Whenever I get asked to teach a workshop or a clinic, one of the topics that I like to talk about is “The 3 Elements of Music.”
These are the 3 most important items that any musician needs to be successful, plus a fourth that I add in at the end of the talk.
These items are so important, that I would argue any music that lacks one or more of these elements is unlistenable, or at the very least ignored by the concert-going public.
So what are the 3 elements of music?
The three elements of music are rhythm, melody, and harmony.
At some point in every workshop I give, I’ll stop the class and say:
“OK, let’s name the 3 elements of music.”
At first I get blank stares, but then the students will catch on and suggest harmony, followed by melody and finally, rhythm.
These are the three elements of music, just not in what I would consider the proper order of importance.
These are the three elements that every musician needs to engage their audience in a deep and meaningful way.
Think about it.
Would you want to listen to music that didn’t have solid rhythm?
Would you buy a record full of unmemorable melodies?
Would you pay money to see a concert where there was no sense of harmony?
Most people would answer no to all of these questions.
So, let’s ensure that you’re practicing the 3 elements of music every day, starting with the most important element, rhythm.
The 3 Elements of Music – Rhythm
Why is rhythm is the most important element of music? Because anybody can understand and feel rhythm.
If you can walk in pace and have a heartbeat, you can feel a pulse and groove along to any song.
Not everyone can sing in tune or understand harmony, but everyone gets rhythm.
Yet, when I ask students:
“How do you practice rhythm?”
They often answer:
“Well, I don’t.”
This is a problem, because if you have great rhythm, you can take harmonic and melodic chances and sound good.
But, if you don’t have good time, you can play the same lines as John Coltrane and sound awful.
Rhythm is that important.
So, how do you practice rhythm?
There are too many exercises to list here.
But, the first step is to understand that rhythm is a thing, like a scale or a chord, that can be isolated and practiced.
One of the biggest roadblocks with music students is that they don’t have command over rhythmic groupings, yet they can play scales and arpeggios at a million miles an hour.
It’s not enough to just play “fast” and “slow,” or “double-time” and “half-time.”
These are effective adjectives for certain tempos, but they aren’t specific enough to matter when it comes to performing.
You need to be more specific when it comes to rhythmic control and application.
You need to play specific rhythmic durations, such as:
- Whole Notes
- Half Notes
- Quarter Notes
- 16th Notes
When soloing, you need to think of which rhythms you’re using, just as you think about what scales, arpeggios, and licks to use.
The same thing for comping, don’t just let your hands run the show, you need to be specific with the rhythms you play behind any melody or soloist.
This is something that many people ignore in their practicing, isolating specific rhythms and perfecting them.
So, the first thing you need to do, is play specific rhythms, at various tempos, and nail them every time.
Don’t aim for “fast” and “slow.”
Be able to play sixteenth notes—and even whole notes—with precision.
Here’s a great exercise to develop your sense of rhythmic control:
- Pick a tune.
- Pick a rhythm.
- Set the metronome at 40 bpm.
- Solo using only that rhythm until you’re comfortable at that tempo.
- Raise the metronome 10 clicks.
- Repeat until it’s too fast to control.
- Repeat this process with another rhythm.
- Repeat while comping over the same tune with these exercises.
The important thing is to stick with one rhythm, especially at slow tempos, until you can solo with it non-stop on a tune.
Practice different rhythms until you are absolutely confident with them, then mix them up.
For example, one bar of each, four bars of each, half a bar of one, half a bar of the other etc.
If you have total control of these basic rhythms, then mixing them up, at any tempo, will be a piece of cake.
Make sure to practice rhythm every day, and be aware of what rhythms you’re using and how you fit into the groove of a song at all times.
Being aware of your time and playing exact rhythms is enough to elevate your playing to new levels, without learning any new scales, licks or chord voicings.
Everything you play sounds better with exact rhythms.
The 3 Elements of Music – Melody
If everyone can feel and understand rhythm, many, if not most, people can understand melody.
Yes, some people can’t sing on key, but most can hum along with the radio or sing in the shower.
Because of this, melody is the second most important element of music.
It’s what people remember when they hear a song or walk out of a club after a concert.
It’s the “hook” that digs into the listener’s ears, and musicians that have a strong sense of melody often have long and successful careers.
Yes, those are important tools that you use to create melodies, but they aren’t melodies themselves, and this is where most players get stuck.
You’re often taught that if you learn enough scales and arpeggios, and memorize lines from your favorite solos, that you’ll be able to play jazz.
But, after spending hours a day in the practice room doing for years doing just this, I can tell you that it’s not going to happen.
At least not for me.
Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t learn scales, arpeggios, and licks, but they’re not the be all and end all of playing jazz.
If you want to create melodies in your solos, then it’s better to check out melodic building blocks.
The phrases, motives, and melodic devices that come back time and again when you analyze your favorite solos.
Since I wasted a lot of time in the practice room, I’ll save you that aggravation by giving you a list ten of the most common melodic devices that you can use in your studies.
- Approach Notes
- Lower Neighbors
- Upper Neighbors
- Octave Displacement
- 3-7 Triads
- 3-9 Arpeggios
- Passing Tones (Bebop Scales and Other Variations)
As was the case with rhythm, make sure to practice melody every day.
If these ten items are found in the solos of great players, then it’s essential to put in the time to master them in your own playing.
Here’s an example of how to practice these items, without just running them up and down the neck.
- Pick a tune to study.
- Pick a melodic device.
- Start the metronome at 40 bpm.
- Improvise with only that device over the tune.
- Click the metronome up 10 beats.
- Repeat until the tempo is too fast.
- Repeat this process with another melodic device.
By focusing on one device at a time, you’re putting on “musical handcuffs.”
You’re purposefully handicapping yourself to internalize that specific device.
This forces you to be creative in how you use that device, since it’s the only improvisational tool you have at your disposal.
Then, when you take the handcuffs off and solo, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much more creative you feel, and how much more interesting your playing has become.
The 3 Elements of Music – Harmony
You’ve now arrived at the third element of music, harmony.
I think it’s indicative of the problems that jazz education currently faces, when every student I ask names harmony as the most important element of music.
Everyone can understand and feel rhythm, and many people enjoy and understand melody, but few people understand harmony.
Harmony is a learned element, something that people spend years studying, and that only fellow musicians or dedicated fans can relate to in the moment when a band is on stage.
Why then is there such a strong focus on harmony in the study of jazz and other modern music?
Harmony is a vital tool for any improviser, in any genre, and you needs to have a deep understanding of harmony and harmonic function in order to become a performer.
But, if it’s all you’re studying, or if it takes up practice time at the expense of the other two elements, is that such a good thing?
If you can play complex changes, use outside subs, and hit every chord with perfect voice leading, does that matter if you don’t have good time or can’t play a memorable melody?
This is a problem that I’ve found time and again with older, more experienced, students that come to me for advice.
They know their instruments inside and out, they can solo over any chord progression, and they have a solid understanding of harmony.
Yet, they either drag or rush, don’t lock into the groove, or just run scales through changes and never playing anything melodic.
So, exactly how do you study harmony without ignoring rhythm and melody?
One approach that works well is to break things down to their lowest denominators and then build things up from there.
- Choose a tune to study.
- Isolate the first chord in the song.
- Set the metronome to 40 bpm.
- Solo over this chord using one rhythm and one melodic device.
- Crank the metronome up by 10 clicks and repeat until too fast.
- Repeat with the second chord of the song.
- Combine the first two chords and repeat.
- Repeat this process with all the chords of the first phrase.
- Repeat this process with all of the phrases in the song separately.
- Repeat this process with the whole song.
- Change the rhythmic motive and melodic device and repeat.
By breaking down the harmony into small, easy to digest chunks, you practice playing over the chords, and you include rhythm and harmony in your playing as well.
You’re now using all three elements at the same time, ensuring that you aren’t ignoring one or more elements in the woodshed.
The 4th Element of Music – Emotion
We’ve now come to the point in my talk when students always ask:
“What about dynamics, and phrasing, and, articulation, and, other emotional elements?”
My answer to that question is:
“Emotion is an equally important element of music. But, you can’t be emotionally involved in the music if you don’t have command of the other three elements.”
Music needs to come from the heart, but you can’t put your heart into a performance if you’re thinking about the chords, fumbling the melody, or losing the groove.
But, if you have command of rhythm, melody and harmony, you can inject your heart into the music in a deeper way.
This allows your audience to connect with you as a performer, and with your music, regardless of style or genre.
Having a command of the 3 elements of music won’t guarantee that you’ll become a famous guitarist, or that you’ll even get a call for a Friday-night gig.
If you don’t have a strong control of rhythm, melody, and harmony, you can guarantee that your phone won’t be ringing for gigs very often.
Hopefully I’ve been able to open your minds to one or more aspects of music that are lacking in your practice routine.
And one day, if you find yourself in one of my workshops and I ask:
“What are the three elements of music?”
You’ll confidently raise your hand and say:
“Rhythm, melody and harmony.”