I. Fundamentals

Texture

Samuel Brady and Mark Gotham

Key Takeaways

  • Musical  is the density of and interaction between a work’s different voices.
  • is characterized by an unaccompanied melodic line.
  • is characterized by multiple variants of a single melodic line heard simultaneously.
  • is characterized by multiple voices harmonically moving together at the same pace.
  • is characterized by multiple voices with separate melodic lines and rhythms.
  • Most music does not conform to a single texture; rather, it can move between them.

Chapter Playlist

is an important (and sometimes overlooked) aspect of music. There are four commonly used textures in music: , , , and . It is important to note that this is not an exhaustive list of musical textures, but these are the most common textural categories used by musicologists and music theorists.

Monophony

A texture is characterized by a single, unaccompanied melodic line of music. Monophony utilizes only a single instrument or voice, making it the simplest and most exposed of all musical textures. The first movement of “Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major” (1717) by Johann Sebastian Bach is an example of a monophonic texture:

Example 1. “Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, I. Prelude,”  (BWV 1007) by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Yo-Yo Ma.

Notice how the solo cello line is the only voice in this work. Now let’s listen to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (1955) by Pete Seeger:

Example 2. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” by Pete Seeger.

Note that Seeger’s voice is the only musical line; therefore, this work is a second example of monophony.

Heterophony

A texture is characterized by multiple variations of the same melodic line which are heard simultaneously across different voices. These variations can range from small to longer runs in a single voice, as long as the melodic material stays relatively constant.

Listen to “Ana Hasreti,” (2001) by Göskel Baktagir, an example of Turkish classical music:

Example 3. “Ana Hasreti,” (2001) by Göskel Baktagir.

Notice how the winds embellish the melody presented by the plucked strings. While the voices play different embellishments, they present essentially the same melodic material.

Now listen to “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” (1978) by the Chieftains (beginning at 0:50), and notice the slight variation between the melodic lines of the fiddle (violin) and the flute:

Example 4. “The Wind That Shakes The Barley/The Reel With The Beryle,” by The Chieftains; listen starting at 0:50.

This slight variation between the violin and flute presents a second example of heterophony.

Homophony

A texture is characterized by having multiple voices moving together harmonically at the same pace. This is the texture that we most often hear in the music of the past century. Many times, this takes the form of having a single melody that predominates, while other voices are used to fill out the harmonies. Homophony is sometimes further divided into two subcategories,  and .

Homorhythm

is a type of homophonic texture in which all voices move in an extremely similar or completely unison rhythm. This is most often seen in chorale-like compositions, where the melody and harmonies move together in .

Let’s listen to “Six Horn Quartets: No. 6, Chorale” (1910), written by Nikolai Tcherepnin:

Example 5. “Six Horn Quartets: No 6, Chorale,” by Nikolai Tcherepnin, performed by the Deutsches Horn Ensemble.

Notice how both the melody and harmony move mostly in block chords, creating a unified rhythm.

Now let’s listen to “Wild Mountain Thyme” (2018), by The Longest Johns (0:20–0:44):

Example 6. “Wild Mountain Thyme,” by The Longest Johns; listen from 0:20–0:44.

Remember that in a homorhythmic texture there is a similarity of rhythm throughout all of the voices. In this example there is a melody that stands out from the texture, but the voices still move in rhythmic unison.

Melody and Accompaniment

A texture is perhaps the most common type of homophony. This texture is characterized by a clear melody which is distinct from other supporting voices, which are called an accompaniment. Often the melody will have a different rhythm than the supporting voice(s).

Let’s listen to the second movement of the “Flute Sonata” (1936), by Paul Hindemith:

Example 7. “Flute Sonata,” by Paul Hindemith, performed by Emmanuel Pahud and Eric Le Sage.

This example features a very clear melody (flute) and accompaniment (piano). Notice how the piano is never completely in rhythmic unison with the flute; however, it provides the role of accompaniment by filling out the texture harmonically.

Now let’s listen to “Misty” (1954), written by Erroll Gardner and performed by Ella Fitzgerald.

Example 8. “Misty” (1954), written by Erroll Gardner and performed by Ella Fitzgerald.

Notice how the piano accompanies the primary melody sung by Fitzgerald (the vocalist).

Polyphony

is characterized by multiple voices with separate melodic lines and rhythms. In other words, each voice has their own independent melodic line, and the independent voices blend together to create harmonies.

In Western classical music, polyphony is commonly heard in fugues, such as “Fugue No. 5 in D Major” (1951–1952), written by Dimitri Shostakovich:

Example 9. “Fugue No. 5 in D Major,” by Dimitri Shostakovich, performed by Joachim Kwetzinsky.

Notice how each individual melodic line is independent, yet the voices create harmonies overall when heard together.

This can also be heard in the final chorus of “I’ll Cover You – Reprise” from the Broadway Musical Rent (1996, film adaptation 2001), written by Jonathan Larson (2:20-2:45). Notice how there are three independent vocal layers, singing different melodies and rhythms, but working together to create new harmonies overall:

Example 10. “I’ll Cover You – Reprise” from the Broadway Musical Rent (1996, film adaptation 2001), written by Jonathan Larson; listen from 2:20-2:45.

Most musical works do not have a single texture; rather, there are often different textures throughout a composition. For example, you may have heard a work that opened with a solo voice or instrument, and later changed to a Melody and Accompaniment texture. There are many different possibilities!

Online Resources
Assignments from the Internet
  1. Interactive Musical Textures Worksheet (website, website)
  2. Study Guide to Texture and Worksheet (.pdf)
  3. Texture: Homophonic or Polyphonic? (website)
  4. Texture Composition Assignment, pp. 17–22 (.pdf)
Assignments
  1. Identifying Textures (.pdf, .docx) Worksheet playlist

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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Samuel Brady and Mark Gotham is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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