Updated: Oct 19, 2020
What images pop into your heard when you hear the word "texture"? Soft or hard? Dry or wet? Alive or inanimate? Slimy? Sticky? Fur, skin, scales? The image above shows four images that "texture" may conjure in your mind, the smooth sands of a vast desert, the rough brick wall in a decrepit city building, the rolling waves of the ocean, or the repeating patterns of plant life. When we look at the images above we can not physically feel the roughess, smoothness, dryness, or wetness of the surfaces, but the images visually simulate the way these surfaces might feel. How do these different textures translate into sound? How is texture used in music?
In a piece of music (or a musical performance) is constructed of many building blocks. These includes the melody or melodies, the harmonies, and the rhythms, as well as the form. When these different building blocks are brought together along with tempo and timbre, they create a musical texture.
Side note: Timbre is often called the "tone color" or "tone quality of music. It is what distinguishes the different instruments or voices that are playing or singing the same frequency or musical pitch. For example, you may have a guitar and a cello that are both playing a middle C, but due to their distinct timbres you will be able to tell them apart. Combining timbres is a very important aspect of creating musical textures that make one piece of music stand out from another.
There are four types of textures that appear in music, Monophony, Polyphony, Homophony, and Heterophony. These four textures appear in music from around the world. Learning how these textures have evolved, not only leads through the history of Western music but also shows us how music is a global innovation.
Monophony is a musical texture that is made of one-single melodic line. This ancient musical texture is found in the few examples that remain of Ancient Greek music, such as The Epitaph of Seikilos, which you may listen to and see the score in the video above.
Side note: The Epitaph of Seikilos is the oldest surviving complete, notated musical composition. It is dated from around 1st century CE. The song (musical notation and lyrics) was found engraved on a stele or tombstone from the Hellenistic town Tralles near present-day Aydın, Turkey, near Ephesus. It was composed by Seikilos in honor of his deceased wife. The timbre featured in this video is a double reed. Double reed instruments were popular in the ancient world and are the ancestors to out modern oboe and bassoon.
Monophony was the principle texture of Western music until the Middle Ages and is a basic element of virtually all music. Examples include Byzantine and Gregorian chants, the songs of troubadours and trouvères from France, and the German minnesingers and meistersingers. Listen the Gregorian chant, Deum verum, at the beginning (until 0:42) of the video below.
Side note: Deum verum was composed by Étienne de Liège who was the bishop of Liège, which is located in present day Belgium, from 901 to 920 CE.
Monophony is still found in music today. Famous examples include a capella renditions of The Star Spangled Banner where the singer performs the melody without accompaniment, unaccompanied recitative sections in operas or theater works, and Bach's very popular Cello Suites. Listen to Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G major in the video below and follow along with the score. Notice how many emotion the performer is able to express with one melodic line.
ASSIGNMENT 1 Chose a specific emotion or story and create a short (12 to 32 bar) monophonic melody that describes this emotion or story.
Polyphony is a musical texture consisting of two or more simultaneous melodic lines. The earliest polyphonic music was created simply by having musicians play or sing two different songs simultaneously. Polyphony was developed during the late Middle Ages and became the dominant musical texture during the Renaissance. One of the most prominent composer of Polyphonic music was the Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525 – 2 February 1594).
Listen to Palestrina's Kyrie from Missa Papae Marcelli and follow along with the score in the video above. Listen to the piece several times, following a different vocal line each time and notice how the different works create consonance and dissonance. The way Western composers write Polyphony is called counterpoint. This innovation marks the beginning of modern harmonies in Western music.
In the Baroque period, polyphony remained an important musical texture. Composers such as J. S. Bach and Antonio Vivaldi created rich musical works in counterpunctal styles, such as Baroque Invention and Fugue. Listen to Bach's Invention in D minor and follow along with the score below. Notice how the left hand imitates the material of the right hand and how this imitation creates harmonies.
ASSIGNMENT 2 Download the score from IMSLP and analyze the harmonic structure of the piece.
Bach is not only known for his polyphony solo instrument works, but also for using polyphonic writing when composing for many instruments. His Brandenburg Concertos are excellent examples; Listen and follow long with Number 1 in F major below.
Homophony is a musical texture in which a main melodic line is supported by one or more additional musical lines that add harmonic support. This is the musical texture that we hear most often today. Traditional homophony is when all voices play or sing in (roughly) the same rhythm, creating a full texture. Chorales (such as Christmas Carols or patriot songs) arranged in a traditional four-voice "hymnal" arrangement) are the most basic homophonic form. J. S. Bach is known for creating some of the most effective homophonic chorales in Western music history. For this reason, music theory students study his chorales to master the concepts of Western harmony. Listen to Bach's Jesu, meine Freude in the video above and focus on how Bach creates chords by stacking the voices one on top another.
ASSIGNMENT 3 Use the full score below to analyze the harmonies, pay special attention to the added sharps, transpositions, and key areas.
When a homophonic piece consists of a single melody line over the choral accompaniment, it is known as Monody. When you hear a guitarist strumming chords and singing a melody, you are listening to Monody. Many composers of instrumental works use this texture as well, such as Chopin's nocturnes and waltzes. Follow along and listen to Chopin's Waltz in A minor in the video below. Notice how the chord supports the deceptively simple melody to create stirring emotions.
Homophony is not only found in Western music, using Western harmonies. Traditional Sub-Saharan Choral music creates homophony by stacking parallel thirds, fourths, and notes from hexatonic (six notes per octave) scales. Listen to the rich texture this creates in the video of the Zolokere Choir from Malawi below.
ASSIGNMENT 4 Write a piece where you incorporate some of these large stacked chords into your own music.
The last musical texture, Heterophony, is found in musical cultures from around the world. However, it is less commonly heard in Classical Western music than the others. It is prevalent in the traditional music, especially that of Middle East, Asia, and European folk traditions. Heterophony is a texture created by the simultaneously varying a single melody. It can be considered an elaborate version of Monophony and is often thought to be the first texture to emerge following Monophony. Although it is usually associated with non-folk or non-Western music, Western composers influenced by such music, such as Debussy and Benjamin Britten, have incorporated Heterophony into their works. Listen to Winter Sun in the video above and notice the way the players go between Homophonic and Heterophonic textures.
Heterophony can be found in Classical music as well. Mozart employed it in his Piano Concerto in C minor. Listen and follow along with the score beginning at mm. 211-214.
ASSIGNMENT 5 Create a Heterophonic version of your Monophonic piece from assignment 1.
Going Forward: Multiple Textures
The Russian-American composer Igor Stravinsky is known for his imaginative and impactful use of textures. I've included two of his works here to study.
ASSIGNMENT 6 What types of textures do you hear? How does he create them? How does Stravinsky use timbre to create texture? How do the instruments play off one another and how do work together? Write down at least 10 observations and include which piece/sections you listened to. (You may skip through the sections in the Rite of Spring by using the time links.)
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.