Characteristics of Music

Musical Key

Musical key (i.e., key signature) establishes the tonality of a song and is either major or minor. Western music consists of 12 major and 12 minor keys (e.g., A major, A minor, B-flat major, B-flat minor, B major, B minor, etc.). All major and minor scales are defined by a characteristic pattern of whole-steps (i.e., notes that are two semitones apart; the first couple of notes of opening vocal line from the Who's "Baba O'Riley" are a series of whole-steps) and half-steps (i.e., notes that are one semitone apart; the opening line to the theme music Jaws are repeated half-steps) and by its starting note, known as the tonic.

The ascending pattern for a major scale is WWHWWWH. For example, for the key of C major, the pattern of intervals would be C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. For a brief interactive lesson on major scale construction click here. The ascending pattern for a natural minor scale is WHWWHWW. In the key of C minor, this pattern would be C, D, E-flat, F, G, A-flat, B-flat, and C. For a brief interactive lesson on minor scale construction click here.

As you will hear, one of the main distinctions between a major and a minor key is the interval or distance between the first and third scale tone. In a major scale, the third scale tone is a distance of four half-steps to form a major third interval ascending from the tonic. Additionally, in the natural minor scale, the sixth and the seventh scale tones are lowered by a half-step from the major scale pattern.

Songs written in a major key include:

Songs written in a minor key include:


When we listen to music, we often tap a foot, clap our hands, or nod our heads to the beat or pulse of the music. How quickly or slowly we engage in these movements is an indication of tempo. Tempo is defined as the speed at which a piece of music is played and is measured in beats per minute (BPM). Tempo can be expressed with numbers or with words. For example, in classical music, tempo is expressed with traditional Italian markings, which range from larghissimo (19 BPM or less) to prestissimo (178 BPM or more).

Examples of songs with a fast tempo (i.e., >120 bpm) include:

Examples of songs with a moderate tempo (i.e., 80-120 bpm) include:

Examples of songs with a slow tempo (i.e., <80 bpm) include:

Generally, tempo does not have direct effects on emotional responses, but when combined with musical key it can lead to the experience of specific emotions rather than general moods. Emotions are frequently described in terms of valence (pleasant vs. unpleasant) and activation (high vs. low arousal) to yield emotions such as happiness (positive, high activation), calmness (positive, low activation), sadness (negative, low activation) and anger (negative, high activation). Research on music and emotions shows that a song's tempo corresponds to emotional arousal, whereas musical key corresponds to emotional valence. When combined, this can lead listeners to feel the basic emotions described above.

Major key, fast tempo music examples include:

Major key, slow tempo music examples include:

Minor key, fast tempo music examples include:

Minor key, slow tempo music examples include:

Musical Complexity

Musical complexity refers to characteristics that may impact the perceived intricacy of a song; specifically, the melodic and harmonic structure of a piece, as well as its rhythmic structure and instrumentation (i.e., the number of instruments in a piece)

The instrumentation of a musical piece can influence our perceptions of its complexity. More complex music tends to, but not always, feature more instrumentation. Incorporating more instruments into a piece allow songwriters to use add more melodies and different harmonies, as well as different sounds. Consider for example, the differences in sound between a rock song and a classic concerto piece: a rock song might have several electric guitars, an electric bass, drums, and possibly a keyboard, while a concerto would have a solo instrument (e.g., violin, piano, cello, or flute) accompanied by a full orchestra.

Whenever one taps along to the beat of a song, not only are they establishing the tempo of the song, they are also outlining a rhythmic structure. Rhythm is the combination of note values within a musical phrase. Note values indicate how long a note is held or played and is determined by the time signature of a musical piece. The time signature specifies how many beats there are per measure in a musical piece and which note value (e.g., an eighth note, quarter note, half note, etc.) constitutes one beat. For instance, assuming a time signature of 4/4, an individual can either tap out quarter notes or subdivide the beat into eighth notes or into smaller note values like sixteenth notes. It is the combination of note values that make up the rhythm of a song. Frequently, a songwriter uses rhythm to give certain feel or energy to a song, or sometimes a rhythmic line is used to express a musical theme. For example, the rhythmic structure in Rossini's William Tell Overture were intended to evoke an image of galloping horses, prompting its use as the theme song for the television show, the Lone Ranger. Generally, complex music utilizes more sophisticated rhythmic structures, such as polyrhythms (the use of two or more conflicting rhythms).

Melody refers to the succession of notes that forms the main musical theme played throughout a song. The melody is the most salient component of a musical piece. Harmony refers to either a secondary melody that parallels the main theme or refers to the chord structure that accompanies and complements the melody. A chord refers to a harmonic set of three or more notes that are played simultaneously. Chords are built of a single note, which is referred to as the root. The simplest chord is a triad, which consists of the root, the third, and the fifth above that root.

Chords can be major, minor, augmented or diminished. In a major chord, the third above the root is a major interval (i.e., four half steps; e.g., C, E, G). In a minor chord, the third above the root is a minor interval (i.e., three half steps; e.g., C, E-flat, G). These two thirds are color notes, in that they influence the emotionality of the song. An augmented chord is essentially a major chord but with a raised or augmented fifth (e.g., C, E, G#). A diminished chord, on the other hand, is a minor chord but with a lowered or diminished fifth (e.g., C, E-flat, G-flat). Additional notes, such as the sixth, seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth, can be added to triads to build more complex chords.

A chord progression creates the harmonic structure that supports a melody. Chords that are built on scale tones are indicated with Roman numerals. For a major scale, the chord symbols would be represented as: I ii iii IV V vi vii. Upper case numerals indicate a major triad; lower case numerals indicate a minor triad. For example, for a C major scale, the I chord indicates a C major triad (C, E, G), whereas the iii chord means an E minor chord (E, G, B). Although this is but one of the many ways to notate chords, it allows for building a chord structure within any key. One of the most basic chord progressions is I-IV-V-I. Likewise, the I-vi-ii-V-I progression is one of the most widely used, both in classical and pop music. However, composures can use regressions or deceptive cadences, such as I-IV-V-vi.

Songs with high musical complexity include:

Songs with low musical complexity include:

Dynamic Variation

Dynamic variation refers to volume changes within a musical piece. Changes are indicated by dynamic markings, which range from very soft (pianissimo) to very loud (fortissimo). For instance, the first several lines of the overture from the opera Le Nozze di Figaro are played very quietly (piano) and then very loudly (fortissimo) at the climax of the musical phrase. There are also markings indicating quick volume changes, where the music gets louder or softer abruptly (i.e., subito), and for gradual volume changes, such as crescendo (slowly getting louder) or decrescendo (slowly getting softer). Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" begins with a simple musical theme played softly by a handful of instruments and then gradually increases in sound.

Songs with high dynamic variation include:

Songs with low dynamic variation include: