What Is the Most Important Aspect of Music? (It’s Not Pitch!)

Piano Lessons / Uncategorized / What Is the Most Important Aspect of Music? (It’s Not Pitch!)

Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The topic for today is about the most important aspect of music. What is the most important aspect of music? There are so many things, such as texture, melody, instrumentation, orchestration, and pitch. But what is the most important thing?

Rhythm is by far the most important aspect of music.

I’m going to prove this to you in several ways that give you some historical context. If you heard the notes of a very familiar piece without a rhythmic context, it would be difficult to decipher what it was. It wouldn’t sound like much of anything because rhythm is a vitally important part of music. So let’s break this down a little bit. Think about the trajectory of music, starting with the Classical era of Mozart, Haydn, and later, Beethoven. There was a structure and a firm grasp of harmony that actually grew from Bach and earlier composers, with Bach chorales and all the rules of harmony, and basically major and minor chords. Harmony grew into the Romantic period, with composers such as Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky. And later, Romantic music got even more chromatic with Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Rachmaninoff. Eventually, tonality got to the point where keys were shifting constantly until it broke down to the 12 tone system, originally developed by Arnold Schoenberg, which used all 12 tones arranged in a random order called a tone row.

There are only 12 different notes in music!

How many different possible arrangements are there of 12 tones? Well, 144. Think about the vast majority of all Western music from before the Baroque era through to contemporary times, it’s all based upon just those 12 notes. This makes you realize how derivative melodies would be without the advent of rhythm. Rhythmic variety is what really separates melodies. So with the 12 tone system, you take those 12 tones and arrange them in some order called a tone row. Imagine building a piece out of that! Well, that’s exactly what Schoenberg did. Not only that, in trying to randomize music, not only were pitches randomized to avoid repeated patterns, but even rhythms were randomized trying to serialize the repetition of all elements. Now, this music is brilliant in its composition, but extraordinarily difficult to hear because atonal music is harder to digest than intervals that are more closely related. You can hear octaves, which are a 2 to 1 relationship, or fifths, a 3 to 1 relationship, very easily. But more distantly related intervals can be very hard to hear. Atonal music, by its very nature, is difficult to decipher. When you start randomizing other elements, like rhythm, textures, and dynamics, the music is even harder to grasp because of its random elements. This is why rhythm comes to the rescue in most music.

The revolution away from serialized music, like I just described, was the advent of minimalism.

Minimalism has a return of rhythmic elements in a new way. The brilliance of minimalism with composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams, was the nested combination of different patterns, overlapping with one another, creating beautiful kaleidoscopes of sound. Once again, we see the intrinsic element of rhythm. Whereas you had Baroque music using subjects in fugues that were intertwined with countersubject, in Classical period music, there were formal structures such as sonata allegro form, but with rhythmic elements firmly in place. That broke down in atonal music in the 20th century. Then finally, minimalism to the rescue! With minimalism you could once again decipher and grasp what you were listening to.

What about microtonal music?

The reason we have the 12 tones is because the overtone series is built upon these essential 12 notes. If you were to listen to any vibrating pitched object, you’re always going to get the same series of notes. The overtone series has your basic diatonic notes. They’re not arranged as a scale, but they’re the same notes. Now, on a tempered tuned piano, all the pitches are slightly off. So much music, whether it’s Persian music or Native American music or Indian music, has notes between the notes. But they still are largely pure tones found in the overtone series. These are mathematical relationships that are part of nature, which we can discern with our ears quite easily. So when you have arbitrary divisions of pitches, for example, quarter steps, notes between the notes, this isn’t something that has any real validity in the nature of sound.

So this is the argument that rhythm is the most intrinsically important element that makes music have meaning.

Without rhythm, and with only 12 tones, everything is derivative of everything else. But rhythm, by its very nature, has almost an infinite variety of possibilities because of all the divisions of time that are possible. That adds so many elements to composition! Let me know how you feel about this here at LivingPianos.com and on YouTube! Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

For premium videos and exclusive content, you can join my Living Pianos Patreon channel! www.Patreon.com/RobertEstrin

Contact me if you are interested in private lessons. I have many resources for you! Robert@LivingPianos.com

6 thoughts on “What Is the Most Important Aspect of Music? (It’s Not Pitch!)”


  1. Perhaps my math is wrong, but aren’t there (approximately) 479,000,000 possible tone row combinations? I’ve watched your videos for years. Thanks so much for the education and entertainment.

    1. Since a tone row can’t repeat any notes, I figured it would be simply 12 squared. However, this doesn’t take into account transposition, inversion, and retrograde which are all techniques employed to each tone row. If you include those, there indeed are a total of 12 transpositions or permutations of each of the 12-tone rows, resulting in 12! (12 factorial) or 479,001,600 possible tone rows. Furthermore, due to the technique of inversion, which involves flipping each interval in a tone row upside down, the number of possible tone rows is actually doubled to 12! x 2, resulting in 958,003,200 possible tone rows. Naturally, not all of these tone rows are musically useful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

nineteen − seven =