How does rap Fit into the three components of music, and does it even need to?


Dennis Krolevich

Slider image from Pixabay

The Merriam Webster’s definition for music is “the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity.” The second part of their definition is a collection of “vocal, instrumental, or mechanical sounds having rhythm, melody, or harmony.” Ever since the creation of the musical genre rap, there has been a debate as to whether it is actually music. The chief argument is that music across the board must include three elements: rhythm, harmony, and melody, but rap seemingly does not possess all three qualities. Before adopting a definition of music that is universally applicable, we must first understand music’s differences between various cultures and why it just isn’t that simple. 

First, let’s play along with this three-part definition of music and apply it to rap, using examples to compare the definition with real, material evidence. We can already guarantee that in the broad scheme of things, rap undeniably contains rhythm in multiple forms. Rhythm, or the beat, is an essential component of rap that acts as the foundation which is used to accompany a rapper’s speech. Not only is it incorporated into rap songs acoustically or electronically, but the very speech of a rapper has an innate rhythmic quality, a quality in which a listener, without hearing the revolving beat of the song, can understand the meter and beat of each bar within the song. In other words, the rap of a song establishes the rhythm in its own way, without the need of an accompaniment. 

The next part of this sacred equation is still somewhat easy to apply to rap. Generally, similarly to the quality of rhythm in a rap song, harmony is added virtually in any song to accompany the soloist. In his video about rap music, 12tone, a YouTube creator and music theorist, uses Common’s “The People” as a “good example- and a great song.” Although a bit subdued by the rapper and the accompanying rhythm section, a harmony played by some sort of electronic synth can be heard as one of the many layers of the piece. Not only that, but other recurring voices from different instruments, although likely digital, also accompany and even stand out as solos of their own. This adds another layer of harmony, which leads to the next convoluted part of this musical equation.

“The chief argument is that music across the board must include three elements: rhythm, harmony, and melody.” But does rap fit into that category? Photo from PublicDomainPhotos

Melody. Before I myself can confidently define it (I can’t), there are multiple factors to be considered. Firstly, melody is often considered simply as a succession of notes, but in terms of rap, we have to decide what notes are. Centuries ago, Western music theorists established what we know as the 12 tone, or equal temperament system. Essentially, this is a tuning system that contains 12 semitones within an octave that are evenly distanced between each other. A semitone is half of a full tone, such as the distance between C and C#, and an octave is simply an interval of eight whole tones. The notes your grade school music teacher taught you- C, D, E, F, and so on, including sharps or flats of each note (for the sake of simplicity, you know these as the black notes on a keyboard), are the notes that were chosen to be used in Western music notation and theory. That means, that there are notes in between the notes of the equal temperament system, as well as notes in between the notes in between the notes of the equal temperament system. We often refer to this as microtonality, which is the use of the frequencies between notes of the equal temperament system in music either for a glissando effect or what some call “atonality.”

Now that we understand what notes melody is often composed of, we must next understand the melody in speech, or rather, rap. According to 12tone’s video, speech is actually a form of melody, producing a sound which is defined as prosody. This is the natural pitch, rhythm, and direction of a sentence or sequence of words. The human voice naturally has a melodic quality to it, as it can raise its frequency when emphasizing something and go down at the end of a sentence. As 12tone mentions, this is why we found monotonous speaking annoying or disturbing. 

So, since human speech is innately melodic, and melody can be determined in frequencies other than those found in the equal temperament system, it can be concluded that rap is a melody of sorts. We can close up shop and wrap up the show here, but there are still so many steps we can take further to better understand the phenomenon of music. 

Let’s take a look at another musical example for the sake of argument. “Keep Ya Head Up,” by the beloved rap artist, 2Pac, is a song with multiple layers of rhythm, melody, and harmony, just like “The People” has. There are multiple voices that are incorporated into the song. Firstly, there are two clear melodies that are constantly repeating throughout the song, working hand in hand with the harmony of the song. Rap, just like its rhythm, often has melodies like these that circulate to establish a general feeling for the entire song. The other, very important melody to “Keep Ya Head Up” comes in at the chorus, where a harmonizing choir sings the chorus along with a soloist, interacting in a call-and-response fashion. This is one of the most prominent features and staple of many, if not all of 2Pac’s songs. 

2Pac is known for the multiple voices and melodies that can be found in his music, along with his call and response songs. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

We can clearly see that besides the main component of rap, there are multiple layers that satisfy the grand musical equation we are evaluating. The only question is whether we can attribute melody to accompaniment of the solo that is seemingly void of melody. Can we mix poetic speech with traditional Western or pop melodies and harmony and still call it music? If the main part of rap is the rapping, can we attribute the melodic component of the three-part system to the accompaniment to the rapper? The answer to this question is purely subjective, and it is a bit off topic to the discussion at hand. The point is, that whether or not rapping is melodic (which it is), there are still obvious melodic voices in rap that must be considered before jumping to any conclusions. 

Again, music is a completely subjective and strange phenomenon. There is no one definition that will satisfy everyone and every “music” genre. So is it really fair to establish a “one-size-fits-all” definition for something as complicated as music can be?

Well, we can certainly try to make one. To take an idea from my personal interaction with different types of music – classical, modern, neoclassical, swing, jazz, classic rock, pop, musicals, rap – the list goes on, I often find that no matter the scientific aspect of the music, there is always one quality that occurs within my listening that makes the music what it is: an experience.

Of course, my ambiguity gets a bit ahead of myself. However, it is an undeniable fact that to whatever art you take in, whether that is “music,” paintings, drama, film, or dance, there will always be an experience that goes with your consumption of the art. Now, anyone can come along and say that an experience is just living, in that I can have an experience just by getting out of bed or walking into my kitchen, and that’s exactly it! 

Just like your living body or soul, music is a breathing being, constantly in motion, and never ending. No matter what music or art I consume, an experience occurs where I could be sad, enlightened, disgusted, or just simply bored. These same experiences happen in day to day life, and that is about as far as we can go when defining an art form without a definition. Just because your experience may have been “bad,” it certainly does not mean that the music or art itself was bad. And just because you may not like a certain genre of music, does not mean that you are entitled to question its legitimacy as music.