Like timbre, musical texture is often described qualitatively with terms like thick or thin, transparent, heavy, busy, solo, and so on. Each of these terms is useful in so far as it describes a salient feature of the music.
Musicians sometimes use a set of technical terms to identify common textures. These terms are not perfect, particularly because they were defined by people with a certain cultural worldview, but they are common in discourse on music and worth learning. Below, each of these terms is defined and exemplified with a sound library. (We are grateful to the authors of Open Music Theory for some of the examples below.)
Homophony (Melody + Accompaniment): One of the most common textures used in classical, folk, jazz, and popular music alike, this texture is often simply referred to as “homophony.” Homophonic music features a clearly distinguishable melody along with accompanimental layers. While the accompanimental layers may have some interesting musical lines of their own (such as the bass line), these lines do not rival the melodic independence and ornamentation of the primary melodic line.
Homophony (Chordal): Often referred to as “chordal homophony,” this texture features melody and accompanying lines that move mostly in the same rhythm, creating a hymn-like texture. Even in these cases, most listeners are conditioned to hear (and sing) the top line as the melody, and it is understood that the lower musical lines provide harmonic and contrapuntal support to the top melodic line. Despite that all of the lines are moving in a similar rhythm, the middle and bass voices play a supporting role and do not have the same melodic force as the top voice.
(Bohemian Rhapsody: 0–0:16 only)
Polyphony: Polyphonic music features multiple lines of similar melodic content, quality, interest, and/or elaboration that are layered (often at different registers) within the texture. Each line of music moves autonomously and independently from the other voices, with no line serving a subordinate role to other voices.
Monophony (simple): Simple monophonic textures feature straightforward melodic lines, either performed by a single voice (here, a real singer) or instrument, or by multiple voices in unison. Sometimes, multiple instruments play the same melody at different octaves or registers. Even so, the texture is still considered to be monophonic (simple). Below are some examples of simple homophony.
Monophony (compound melody): Often in the Baroque style, composers would write music for a single instrument, but despite that only one note is playing at most times, multiple lines (melody, bass, and sometimes harmonies) are suggested. Here are some examples:
Heterophony: Heterophony is very closely related to monophony, especially those simple monophonic textures in which multiple instruments play the same melodic line. The difference is that in heterophonic textures, the instruments play approximately the same melody line, but some parts might add embellishments, rhythmic changes, or other minor changes. In heterophony, the parts sound alike and identifiable with one another, but they are not exactly the same (register differences aside).
When identifying textures in music, keep in mind that pieces can freely move between textures both between and within musical sections. Rarely will music limit itself strictly to a single texture, though “textbook” examples of each type do exist. When asked to identify the texture of a particular excerpt in class or during assessments, focus on the texture that is exemplified by a majority of an excerpt.
Goal: Identify textures in sounding music.
Instructions: Listen to the songs in the playlist below. For each, identify the texture type at the beginning of the track. In addition to identifying the appropriate generic term from the list above, describe how the parts relate to each other in more detail using whatever metaphorical or literal language makes sense to you. Optionally, listen through the rest of the song and identify when the texture changes.