Music can be so complex and multi-faceted that it is no wonder that the average person is lost when it comes to a basic understanding of what music is. After all, there are many different classes of classical music alone – from baroque to romantic, from Bach to Bernstein, and everything in between. Then in jazz there is ragtime, blues, bop, west coast, Kansas City, dixieland – so many different styles all under the broad heading of “jazz”. And who can count the different styles in the world of “popular” music – from rock to country to folk to new age to….on and on.
But no matter what style or genre, all of music can be boiled down to just 3 basic elements: melody (the tune), rhythm, and harmony. If I play melody alone without any rhythm, you probably would not recognize it as a tune – you would think of it as just a meaningless succession of notes. But when I marry it to rhythm, then it becomes recognizable. And when I add the third element of harmony, then we have “music” as we know and love it.
To learn music step by step, a student needs to learn to read the melody of a piece of music, almost always in the treble clef. This involves learning key signatures and accidentals as well. Then add to that rhythm, which involves learning time signatures, note values, and rest values. The final component is harmony, which of course usually takes the form of chords “under” the melody — often in the bass clef, but sometimes in the treble clef as well beneath the melody.
This process of learning music can be as simple as learning to read a lead sheet, or as complex as mastering a Beethoven symphony. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. But no matter the level, it all comes down to learning the 3 elements of music: melody, rhythm, and harmony.