Like many things in the world, musical texture has evolved over the years and done so in a swinging pendulum kind of way. In the earliest days of music, when we weren’t writing anything down, and there weren’t very many people in the world, it was simple. Sometimes it was just one person playing the drum or one voice singing.
Then we started experimenting and coming up with more complex musical ideas until it got really complicated. Some music of the Renaissance period is so thickly layered and complex that it’s hard to tell what’s going on.
Composers like J.S. Bach started writing what would come to be known as Baroque music. This music was rife with rules, precision, and math until composers like Beethoven, Brahms, and Berlioz bucked those rules to express the inexpressible during what we now call the Romantic period.
Composers rebelled against more and more musical rules until some 20th-century compositions relied on random elements and sounded like noise in many ways. All these changes through the millennia have directly affected musical texture.
What Is Texture?
When you touch sandpaper, you feel its grit against your skin and say that it’s rough. A kitten’s fur has a soft texture. Rotting wood might have a spongy texture.
Since we can’t touch music, the texture we’re discussing is how the music sounds. We don’t usually call music soft or rough (soft rock and hard rock don’t refer to texture so much as to the kind of rocking you do while listening to or playing the soft or hard rock), but instead use words like “monophonic,” “polyphonic,” and others. So let’s start with those two.
While monophony was the texture of the very first music, it’s still quite common today. Very simply, monophonic music consists of just one melody line and no accompaniment.
When early humans sang, they didn’t have a guitar to strum, and once people started figuring out how to write music, we made a way to preserve music that we could look back on and see that it consisted of one note at a time.
Now, before you remark about how boring that sounds, think about 95% of the sporting events you’ve attended. Before the game started, somebody probably came out and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” a capella. That’s monophony.
Sure, when Whitney Houston did it at Super Bowl XXV, it was accompanied and didn’t count as monophony, but when Demi Lovato sang at Game Four of the 2015 World Series, that was a monophonic rendition.
Here’s where music starts to get complicated. Polyphony comes from the Greek words for “many” (poly-) and “sounds” (phono). But it’s not just lots of notes. Polyphony occurs when more than one melodic line coincides. The most common occurrence of polyphony today is when people sing a canon, also known as a round.
Each melody does its own thing completely separate from the others, but they fit together and create harmony. It gets complicated when the different lines aren’t carbon copies of the original. It can get muddy enough with singers who can’t understand the words, but you don’t have that problem with instruments.
J.S. Bach wrote many polyphonic music pieces called fugues in which one instrument (an organ or a piano) plays several different voices together. They can be really tough to play, but they can sound really cool.
His so-called “Little” fugue is an excellent example of polyphony. In this video, as the music scrolls by, note how, in the sixth measure, the melody starts again in a different voice while the first voice goes on doing its own thing. Then Bach adds more voices and plays around with all of them, and this all gets played by one person— ten fingers and two feet, and that’s it. No overdubs back then.
Composers left polyphony behind as their primary musical texture, and the music that most of us know and love is neither monophonic nor polyphonic.
Where “mono” means “one,” “homo” means “same.” So homophony doesn’t have a bunch of different voices singing different things at once, but instead, it is the singing of the same rhythms at a different pitch.
A church hymn such as “Holy, Holy, Holy” is a lovely example. Most hymn composers wrote for four voices (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass). All four voices sing the same rhythm and words simultaneously, but each voice group has its own pitch. When they sing their parts, each note has a full chord under it.
More familiar might be pretty much any rock or pop song you listen to regularly. When David Bowie sings “We can be heroes just for one day,” he’s singing a melody, and the guitars, bass, keyboards, and background vocals all play and sing along with him to create the accompaniment.
No, the bass doesn’t play the same rhythm Bowie sings, but the band plays one chord at a time beneath his vocals to create a homophonic sound.
The Police, the Beatles, Oliva Rodrigo, Public Enemy, Barry Manilow, Keith Urban, Letters to Cleo, Ariana Grande, Vince Gill, and Cake all perform mostly homophonic music. It’s the overarching musical form of modern Western Civilization.
Heterophony isn’t necessarily a hallmark of modern music, but most of us can recognize the texture. Heterophony means “different sounds,” which is a bit misleading.
Like polyphony, different voices sound together, but unlike polyphony, the voices sing the same melody together, but each harmonizes with its own little flair. It’s big in non-Western music, but anyone who’s ever been to a Mardi Gras party has heard heterophony.
When a Dixieland jazz band plays, the banjo and bass provide rhythm and chords, but very often, each of the other instruments gives its own version of the melody at the same time. It’s recognizable as “When the Saints Go Marching In,” but not everyone is playing the same thing.
Textures in Music
Many times, a piece of music has several different textures. Even the Dixieland example above has some homophonic sections, like when the singer does the verse. A selection of music can start off monophonic, like with an unaccompanied solo, then add a guitar behind it to become homophonic. Adding another singer can continue the homophony, or it can be a polyphonic element if that voice runs in counterpoint to the original melody.
So, in short, we have four main types of texture in music (there are others, but these are the four most commonly used):
- Monophony is one voice or a group of voices performing the same melodic line. There is no harmony in monophony by definition, although a well-written melody will create implied harmony.
- Polyphony occurs when different voices perform independently of each other. A round or canon is the most familiar type of polyphony. The voices sounding together create harmony.
- Homophony is often a melody with a chordal accompaniment. It constitutes the majority of popular music and a good deal of so-called classical music. Homophony is the texture with which most of us are most familiar.
- Heterophony sees several voices performing the same melodic line at the same time. This texture isn’t the same as voices playing or singing in unison, though, because each voice adds different flourishes, embellishments, and alterations to that melody in heterophony.
Wrapping Up Texture in Music
Music has so many options available to composers and performers alike. Different textures are only one small part of those. Using various musical textures in different situations opens up a lot of worlds for musicians and composers.