Musical Texture

Musical Texture refers to how different layers of a piece of music are combined to produce the overall sound. There are four music textures that you need to understand:

  • Monophonic
  • Homophonic
  • Polyphonic
  • Heterophonic

In this lesson we will look at definitions and explanations for each musical texture in turn.

Types of Musical Textures

People often struggle to find the right words to describe musical texture and so you will often hear people describing the texture of a piece of music as being “thin” if there are not very many instruments playing and “thick” if there are lots of instruments playing.

Whilst this is technically true, it is a very basic description and we need to try to be a bit more detailed in the language we use to describe texture in music.
The 4 different textures that I am going to explain will help you describe what each of the different parts are contributing to the overall sound.

Let’s start with the simplest musical texture to define and describe – monophonic.

Monophonic Texture

The definition of monophonic music is taken from the Greek (mono-phonic), literally meaning “one sound”.
A monophonic texture has a single line of melody without any harmony or any other form of accompaniment.

Have a look at this visual diagram of a monophonic texture (the blue line is the solo melody):
Monophonic Musical Texture Diagram

Monophony is the oldest type of music (it was the only type of music performed in Ancient Greece) and was the form of music used in early church plainchant and Gregorian Chant music.

Some composers have written entire pieces of monophonic music for solo instruments.
Have a listen to this performance of Debussy’s “Syrinx” for solo flute.
It is extraordinary how much emotion Debussy creates with just a solo melody line:

Monophonic Songs

We rarely hear entirely monophonic songs in the published contemporary musical scene.
However, you will often hear monophonic singing in informal settings like contemporary sports matches where the crowd is singing in unison.

For example, if a person in the crowd gets excited and starts singing a well known tune then this is an example of a monophonic texture – a solo voice.
If others in the the crowd join in then this is still a monophonic texture – they are all singing the same tune in unison.
They may well be singing at different octaves (a little girl in the crowd is going to be singing at a much higher octave than an older man), but it is still a monophonic texture as they are singing in unison.

Have a look at this example of a sports crowd singing the US National Anthem in unison at the Ryder Cup:

The crowd are all singing in unison with no accompaniment and so it is a monophonic texture.
You can see this clearly from the sheet music:

Monophonic Texture Sheet Music Example

However, if the singing is accompanied by an instrument, a band or an orchestra (as it usually is when a national anthem is being sung at the start of a sports match), or if some singers start to harmonise the melody then the texture becomes more complicated.
It is no longer monophonic as it now has an accompaniment.
This brings us to our next texture:

Homophony

The definition of homophony comes from the Greek (homo-phonic), literally meaning “same-sounding”.
You can see from the diagram below that an accompaniment (green shading) has been added underneath the melody (blue line) to form a homophonic texture:

Homophonic Musical Texture Diagram

In a strictly homophonic texture, the parts or voices move “in step” with one another rather than having contrasting rhythms.
One voice/part plays/sings the melody, whilst the others act as a harmonic accompaniment.
This type of homophonic texture is technically known as homorhythmic because all of the rhythms of the accompaniment match the rhythms of the lead melody line.

Have a listen to this version of Silent Night by the acapella group Pentatonix:


Can you hear how the musical texture is formed from block chords?
Each of the voices change notes at the same time. You can still clearly hear the melody line being sung, but the different voices are singing in harmony to produce a chordal accompaniment.

Many modern hymn tunes are homophonic and homorythmic.

Melody and Accompaniment

The definition of homophony is often broadened to include textures that are not homorhythmic.
Have a listen to this example of Lady Gaga performing the National Anthem at the Superbowl:

In this example a piano has been added to the solo vocal line so it is clearly not monophonic.
However, is is also not strictly homophonic as the rhythms of the piano part do not exactly match the vocal line.

In this form, whilst the accompanying parts do not follow the same rhythms as the lead melody line, their overall purpose is to provide an underlying harmony and accompaniment to the melody.
As a result, they are often considered to be forming a “same-sounding” texture – hence they can be considered to be homophonic. This texture can be described as Melody and Accompaniment.
In this broadened definition of homophony, most contemporary pop songs that have a melody and accompaniment could be considered to be homophonic.

Melody and Accompaniment was used a lot in the Classical period and is also very common in contemporary popular music.
Any song where the singer is accompanied by an instrument(s) (usually a piano or guitar) is an example of melody and accompaniment and can be considered to be a homophonic texture.

Polyphonic Musical Texture

The definition of polyphonic texture comes from the Greek (poly-phonic), literally meaning “many sounds”.
It describes music where several parts or voices are combined together contrapuntally or in counterpoint.
You can see on this diagram of a polyphonic texture the different parts weaving in and out as they perform distinct melodic lines that combine to create the overall sound.
Polyphonic Musical Texture Diagram
In counterpoint, each part/voice has its own distinct melodic line that is then combined with each of the other parts to form the overall sound.

Have a look/listen to this example of polyphony – O magnum mysterium by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611).
I have added the shaded lines to show clearly where the different parts enter.
Each voice has a clear melody line that it follows, but they all have been cleverly put together to form a coherent and beautiful piece of music:
O magnum mysterium polyphonic sheet music example

Polyphony is typical of music in the Renaissance period and in the Baroque period where a contrapuntal texture was very common.
One of the most common forms of polyphonic texture is the fugue.

Heterophony

Heterophony is a less common musical texture, but it is useful to understand it.
Heterophonic music is where a melody is varied by an additional voice/part at the same time as the original melody is being played.

Heterophonic Music Texture Diagram

Heterophonic textures can be found in a wide range of music from jazz, folk music to the gamelan from Indonesia.
It can also be found in some classical music, most notably in Baroque vocal music such as cantatas/oratorios.

Have a look/listen to this example of heterophony from J.S. Bach’s Mit unsrer Macht.
The main melody is sung by the soprano part, whilst the oboe plays and elaborated variation at the same time.

Heterophonic sheet music example

      Mit unsrer Macht

Summary of Musical Textures

Here is a diagram showing all 4 of the textures we have looked at.
I hope it helps summarise the topic for you:
Diagram of Musical Textures

Composing Using Different Musical Textures

You do not have to choose one texture to use for the whole of a piece of music you are writing.
Many composers choose to use different textures within one piece of music/song.
This is a great way of bringing contrast into a piece.

Have a listen to this acapella version of “You Raise Me Up” by BYU Vocal Point.

The arrangement starts with a solo voice (monophonic texture).
After 30 seconds, 3 vocalists are singing together in a homophonic and homorhythmic texture. You can hear the chordal sound produced.
After 38 seconds, the other vocalists join in singing various different vocal and percussive parts – the texture has become more complex, but it is still broadly homophonic.
The effect of developing the texture of the piece is to build the “feel” of the song in a very dramatic way:

I hope that this lesson on musical texture has helped you understand the topic more and also that it helps you in your composing.