Music Stress, Melody and Harmony

Flute World sets standards in the industry and serves thousands of customers world-wide. The professionals at flute world can help you better understand concepts such as stress, melody, and pitch.


Stress gives music its rhythmic feel. There are plenty of slang terms used to describe the feel of music, but the experience is generally very hard to describe and very easy to understand. A 3/4 waltz from the Baroque era, for instance, will have a hard first beat and two less-emphasized beats in every measure. A piece of modern dance music, particularly electronic dance music, will usually have 4 beats in every measure and, most often, those beats will have the same stress, which lends to the music a stomping, driving feel.

In traditional usages, the first beat of a measure is stressed. In 2/4 time, for instance, the traditional method of playing the beat would be strong, weak/strong, weak.

In three quarters time, the beat would traditionally be strong, weak, weak/strong, weak, weak. Syncopation refers to obscuring the beat by emphasizing notes that are normally stressed less. Some music, such as gospel, creates a very energetic feel by emphasizing the second and fourth notes in a 4/4 measure rather than by emphasizing the first and third notes.


Melody and harmony are staple elements of Western music. A series of pitches that are arranged in a deliberate way to get a specific effect is called a melody. There are rules to melody and mathematical notation is used to varying degrees to describe it in more coherent terms when the language of aesthetics is insufficient to quantify a melody. Melodies, like sentences, have coherent structures, use modifiers to clarify statements, reiterate important themes and, on the whole, constitute a form of language that can express what words sometimes cannot.

Understanding Pitch

Pitch is the quality of sound that is described as being high or low. The pitch of any given note can be understood in both scientific terms and in subjective terms. The various notes of the scale are called degrees and are separated by whole or half-step intervals, which refers to the amount of change in pitch between one and the next. The pitch of a tone can also be described as its resonating frequency. The standard, concert A4 pitch, for example, is officially defined in most places as being exactly 440Hz.

Pitches are also relative, however. In practice, following a very low tone with a very high tone has the effect of making both sound more extreme. Most melodies stay within an octave or two and most of them try to avoid jarring shifts in pitch. When there are significant changes in pitch, the jarring nature of it is usually offset by the creative use of rhythmic devices. In some cases, pitch and rhythm can be used quite creatively. Cartoons, for instance, oftentimes use ascending pitches and the appropriate rhythms to create a soundscape for a character ascending stairs.

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How Pitch is Divided

In Western music, there are 12 notes in the chromatic scale. These notes are grouped together in systems of scales and modes, which offer composers a palate from which to work. Each scale and each mode has its own particular flavor. Today, there are two scales that are in use more than any others: major and minor. Modes are antiquated, but the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian modes are still used, to some extent, with the Dorian and Phrygian modes being popular in some Spanish and Latin American music. Most often, however, you’ll only deal with major and minor, which correspond to the Ionian and Aeolian modes, respectively.

In the modal system, each mode is defined by the note on which it starts and its particular feel derives from the arrangement of whole and half-steps between the notes. The Ionian mode—or the C major scale—for instance, has a bright feel. The Dorian mode, which starts and ends on D, has a somewhat darker feel and sounds more exotic. Modes are not particularly important in modern music, though some contemporary musicians use them extensively, as they provide a rarified palate of tones. The modes are as follows.

  • Ionian (C Major): C, D, E, F, G, A, B
  • Dorian: D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  • Phrygian: E, F, G, A, B, C, D
  • Lydian: F, G, A, B, C, D, E
  • Mixolydian: G, A, B, C, D, E, F
  • Aeolian (A Minor): A, B, C, D, E, F, G
  • Locrian: B, C, D, E, F, G, A

The modes you need to most concern yourself with, however, are the Ionian and Aeolian modes, as they are the only two in common usage. There were other systems for naming the modes, but most of them have fallen by the wayside over the course of the years.

Major and Minor

For most people, major and minor modes are the equivalent of light and dark themes in music. This is not necessarily the case, and only using one or the other for such narrow purposes diminishes their flexibility. For your first melody, however, these definitions are adequate. If you want a lighter sounding melody, use the major scale; for a darker sound, use the minor scale. Use C Major or A minor, as neither requires sharps or flats.

The C Major scale is:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B,

The A Minor scale is:

A, B, C, D, E, F, G

When you’re writing, you can use a system of numbers to help you understand which pitches in which combinations will create particular effects. This system is very easy to use and understand. You start by assigning numbers to all of the notes in your scale, and they’re always assigned in the same way.

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Classical Performances

With flute world, they hold flute events around schools to educate students on selecting their new instruments, locally and nationally. There are different performance types and venues, each with different requirements.

The Formal Performance:

A famous classical guitarist once went on stage and sat down to begin his performance. Before he struck the first note, someone in the audience coughed. He stood up and informed the audience that, when they were ready to listen, he was ready to play. An exaggerated example of formality—and, perhaps, ego—to be sure, but formal performances require certain types of behavior on the part of the audience. There are some general rules that you have to follow at any classical or other formal music performance.

  • Always turn off cell phones
  • Never use any electronic device that produces light or sound
  • Do not speak during the performance

Most often, the musicians you see perform in formal settings will be accustomed to an audience that follows these rules of etiquette. Most musicians will not storm off the stage in the fashion of our offended guitarist, but they will become distracted by noise and a noisy, unappreciative crowd makes it impossible for them to perform up to their highest standards.

Formal music performances sometimes have dress requirements, as well. This is looser in some areas. For example, if you go to an opera in Europe or New York, you have to dress the part, in some cases. This means tuxes for men and gowns for ladies. If you go to an opera in Santa Fe, New Mexico, it’s fine to show up in jeans and it’s fine to tailgate before the performance. You have to know ahead of time what’s expected of you before the performance. Etiquette in performance settings is far more than a formality.

Classical musicians—and other fine arts players—invest a great deal of their lives into perfecting their renditions of very complex pieces. Following the rules of etiquette is a way that the audience shows respect for the musician and respect for what they do. Be sure that you take the time to show performers your appreciation by adhering to the conventions of the venue.

Important: In classical performances, there are traditionally long pauses between the movements of a symphony or the various parts of long form compositions. When it’s time for you to applaud, the conductor will turn to face the crowd. If the conductor doesn’t turn around, they’re still conducting and the ensemble is still playing. Stay quiet.

If you have to get up to use the restroom, do it quickly and don’t ask anyone to get out of your way. They’ll move to accommodate you if you just start walking through the aisle. Some performances do not allow people to come or go while they’re ongoing, so be sure to get refreshments, use the restroom and take care of all other needs before the first note is struck.

Informal Performances:

Informal performances are much looser in their requirements, but can be just as rich in their offerings. Be sure, however, that you do pay attention to what the musicians need from the audience. For example, if you have a friend giving an informal violin recital, make sure that you stay quiet while they’re playing and that you show some class after they’re done by giving them loud applause.

In most settings other than the most formal settings, the rules are very lax. Remember, however, that some informal performances are designed to be participatory and it’s considered poor etiquette to sit out during these elements. If you’re attending a performance by a gospel group, for instance, there may well be call-and-response passages that the audience is expected to participate in. This can be a lot of fun and, if you don’t participate, you haven’t really experienced the music at all.

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Sheet Music

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Beat rhythm is one of the most definitive aspects of any musical piece. Western music theory tends to prefer measures that are evenly divided into groups of two or three. While this is not universal in world music, it does provide a good framework for understanding, dividing and analyzing any piece of music.

At the beginning of a piece of music, western music notation defines the meter by means of a time signature. This time signature is expressed as a fraction, such as 2/4, 3/4 or 4/4. You will find more complex time signatures in some music, particularly in the experimental music of the 20th Century. By and large, however, most time signatures will simply consist of a fraction. The top number in the time signature denotes how many beats are in a measure and the bottom number denotes what type of note constitutes a full beat. The system is based on quarters, so a bottom number of 1 equals one whole note, a bottom number of 2 equals one half note, 4 equals one quarter note, and so forth. There are two types of meter that define the majority of Western music: simple and compound.

Meter Types

Simple Meter: Simple meter is the term used to describe music meter where the measure can be divided evenly into two equal parts. For example, a measure of 2/4 music can be divided into two beats comprised of one quarter note, hence it is a simple time signature.

Compound Meter: If you can divide a measure of music into even groups of three, the meter is said to be compound. Waltz time is the most famous of these time signatures, and there are many fine examples you can look to so that you can get an idea of how compound meter sounds. Strauss is a particularly good composer to listen to for examples of waltz time, which is mathematically expressed as 3/4 time.

The time signature provides the framework for the beat rhythm, but the note values define it in practice. Western music uses a system based on halves, as explained in relation to the bottom number of the time signature. A whole note constitutes one full beat, a half note one half of a beat, a quarter note one quarter of a beat and so forth. This is combined with the tempo of the piece to arrive at the proper amount of time each note should be sounded for. As an example, a tempo of 60 means that there would be sixty full beats in one minute. If the time signature was 4/4, which means that a quarter note constitutes one full beat, then a quarter note should be sounded for one full second and all other notes should be sounded for a length of time relative to that base measure.

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