Formalizing Chunks

In the introduction to this chapter, we explained the importance of “chunks.” Anytime you’re thinking of music in groups of notes, rhythms, articulations, etc., you’re chunking. Chunking is relevant anytime we think about music, whether we are improvising, reading from notation, or listening.

There are many ways one could approach chunking in music, and they are all potentially useful! But in this section, we’ll define some common specific chunk types that many musicians find helpful. You may or may not find these easy to spot/hear at first, and that’s ok—as we work with the various parameters of music throughout the text, this should get easier.

One more note before we get into the chunk types: there is always more than one way to describe/think about a passage of music. Sometimes we may focus on a repeated rhythmic chunk; the next time through the music we may be drawn to a melodic pattern; then later, we may notice how harmonies are implied in the melody in standard ways. Embrace, and experiment with, different ways of understanding music.

A proposed short list of important common chunk types:

  1. Rhythmic cells. Whenever we notice common/familiar rhythms, we can understand them as “chunks.” We’ll focus explicitly on these most common rhythms in the chapter on rhythmic cells. In addition, you might find that a given piece of music has a rhythmic pattern, likely short (2–4 beats), that comes back over and over (often called a “rhythmic motive”). This, too, is a great opportunity to consider that a chunk whenever it returns.
  2. Scale fragments. For example, such a chunk might be “a stepwise run from scale degree 1/do up to scale degree 5/sol.”
  3. Non-chord tone formulas. If you’ve studied non-chord tones such as neighbor tones, double-neighbor tones, and suspensions, you can use your knowledge to group these as chunks. (Passing tones can be useful, too, but they also fit into the larger category of “scale fragments.”)
  4. Harmony-based chunks. If you’re able to identify chords, you’ll notice that there are certain ways that they tend to be reflected in a melody. This is true whether there is an accompaniment that clearly defines chords or whether the harmonies are merely implied by the melody. For example, some melodies are actually simple arpeggiations of chords. Others may require some interpretation (say, noticing non-chord tone formulas and how they relate to the implied chords). Regardless, seeing a large group of notes as tied together by a single harmony or common harmonic progression can be a very powerful way of chunking music.

This list is a good starting point, and we’ll work with identifying these, but remember that any pattern or group that you notice is valid in “chunking” music.

Activity: Chunk improvisation

Goal: Get used to thinking of musical materials in chunks. Optionally, apply thinking in chunks to your primary instrument.


  1. Verbally describe a series of chunks, based on the types listed above (if working in a group, have one student do this). You do not need to be able to hear them in your head yet (though that’d be great), just list them: for example, “Scalar fragment from scale degree 5/sol up to 1/do; repeat a rhythmic motive a few times; then arpeggiate down the dominant triad to create a half cadence.”
  2. Sing or play the resulting melody based on these chunk types (in a group, have a different student do this). Any description of chunks will likely leave some room for interpretation; note that the example in step 1 sometimes leaves rhythm undefined and sometimes leaves open different pitch interpretations. You may fill in any gaps with your own ideas.

Activity: Chunk listening

Goal: Get used to using chunks to improve your memory of heard melodies.

Before you start: You’ll need a source of melody. It can be improvised by a classmate, played from a recording, or some other source.


  1. Listen to a short melody (ideally 1–2 phrases).
  2. Describe the melody in chunks as best you can. You can either try to draw on the list of chunk types defined above, or more informally ask yourself, “How would I describe what the music did, in as few words as possible?”
  3. Listen to the melody again, doing your best to note anything you may have missed the first time around.
  4. Describe in chunks again.
  5. See if you can sing back the melody.

As you get more comfortable with this task, you can challenge yourself by working with longer and longer melodies. But don’t worry if you seem to hit a limit; perceptually meaningful chunks cannot be infinitely long.

Activity: Chunk reading

Goal: Get used to seeing chunks in notated music, improving both memory and musicality when performing.

Before you start: Find a manageable excerpt of notated melody. “Manageable” likely means 1–2 phrases/4–8 measures, without many accidentals, but you can scale to your level of comfort. The excerpt can be chosen from a sight-reading anthology, most of which are pretty good at isolating manageable amounts of music, or from “real music.”


  1. Look over the excerpt, scanning for chunks. If you have a partner/groupmate, describe the chunks aloud. You can either rely on the chunk types defined above, or more informally answer the question, “How would I describe what the music does in as few words as possible?” If you have a partner/groupmate, discuss any differences in how you chunked the melody.
  2. Sing or play through the melody, noting the chunks as you go.


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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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