of conceptualization. RDL is the inherent spirit of the recorded song as a level of exertion, expression, mood and sometimes message combined into a single concept.

The RDL does not change within a piece of music. The reference dynamic level is an unwavering reference. It remains constant throughout the track, and serves to unify all of the dynamic levels and relationships of the record. Conceptually this is similar to the decibel. The decibel is a ratio; its level is meaningless until it is identified in relationship to an established reference level. In dynamics, levels can change at any moment and by any amount, and just like the decibel, this changing level does not change the reference level. The reference dynamic level serves to unify all of the dynamic levels and relationships of a track because it is unchanging and constant. The RDL does not vary even when the nature of the music changes; it allows very contrasting ideas (and even large sections) to relate to the singular concept of the track.

In the most fundamental of ways, everyone who has performed a work they knew deeply and were able to shape with artistry, incorporated into their sense of ‘knowing’ the work was the sense of the expression, energy, intensity of the piece they were seeking to reflect in their performance—the level that held together their performance into a coherent and cohesive statement and expression. Their first gestures in performance that generated a dynamic level, performance intensity, and expression, are calculated against the RDL they conceive. In all likelihood, such an impression was intuitively held. Performers (and producers, arrangers, recordists, and conductors) can and do intuitively tap into the RDL; in fact, within the processes of composing, producing and recording a project the RDL is held as a reference. At stages in projects where more than one person is shaping the artistry of the track, sharing the same impression of the RDL can make the difference between working seamlessly together and significant disconnect.

Relying on intuition does not guide analysis, though. Arriving at this understanding of RDL requires becoming well acquainted with the track; many aspects impact RDL, and all aspects impact every song differently. RDL might first appear to be an ethereal dimension of a recorded song; still, you know it once you have discovered or experienced it, though it can be illusive at all times prior. Awareness of RDL can be cultivated through remaining focused on the large dimension. Determining how all the qualities of the track come together into a single impression can be illusive. The tendency to focus on what grabs attention (such as the lead vocal), the most prominent parts, what is perceived as significant and many other factors all serve to confuse. The RDL is a large dimension quality that is influenced by lower dimension activities. The listener is drawn to the middle dimension’s basic-level, and followings the experience of unfolding sound events. To calculate or understand RDL requires a different way of listening, perceiving; attention must settle on the experience and of the mental representation of the track as a whole. This representation is established by listener experiences of all the sounds of materials and expression of structure at all levels (and in all domains) as they coalesce into a single impression, as one aspect or dimension of crystallized form. Just how this happens, and in what proportions these elements come together, is one of the factors that make every song unique.

Perhaps a bit more detail will clarify. The reference dynamic level may be influenced by timbre, tempo, meter, the energies of instruments or dominant instruments, the expressive qualities of the lead vocal and its dominant characteristics, key dramatic moments of the song or its general context, affects and all other aspects of the musical fabric—in relation to their contribution to the overall character of the track. The arrangement plays a key role in shaping the RDL, as most of music elements are molded and balanced there. The other two domains also shape the RDL of the track. Lyrics can play a central role in shaping the track, and thus the RDL; tone, message, story, drama, pacing, sound qualities (and much more) all contribute to intensity and expression. The recording has the potential to equally contribute. Revealing the reference dynamic level will be covered more deeply in Chapter 9. The RDL, once identified, functions in the domains of music and recording at all dimensions except the individual sound (explained in Chapter 7).

Every song will have a unique balance of these factors, and will undoubtedly contain others, some perhaps unique to that record. It is important to remember these are middle dimension materials, and the RDL is a characteristic of the largest dimension: the singular crystallized form of the track.

The RDL is subjective and relative to the individual performer/listener/analyst only in as much as the interpretation of the song is personalized and defined by the quality and nature of the analyst’s unique experiences. Within the set of similar experiences of a cultural group (or of skilled analysts), the RDL will largely be a common experience—listeners will arrive at the same point given enough exposure to learn the track deeply, adequate attention, acquired listening skills and requisite knowledge.

RDL will prove helpful in the evaluation of dynamics in all dimensions, within the domains of both music and recording. Dynamics is also a significant element of recording. In this way, the domains of recording and music can fuse into one percept, a single gesture. Recording carefully shapes loudness balance, the shapes of individual lines, the dynamic shapes of individual sounds, and more—at a point between the performer and the listener. In live performance these are entirely generated by performers. From subtle aspects of internal dynamics of sounds to the overall dynamic contour of the track, recording and music function jointly. These will be explored within the elements of recording.

Timbre and Performance

Table 3.4 Variables and characteristics of dynamics.

 Roles and Functions Functions in all dimensions 
 Potential to assume primary, supportive, ornamental or contextual roles 
 Articulates structure at all dimensions 
 Shapes patterns and materials 
 Can generate motion and tension 
 Variables and Qualities Levels and areas: general, indeterminate language 
 Range of dynamics of the song 
 Dynamic ranges of sections 
 Changes of level between sections 
 Relationships between simultaneous or successive sounds 
 Reference dynamic level 
 Accents Metric 
 Stress accents and exaggerated metric accents 
 Stylized: syncopation, backbeat, groove, other 
 Activities of Dynamics Dynamic contour of the song 
 Shapes and inflections of lines 
 Gradual shifts: crescendo, diminuendo 
 Immediate shifts, terraced levels 
 Implied levels and implied changes of level 
 Dynamic shapes of individual sounds 
 Dynamic shapes within sounds 
 Interactions with Elements Across Domains Allows all other elements to be audible 
 Integral to performance: dynamic nuance and shaping 
 Timbral modifications from loudness 
 Distortions of loudness and prominence 
 Activities of recording elements easily confused with dynamics

The musical element of timbre is most apparent in the sound sources (instruments and voices) that present materials. The timbres of instruments and voices (also called tone color as well as sound quality in some sources) are very significant in records. The timbre of the instrument, the musical materials, and the energy and expression of the performance all fuse into a composite sound. This fused sound is at the core of timbre in recorded song. Timbres of instruments and voices are also altered by performance techniques, and each register (portion of the range) of an instrument or voice has a characteristic sound. These all combine to create a rich palette of timbral variables for nearly every instrument and voice. Of significance is the level of energy (performance intensity) placed into the performance; this can take a voice from the qualities of a whisper to a scream without changing the lyrics phonetically, yet transform the timbre immensely.

Timbres in records are selected, created or shaped to most appropriately present the musical ideas and character of the line. Their characteristics are deliberately chosen, as they will forever exist in this way. Changes of timbre in performance, especially vocal performances, can bring a significant display of nuance in timbre and timbral changes (timbral changes are how phonetic sounds turn into words, into phrases). This selection is integral to the character of the song, and the sound of the record, and the qualities of the timbres of the sources are thus worthy of examination.

Individual performers bring unique sound qualities to their parts. This is especially noticeable in lead vocal and instrumental solo lines, though it exists at all levels. Performers bring their unique sound quality, performance technique or style, and creative expression to the song. They contribute their own creative ideas (improvising, offering embellishments or alternative materials) and performance talents; admittedly more in some tracks than others, their own musical sensibilities will infuse their performance, its intensity and its timbre substantially, and in uniquely personal ways. (Moylan 2015) The ways in which the individual performer’s timbre and expression contribute can be significant to understanding the song.

Specific instruments are often chosen for specific materials, as well; their unique sound qualities selected to reflect the desired character of the song. The coupling of the timbre presenting the musical ideas becomes inseparable, and becomes increasingly vital with timbral changes brought by performance intensity. Those parts essential to the song might receive acute shaping in this way, but decisions have been made for all sounds in the texture. The instrumentation for the musical lines is inseparable from the sound of the performance.

Instrument selection might also carry electronic modifications of its timbre. Amplification, distortion, or signal processing might be used to establish enhancements that are integral to the sound of the instrument (or voice). How an alteration to the original source timbre is accomplished is typically not important for recording analysis; the resultant sound qualities are—as it is the sound quality that presents and shapes the musical idea and its expression.

As a parameter of musical expression, timbre can work in four general ways. First (1), we have been examining the qualities of the performance. Of these, performance intensity is the impact of the energy and expression of the performance on the sound source’s timbre. This can be understood as a direct correlation between the timbre of the instrument and an appropriate dynamic marking to represent that timbre. It brings a connection of timbre and dynamics through the energy of performance as reflected in the timbral modifications of the instrument or voice. Many other performance-induced timbral qualities exist. These are a primary concern in recording analysis; understanding them can be approached through examining the physical properties of timbre, or through describing their characters. The impact and qualities of performance can be understood through examining modifications of the source timbre itself.

The other three ways timbre contributes to musical expression manifest in musical affects, in eliciting connections of music and characteristics from outside the musical context, and associations of timbres with particular musical styles or other cultures. Second (2), timbre can establish associations with or representations of musical affects (which can include intensity and urgency); this can lead to a host of subjective terms that are perhaps as close as we can get to defining affects. Third (3), timbres can elicit moods and general character traits “that resemble sound, touch or movement that exist outside musical discourse” (Tagg 2013, 308); as such, listeners are drawn to connections between the sound’s timbre and experiences outside the piece of music, or outside music entirely. Fourth (4) brings connection of the timbre to a particular musical style or a musical genre, such as the piccolo trumpet sound in the Beatles’ “Penny Lane” (1967) connecting with the music of a bygone time; this may also take the form of producing connotations of some other culture or environment, such as the swarmandal (on the flip side of the 45 rpm single) in “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967).16 While there are places in analysis for these observations and the conclusions they bring, the timbre of the sound source itself (including those nuances provided by performance intensity and expression) is typically the primary object of study, here, in recording analysis.

When we discuss sound, we are prone to use language from our other senses, from associations with other sounds, or from our subjective impressions of the sound and/or its context. None of these communicate information that is common with the perceptions of others; nor do they provide adequate detail about the sound to assist our understanding of how the timbres of sources contribute to the musical idea. We do not have a process or the language to describe sound and its specific content; this simply has not been part of the way we approach discussing sound. Instead, our custom is to describe sound by analogy and by using terminology from our other senses. We grasp words such as ‘warm,’ ‘dark,’ ‘crisp,’ ‘bright,’ and a great many others. It is nearly impossible to accurately imagine a timbre’s substance and character (its sound ) described with such a vocabulary (Moylan 2017, 28). Yet this is the state of common communications about sound. We can observe, describe and characterize timbres with intention to hold observations to shared cultural norms, or conventions; using a vocabulary that is as objective (or as neutral related to personal interpretation) as one can craft, and that stresses the shared experience, the character of timbre may perhaps be more effectively described—effective, in that it communicates the same information to many people within a culture.

We will learn later that by listening at lowest levels of perspective we can access the subtle details of timbre. It is possible to talk about the sound itself; to recognize the characteristics of timbres in and of themselves, as opposed to relating them to something else. We can evaluate an instrument’s timbre through making observations of its dynamic envelope, spectral content and spectral envelope. We can also observe, describe and characterize timbres with intention to hold observations to shared cultural norms or conventions; using a vocabulary that is objective in that it stresses the shared experience rather than personal interpretation. These approaches can lead to a rich understanding of timbre, and how it contributes to the recorded song.

Thus far we have been considering timbres of voices and pitched instruments. Certain instruments do not have a strong sense of pitch, or a strong fundamental frequency. Rather, these timbres contain a pitch-like quality; their spectrum is divided into frequency bands instead of the (more or less) discrete frequencies of pitched sounds. (Moylan 2015, 153–164) This sensation results from a strong interaction between pitch and timbre. These timbres contain bands of frequencies, often in harmonic relationships; the most prominent bands provide a pitch-like quality. Drums and cymbals are examples. These instruments have aperiodic, noise-like waveforms but with resonant areas of periodic wave activity. Thus we have drums that are higher and lower than others, some are broader in the frequency band they occupy than other drum sounds and so forth. The range of some cymbals might span several octaves, others a narrower range of perhaps a fifth; certain registers within their ranges will have more prominent frequency activity than others.17 This sense of the width of the pitch/frequency content of non-pitch sounds allows us to understand how these sounds ‘fit’ into an arrangement, although the pitch-related sonic content of cymbals and drums is never notated into the musical score.

Timbre on a higher structural level than the individual sound or the individual sound source (instrument or voice) is the result of combinations of instruments and voices. This is central to the track’s arrangement, and is typically largely determined by the producer and executed by the mix engineer—a process built upon a host of collaborators, resulting in an overall texture.

Table 3.5 Variables and characteristics of timbre and performance intensity.

 Selection of Voice or Instrument Source Inherent sound qualities of the individual voice or instrument 
 Qualities relative to character of song 
 Sound source selection for lines, parts 
 Specific performer for timbre and musical contributions 
 Specific instrument (make and model) for musical part 
 Specific of performance techniques, style 
 Integral modifications to instrument timbre: amplification, distortion, signal processing, etc. 
 Performance Intensity Relationships of performed dynamics and resultant timbre 
 Shifts and gradations of timbral qualities 
 Perceived energy and expression 
 Timbres of performance techniques and style 
 Sound qualities of instruments' range and register 
 Tessitura of voices 
 Nuance of timbre for expression, communication 
 Expression Performance intensity 
 Musical affects 
 Inter-sensory traits or mood connotations from outside musical context 
 Connection to other musical styles, genres, cultures 
 Evaluation Timbre's Gestalt 
 Listening within sounds 
 Physical dimensions of timbre 
 Evaluation of physical dimensions 
 Objective vocabulary 
 Identifying sources by order of appearance 
 Identifying sources by defining characteristics

Arrangement and Texture

The elements covered thus far have been related to the song—its melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics. We’ve examined certain qualities of the performance—dynamics, rhythmic nuance, timbral shifts—which will become essential to the track. Between the song itself and the qualities of the final track sits the arrangement. The arrangement is a process in creating the record, and it is also an element of the relationships of sounds and parts, containing variables that get shaped and that contribute to the track. Antoine Hennion (1990, 187–188) has proposed “The song is nothing before the ‘arrangement,’ and its creation occurs not really at the moment of its composition but far more at the moment of orchestration, recording and sound mixing.” This notion is central to this writing, and also connects orchestration with the recording (and the processes that generate the recording).

The process of arranging typically involves shaping a song, or a reconceptualization of a previous work. In making a record, arranging bridges songwriting and recording the track. It shapes the song and can be part of the composition process; it establishes sound qualities that are realized within or created by recording. Arranging is a significant part of the entire creative process. “As long as its basic features remain intact, a song can be reconfigured in various ways and still be recognizable” (Zak 2001, 25). This discussion is not concerned with the process of arranging, but rather in the arrangement as an element of music—an element with characteristics and variables. In recording analysis, we examine the finished artifact, what it is, not how it got there. “The arrangement is a particular musical setting of the song” (ibid., 24), and as such has characteristics to explore in analysis. An arrangement itself can be strikingly different from the original song—consider the difference between Joe Cocker’s cover version of “With a Little Help from My Friends” (1968) and the Beatles’ original (1967)—and can encompass a reworking of all musical elements. Here we will introduce arrangement’s variables not previously covered: texture and orchestration.

The characteristics of arrangements include instrumentation (selecting timbres, as just covered), musical parts, rhythmic groove and so forth—that all come together in combining the instruments and materials. The results of combining bring blending of voices, instruments and parts, while setting some apart; clarifying structure and establishing structural relationships of parts; combining materials into texture; and the timbre of the track (its pitch density and timbral balance).

Table 3.6 Variables and characteristics of arrangement and texture.

 Assigning Timbres to Parts Instrumentation in use (timbres) 
 Instrumentation sound qualities 
 Delineation of musical parts/materials 
 Number and types of parts, instruments & voices 
 Combining Timbres Combinations of instruments within musical parts 
 Formations of groupings of instruments 
 Sonic layering of materials and lines 
 Interactions and connections of layers 
 Dimensional strata of parts and combined instruments 
 Pitch/Frequency Range/Spectrum; ' Pitch Space' Range of sonic spectrum,Registers of most and least activity 
 Pitch density: musical lines plus timbre 
 Vertical density of chords and timbre 
 Linear density of rhythmic iterations 
 Timbral balance: layers of pitch densities 
 Structural Usage Delineates materials 
 Delineates structural strata 
 Articulates cadences at all structural levels 
 Delineates structural divisions by changes of instrumentation 
 Characteristic combinations of song sections 
 Characterizes appearances of important materials 
 Texture Consistent throughout song 
 Varied, especially between sections 
 Number of textures, structural locations 
 Melody and accompaniment 
 Homophonic, chordal 
 Contrapuntal, polyphonic 
 Contextual layer: drone, groove, rhythm section

The arrangement centers around assigning musical parts to various sound sources best suited to present them. Here timbres are observed in their presentation of musical ideas (as approached above), at the low-middle dimension. Combinations of sound sources add complexity to the overall texture, but also to the individual lines—or groups of lines that work in tandem, such as might be found between the bass guitar and bass drum. The number of instruments, number of parts, various combinations of sounds and their voicings, parts shared and traded, interactions of groups, the sonic layers established by combinations and interactions all create a complex web within the sonic spectrum of the song’s overall range. The width of this range, the registers of heightened and lesser activity, the closest voiced chords and lines, the sparsest, and so forth all coalesce to bring the timbres and materials of instruments and voices into a characteristic set of relationships and sounds that make the song unique.

An important aspect of the arrangement is how sources exist in frequency bands, or pitch ranges. Anne Danielsen (2006, 51–52) and Allan Moore (2001, 121–126) both engage this as a vertical pitch-space within their similar conceptions of a soundbox.18 These relationships are often vital parts of the essential character of a track. Musical materials appear as occupying a bandwidth of pitches, that may or may not change over time or in range, and within a relevant time period; they form gestures that have vertical and horizontal dimensions in pitch/frequency over time, as well as relationships with the pitch-spaces occupied by other sources.

The musical materials the sound source presents are fused into a single idea, combining the substance of the musical idea with the dominant timbral characteristics of the source; this brings a sense of the source occupying a pitch space or bandwidth for a certain segment of time. This is pitch density.

These gestures of pitch density establish a layering, sometimes with separation of sources and sometimes overlapping; the full collection of these gestures by all sources present may be conceived as a spectrum, where the pitch densities of individual sound sources/materials that can be conceived as contributing to the timbre of the track. The individual sounds of the track and the sources that present them contribute as partials to this large dimension spectrum we will later examine as timbral balance. This concept of ‘partials within the large dimension spectrum of the track’ can be framed as pitch density (Moylan 2015, 271–274). Alternatively, each source might be conceived as a chord tone within the ‘harmony’ that is the overall sound (timbral balance) of the track. Pitch density appears on the levels of perspective of the individual sound source or of the groupings of sound sources where they can be perceived as equal in significant. This situates it in the middle dimensions, where the pitch ranges of materials and the sound sources that deliver them can be identified.

Pitch density allows some access into this complexity in the arrangement and orchestration. Pitch density conceptualizes the area of the hearing range occupied by musical materials and their timbre (the frequency content above its fundamental frequency, and also any sub-tones and sub-harmonics it might contain) as a ‘pitch space.’ Sound sources (represented with timbres) fuse with their materials to occupy an area in this space (Moylan 2015, 42–43). The length of the musical material may be identified as the phrase length, hypermeter or prevailing time unit—as might be appropriate for the content. This time is related to syncrisis, or the “extended present” (Tagg 2013, 272–273); this duration has a relationship to short-term memory (or working memory), and it is between one and eight seconds depending on the complexity of the materials; it produces a chunk of ‘now sound.’ Pitch density combines the linearity of musical parts (melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, etc.) with the vertical dimension of timbre. Here it might be helpful to note that timbres are ‘chords of harmonics’ that exist on the lowest levels of the small dimension, within the individual sound. The vertical dimension has density between the spectral components and the simultaneously sounding pitches of the part, the linear dimension has density comprised of rhythmic iterations, or spacing of within the musical materials. With pitch density, the pitch relationships of non-pitched sounds (such as drums or cymbals) can be placed and evaluated against those that are pitched.

The layering of all the pitch densities of all the various materials and parts establishes the complete pitch range for the track. This is timbral balance; the balance of the vertical character of all sounds and their musical materials. Balance here means distribution of frequency information throughout the hearing range; places of sparse or no activity, places of considerable activity, intense activity, and so forth.19 If observed as the song progresses, one can evaluate how pitch densities interact between each other throughout the song; the ‘shape’ of the changing vertical dimension can become apparent at the highest dimension. This is important, as it can be a characteristic feature of the track—a characteristic evident in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” (1967). Timbral balance and pitch density work in complement, at different levels of dimension.

It is common for timbral balance and arrangement to have a relationship to structure. Changes of instrumentation often coincide with changes of section; sections typically reflect their characteristic sound qualities created by groupings of sounds, and the voicings and relationships of those sounds. Much variation emerges from the timbres of sound sources and various groups of sources, and their relationships to musical materials—variation that can serve as a source for musical movement and shape, and can characterize materials, sections or entire songs.

Texture is the number of musical parts present within a song, or an identifiable section of the song. Types of textures are defined by the characteristics of the parts and their relationships. Textures can be thin, with only a few (perhaps two or three) parts present, or thick, containing many parts of individual instruments and voices. Textures are traditionally identified as monophonic, homophonic, polyphonic or melody and accompaniment. Related to popular music, a drone layer or basis for texture is important.

Monophonic texture is simply a single, unaccompanied melodic line. Homophonic texture sees different musical lines moving simultaneously and in the same rhythm; a chordal texture of one chord moving to another, unadorned is a more bare homophonic texture. Its opposite is counterpoint, polyphony.20 Polyphony is the texture of two or more simultaneous melodic lines or parts that clearly differ in pitch and rhythmic content; these lines are perceived as equally important.

Contextual layers establish a point of reference against which other parts of the texture work polyphonically. Drone layers contain a continuously sounding pitch, timbre or chord (such as a synth pad) that sustains or is repeated throughout a song or a significant portion thereof. They will create a context—a reference point or a backdrop—against which the other parts change. A drone is usually (not always) the lowest sound; it is often sustained, though it may have a rhythmic character. The rhythm section and the groove (often generated by the rhythm section) can also function as a drone—a quite active and dynamic one that establishes the rhythmic, dynamic and energetic context that might contain harmonic and melodic functions as well.

Melody and accompaniment is not only by far the most dominant texture found in song, it is the inherent texture of song. Vocal melody against all else (all other instruments functioning as accompaniment) is one of the fundamental characteristics of song. The accompaniment can be complex or utter simplicity; it often contains a contextual layer of some type. The next section bridges the elements of music and some of the content of lyrics—the subject of the next chapter.


A duality between the lead singer and all the remainder of the musical parts plays out in many ways. This interplay emerges from the arrangement and contributes greatly to texture. It can also generate central characteristics of song structure.

In a pop record musical parts happen around the lead singer, and that happening may not seem correlated, related or supportive. It can often appear as a misalignment of phrasing of the vocal melody and the song’s hypermeter, as lyric structures and music structures do not necessarily correlate fully. Lyrics can play a major role in this. The streaming lines of lyrics fused with the lead vocal melody might be conceived as running simultaneously with the other, accompanying musical streams; the streams of the band supporting, countering, providing groove and context, and making space for the vocal and lyrics. There is much room around the vocal for all this.

“Tonal music’s phrasing creates spaces which the words in performance occupy: we can visualize the combination of consistent phrasing and words producing lines, the line being a feature of pop songs to an extent share with poems.” With this Dai Griffiths (2003, 43) identified ‘verbal space’ where “the words agree to work within the spaces of tonal music’s phrases, and the potential expressive intensity of music’s melody is held back for the sake of clarity of verbal communication.” Verbal space will be explained in greater detail in Chapters 4 and 5, as it is related to vocal phrasing and analysis of lyrics.

The vocal/lyric conforms to available musical space, with melody often subservient to the lyrics’ sounds and messages; stratification of materials, domains, momentum and expression results. These parallel streams flex, and the alignment of vocal phrases with the regular measure groupings of hyper-meter can shift.

The phrase structure of the vocal line relates to the lyrics, with phrases typically articulated to a line of the lyrics, a grouping of lines, or a portion of a line. The lengths of the phrases are often consistent, but need not be; even slight changes in lyrics can result in notable changes. Further, line lengths and lengths of phrases need not be consistent between song sections (as between verse and chorus). This contrasts with the incessant momentum of hypermetric groupings. Vocal phrases often begin just before a grouping, and can sustain to stretch the phrase beyond the end of the hypermeter and into the next; vocal phrases may delay their start until the hypermeter is underway, or conclude before the hypermeter has run its cycle. This can bring phrase groups of irregular lengths, irregular phrasing in instrumental parts as well as the vocal phrase, and perhaps irregular rhythms; all of which might interrupt or slow forward momentum or merely impart character.

While hypermeter’s rhythm of measures provides an underlying structural reference and momentum, it too can be interrupted and extended. Hypermeter can be temporarily disrupted by contraction or extension, and this disruption is very noticeable when it occurs; its underlying pulsation of rhythm of measures remains felt, if not in the listener’s consciousness, and the sense of interruption can be a means of validation of the length and strength of hypermeter.21 Allan Moore (2012a, 60) explains, “at [the] hypermetric level we frequently find cuts, elisions, and extensions. . . . hypermetric groups at the end of sections may have 3, 3 1/2, 4 1/2 or even 5 bars.” An example of vocal phrase and hypermetric groups being extended and contracted is illustrated in the Yes cover of “Every Little Thing” (1969); irregular hypermetric unit lengths are evident in the nine-measure verse and seven-measure chorus sections and their contrasting successions. The irregular phrase rhythm of David Bowie’s “Changes” (1972) is explained by Everett (2008, 130–1), where he notes how “metric irregularity at the hypermetric level . . . is often quite expressive.”


The very nature of song elevates the individual singer to a role of storyteller, protagonist, narrator or observer, with music functioning in relationship to the singer’s presentation. It often assigns all other aspects of the song to providing a vehicle to aid the communication of the song’s lyrics and message. This topic is complex; its details are woven throughout Chapter 4.

This primary function of a lead vocal exists in nearly all songs. Still, a possibility exists for the lead vocal to assume different functions. It might serve a supportive function during certain passages or sections, when other musical parts assume primary roles—as appears in the coda of Yes’ cover of “Every Little Thing” (1969). In some songs a lead vocal can take on an ornamental function, though this is not common. When the lyrics are presenting nonsense syllables it is far more likely that the vocal line can assume an ornamental function, than when it is communicating a message.

All this might bring an image of the singer in the spotlight with everyone else (and their musical parts) in the shadows. While this relationship might occur, the relationship of the lead vocal to aspects of the accompaniment is complex, and is shaped by stylistic conventions between popular music genres and by cultural influences. In practice, it is not typical for the singer’s message, musical materials and persona to be so starkly isolated in character and content from all others—though this is a central stylistic trait of country music, that emphasizes the storyteller (and persona) and the story (lyrics) above all else, to the point the vocal may be segregated from the accompaniment’s support and context. Highly varied degrees of separation between singer and accompaniment exist between styles and sometimes between songs within styles; this can play out in conflict, competition, interconnectedness, and innumerable other relationships. Related, Simon Frith (1996, 182) has offered: “The best pop songs, in short, are those that can be heard as a struggle between the verbal and musical rhetoric, between the singer and the song.” All songs carry this dichotomy between the lyrics and the music, and the tensions they create are central to the song—the types of interactions that result in the ‘best’ songs is not the issue here. An examination of this relationship can benefit our understanding of the song in numerous areas.

The lead vocal nearly always delivers primary material and any message of the song; lyrics establish the singer as a presence in the center of the song. A typical lead vocal delivers the lyrics using melody as the primary element for delivery, with rhythm, dynamics, and timbre as supportive or ornamental elements. Some lead vocals utilize the elements of music differently; common are vocals emphasizing rhythm and sound quality of the lyrics over melody of the song (perhaps a sung recitation), in sections or in total. The lead vocal (with its performed materials and the image projected by the performer) is typically set in a duality relationship with all other sound sources, and their perceived performers. The lead vocal is the focal point of the song, presenting its text and all that entails; the other instruments/ voices providing other materials that can have a variety of functions.

This melody and accompaniment relationship is a defining texture of songs. Other textures are possible, but rarely appear. While chordal, contrapuntal, monophonic and other unique textures are commonly found in liturgical settings, choral works and in instrumental, art music genres they rarely appear similarly in songs—whether popular song or art song. The traditional concepts of texture often do play out within the accompaniment or between the voice and accompaniment. The contrasting duality of primary and supportive roles and materials is clearest in song, and is reflected in “melody and accompaniment” and the individual voice of the singer/narrator set against all others—a duality that regularly adds drama to the story.

The basic roles of the song’s accompaniment are (1) to provide a stable pitch and metric reference, (2) to establish tonality and deliver a harmonic vocabulary (no matter the harmonic language), (3) to contribute to or to articulate structure, and (4) to produce the energy and demeanor of the song through its expression, instrumentation (sound qualities with range and register), harmonic content, and rhythmic materials. These will have differing functions and qualities from song to song; while they are typically consistent within songs, they might change with sections (such as between verse and chorus), or for brief passages.

There are five potential functional states for the accompaniment:22

  1. Contextual function with supportive traits. Supportive only in that it provides essential basics of pitch and meter reference stability and the harmonic/modal language (this is the central role of all accompaniments). It establishes the context of base sound qualities within the musical style; this accompaniment role is also ornamental in that it does not reflect the song’s emotive character or contribute to its message.
  2. Mostly supportive function with some contextual and ornamental traits. Supportive in that it establishes the context of tone or demeanor for the song, and the singer confirms and conforms to this overall emotive character; ornamental in that some materials are decorative and nonessential, and the accompaniment does not participate in communicating the meaning or message of the song. This is the most common state of accompaniments.
  3. Function clearly supports the vocal narrative. This accompaniment actively supplies qualities that reinforce or perhaps illustrate the song’s meaning; carries and may enhance the song’s character and contributes to the narrative by using tools such as text painting.
  4. Primary function with support traits. Enacting the drama or amplifying the meaning content of the lyrics, it provides information beyond the text in order to augment the song’s subject or theme during (sometimes large) sections or (at times brief) moments of significance; some interaction is common, at other times the accompaniment remains supportive of the narrative similar to number 3.
  5. Primary function. Accompaniment is independent in some traits; can counter the text’s tone and/or meaning with contrasting, nonverbal commentary; accompaniment presents an alternative point of view and perhaps a contrasting character, perhaps delivering opposing musical ideas and expression; clear interaction and perhaps alternation can be characteristic.

This relationship between the accompaniment and the lead vocal brings many variations of and between these potential states. It should now be clear, a potential for interaction, support, ornamentation or dominance of either are present. These common relationships play out within the above hierarchy of musical materials, and the functions of the elements of each domain. The typical dominance of the voice in this relationship does not at all diminish equivalence, though. Within the song, no matter the relationship between vocal and accompaniment, any element has the potential to be significant.


Many readers might have music analysis as their primary interest in engaging this book.

This chapter might be used as a starting point to analyze a popular song without engaging the recording. Such an analysis might include lyrics, as discussed in the following chapter, or focus solely on the song’s music. Analysis might also include other disciplines, as introduced in Chapter 1, and explore rich social, cultural and perceptual dimensions of the song outside of, represented in, or elicited by the music.

The analysis of popular music requires unraveling a few issues of musical language and syntax, of how much to rely on traditional approaches to analysis and to common-practice principles and concepts, of how to engage the recording’s sounds and music aurally without distorting them by personal bias, of how to treat all elements with equal attention in order to fully understand the individual song. These are not small matters individually, let alone collectively.

Pitch materials and relationships immediately jump to the spotlight in discussions about music. Melodies immediately attract the listener, and harmonies contribute to motion and fabric in mysterious ways largely unnoticed (at least consciously) by the listener; the intricacies of tonal/modal systems (and their harmonic language) engage the fascination of analysts. While this is overly generalized, my point is pitch is central to our understanding of music—no matter how strong the beat, how loud or distorted the guitars—pitch receives some significant attention by all because its contributions to the song are significant. This relevance of the listener’s experience as well as the analyst’s unraveling is important—and in many ways reaches beyond the sounds of the music.

In “Confessions from Blueberry Hell, or, Pitch Can Be a Sticky Substance” Walter Everett offers this perspective:

While this perspective might sit very differently with different theorists and musicologists in the details of perception and harmonic languages—as well as with lay listeners and budding analysts alike—it articulates several key issues very clearly. Its central point of the connection of pitch to music and to musical effects must be acknowledged as relevant and significant. Pitch relationships clearly matter; it is in the ‘how so’ that it all gets sticky. Also important, is ‘when’ musically and structurally does shrieking occur, as this might lead the investigation as to ‘why.’ Yes, certainly the learned tensions of harmonies are strongly in play here—though some could take the position other tonal systems might well embrace III and VI chords differently, where they may not be so weak within another context, and others could focus on the ways other elements are contributing to ‘uncontrolled dissonance’ within this build and bursting release of tension. But what else is in there that caused such a reaction of many thousands of people? Those reactions were—still are—quite profound and almost surreal. There are certainly social/ cultural factors in play. Restricting our comments to matters within the song, what other musical factors contributed—even if in a less significant or evident way?

Albin Zak (2001, 25) observed, “Words, pitches, rhythms, chords, arrangements, can be modified without changing the song’s essential identity. As such, the song is easily separated from any particular recorded rendering.” As any record under study will be such a rendering, just what is it in the ‘song’ that is so malleable and yet so distinctive?

While this book is about ‘how the record shapes the song,’ it is apparent and must be acknowledged that ‘the song shapes the record.’ ‘What is in the music that shapes the song’ has been the underlying current of this chapter—a current that is much richer than the content here.

Under it all, the song is an ‘essential identity’ of the record. The song resides within the track’s core experience. The recording can add substance and dimension, elaborate its ideas and qualities, or provide a platform for its drama—but the song is what makes the track, that forms its core experience, that is its essential identity.

The song is much more than music, though. The song communicates something; it is often ‘about’ the story. Music is the way the story is told. Lyrics provide the message and meaning, the drama and the story told within the song. This story and message of the song—with its language and other elements—is the subject of the next chapter.

..................Content has been hidden....................

You can't read the all page of ebook, please click here login for view all page.