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The Texture of Music

Module by: Catherine Schmidt-Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: An introduction to the basic element of music called texture, with some suggestions for activities to introduce musical texture to young students.

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Introduction

Texture is one of the basic elements of music. When you describe the texture of a piece of music, you are describing how much is going on in the music at any given moment. For example, the texture of the music might be thick or thin, or it may have many or few layers. It might be made up of rhythm only, or of a melody line with chordal accompaniment, or many interweaving melodies. Below you will find some of the formal terms musicians use to describe texture, and also some suggestions for introducing young students to the idea of musical texture and to these terms.

Terms that Describe Texture

There are many informal terms that can describe the texture of a piece of music (thick, thin, bass-heavy, rhythmically complex, and so on), but the formal terms that are used to describe texture all describe the relationships of melodies and harmonies. Here are definitions and examples of the four main types of texture. For specific pieces of music that are good examples of each type of texture, please see the Activity section below.

Monophonic

Monophonic music has only one melodic line, with no harmony or counterpoint. There may be rhythmic accompaniment, but only one line that has specific pitches. Monophonic music can also be called monophony. It is sometimes called monody, although the term "monody" can also refer to a particular type of solo song that was very popular in the 1600's.

Examples of Monophony

  • One person whistling a tune
  • A bugle sounding "Taps"
  • A group of people all singing a melody together, with harmonies or instruments
  • One fife and one drum

Homophonic

Homophonic music can also be called homophony. More informally, people who are describing homophonic music may mention chords, accompaniment, harmony or harmonies. Homophony has one clearly melodic line; it's the line that naturally draws your attention. All other parts provide accompaniment or fill in the chords. In most well-written homophony, the parts that are not melody may still have a lot of melodic interest. They may follow many of the rules of well-written counterpoint, and they can sound quite different from the melody and be interesting to listen to by themselves. But when they are sung or played with the melody, it is clear that they are not independent melodic parts, either because they have the same rhythm as the melody (i.e. are not independent) or because their main purpose is to fill in the chords or harmony (i.e. they are not really melodies).

Examples of Homophony

  • Choral music in which the parts have mostly the same rhythms at the same time is homophonic. Most traditional Protestant hymns and most "barbershop quartet" music is in this category.
  • A singer accompanied by a guitar picking or strumming chords.
  • A small jazz combo with a bass, a piano, and a drum set providing the "rhythm" background for a trumpet improvising a solo.
  • A single bagpipes or accordion player playing a melody with drones or chords.

Polyphonic

Polyphonic music can also be called polyphony, counterpoint, or contrapuntal music. If more than one independent melody is occurring at the same time, the music is polyphonic. (See counterpoint.)

Examples of Polyphony

  • Rounds, canons, and fugues are all polyphonic. (Even if there is only one melody, if different people are singing or playing it at different times, the parts sound independent.)
  • Much Baroque music is contrapuntal, particularly the works of J.S. Bach.
  • Most music for large instrumental groups such as bands or orchestras is contrapuntal at least some of the time.
  • Music that is mostly homophonic can become temporarily polyphonic if an independent countermelody is added. Think of a favorite pop tune that, near the end, has the soloist "ad libbing" while the back-up singers repeat the refrain.

Heterophonic

A heterophonic texture is rare in Western music. In heterophony, there is only one melody, but different variations of it are being sung or played at the same time.

  • There are no examples of heterophonic music that would be familiar to most Western listeners.
  • Some Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Native American music traditions include heterophony. Listen for traditional music (most modern-composed music, even from these cultures, has little or no heterophony) in which singers and/or instrumentalists perform the same melody at the same time, but give it different embellishments or ornaments.

Texture Activities

Choose the terms above that you would like to teach your students, and adjust the following activities accordingly.

Materials and Preparation

  • You will need a CD or tape player.
  • Gather music recordings that illustrate each texture you would like to cover. Use the suggestion list below, or make your own choices based on your music library and students' preferences.
  • Know the track number for each of your examples, or have the tape ready to play at the right spot.
  • If you wish, make copies of the following hand-out for your students. You can cover up or black out any terms you will not be covering. Or write the terms on the board or for them.
Figure 1
Figure 1 (textureworksheet.png)

Procedure

  1. Give out the handouts or write the terms on the board.
  2. Give the students the definition of a term and then play two or three examples from the list.
  3. If you can, point out the important features as you are listening to the music.
  4. Next, play a minute or so of several more recordings, some that are the right texture and some that are not. Ask your students which is which. They can vote with raised hands or write their answers down.
  5. Once they have one texture down, you can introduce a new one. Follow steps 2 and 3 for the new texture, but when you get to step four, see if they can identify which pieces are the first texture studied and which are the second. You can repeat this step for all four textures if you like, until they can accurately identify any texture they hear.
  6. If you are using the worksheet: once they can correctly identify two or three or even four different textures, let them test themselves. Play a few more selections for them. For each selection, tell them the name of the selection before and after you play it, and let them write down the name in the correct category on the worksheet.

Suggested Music

Monophony

  • Here is an excerpt from James Romig's Sonnet 2, played by John McMurtery.
  • A Bach unaccompanied cello suite
  • Gregorian chant
  • Sing something for them without accompaniment
  • Long sections of "The People that Walked in Darkness" aria in Handel's "Messiah" are monophonic (the instruments are playing the same line as the voice). Apparently Handel associates monophony with "walking in darkness"!

Homophony

  • A classic Scott Joplin rag such as "Peacherine Rag" or "The Easy Winners"
  • The "graduation march" section of Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance No. 1"
  • The "March of the Toreadors" from Bizet's Carmen
  • No. 1 ("Granada") of Albeniz' Suite Espanola for guitar
  • The latest hit tune by a major pop solo vocalist
  • The opening section of the "Overture" Of Handel's "Messiah" (The second section of the overture is polyphonic)

Polyphony

  • Pachelbel's Canon
  • Anything titled "fugue" or "invention"
  • The final "Amen" chorus of Handel's "Messiah"
  • The trio strain of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever", with the famous piccolo countermelody
  • The "One Day More" chorus from the musical "Les Miserables"
  • The first movement of Holst's 1st Suite for Military Band

Heterophony

  • There is some heterophony (with some instruments playing more ornaments than others) in "Donulmez Aksamin" and in "Urfaliyim Ezelden" on the Turkish Music page.
  • The performance of "Lonesome Valley" by the Fairfield Four on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack is quite heterophonic. (Old-style blues owes more to African than to Western traditions.)
  • If anyone knows of any other good links or easy-to-find recordings of heterophony, or can share an audio file of a good example, please contact me.

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