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The Basic Elements of Music

Catherine Schmidt-Jones

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• Have tapes ready to play at the right spot, or know the CD track numbers that you will be using. Or,
if it would be helpful, have copies of the words to the songs the students will sing.


1. Remind your students that language can be broken down into separate words, phrases, sentences, and
paragraphs. (Remind them of what they have learned about these concepts in language arts.) Tell
them that music is like a language: people compose music to say something to other people or make
them feel a certain way. In the language of music, notes are like the letters of an alphabet, and they are
grouped together into musical ideas that make sense to our ears, just like letters are grouped together
into words, phrases, and sentences. (If you like, you may explain here that very short musical "words"
that appear often in a piece of music can be called motives (Section Motif), motifs, or cells,
whichever term you prefer.) Groups of words that form a whole idea that makes sense may be a simple,
complete sentence, or may be a major clause or phrase in a more complex sentence; groups of notes
that make a whole musical idea that makes sense are called phrases. Just as you pause at the period
at the end of the sentence (or at the comma at the end of a long phrase or clause), a melody also
often pauses slightly when it comes to the end of a phrase. The phrases of the music are also grouped
together into more complete ideas (particularly antecedent and consequent (p. 34) phrases, which may
seem like two clauses in a long sentence, or like a question and answer), and/or into longer sections
(a verse can be a section, for example) that are like paragraphs or even chapters. (See Form in Music
(Section 3.5) if you would like your class also to study the larger divisions that are present in music.)
Tell them that in songs, musical phrases often (but not always) line up with the sentences or phrases
in the text. Share the two examples in Melody (Figure 2.3: The Riddle Song) if you like.

2. Have the students sing or listen to a song. You only need to study the �rst verse and refrain: even
though the text changes, the musical phrases will be the same for each verse.

3. Play or sing the song again, asking the students this time to identify the �rst, second, third, etc.
phrases, perhaps by singing them separately, raising their hands with the correct number of �ngers at
the start of a phrase, or just saying "two" at the beginning of the second phrase. You may have to
sing or play the song several times to give them a chance to decide.

4. This should be a group activity, with reasonable disagreements allowed. Unless the phrases are ex-
tremely clear, some people will hear shorter sections of the melody as being distinct phrases, while
others will naturally group the shorter sections into longer phrases.

5. Some questions to encourage further exploration: Are the phrases about the same length (the same
number of beats), or are some much longer or shorter? Is a melodic phrase ever repeated exactly?
Repeated with some changes? Do some phrases feel more �nal than others, as if they have a stronger
ending? Where are the stronger endings located, and is there a pattern to them? Do some feel like
they are a question waiting for the next phrase to answer them? Phrases in Instrumental Music

Objectives and Assessment

• Time Requirements - Combined with Phrases in Songs (Section Phrases in Songs), one (ap-
proximately 45-minute) class period.

• Objectives - The student will listen to examples of instrumental music and identify the phrases in the

• Evaluation - Assess students on their ability to accurately identify phrases in a "test" situation. Allow
the students to listen to a short musical excerpt that the class has not yet discussed. Then play the
excerpt again, calling on speci�c students to indicate by word or gesture when they hear the end of
a phrase, or asking students to count the number of phrases in the example and write down their
answers. For the test, use music in which the phrasing is very clear, and not ambiguous at all, or allow
for some reasonable disagreement if students can support their conclusions.

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Materials and Preparation

• If your students do "Phrases in Songs" successfully, let them try this activity.
• You will need a tape or CD player and some recordings.
• Try to choose instrumental music that also has singable melodies with clear, separated phrases. Bach

and other Baroque composers are usually not a good choice, nor is most modern classical music or
music based on shorter motifs, or music that is too complex.


1. The procedure is essentially the same as for the previous activity. Let the students hum phrases to
you if they can, or simply signal when they hear a new one. Parallels Between Language and Musical Phrasing

Objectives and Assessment

• Time Requirements - one (approximately 45-minute) class period.
• Objectives - The student will study the text of a song, identifying (grammatical) sentences, phrases

and clauses. The student will listen to the song, identifying musical phrases. The student will compare
grammatical and musical phrasing, and draw appropriate conclusions.

• Evaluation - Analyze one text together, as a class. Then have the students do a second analysis
individually, as a worksheet to be completed during the class period and turned in.

Materials and Preparation

• To do this activity, students must already be comfortable identifying musical phrases, and also identi-
fying sentences, phrases, and clauses in texts.

• Choose a song or two to analyze for grammatical and musical phrasing. Art songs, madrigals, songs
from musicals, and some rap, pop, and rock lyrics are all good sources for this, as well as folk songs,
hymns, and children's songs.

• Obtain copies of the song text(s) for the students to look at. You may make handouts, for students to
complete as a worksheet, or look at a projected copy of the text together and discuss as a class.


1. Begin by analyzing the texts as the students have been doing in language arts. This may include
identifying complete sentences, phrases, dependent and independent clauses, etc. If appropriate, you
may also want to study the song lyrics as poetry texts, identifying metaphors, etc.

2. Have the students mark sentences, clauses, etc., on their handouts in whatever way is standard in their
language arts class, or call on students to identify them aloud, while you mark the projected copy of
the text.

3. Have the students listen to the song several times. Ask them to mark the musical phrases in a di�erent
way (or in a di�erent color) than the grammatical phrases (or to signal where you should mark on the
projected sheet). Play the song as many times as necessary to allow the students to decide where the
musical phrases end.

4. Have the students compare the grammatical and musical phrasing as marked. Do they line up com-
pletely? If there are any places where they don't line up, what seems to be the reason for the disconnect?
Is it related to the emotional content of the song? To certain aspects of the music or the text? Does
the musical phrasing emphasize any aspect of the text (metaphors, questions, arrangement of clauses
into sentences, etc.)?

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Module: "A Musical Textures Activity"
By: Catherine Schmidt-Jones
Pages: 67-71
Copyright: Catherine Schmidt-Jones

Module: "An Introduction to Counterpoint"
By: Catherine Schmidt-Jones
Pages: 71-73
Copyright: Catherine Schmidt-Jones

Module: "Counterpoint Activities"
By: Catherine Schmidt-Jones
Pages: 73-78
Copyright: Catherine Schmidt-Jones

Module: "Form in Music"
By: Catherine Schmidt-Jones
Pages: 79-83
Copyright: Catherine Schmidt-Jones

Module: "Music Form Activities"
By: Catherine Schmidt-Jones
Pages: 83-86
Copyright: Catherine Schmidt-Jones

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The Basic Elements of Music
Explanations (suitable for any age) of the basic elements of music, with suggested activities for introducing
the each concept to children at early elementary school level. The course may be used by instructors not
trained in music; all necessary de�nitions and explanations are included.

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