Texture (music)

In music, texture is the overall quality of sound of a piece, most often indicated by the number of voices in the music and by the relationship between these voices (see types of texture below). A piece's texture may be further described using terms such as "thick" and "light," "rough" or "smooth." For example, Aaron Copland's more popular pieces are described as having an "open" texture. The perceived texture of a piece can be affected by the number and character of parts playing at once, the timbre of the instruments or voices playing these parts and the harmony, tempo, and rhythms used. The possibilities of hearing a solo melody, a few simultaneous melodies, or chords supporting a melody create a musical texture which acts as a partnership in a harmonious and cooperative accord within a musical composition. No entity has a purpose of existing in isolation; each entity has a give and take with other entities and contributes towards an overall harmony and cooperation.


Traditional types of texture

In musicology, particularly in the fields of music history and music analysis, some common terms for different types of texture are:

  • Monophonic - one melodic voice without harmonic accompaniment (although rhythmic accompaniment may be present). When more than one instrument or voice performs the single melodic line, the result would be a larger and richer sounding monophonic texture. An example of a fuller sounding melodic line sung by a chorus is the "Hallelujah Chorus" by George Frederic Handel.
  • Polyphonic - multiple melodic voices which are to some extent independent from one another. When several equal melodic lines strive for attention, the added dimensions with the diverse lines create an excitement that heightens musical expectations. An example of polyphony can be heard when jazz musicians improvise melodies simultaneously.
  • Homophonic - multiple voices where one voice, the melody, stands out prominently and the other voices form a background or subordinate position with an harmonic accompaniment. At times the accompaniment may be very distinctive; however, its role is there to help support the melody. An example of homophony are hymns wherein the melody is usually in the top line and the lower lines blend or harmonize the top line. If all the parts have the same (or nearly the same) rhythm, then the homophonic texture can also be described as homorhythmic.
  • Heterophonic - a musical texture in which the voices are different in character, moving in contrasting rhythms. The voices may play a single melody with simultaneous variations in that melody, or they may play substantially different melodies. (Heterophony can be considered a sub-category of polyphony, or an embellished/"ragged" form of monophony, or some mixture of the two). (Hanning, 1998, and Copland).

Although in music instruction certain styles or repertoires of music are often identified with one of these descriptions (for example, Gregorian chant is described as monophonic, Bach Chorales are described as homophonic and fugues as polyphonic), many composers use more than one type of texture in the same piece of music.

A simultaneity is more than one complete musical texture occurring at the same time, rather than in succession.

Contemporary types of textures

A more recent type of texture first used by György Ligeti is micropolyphony.

Micropolyphony is a type of twentieth century musical texture involving the use of sustained dissonant chords that shift slowly over time. According to David Cope (1997), this is "a simultaneity of different lines, rhythms, and timbres." The technique was developed by György Ligeti, who explained it as follows: "The complex polyphony of the individual parts is embodied in a harmonic-musical flow, in which the harmonies do not change suddenly, but merge into one another; one clearly discernible interval combination is gradually blurred, and from this cloudiness it is possible to discern a new interval combination taking shape." Again Cope: "Micropolyphony resembles cluster chords, but differs in its use of moving rather than static lines."

An example of the application of micropolyphony is Ligeti's composition Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Mixed Choir, and Orchestra, a piece which became more widely known through the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The technique is easier with larger ensembles or polyphonic instruments such as the piano (Cope, 1997). Many of Ligeti's piano pieces are examples of micropolyphony applied to complex "minimalist" Steve Reich and Pygmy music derived rhythmic schemes.

Other types of textures

Other textures include homorhythmic, polythematic, polyrhythmic, onomatopoeic, compound, and mixed or composite textures (Corozine 2002, 34).

Importance of texture

Musical texture can be used by composers to create drama and contrast by differences in the layers of sound, whether melody or harmony, the relations between these layers of sound, and how many layers there are. Composers could begin with a melody and simple harmonies, then weave the melody into a complex polyphonic texture or a dramatic scenario. This could be created by having a solo voice accompanied by a large chorus performing massive chords. An example of this is in George Frideric Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" from the Messiah which also demonstrates the great variety of changes with monophonic, polyphonic, and homophonic textures. Texture thus can be explained as light, heavy, thin, or thick.

In the native music of Asia, the Near East, and North Africa, texture is predominantly monophonic since there is an emphasis on melody and rhythm. The dependence on an unaccompanied melody or a percussive accompaniment creates the stark drama and contrasts of non-western texture which enriches its layers of sound with subtle ornamentations, microtonal changes, and varied rhythms.

Orchestration & Instrumentation

The creative use of musical instruments or voices can be utilized to create textures of sound as well. The string section in an orchestra, for instance, can provide a wide array of sounds by varying the methods by which pitches are produced and articulated (bowed, plucked, harmonics, sustained, short, lyrical, accented, etc.).

The combination of instruments within an ensemble can also achieve different textures. As industrialization and technology evolved in Europe, musical instruments also involved in ways that allowed composers to exhibit greater texural variation in their compositions. As a result composers had to ascertain the capabilities and limitations of instruments in developing their personal style of orchestration.

Early instrumental ensembles might be comprised of relatively few instrumentalists providing for a somewhat limited sonic palette. However, as ensembles grew in number textural variation would increase exponentially.

The orchestral music composed by Ludwig van Beethoven in the early nineteenth century possessed a fairly limited orchestrational palette as compared to that of Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss or Gustav Mahler in the later half of the nineteenth century. Where in one of his symphonies Beethoven might typically score for four brass players (pairs of horns and trumpets) it was not uncommon for Mahler or Wagner to utilize as many as eighteen or more brass players (eight horns, four trumpets, four trombones, two tubas, euphoniums and four Wagner tubas as Anton Bruckner often did.)

Composers in the twentieth century, such as George Antheil, Luciano Berio, Edgard Varese and Karlheinz Stockhausen utilized items others than conventional instruments to produce sound textures (sirens, tire springs, helicopter, e.g.)

The evolution of the piano also had profound effects on composers as the instrument gained greater power and nuance in its sonorities. Composers of the twentieth century adopted new and unique ways to produce sounds (the Bartok pizzacato, John Cage's prepared piano, e.g.) and continued to explore novel ways to produce sound.

Electronic Media

With the evolution of electronic media (tape, synthesizers, MIDI, etc.) in the late twentieth century, entirely new ways in which textures could be created emerged. Mario Davidovsky (b. 1934) was a pioneer in the realm of electronic media utilization in music and won a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1971 for one of his electronically based compositions. Pierre Boulez (b. 1925), is arguably the leading exponent of modernism in the post World War II, has been on the cutting edge of electronic music research as director of Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris and continues to champion the cause of the use of electronic media in music.

Pop music composers and groups, such as Frank Zappa, The Beatles, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, and The Alan Parsons Project were among the early practitioners of using electronic studio technology to create novel and adventurous sound images.


  • Corozine, Vince. Arranging Music for the Real World: Classical and Commercial Aspects. 2002. ISBN 0-786-64961-5
  • Hanning, Barbara Russano. Concise History of Western Music, based on Donald Jay Grout and Claudia V. Palisca's A History of Western Music, Fifth Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998. ISBN 0-393-97168-6
  • Pearson, Paul Weston. Evolving conceptions of chamber music texture in the classical and romantic periods. CA: University of California, Santa Barbara, 1979. OCLC 34445442
  • White, John David. Theories of musical texture in Western history. NY: Garland Publications, 1995. ISBN 0-815-31187-7

External links

All links retrieved November 23, 2015.


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