[Sheet Music]

Lesson 67: The Elements of Music

The Elements of Music

The elements of music are:

  • rhythm
  • melody
  • harmony/ voicing
  • color/ sound/ timbre
  • dynamics
  • form


Rhythm/ time is the most important element of jazz. Being able to

  • play in time
  • establish/ lock into a groove
  • play "in the pocket"
  • swing
whatever you prefer to call it, is what it's all about. If your time sucks, nothing you do will make sense, or like Duke Ellington put it: "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing"!


Melody, the recitation and creation of melodies, is the next most important element. A good melodic line has to have a direction, a forward motion which means that ultimately, it has to arrive somewhere.

Harmony/ Voicing

You could think of jazz as a hybrid between

  • the primitive and profound rhythms and polyrhythms of African music
  • the advanced harmonies of European art music
Both of these are very advanced in their own way. In the development of jazz into the complex, diverse music we know today it has gone through most of the stages classical music went through, but in a much shorter time span.

Color/ Sound/ Timbre

The concept of color is a very complex one. Color can be melody and harmony - the movement of the key centers within a tune or in a complete performance/ record.

Sound/ timbre is also a very complex subject: the use of acoustic versus electric instruments/ sounds, the use of effects and so on... Although these aspects never should be allowed to overshadow the content of the material, they are important. Using distortion/ overdrive is one matter - it is one possible color that you should have in your palette as an electric guitar player - you should not use it all the time in every tune, though. Different types of guitars are different tools that you can use, just as a keyboard player can use the grand piano, the Rhodes, the Hammond or the Wurlitzer - it is possible to get by with only one of these and you always have to be able to get different sounds/ timbres out of one instrument. Using effects is one way but you also have to explore different ways of playing one instrument in order to get different sounds/ timbres out of it.


Form is rhythm on a larger scale. Form exists on several levels, including:

  • the form of a melody/ tune: AABA, ABAC, AABC, ABAB, blues...
  • the form of a performance of a tune: intro - head - solos - head - outro
  • the form of a solo: introduction - development/ telling of a story - climax/ punch line - ending/ relaxation
  • the form of a complete performance/ a record
With regard to form, dynamics is an important matter. By using dynamics, the overall shape of a solo/ a tune can be formed. Check out lesson 20, where two written example solos are analyzed. The ideas used there can be applied to a complete tune or even a complete performance/ CD program.

2005 Tomas Karlsson. All rights reserved.