Selector Music Definition Essay

Jamaican sound is the heartbeat of modern music. Of the many practices to emerge from sound system culture and take hold across music genres, one remains most arousing and the most maligned: the rewind.

For the uninitiated, the rewind is the act of stopping a song—generally playing on a vinyl record or, in more recent years, on a CD—bringing it back to the start, and playing it again. In Jamaica, rewinds are normally performed by selectors in response to crowd demand. You may have heard a hip-hop or dance music DJ do the same thing.

Some rewinds are smooth, the record stopping by use of the turntable’s start/stop button, while others are a little rougher, the needle hurtling across the vinyl’s grooves as a hand frantically spins the record back.

A rewind sounds like this: ►

And it looks something like this:

I love rewinds. A good rewind is that rare thing in life: a product of the moment. If the timing is right, a rewind will bring excitement to the dancefloor, a celebration of the music being played, an energy charge for the place and the people.

Unfortunately rewinds are also subject to abuse, with performers misreading the crowd, indulging in rewinds for their own satisfaction. As such, rewinds can be hated too; some find them obnoxious due to how they interrupt the flow of the music or seem to be a mere celebration of the performer’s musical ego, an attempt at trying to fake excitement.

And it’s not just fans either, plenty of performers, DJs and critics also find rewinds to be borderline. It’s this dichotomy that has led the rewind to become one of the most interesting and divisive sound system practices. Yet, despite a growing body of work on Jamaican music, the rewind remains largely untouched by historical thinking. Most critics mention it simply as a tool the selector has in his bag for the dance (aka the party).

I went looking for the roots of the rewind, an attempt to trace its history. Along the way I realized that, after forty years, not only is it still intrinsic to so much sound system, electronic and dance music performance, it’s also a truly democratic musical practice. The rewind allows the audience to have a conversation with the performer. It is the great equalizer, ensuring the discourse of music does not flow just one way.

But where did the rewind originate? And how did evolve? Let’s take it from the top.

Sound Systems: The People’s Radio

It’s 1968. Kingston, Jamaica. Sound systems have become, as legendary producer Bunny Lee puts it, “the people’s radio station.” System operator Ruddy Redwood goes to Treasure Isle studio to cut dubplates. The engineer, Byron Smith, forgets to include the vocal track on one. Redwood takes this accidental instrumental to the dance. The crowd loses it. One account has him playing it for more than 30 minutes straight.

Reggae historian David Katz points to this as a plausible beginning for the rewind. For him, it starts with “the popular demand factor, because of the shock of something new.” This shockwave of the new courses through all of the music styles that sound systems have influenced. And the rewind is never far behind.

Chatting and the MC as DJ

In sound system culture, the selector is in charge of the records while the DJ talks. The DJ is the MC. This gives us a key inspiration of early rewind culture: DJs sometimes needed to bring the tune back because they had more to say. Haul and pull up.

Enter dub. Herman Chin Loy told Katz he had the DJ in mind when making his 1973 Aquarius Dub LP. The album, he said, would allow DJs to toast continuously without stopping and rewinding the music. Rewinds became so essential to Jamaican dances that live bands incorporated them. As Katz put it, reggae is a studio music, so it’s not surprising that bands would reflect studio innovations.

As Jamaicans began to migrate to the U.K. and America throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the rewind went with them, hidden in the selector’s bag of tricks.

An Echo Heard Around the World

It’s 1973 in The Bronx, New York. Kool Herc is extending breaks (the funkiest drum parts of records) to keep the dancers moving. He gets on the mic to entertain the crowd. Early hip-hop and sound system culture have much in common.

American kids dug into their parents’ record collections for hip-hop’s building blocks. British kids did the same with Jamaican music and sound systems to create much of the country’s musical innovations.

The U.K. and America had by then long been engaged in a game of transatlantic musical ping pong. From the 1970s onwards, the table they played on increasingly began to resemble a sound system.

It’s 1987 in West London. British sound systems Soul II Soul and The Wild Bunch (part of which would later become the group Massive Attack) battle it out on New Year’s Eve, in the same spirit as the sound system battles that entertained Jamaicans in Kingston. Like their American hip-hop counterparts, in the space of a decade they would go from the streets to the charts.

Someone put the echo on, and it was heard around the world.

Words, Sound and Power

Actually, let’s pause the record for a minute. Words have power, and the rewind has the widest lexicon.

The bulk of it is descriptive: Rewind, haul and pull, pull up that. Physical actions. The turntable is like a wheel, so wheel it up rudeboy! Wheel and come again. Wheel and deal it. Rewind in a hurry and the record will spinback. Mechanics. Reload.

Confused? Just take it from the top or from the edge.

Some expressions reflect the communities’ roots. In London, MC Crazy D coined the term jack it in the 2000s. His full post-rewind line was “taters on that as we jack it.” Rewind inna Cockney rhyming slang stylee.

And I’m just scratching the surface here.

The most confusing word for rewind to the uninitiated is forward. Just as DJs are MCs in Jamaica, a forward can mean a rewind. This refers to the bodily movement in the dance when a song is so good, the audience moves from behind the speakers to the front. The bodies speak.

Spinning Back on the Wheels of Steel

“Lick wood means rewind, a gunshot means forward,
you requested it so we rewind” ►

To anyone familiar with early 1990s hip-hop and jungle, the above sentence will ring a bell. It was heard from Funkmaster Flex’s DJ sets on Hot 97 in NYC to raves in the U.K. where it preceded the drop on “Rollidge” by DJ SS.

Its first appearance seems to be on the Main Attraction remix of Cutty Ranks’ 1991 track, “The Stopper.” Further digging led me to an online post stating the voice is that of Joseph Cotton, a famous reggae DJ. Lick wood is Jamaican patois for hitting wood, what you’d do as a sign of excitement in the dance.

But wait, what about forward in that sentence? In this case, the forward likely refers to an actual forward, meaning a request to move on to the next track. Seen.

In hip-hop the rewind is rarely used to stop and start the track. Rather it evolved as a way to blend from one track to the next, from pause to progression. This echoes the Jamaican practice of juggling, where selectors quick mix rhythms, playing only a minute or less of each and sometimes use rewinds to progress from one to the other.

As hip-hop grew from the Bronx, the same DJs who came to perfect such mixing basics as blending and scratching would have also come to hear rewinding as a useful tool. Ultimately the rewind in hip-hop would come to have a dual usage: as a mixing trick and as a sound effect, echoing another Jamaican sonic immigrant, the air horn.

There are traces of the rewind all over hip-hop’s first decade as a popular music. It’s how Original Concept’s 1986 “Pump That Bass” starts. It’s in between loops of Bob James’ infamous cowbell and throughout Mantronix’s “King of the Beats,” a song with its own peculiar echo, as we’ll hear.

King of the Beats in the Dancehall

Back in Jamaica, dancehall was born. A sparser take on reggae, it would blow up the dance in 1985 when King Jammy and Wayne Smith produced the first fully computerized rhythm track, the “Sleng Teng.” Recalling the night he dropped the riddim on his rival, Jammy said: “It was like a smash! It was such a new song that the whole place was in uproar — we had to play it twenty times more, for all the people bawlin’ forward.”

Another shock of the new felt around the world.

By the late 1980s, hip-hop began its first overt infatuation with dancehall and Jamaican music, epitomized by acts such as Shinehead, Special Ed and KRS-One.

In 1992, KRS releases the last Boogie Down Productions album, Sex & Violence. Its title evocative of not just America’s societal ills but also dancehall’s. The second track is “Duck Down.” Towards the end of the song, KRS shouts rewiiiiiiiindas the backing track wheels back. Rewinds continue to reverberate in the lyrics of hip-hop MCs for decades to come.

Hardcore, You Know the Score

Back in the U.K., the late 1980s were a perfect musical storm. (Acid) house, hip-hop and sound systems collided. The tempo sped up, breaks were added, MCs chatted and the rewind came back. This was hardcore: a style of music, and a lifestyle.

London producer Wrongtom offers a personal look back that’s aptly concise. “I think the transition from reggae to raves in the U.K. was organic, especially with places like The Four Aces [a legendary east London venue] becoming Labyrinth. The transitions from one musical style to the next were quick. Pull ups would have continued through.”

It’s 1988. An unknown London producer by the name of Lennie De Ice writes a song on a 6-track admittedly inspired by the “futuristic beats of Mantronix,” combining breaks with the “progressive feel of house music and drum machines.” It comes out in 1991 as “We Are I.E.” Jungle music has its prototype.

The song is a perfect musical summary of the era. It opens with uplifting pads, typical of acid house, followed by a rewind, used throughout as a sample. Remember what I said about “King of the Beats?”

Original Nuttahs: Telepathy and AWOL

When U.K. hardcore split up, jungle was born. Hardcore was sped up, classic breaks were chopped, and dub bass shook the chests. The shock of the new. Jungle embraced rewinds more than any other 1990s U.K. sound.

One of the earliest jungle parties in London was called Telepathy. Bret, one of the co-founders, told Brian Belle-Fortune, author of All Crews, a book about the history of jungle, that they introduced rewinds to the culture. “We both come from West Indian backgrounds. We grew up here. The reggae flavours we incorporated, things that are industry standard like rewinds—we created that at Marshgate Lane [location for the Telepathy parties in east London]. We said, ‘Tell ‘em stop the tune. Rewind it.’”

Another key early party was AWOL, held at a venue called the Paradise, where acid house and hardcore mutated into jungle. MC GQ told Belle-Fortune another story about rewind’s new home. “Randall’s mixing ability was different, on another level. You had a man come running clean from the back of the club, everyone screaming, ‘Stop the mix! Stop the mix! Rewind the whole mix.’ I don’t care what anyone says. We were the first people to rewind the whole mix.”

Shock of the new. Bawl’ forward. We pull up two tunes rudeboy.

Signal, Can I Get A Signal?

There’s onemore key element in the evolution of rewinds: radio. Or to take it back to Bunny Lee, the people’s radio aka pirate radio. In the late 1980s, pirate radio moved off the boats to high rises in the poorer parts of London, just as sound systems had begun in the ghettos of Kingston.

In London, pirates were essential to dance music cultures. Raves were the location, pirate radio was the medium, and music was the message. Two distinct elements of sound system culture defined pirate radio in the British capital: the MC and the rewind.

As jungle became the sound of 1990s London pirate radio, technology allowed the rewind to tag along.

“Calling a radio station seems an odd thing to do,” Belle-Fortune remembers. “But ringing your favourite pirate to bawl for a rewind is so natural. Nothing establishes a sense of community better than regular callers.” Calling up, and later texting, for a rewind would become integral to the pirate radio experience.

Wot You Call It? Garage?

U.K. garage was born during the mid–1990s at a Sunday club called Happy Days in south London. It took the eponymous U.S. sound, sped it up, fattened the bass and stripped the diva vocals favoured by U.S. producers for a more instrumental dub approach.

Being a London ting, U.K. garage gave a home to MCs. Journalist and dance music historian Simon Reynolds has argued that the move of MCs, many from a jungle background, to U.K. garage helped “Jamaican-ise house music.” As always, they entertained and acted as conductor between the DJ and audience when it was time to pull up and come again.

In the space of a few years, U.K. garage would evolve into speed garage—faster, harder, stronger—and ultimately 2step, a backlash against the speed and four-to-the-floor rhythms. 2step was jittery, skipping instead of pounding. It found a natural home on pirate radio.

The importance of rewinds in U.K. garage, especially 2step, is best summarized by a 1999 song from The Artful Dodger and Craig David. In its lyrics, its title and the music itself, the song is a tribute to the rewind. “Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta)” reached number two in the U.K. charts.

By the turn of the century, the rewind is still there, hidden in plain sight. From Nas’ “Blaze a 50” to Beverley Knight’s self-help guide “Rewind (Find A Way)” via Cylob’s “Rewind,” a bonkers Rewind For Dummies in electronic form.

Back in London, U.K. garage continues its unlikely mutation. It moves to the studio as producers go seeking another shock of the new. In comes grime and dubstep, the latest chapter of the rewind’s journey from that fateful 1968 night in Jamaica. Even if they may sound nothing alike today, the two genres are conjoined twins at birth.

Grime DJ Elijah points out that rewinds are part of his DNA as a Jamaican youth growing up in London. This is a common story within grime performers and fans that helps explain why the rewind became an essential part of grime’s furious energy.

I asked Elijah for a stand-out memory of rewinds. “The obvious one is Lethal B’s “Pow” track in 2004 getting a reload for every verse. It has 10. The tune needed at least 10 mins to get through all the singalongs. Certain clubs thought it would be better to ban it.”

Like Being In Love: You Just Know

In the mid 2000s, I would tune in semi-religiously to Rinse FM, London’s leading pirate radio. It was the FWD>> show with Kode9, who would run the freshest dubplates from the post–2step era and early days of both grime and dubstep.

We were hundreds of listeners all around London. And we only had to do one thing to get what we want. “10 gets you a rewind.” “I want to see ten missed calls.” Pirate radio builds its community through its regular listeners.

The early days of dubstep in London also gave us one of the most democratic public uses of the rewind in U.K. history.

It’s 2005 in Brixton, South London. A club called Third Base, located inside an old church, near the center of Brixton, began hosting a new bi-monthly party called DMZ. Inside the club the set up was spartan, no flashy lights or smoke machines. Just a finely tuned sound system, bags of dub plates and bodies in the dance.

The turntables were situated at audience level. As such, anyone could bawl’ forward and request or, as happened, stop the record and call the rewind themselves. As with the early days of jungle, the rewind was a way for dubstep audiences to participate in the moment.

Founded by London producers Digital Mystikz and Loefah, and inspired by sound system culture and the heydays of jungle, DMZ was both a spiritual and physical experience. This was epitomised by its flyers’ tagline: “Come meditate on bass weight.”

DMZ inevitably grew past its humble beginnings and moved upstairs to a bigger venue within the same building. The decks were no longer easy to reach but some were lucky enough to still be in close range to make the call when the time was right.

One of those was Martin Clark. In July 2006, he recounted the importance of such an action. “Rewinding shouldn’t be taken lightly… The tune has to be so unfeasibly amazing that you [cannot] control yourself. There’s no decision to cognitively be made, the answer is self-evident. Like being in love: you just know.”

One Last Echo

Two otherearly attendees of dubstep’s foundational years in London were U.S. DJs Joe Nice from Baltimore and Dave Q from NYC, who would go on to found America’s answer to DMZ, Dub War. At the time, Joe had a radio show called Gourmet Beats, airing online. It soon became the definitive U.S. dubstep broadcast.

Sometime between 2005 and 2006, the pair flipped London’s pirate radio request line. “I don’t remember what tune I was playing,” Joe recalls, “but the chatroom was going crazy, and I said, ‘I need 5 for the reload’ expecting to see the word five times in the chat.” Instead, Dave Q went straight for the number. “I just put in a ‘5’ and that was an instant rewind. It became the thing that you just write ‘5’ if you want a pull up.”

Back in London, it’s DMZ’s first birthday bash. Joe Nice is standing behind the turntables with arms outstretched, hands signalling five. The audience reciprocates. The Americans’ twist on the standard U.K. radio request makes it back across the Atlantic. I swear I once saw someone bring a piece of paper to DMZ with the number 5 written on it and hold it up.

No Rewinds Please, We’re American

It’s worth noting at this point that of all the primary dance music genres, house and techno are the only two—especially in America—to make no use of rewinds as a performing practice. Starting with the music’s roots in disco all the way to the early warehouse parties, house and techno are about a continuous experience that led you to spiritual, and sometimes physical, ecstasy. Something as harsh as the rewind found no place in the music or culture.

Thirty years later, America is in the thrall of an EDM boom. A new generation of kids seeking new experiences amid the visual and auditory overloads of stadium-sized shows. There are no rewinds.

A Truly Democratic Musical Practice

So after forty years of rewinding tunes, one thing is for sure: the rewind is the most democratic musical practice of modern times: it ensures no one, audience or DJ, is above anyone else. It also has a bad rep for being abused, the tool of coked-up MCs disconnected from the crowd. Sort of like politics today. Like I said, democratic.

As unlikely as it is, should the rewind’s instrument, the turntable, disappear, we may become unable to bawl’ forward. And while I’ve yet to find a plug-in to automatically generate rewinds in live performance software like Ableton, I know a few modern performers who make it happen on their live rigs.

Elijah imagines the rewind being “like a great guitar solo or something in rock music.” Joe Nice sums up the necessary cues for a perfect rewind as “reading the crowd, mood, and timing.”

The last word goes to John Eden, who brings it back to the people. “The key thing is: sound systems are supposed to be part of a community… so it’s a two-way thing, a conversation rather than a monologue.”

Liner notes to a history of the rewind
Further thoughts and notes on the history of sound system’s most democratic

For other uses, see Music (disambiguation).


A painting on an ancient Greek vase depicts a music lesson (c. 510 BCE).

MediumSound, silence, time
Originating cultureVarious
Originating eraPaleolithic era

Music is an art form and cultural activity whose medium is sound organized in time. The common elements of music are pitch (which governs melody and harmony), rhythm (and its associated concepts tempo, meter, and articulation), dynamics (loudness and softness), and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture (which are sometimes termed the "color" of a musical sound). Different styles or types of music may emphasize, de-emphasize or omit some of these elements. Music is performed with a vast range of instruments and vocal techniques ranging from singing to rapping; there are solely instrumental pieces, solely vocal pieces (such as songs without instrumental accompaniment) and pieces that combine singing and instruments. The word derives from Greekμουσική (mousike; "art of the Muses").[1] See glossary of musical terminology.

In its most general form, the activities describing music as an art form or cultural activity include the creation of works of music (songs, tunes, symphonies, and so on), the criticism of music, the study of the history of music, and the aesthetic examination of music. Ancient Greek and Indian philosophers defined music as tones ordered horizontally as melodies and vertically as harmonies. Common sayings such as "the harmony of the spheres" and "it is music to my ears" point to the notion that music is often ordered and pleasant to listen to. However, 20th-century composer John Cage thought that any sound can be music, saying, for example, "There is no noise, only sound."[2]

The creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of music vary according to culture and social context. Indeed, throughout history, some new forms or styles of music have been criticized as "not being music", including Beethoven's Grosse Fugestring quartet in 1825,[3] early jazz in the beginning of the 1900s[4] and hardcore punk in the 1980s.[5] There are many types of music, including popular music, traditional music, art music, music written for religious ceremonies and work songs such as chanteys. Music ranges from strictly organized compositions–such as Classical music symphonies from the 1700s and 1800s, through to spontaneously played improvisational music such as jazz, and avant-garde styles of chance-basedcontemporary music from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Music can be divided into genres (e.g., country music) and genres can be further divided into subgenres (e.g., country blues and pop country are two of the many country subgenres), although the dividing lines and relationships between music genres are often subtle, sometimes open to personal interpretation, and occasionally controversial. For example, it can be hard to draw the line between some early 1980s hard rock and heavy metal. Within the arts, music may be classified as a performing art, a fine art or as an auditory art. Music may be played or sung and heard live at a rock concert or orchestra performance, heard live as part of a dramatic work (a music theater show or opera), or it may be recorded and listened to on a radio, MP3 player, CD player, smartphone or as film score or TV show.

In many cultures, music is an important part of people's way of life, as it plays a key role in religious rituals, rite of passage ceremonies (e.g., graduation and marriage), social activities (e.g., dancing) and cultural activities ranging from amateur karaoke singing to playing in an amateur funk band or singing in a community choir. People may make music as a hobby, like a teen playing cello in a youth orchestra, or work as a professional musician or singer. The music industry includes the individuals who create new songs and musical pieces (such as songwriters and composers), individuals who perform music (which include orchestra, jazz band and rock band musicians, singers and conductors), individuals who record music (music producers and sound engineers), individuals who organize concert tours, and individuals who sell recordings and sheet music and scores to customers.


The word derives from Greekμουσική (mousike; "art of the Muses").[1] In Greek mythology, the nine Muses were the goddesses who inspired literature, science, and the arts and who were the source of the knowledge embodied in the poetry, song-lyrics, and myths in the Greek culture. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the term "music" is derived from "mid-13c., musike, from Old Frenchmusique (12c.) and directly from Latin musica "the art of music," also including poetry (also [the] source of Spanish musica, Italian musica, Old High Germanmosica, German Musik, Dutch muziek, Danish musik)." This is derived from the "...Greek mousike (techne) "(art) of the Muses," from fem. of mousikos "pertaining to the Muses," from Mousa "Muse" (see muse (n.)). Modern spelling [dates] from [the] 1630s. In classical Greece, [the term "music" refers to] any art in which the Muses presided, but especially music and lyric poetry."[6]

As a form of art or entertainment

Music is composed and performed for many purposes, ranging from aesthetic pleasure, religious or ceremonial purposes, or as an entertainment product for the marketplace. When music was only available through sheet music scores, such as during the Classical and Romantic eras, music lovers would buy the sheet music of their favourite pieces and songs so that they could perform them at home on the piano. With the advent of sound recording, records of popular songs, rather than sheet music became the dominant way that music lovers would enjoy their favourite songs. With the advent of home tape recorders in the 1980s and digital music in the 1990s, music lovers could make tapes or playlists of their favourite songs and take them with them on a portable cassette player or MP3 player. Some music lovers create mix tapes of their favorite songs, which serve as a "self-portrait, a gesture of friendship, prescription for an ideal party... [and] an environment consisting solely of what is most ardently loved."[7]

Amateur musicians can compose or perform music for their own pleasure, and derive their income elsewhere. Professional musicians are employed by a range of institutions and organisations, including armed forces (in marching bands, concert bands and popular music groups), churches and synagogues, symphony orchestras, broadcasting or film production companies, and music schools. Professional musicians sometimes work as freelancers or session musicians, seeking contracts and engagements in a variety of settings. There are often many links between amateur and professional musicians. Beginning amateur musicians take lessons with professional musicians. In community settings, advanced amateur musicians perform with professional musicians in a variety of ensembles such as community concert bands and community orchestras.

A distinction is often made between music performed for a live audience and music that is performed in a studio so that it can be recorded and distributed through the music retail system or the broadcasting system. However, there are also many cases where a live performance in front of an audience is also recorded and distributed. Live concert recordings are popular in both classical music and in popular music forms such as rock, where illegally taped live concerts are prized by music lovers. In the jam band scene, live, improvised jam sessions are preferred to studio recordings.


Main article: Musical composition

"Composition" is the act or practice of creating a song, an instrumental music piece, a work with both singing and instruments, or another type of music. In many cultures, including Western classical music, the act of composing also includes the creation of music notation, such as a sheet music "score", which is then performed by the composer or by other singers or musicians. In popular music and traditional music, the act of composing, which is typically called songwriting, may involve the creation of a basic outline of the song, called the lead sheet, which sets out the melody, lyrics and chord progression. In classical music, the composer typically orchestrates his or her own compositions, but in musical theatre and in pop music, songwriters may hire an arranger to do the orchestration. In some cases, a songwriter may not use notation at all, and instead compose the song in her mind and then play or record it from memory. In jazz and popular music, notable recordings by influential performers are given the weight that written scores play in classical music.

Even when music is notated relatively precisely, as in classical music, there are many decisions that a performer has to make, because notation does not specify all of the elements of music precisely. The process of deciding how to perform music that has been previously composed and notated is termed "interpretation". Different performers' interpretations of the same work of music can vary widely, in terms of the tempos that are chosen and the playing or singing style or phrasing of the melodies. Composers and songwriters who present their own music are interpreting their songs, just as much as those who perform the music of others. The standard body of choices and techniques present at a given time and a given place is referred to as performance practice, whereas interpretation is generally used to mean the individual choices of a performer.[citation needed]

Although a musical composition often uses musical notation and has a single author, this is not always the case. A work of music can have multiple composers, which often occurs in popular music when a band collaborates to write a song, or in musical theatre, when one person writes the melodies, a second person writes the lyrics, and a third person orchestrates the songs. In some styles of music, such as the blues, a composer/songwriter may create, perform and record new songs or pieces without ever writing them down in music notation. A piece of music can also be composed with words, images, or computer programs that explain or notate how the singer or musician should create musical sounds. Examples range from avant-garde music that uses graphic notation, to text compositions such as Aus den sieben Tagen, to computer programs that select sounds for musical pieces. Music that makes heavy use of randomness and chance is called aleatoric music, and is associated with contemporary composers active in the 20th century, such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Witold Lutosławski. A more commonly known example of chance-based music is the sound of wind chimes jingling in a breeze.

The study of composition has traditionally been dominated by examination of methods and practice of Western classical music, but the definition of composition is broad enough to include the creation of popular music and traditional music songs and instrumental pieces as well as spontaneously improvised works like those of free jazz performers and African percussionists such as Ewe drummers.


Main article: Musical notation

In the 2000s, music notation typically means the written expression of music notes and rhythms on paper using symbols. When music is written down, the pitches and rhythm of the music, such as the notes of a melody, are notated. Music notation also often provides instructions on how to perform the music. For example, the sheet music for a song may state that the song is a "slow blues" or a "fast swing", which indicates the tempo and the genre. To read music notation, a person must have an understanding of music theory, harmony and the performance practice associated with a particular song or piece's genre.

Written notation varies with style and period of music. In the 2000s, notated music is produced as sheet music or, for individuals with computer scorewriter programs, as an image on a computer screen. In ancient times, music notation was put onto stone or clay tablets. To perform music from notation, a singer or instrumentalist requires an understanding of the rhythmic and pitch elements embodied in the symbols and the performance practice that is associated with a piece of music or a genre. In genres requiring musical improvisation, the performer often plays from music where only the chord changes and form of the song are written, requiring the performer to have a great understanding of the music's structure, harmony and the styles of a particular genre (e.g., jazz or country music).

In Western art music, the most common types of written notation are scores, which include all the music parts of an ensemble piece, and parts, which are the music notation for the individual performers or singers. In popular music, jazz, and blues, the standard musical notation is the lead sheet, which notates the melody, chords, lyrics (if it is a vocal piece), and structure of the music. Fake books are also used in jazz; they may consist of lead sheets or simply chord charts, which permit rhythm section members to improvise an accompaniment part to jazz songs. Scores and parts are also used in popular music and jazz, particularly in large ensembles such as jazz "big bands." In popular music, guitarists and electric bass players often read music notated in tablature (often abbreviated as "tab"), which indicates the location of the notes to be played on the instrument using a diagram of the guitar or bass fingerboard. Tabulature was also used in the Baroque era to notate music for the lute, a stringed, fretted instrument.


Main article: Musical improvisation

Musical improvisation is the creation of spontaneous music, often within (or based on) a pre-existing harmonic framework or chord progression. Improvisation is the act of instantaneous composition by performers, where compositional techniques are employed with or without preparation. Improvisation is a major part of some types of music, such as blues, jazz, and jazz fusion, in which instrumental performers improvise solos, melody lines and accompaniment parts. In the Western art music tradition, improvisation was an important skill during the Baroque era and during the Classical era. In the Baroque era, performers improvised ornaments and basso continuo keyboard players improvised chord voicings based on figured bass notation. In the Classical era, solo performers and singers improvised virtuoso cadenzas during concerts. However, in the 20th and early 21st century, as "common practice" Western art music performance became institutionalized in symphony orchestras, opera houses and ballets, improvisation has played a smaller role. At the same time, some modern composers have increasingly included improvisation in their creative work. In Indian classical music, improvisation is a core component and an essential criterion of performances.


Main article: Music theory

Music theory encompasses the nature and mechanics of music. It often involves identifying patterns that govern composers' techniques and examining the language and notation of music. In a grand sense, music theory distills and analyzes the parameters or elements of music – rhythm, harmony (harmonic function), melody, structure, form, and texture. Broadly, music theory may include any statement, belief, or conception of or about music.[8] People who study these properties are known as music theorists. Some have applied acoustics, human physiology, and psychology to the explanation of how and why music is perceived.


Main article: Aspect of music

Music has many different fundamentals or elements. Depending on the definition of "element" being used, these can include: pitch, beat or pulse, tempo, rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, style, allocation of voices, timbre or color, dynamics, expression, articulation, form and structure. The elements of music feature prominently in the music curriculums of Australia, UK and US. All three curriculums identify pitch, dynamics, timbre and texture as elements, but the other identified elements of music are far from universally agreed. Below is a list of the three official versions of the "elements of music":

  • Australia: pitch, timbre, texture, dynamics and expression, rhythm, form and structure.[9]
  • UK: pitch, timbre, texture, dynamics, duration, tempo, structure.[10]
  • USA: pitch, timbre, texture, dynamics, rhythm, form, harmony, style/articulation.[11]

In relation to the UK curriculum, in 2013 the term: "appropriate musical notations" was added to their list of elements and the title of the list was changed from the "elements of music" to the "inter-related dimensions of music". The inter-related dimensions of music are listed as: pitch, duration, dynamics, tempo, timbre, texture, structure and appropriate musical notations.[12]

The phrase "the elements of music" is used in a number of different contexts. The two most common contexts can be differentiated by describing them as the "rudimentary elements of music" and the "perceptual elements of music".

Rudimentary elements

In the 1800s, the phrases "the elements of music" and "the rudiments of music" were used interchangeably.[13][14] The elements described in these documents refer to aspects of music that are needed in order to become a musician, Recent writers such as Estrella [15] seem to be using the phrase "elements of music" in a similar manner. A definition which most accurately reflects this usage is: "the rudimentary principles of an art, science, etc.: the elements of grammar."[16] The UK's curriculum switch to the "inter-related dimensions of music" seems to be a move back to using the rudimentary elements of music.

Perceptual elements

Since the emergence of the study of psychoacoustics in the 1930s, most lists of elements of music have related more to how we hear music than how we learn to play it or study it. C.E. Seashore, in his book Psychology of Music,[17] identified four "psychological attributes of sound". These were: "pitch, loudness, time, and timbre" (p. 3). He did not call them the "elements of music" but referred to them as "elemental components" (p. 2). Nonetheless these elemental components link precisely with four of the most common musical elements: "Pitch" and "timbre" match exactly, "loudness" links with dynamics and "time" links with the time-based elements of rhythm, duration and tempo. This usage of the phrase "the elements of music" links more closely with Webster's New 20th Century Dictionary definition of an element as: "a substance which cannot be divided into a simpler form by known methods"[18] and educational institutions' lists of elements generally align with this definition as well.

Although writers of lists of "rudimentary elements of music" can vary their lists depending on their personal (or institutional) priorities, the perceptual elements of music should consist of an established (or proven) list of discrete elements which can be independently manipulated to achieve an intended musical effect. It seems at this stage that there is still research to be done in this area.

Analysis of styles

Some styles of music place an emphasis on certain of these fundamentals, while others place less emphasis on certain elements. To give one example, while Bebop-era jazz makes use of very complex chords, including altered dominants and challenging chord progressions, with chords changing two or more times per bar and keys changing several times in a tune, funk places most of its emphasis on rhythm and groove, with entire songs based around a vamp on a single chord. While Romantic era classical music from the mid- to late-1800s makes great use of dramatic changes of dynamics, from whispering pianissimo sections to thunderous fortissimo sections, some entire Baroque dance suites for harpsichord from the early 1700s may use a single dynamic. To give another example, while some art music pieces, such as symphonies are very long, some pop songs are just a few minutes long.

Description of elements

Pitch and melody

Pitch is an aspect of a sound that we can hear, reflecting whether one musical sound, note or tone is "higher" or "lower" than another musical sound, note or tone. We can talk about the highness or lowness of pitch in the more general sense, such as the way a listener hears a piercingly high piccolo note or whistling tone as higher in pitch than a deep thump of a bass drum. We also talk about pitch in the precise sense associated with musical melodies, basslines and chords. Precise pitch can only be determined in sounds that have a frequency that is clear and stable enough to distinguish from noise. For example, it is much easier for listeners to discern the pitch of a single note played on a piano than to try to discern the pitch of a crash cymbal that is struck.

A melody (also called a "tune") is a series of pitches (notes) sounding in succession (one after the other), often in a rising and falling pattern. The notes of a melody are typically created using pitch systems such as scales or modes. Melodies also often contain notes from the chords used in the song. The melodies in simple folk songs and traditional songs may use only the notes of a single scale, the scale associated with the tonic note or key of a given song. For example, a folk song in the key of C (also referred to as C major) may have a melody that uses only the notes of the C major scale (the individual notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C; these are the "white notes" on a piano keyboard. On the other hand, Bebop-era jazz from the 1940s and contemporary music from the 20th and 21st centuries may use melodies with many chromatic notes (i.e., notes in addition to the notes of the major scale; on a piano, a chromatic scale would include all the notes on the keyboard, including the "white notes" and "black notes" and unusual scales, such as the whole tone scale (a whole tone scale in the key of C would contain the notes C, D, E, F♯, G♯ and A♯). A low, deep musical line played by bass instruments such as double bass, electric bass or tuba is called a bassline.

Harmony and chords

Harmony refers to the "vertical" sounds of pitches in music, which means pitches that are played or sung together at the same time to create a chord. Usually this means the notes are played at the same time, although harmony may also be implied by a melody that outlines a harmonic structure (i.e., by using melody notes that are played one after the other, outlining the notes of a chord). In music written using the system of major-minor tonality ("keys"), which includes most classical music written from 1600 to 1900 and most Western pop, rock and traditional music, the key of a piece determines the scale used, which centres around the "home note" or tonic of the key. Simple classical pieces and many pop and traditional music songs are written so that all the music is in a single key. More complex Classical, pop and traditional music songs and pieces may have two keys (and in some cases three or more keys). Classical music from the Romantic era (written from about 1820–1900) often contains multiple keys, as does jazz, especially Bebop jazz from the 1940s, in which the key or "home note" of a song may change every four bars or even every two bars.


Rhythm is the arrangement of sounds and silences in time. Meter animates time in regular pulse groupings, called measures or bars, which in Western classical, popular and traditional music often group notes in sets of two (e.g., 2/4 time), three (e.g., 3/4 time, also known as Waltz time, or 3/8 time), or four (e.g., 4/4 time). Meters are made easier to hear because songs and pieces often (but not always) place an emphasis on the first beat of each grouping. Notable exceptions exist, such as the backbeat used in much Western pop and rock, in which a song that uses a measure that consists of four beats (called 4/4 time or common time) will have accents on beats two and four, which are typically performed by the drummer on the snare drum, a loud and distinctive-sounding percussion instrument. In pop and rock, the rhythm parts of a song are played by the rhythm section, which includes chord-playing instruments (e.g., electric guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, or other keyboard instruments), a bass instrument (typically electric bass or for some styles such as jazz and bluegrass, double bass) and a drum kit player.


Musical texture is the overall sound of a piece of music or song. The texture of a piece or sing is determined by how the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic materials are combined in a composition, thus determining the overall nature of the sound in a piece. Texture is often described in regard to the density, or thickness, and range, or width, between lowest and highest pitches, in relative terms as well as more specifically distinguished according to the number of voices, or parts, and the relationship between these voices (see common types below). For example, a thick texture contains many 'layers' of instruments. One of these layers could be a string section, or another brass. The thickness also is affected by the amount and the richness of the instruments. Texture is commonly described according to the number of and relationship between parts or lines of music:

  • monophony: a single melody (or "tune") with neither instrumental accompaniment nor a harmony part. A mother singing a lullaby to her baby would be an example.
  • heterophony: two or more instruments or singers playing/singing the same melody, but with each performer slightly varying the rhythm or speed of the melody or adding different ornaments to the melody. Two bluegrassfiddlers playing the same traditional fiddle tune together will typically each vary the melody a bit and each add different ornaments.
  • polyphony: multiple independent melody lines that interweave together, which are sung or played at the same time. Choral music written in the Renaissance music era was typically written in this style. A round, which is a song such as "Row, Row, Row Your Boat", which different groups of singers all start to sing at a different time, is a simple example of polyphony.
  • homophony: a clear melody supported by chordalaccompaniment. Most Western popular music songs from the 19th century onward are written in this texture.

Music that contains a large number of independent parts (e.g., a double concerto accompanied by 100 orchestral instruments with many interweaving melodic lines) is generally said to have a "thicker" or "denser" texture than a work with few parts (e.g., a solo flute melody accompanied by a single cello).

Timbre or "tone color"

Timbre, sometimes called "color" or "tone color" is the quality or sound of a voice or instrument.[19] Timbre is what makes a particular musical sound different from another, even when they have the same pitch and loudness. For example, a 440 Hz A note sounds different when it is played on oboe, piano, violin or electric guitar. Even if different players of the same instrument play the same note, their notes might sound different due to differences in instrumental technique (e.g., different embouchures), different types of accessories (e.g., mouthpieces for brass players, reeds for oboe and bassoon players) or strings made out of different materials for string players (e.g., gut strings versus steel strings). Even two instrumentalists playing the same note on the same instrument (one after the other) may sound different due to different ways of playing the instrument (e.g., two string players might hold the bow differently).

The physical characteristics of sound that determine the perception of timbre include the spectrum, envelope and overtones of a note or musical sound. For electric instruments developed in the 20th century, such as electric guitar, electric bass and electric piano, the performer can also change the tone by adjusting equalizer controls, tone controls on the instrument, and by using electronic effects units such as distortion pedals. The tone of the electric Hammond organ is controlled by adjusting drawbars.


Expressive qualities are those elements in music that create change in music without changing the main pitches or substantially changing the rhythms of the melody and its accompaniment. Performers, including singers and instrumentalists, can add musical expression to a song or piece by adding phrasing, by adding effects such as vibrato (with voice and some instruments, such as guitar, violin, brass instruments and woodwinds), dynamics (the loudness or softness of piece or a section of it), tempo fluctuations (e.g., ritardando or accelerando, which are, respectively slowing down and speeding up the tempo), by adding pauses or fermatas on a cadence, and by changing the articulation of the notes (e.g., making notes more pronounced or accented, by making notes more legato, which means smoothly connected, or by making notes shorter).

Expression is achieved through the manipulation of pitch (such as inflection, vibrato, slides etc.), volume (dynamics, accent, tremolo etc.), duration (tempo fluctuations, rhythmic changes, changing note duration such as with legato and staccato, etc.), timbre (e.g. changing vocal timbre from a light to a resonant voice) and sometimes even texture (e.g. doubling the bass note for a richer effect in a piano piece). Expression therefore can be seen as a manipulation of all elements in order to convey "an indication of mood, spirit, character etc." [20] and as such cannot be included as a unique perceptual element of music,[21] although it can be considered an important rudimentary element of music.


See also: Strophic form, Binary form, Ternary form, Rondo form, Variation (music), and Musical development

In music, form describes how the overall structure or plan of a song or piece of music,[22] and it describes the layout of a composition as divided into sections.[23] In the early 20th century, Tin Pan Alley songs and Broadway musical songs were often in AABA32 bar form, in which the A sections repeated the same eight bar melody and the B section provided a contrasting melody and/or harmony for 8 bars. From the 1960s onward, Western pop and rock songs are often in verse-chorus form, which is based around a sequence of verse and chorus ("refrain") sections, with new lyrics for most verses and repeating lyrics for the choruses. Popular music often makes use of strophic form, sometimes in conjunction with the twelve bar blues.[citation needed]

In the tenth edition of The Oxford Companion to Music, Percy Scholes defines musical form as "a series of strategies designed to find a successful mean between the opposite extremes of unrelieved repetition and unrelieved alteration."[24] Examples of common forms of Western music include the fugue, the invention, sonata-allegro, canon, strophic, theme and variations, and rondo. Scholes states that European classical music had only six stand-alone forms: simple binary, simple ternary, compound binary, rondo, air with variations, and fugue (although musicologist Alfred Mann emphasized that the fugue is primarily a method of composition that has sometimes taken on certain structural conventions.[25])

Where a piece cannot readily be broken down into sectional units (though it might borrow some form from a poem, story or programme), it is said to be through-composed. Such is often the case with a fantasia, prelude, rhapsody, etude (or study), symphonic poem, Bagatelle, impromptu, etc.[citation needed] Professor Charles Keil classified forms and formal detail as "sectional, developmental, or variational."[26]

Sectional form

This form is built from a sequence of clear-cut units[27] that may be referred to by letters but also often have generic names such as introduction and coda, exposition, development and recapitulation, verse, chorus or refrain, and bridge. Introductions and codas, when they are no more than that, are frequently excluded from formal analysis. All such units may typically be eight measures long. Sectional forms include:

Strophic form

This form is defined by its "unrelieved repetition" (AAAA...).


Medley, potpourri is the extreme opposite, that of "unrelieved variation": it is simply an indefinite sequence of self-contained sections (ABCD...), sometimes with repeats (AABBCCDD...). Examples include orchestral overtures, which are sometimes no more than a string of the best tunes of the musical theatre show or opera to come.

Binary form

This form uses two sections (AB...), each often repeated (AABB...). In 18th-century Western classical music, "simple binary" form was often used for dances and carried with it the convention that the two sections should be in different musical keys but same rhythm, duration and tone. The alternation of two tunes gives enough variety to permit a dance to be extended for as long as desired.

Ternary form

This form has three parts. In Western classical music a simple ternary form has a third section that is a recapitulation of the first (ABA). Often, the first section is repeated (AABA). This approach was popular in the 18th-century operatic aria,[citation needed] and was called da capo (i.e. "repeat from the top") form. Later, it gave rise to the 32-bar song, with the B section then often referred to as the "middle eight". A song has more need than a dance of a self-contained form with a beginning and an end of course.

Rondo form

This form has a recurring theme alternating with different (usually contrasting) sections called "episodes". It may be asymmetrical (ABACADAEA) or symmetrical (ABACABA). A recurring section, especially the main theme, is sometimes more thoroughly varied, or else one episode may be a "development" of it. A similar arrangement is the ritornello form of the Baroque concerto grosso. Arch form (ABCBA) resembles a symmetrical rondo without intermediate repetitions of the main theme. It is normally used in a round.

Variational form

Variational forms are those in which variation is an important formative element.

Theme and Variations: a theme, which in itself can be of any shorter form (binary, ternary, etc.), forms the only "section" and is repeated indefinitely (as in strophic form) but is varied each time (A, B, A, F, Z, A), so as to make a sort of sectional chain form. An important variant of this, much used in 17th-century British music and in the Passacaglia and Chaconne, was that of the ground bass – a repeating bass theme or basso ostinato over and around which the rest of the structure unfolds, often, but not always, spinning polyphonic or contrapuntal threads, or improvising divisions and descants. This is said by Scholes (1977) to be the form par excellence of unaccompanied or accompanied solo instrumental music. The Rondo is often found with sections varied (AA1BA2CA3BA4) or (ABA1CA2B1A).

Developmental form

Developmental forms are built directly from smaller units, such as motifs. A well-known Classical piece with a motif is Beethoven's fifth symphony, which starts with three short repeated notes and then a long note. In Classical pieces that are based on motifs, the motif is usually combined, varied and worked out in different ways, perhaps having a symmetrical or arch-like underpinning and a progressive development from beginning to end. By far the most important developmental form in Western classical music is Sonata form. This form, also known as sonata form, first movement form, compound binary, ternary and a variety of other names,[example needed] developed from the binary-formed dance movement described above but is almost always cast in a greater ternary form having the nominal subdivisions of Exposition, Development and Recapitulation. Usually, but not always, the "A" parts (Exposition and Recapitulation, respectively) may be subdivided into two or three themes or theme groups which are taken asunder and recombined to form the "B" part (the development) – thus e. g. (AabB[dev. of a and/or b]A1ab1+coda). This developmental form is generally confined to certain sections of the piece, as to the middle section of the first movement of a sonata, though 19th-century composers such as Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner made valiant efforts to derive large-scale works purely or mainly from the motif.


Main article: History of music

Early history

Prehistoric music can only be theorized based on findings from paleolithic archaeology sites. Flutes are often discovered, carved from bones in which lateral holes have been pierced; these are thought to have been blown at one end like the Japanese shakuhachi. The Divje Babe flute, carved from a cave bearfemur, is thought to be at least 40,000 years old. Instruments such as the seven-holed flute and various types of stringed instruments, such as the Ravanahatha, have been recovered from the Indus Valley Civilizationarchaeological sites.[29] India has one of the oldest musical traditions in the world—references to Indian classical music (marga) are found in the Vedas, ancient scriptures of the Hindu tradition.[30] The earliest and largest collection of prehistoric musical instruments was found in China and dates back to between 7000 and 6600 BC.[31] The "Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal", found on clay tablets that date back to approximately 1400 BC, is the oldest surviving notated work of music.[32][33]

Ancient Egypt

Main article: Music of Egypt

The ancient Egyptians credited one of their gods, Thoth, with the invention of music, with Osiris in turn used as part of his effort to civilize the world. The earliest material and representational evidence of Egyptian musical instruments dates to the Predynastic period, but the evidence is more securely attested in the Old Kingdom when harps, flutes and double clarinets were played.[34] Percussion instruments, lyres and lutes were added to orchestras by the Middle Kingdom. Cymbals[35] frequently accompanied music and dance, much as they still do in Egypt today. Egyptian folk music, including the traditional Sufi dhikr rituals, are the closest contemporary music genre to ancient Egyptian music, having preserved many of its features, rhythms and instruments.[36][37]

Asian cultures

Sheet music is written representation of music. This is a homorhythmic (i.e., hymn-style) arrangement of a traditional piece entitled "Adeste Fideles", in standard two-staff format for mixed voices.  Play (help·info)
When musicians play three or more different notes at the same time, this creates a chord. In Western music, including classical music, pop music, rock music and many related styles, the most common chords are triads– three notes usually played at the same time. The most commonly used chords are the major chord and the minor chord. An example of a major chord is the three pitches C, E and G. An example of a minor chord is the three pitches A, C and E. (Pictured is a guitar player performing a chord on a guitar).
Singers add expression to the melodies they sing using many methods, including changing the tone of their singing, adding vibrato to certain notes, and emphasizing important words in the lyrics.
Binary form in major and minor keys. Each section must be at least three phrases long.[28]
A bone flute which is over 41,000 years old.
Indian women dressed in regional attire playing a variety of musical instruments popular in different parts of India

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