I. Fundamentals

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 many types of musical texture, but the four main categories used by music scholars are , and .

Monophony

A texture is characterized by a single unaccompanied melodic line of music. Monophony involves all instruments playing or singing in unison, 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. Notice how the solo cello line is the only voice in this work.

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

Now let’s listen to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (1955) by Pete Seeger. Note that Seeger’s voice is the only musical line; therefore, this work is a second example of monophony.

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

Heterophony

A texture is characterized by multiple variations of the same melodic line that 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. Notice how the winds embellish the melody presented by the plucked strings. While the instruments play different embellishments, they present essentially the same melodic material.

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

Now listen to the traditional Irish reel “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” recorded by the Chieftains in 1978 (beginning at 0:50), and notice the slight variation between the melodic lines of the fiddle (violin) and the flute. This slight variation between the violin and flute presents a second example of heterophony.

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

Homophony

A texture is characterized by having multiple voices moving together harmonically at the same pace. This is a very common texture. 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. Notice how both the melody and harmony move mostly in block chords, creating a unified rhythm.

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

Now let’s listen to the folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme” recorded by The Longest Johns in 2018 (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.

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

Melody and Accompaniment

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

Let’s listen to the second movement of Paul Hindemith’s Flute Sonata (1936). 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.

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

Now let’s listen to “Misty” (1954), written by Erroll Garner and performed by Ella Fitzgerald. Notice how the piano accompanies the primary melody sung by Fitzgerald (the vocalist).

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

Polyphony

is characterized by multiple voices with separate melodic lines and rhythms. In other words, each voice has its 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 Dmitri Shostakovich. Notice how each individual melodic line is independent, yet the voices create harmonies overall when heard together.

Example 9. Fugue no. 5 in D Major by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by Joachim Kwetzinsky.

This can also be heard in the final chorus of “I’ll Cover You – Reprise” from the Broadway musical Rent (1996), 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), written by Jonathan Larson; listen from 2:20–2:45.

Most musical works have some variety in texture. For example, you may have heard a work that opened with a solo voice or instrument, then changed to a melody with accompaniment. 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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