What is texture in music? A comprehensive guide

Texture in music is how the melodic and harmonic layers combine when you hear them in a piece of music. People often use words such as thick, dense or thin to describe the musical texture.

While these are correct, there are more specific terms such as monophonic, homophonic, polyphonic that are useful to learn when describing the texture of music.

A blackboard with the text what is texture in music. Polyphonic? Monophonic? Homophonic?

I like to call these terms the phonics, and they provide a good starting point for students.

In this guide, I’ll go into detail on the phonics and the different types of texture in music.

The definition of texture in music can be confusing as there are many subcategories. It’s also unlike the texture of material things which relate to the touch and feel of an object.

Texture in music definition

In music, musical texture refers to the way a piece sounds. The melody, rhythm, and harmony affect the texture as they relate to the overall sound.

The Phonics

The ‘phonics’ describe how the melodic and harmonic parts combine to produce the sound in a composition. The word phonic means “relating to sound”. We can explain the type of combination ‘aka’ the texture of the music in the following ways.

Monophonic Music Definition

Monophonic texture has a single line of music with no accompaniment.

An image of a simple melody in G major showing monophonic texture meaning in music.

The word mono means “one”. It’s the most accessible type of musical texture to recognise as there is only one instrument or one voice playing a melody.

The plainsongs and Gregorian chants are the earliest monophonic examples in music.

An image of a psalm showing gregorian chant texture.

Monks sang these, and although they did notate many of the tunes, the musical notation was different from that which we use today.

Unison

We can also use unison as another way to define monophonic texture. Unison has more than one part. However, there is still one melody which either played/sung at the same pitch or in octaves.

Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder is an example of a unison texture as all the parts have the same melody in different octaves. There is no additional harmony, hence the music is monophonic.

Polyphonic Texture definition

Polyphonic texture in music occurs when there are two or more independent melodic lines. Polyphonic music often uses imitation and is a familiar texture of baroque music.

You can learn more about other characteristics of the Baroque period here.

Fugues are an excellent example of polyphonic texture.

Two-part texture

Two-part writing is a simple type of polyphony. It’s a baroque music texture that Bach used in his two-part inventions.  

An image of sheet music for the opening of Bach's Invention No1.
polyphonic texture example

You can use two part-writing to describe a piece that has only one melodic or harmonic line per part.

Contrapuntal texture

Counterpoint is a type of polyphonic texture in which there is a harmonic relationship between the melodic lines or voices.

Musical Canon or Round

Nursery rhymes sung in a round have a contrapuntal texture. When a second voice imitates the first, it creates polyphony.

An image of sheet music for Frere Jacques in three parts showing polyphonic texture music.
Frère Jaques

Homophonic music Definition

Homophonic music has one melody which can either be accompanied or chordal such as in hymns or Chorales. 

An image of the opening bars of the Bridal Chorus by Wagner.
Homophonic texture in music example

The general texture of classical music is mostly homophonic although there are examples of contrapuntal music within this era.

Homophony-meaning similar is the category that most western music falls into today. The majority of pop songs have a homophonic texture.

There are several ways, however, that you can define homophonic music in more detail.

Melody and Accompaniment Texture

Much of the world’s music today comes under this category; however, I like to encourage my students to broaden their perception by describing in more detail the melody and/or the accompaniment.

For example the texture is homophonic, there is a melody which is accompanied by a:

1)Alberti Bass    

An alberti bass consists of a broken chord or arpeggio pattern that repeats. You play the lowest note of the chord followed by the highest and then the middle note.

An image showing the Broken chord pattern of the Alberti Bass.
Pattern of the Alberti Bass

In the opening of Mozart’s Sonata in C, K545, the melody is in the right hand whilst the left-hand plays an Alberti bass. This kind of bass pattern is a favourite texture of classical music composers such as Mozart.

An image of the opening three bars of Mozarts piano Sonata in C

Classical composers often use an Alberti bass in classical piano sonatas.

2) Drone

A drone is a continuos note or chord which sounds throughout the piece. Drones are often formed from bare 4th’s and 5th’s and are used frequently in folk music.

The melody from the song Rio Grande is accompanied by a drone.

An image of a song with a drone accompaniment.

3) Melody with a Chordal Accompaniment 

A melody with a chordal accompaniment is a texture frequently used in the Romantic Period. In the Mazurka below Chopin uses chords to accompany the melody in the right hand.

An image of the first few bars of Chopin's Mazurka Op.74 showing harmony and texture in music

Another form of chordal accompaniment is the ‘um -cha-cha’ bassline that accompanies the melody in a Waltz.

An image of the opening of a Waltz in A minor by Chopin.
The um cha cha chordal accompaniment

4) Ostinato

An ostinato is a pattern that continually repeats throughout a piece, usually at the same pitch. Pachelbel’s Canon is probably the most famous example of an ostinato.

5) Cluster chords

A cluster chord or tonal cluster is when you play at least three consecutive tones within a scale simultaneously.

These types of chords were incredibly popular with ragtime composers such as Scott Joplin.

An image showing cluster chords as a texture in music
Pastime Rag No4 by Artie Matthew’s

6) Chromatic chords in thirds

In this example, the left-hand chords are an interval of a 3rd and move chromatically.

Chorale Texture

Four-part harmony is the homophonic texture definition often used for Chorales. In four-part harmony there is a chord for every note of the melody line.

You can also describe this texture as homorhythmic as the rhythm is the same in each part. There are many rules to chorale writing as you will discover if you study four-part harmony and Bach’s chorales.

An image of the first 7 bars of Bach's Chorale No1.

Heterophonic music definition

Heterophonic music consists of two or more parts that are elaborating upon the same melody. Music with a heterophonic texture is typical in Eastern European Folksongs, Jazz and gamelan music.

The voices are often improvising around the tune.

An image of a heterophonic music example- Canatata BWV 80 by Bach.
heterophony example

As you can see, there are many types of texture in music. If you take graded music examines many boards ask you to describe texture in the ear tests.

You can have several kinds of texture in musical compositions. For example, the piece may start with a single melodic line which would be monophonic. A few bars later another part enters making it polyphonic or if its an accompaniment homophonic.

When describing textures within a piece, link them to phrases within the music or the different sections within the form.

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Analysing the music and understanding things like texture before you begin learning a new piece is one of the effective practice techniques I highly recommend.

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