Understanding music theory is probably the best thing that any musician can give to himself. If you’ve learned to play an instrument by ear, then that’s an awesome accomplishment. But what makes a musician a complete one is not just through listening to the notes (though that in itself is the most important factor to being a musician); it is also about understanding what makes a certain piece of music work. This means that a musician must have a good grasp of the most important elements of music in order to truly become a complete musician.
Melody is the most basic element of a piece of music. Though a melody cannot exist without following a basic scale, a scale by itself cannot really be used to create music, simply because the music would sound too redundant if patterned in the order of scales. Rather, picking notes from within a particular scale and reordering them to fit a certain chord progression is the most common way to create a melody. In short, a melody is the end result of a scale. It is the most important aspect of making a particular music sound a lot more pleasing. Used in conjunction with rhythmic patterns, dynamics, and harmony, a melody’s original effect/purpose can be enhanced.
A scale is a group of notes that acts as a sort of skeletal structure for a piece of music. Without a basic knowledge of musical scales, a musician will find it hard to compose a piece of music simply because he/she wouldn’t know which notes or chords would fit and complement the entirety of a song. Knowledge of scales strengthens your understanding of basic music theory and is absolutely vital if you want to develop your ear.
A rhythm is a pattern or placement of sounds (notes, chords, percussions, etc) within a musical time. In a repetitive beat of 4/4 measure, the rhythm is structured around it and reorganized according to the composer’s preference. Having different patterns of a group of notes makes your melody sound even more pleasing to the ear, especially if it’s conjoined with dynamic styles of playing such as velocity, staccato, or legato variations. You could say that a rhythm is a series of a collection of parts of a beat. Much like how melody comes from scales, the rhythm also comes from the beat.
The beat is the most basic measurement of a piece of music. It connotes the tempo (speed or pace) of a song or a musical sequence. A beat is basically the counting of a measure wherein you would create patterns and grooves within its repetitions. For example: A 3/4 measure would be counted as 1-2-3 repetitively until the song ends (or when another measurement interjects). Likewise, a 4/4 measure would normally be counted as 1-2-3-4 repetitively too.
Harmony is an element of music that complements sections (or large parts) of a melody. Though it is sometimes used as a contrapuntal series of notes (counterpoint), its basic usage is to heighten a melody’s purpose within a segment of a song. Think of harmony as the added features of a car. A car can look a lot cooler due to gold reams, gold bumpers, etc. That’s what harmony is; it makes a melody sound a lot cooler. Harmony basically comes from scales and sometimes starts as a contrapuntal 3rd or 5th note to the root note.
Dynamics is basically the volume of how each note is played within a rhythmic pattern. It is usually dependent of rhythm but it can also be interjected as a singular instance that repeats rarely. However, when it comes to rhythmic patterns, a frequent usage of the volume style is usually repeated after every other pattern (though that isn’t absolute). Dynamics also refers to the style of how each note is played. Staccato (a style of dynamics) is used to cut short the sound of a note (or a rhythmic pattern of notes). Legato, another style, is basically used as a way of prolonging notes so as there is no obvious gap in between the rhythmic note patterns.
Having a basic knowledge of these important elements of music can definitely increase your musical skills and allow you to truly become a complete musician. Though it’s not required for you to do an in-depth study of these elements (simply because you only need to have a good grasp of their concepts), it’s still a great idea.