Free «Understanding Music» Essay Sample

Basically, music theories concern themselves with the components of music (such as chords, melodies and rhythm).  But the interpretation of these components can reveal a lot of other factors in relation to the music in question. There are certain traditional elements of music. Yet today, there are certain accepted elements of music which are actually a deviation from the traditional instrumental and vocal framework (Windsor).

Simply said, music changes with time and reflects the defining factors of a particular society at that particular time. In other words, society at a particular time influences the composer of music- whether he conforms with or rebels against the prevailing circumstances. If music composition were a tree, society would be the root (i.e. the source) and the rest: style (pop, jazz, rock, etc) rhythm, form, melody, harmony and tone would follow ( “Obviously, the source motivates the composer of music to write the musical style that he/she chooses and ultimately influences the fruits produced by the composition tree” ( The interpretation of these music components would reveal not just the mood of the society in which it was created, but also the composer’s mind.

This paper will attempt to analyze three examples of American music (melody, rhythm and harmony) represented by Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley and Charles  and their performing media in an attempt to understand the people who created them and their response to the society that influenced their compositions.  

‘Potato Head Blues’ by Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong was an African American. He was born in abject poverty. His family (his mother was a prostitute and a maid and his father a workman) lived in what is believed to have been the worst back slum in New Orleans at the turn of the century.  As result he and his younger sister roamed the Storyville red light district. It was as a result of his resultant delinquency at 12 that he landed in the Collored Waifs Home. It was here, being a member of the institution’s band, that he learned a number of instruments. In the end he settled on the cornet. And during his teen, Armstrong played with a number of bands and was influenced by Joe King, also a renowned cornetist. It was during these years that heis fame started to blossom (

Potato Head Blues was one of nearly 90 recordings that Louis Armstrong did in collaboration with his band, the Hot Five between 1925 and 1928 (Hasse).

In these recordings, Armstrong deviates from and revolutionized the traditional group improvisation of New Orleans form of Jazz style from a group art into one for a soloist. He favored entire ‘choruses of improvisation’ in the place of the convention two-and-four bar breaks of the earlier jazz style (Hasse).

But this was not all. In 1925 Armstrong switched from his reknowned cornet to trumpet. Then he set novel standards for trumpeters when he extended the playable range of the trumpet with high notes (Hasse).

Loius Armstrong became the perfect exemplar of the very essence of Jazz- carving something new from the old and personalizing something shared. 

‘Hound Dog’ by Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley, like Armstrong except in a different era, is thought to have ‘forever’ changed music . He introduced a new music genre, the rock and roll. He once said about himself: “I don’t sound like anybody else”.

Although Elvis had many fans, other people thought his dances were inappropriate, and as such, Frank Sinatra once said, passing on bad influence to his fans, especially the teenagers.

‘You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog’ was written by Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber and originally recorded by Willie Mae Thornton (also known as ‘Big Mama’). Elvis only did a version of it, Hound Dog in 1956, and whose lyrics were written by Jerry Lieber and was a deviation from ‘Big Mama’s’ easy blues style (SongFacts).

‘Hound Dog’ was the song that made Elvis famous. Here, an angry and rejecting Presley is telling off a girl. The song is said to be done in a blues "shouter" style. That is, the style in which Presley does the other, about a dozen, such insult songs. It is very high-tempoed, or in other terms, hyperactive. The drumming is also quite simple and unsophisticated. The striking deliberate and precise and is as such on the beat. Then at the close of every verse, explodes in fast machine-gun bursts, announcing the beginning of the followiing twelve bars. The chorus by the males sings in very prolonged vowels in a way that blends well with the contrastive tempo. This ‘polyrhythm’ was apparently derived from what other groups, such the Platters, were doing. The phrases are bitten off and short, and very raspy throughout the song. It bears a notable influence of blues. There is also a sense of staccato in both the voice and orchestra. And the accent is forceful. The song sees a clash of patterns. For instance, the melody is a different pattern from that of the orchestra (Song Facts).

Considered in the light of social and cultural implications, ‘Hound Dog’, in spite of the novelty of Presley’s rock and roll style, reflects a number of musical conventions of the 1950s. Besides presley’s voice, the twelve-bar blues that is distinct in it was the basic and popular structure of R&B, rockability and other 1950s popular music. “The instrumentation is not anything that hasn’t already been heard at slower tempo in, say, songs of Buddy Holly, or at an even tempo in Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Round The Clock’” (soundaffects). And so, in the end, we see the same influence of society on the composer of music. 

‘Three Places in New England’ by Charles Ives

Charles Ives composed classical music and is considered as the greatest American composer. But one would wonder if classical music could really be considered an ‘authentic’ American music, relative to, say, jazz, rock and roll, R&B, et cetera. Yet perhaps it is this very questioning that exposes Ives’ deviation from the norm, even as his music managed to express a sense of American culture. Peter Guttman writes of Ives’ music: it “bursts with the idiom of [our] culture at every seam… and like America… Ives reflected all the complexity and contradictions, a union of both far-reaching traditional roots and the vision that equally reaches far”.

His belief in nature and self-reliance put in him a sense of faith in himself. Like his father, who loved to try new things and experimented with acoustics, dissonance, counterpoint, and happenstance, Ives insisted on “doing things the way he saw fit or simply never” (Guttman). And so the very clash of novel and traditional musical elements fascinated him, and he sought to try new things, which involved jumbling everyday elements anyhow to come up with extremely bizarre but novel techniques (Guttman).

Of Three Places in New England Guttman writes: it “mingles the fierce pride of Yankee with a deeply personal reflection and expression”. The first part, ‘The 'St. Gaudens' in Boston Common’ commemorates the fight and pride of an African-American brigade in the civil war; the way that he jumbles his melodies and rhythm to an extent that it’s hard to catch harmony in the second part “Putman’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut’ is in line with the theme expressed, that of a confusion between a noisy celebration of triumph amid the unease of wartime; and the last part ‘The Housatanic at Stockbridge’ in which Ives evokes himself having a walk with his wife by the river bank just after their wedding, Ives piles up a “massive climax”, even while lingering quiet notes trail off Guttman).

Ultimately, Ives refuses to abide by the mainstream style. He is curious about the different, albeit created from a novel amalgamation of the old. In other words, Ives simply wishes to speak for himself, and he does not feel that the conventional does that- at least not for him. 


All these artists made groundbreaking revolutions in music. Not only did these steps to the new and different reflect the minds and personal philosophies of these artists, but also the influence of society on a composer’s work. For instance, in spite of the novelty of these artist’s works, they are influenced by other forms of art already present in society. Also, the times of their works as well as their races defined the styles of music that they did. But still, that does not change the fact that they explore d and succeeded. 


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