Music can be analyzed as being composed of four basic elements, melody, harmony, rhythm, and texture. Each one of those elements can be broken down into simpler elements. For instance melody can be broken down into pitch and duration of each note.
The concepts that I wish to discuss in this blog are related to the texture of music. Texture can be described as monophonic, homophonic, heterophonic or polyphonic. There are other aspects of texture as well, such as the spacing of notes, i.e. close harmony verses open harmony. In close harmony there is less pitch difference between the highest note and the lowest note, the sound is compressed. In open harmony, the notes are spaced more widely, usually with more than an octave between the bass note and the next highest note, and sometimes more than an octave between other voices as well. Close harmony can be said to be dense, while open harmony can be called spacious. The number of voices in a composition is yet another aspect of texture.
The simplest texture is a monophonic texture and it consists of one voice, a single melodic line. (Note that the term ‘voice’ is used even when talking about instrumental music.) Plainchant such as Gregorian, is monophonic. A choir or group of musicians is performing monophonically if all of the voices play or sing the same notes simultaneously, in other words, sing or play in unison. With everyone beginning and ending their notes simultaneously, and everyone playing or singing the exact same note (perhaps transposed an octave) the resulting sound is monophonic.
In homophonic music, one voice has a melody, while the other voices sing or play notes that create harmony with the melody. Homophonic music is usually thought of as melody and accompaniment. The melody voice is perceived as more important, and the voices creating the accompaniment are perceived as subordinate to or supportive of the melody, unlike polyphonic music, which treats the voices as being independent. A block-chordal texture is a special form of homophonic music. In block-chordal texture everyone begins and ends their notes simultaneously, but each voice is singing or playing a different note, so as to create harmony. An example of block-chordal texture is the sound that results when someone is banging out chords on a piano with the fingers striking and releasing each note of a chord simultaneously. An arpeggiated texture is created when the accompanying voices play a chord progression with the notes of the chord being played one at a time rather than simultaneously.
Considering two voices only, a homophonic texture is created by singing or playing in parallel thirds or sixths. When the two voices are beginning and ending their notes simultaneously, but one voice is always a third higher than the other voice, it is called parallel thirds. In parallel thirds the interval between the voices is sometimes a major third, and sometimes a minor third, but is always a third. When two voices sing in parallel octaves, the sound created is virtually the same as a unison sound and is indeed monophonic. When two voices sing in polyphonically, a two-part counterpoint is created. The voices may sometimes begin or end their notes at the same time, but usually not. There are only three possibilities of movement from one note to the next in a two part polyphonic texture. Either one voice can go up while the other goes down (contrary movement), both voices can go up or down to their next note (parallel movement), or one voice can stay on the same note while the other one moves up or down (oblique movement).
Heterophonic music is the texture that results when one person performs a melody and one or more people simultaneously perform a slightly altered version of the same melody.
The polyphonic texture is the most difficult to define. In polyphonic music, each voice is rhythmically independent. The term counterpoint is sometimes used synonymously with polyphony. Counterpoint means the art of combining two or more melodic lines, or the texture resulting from such combination. In that sense, the word counterpoint has a closely related meaning to polyphony, but is not synonymous. The word counterpoint comes from the Latin word contrapuntus, meaning ‘against note.’ In popular usage the terms counterpoint and contrapuntal are used in reference to the music of the high Baroque, especially Bach and Handel, while the terms polyphony and polyphonic are used in reference to the works of the Renaissance masters, though the terms can be used interchangeably. .
In Renaissance polyphony, the ideal is for each voice to have material that is no more important than what any other voice has. Each voice creates its own melodic line, with no melodic line being more important than any other one. In polyphonic music of the baroque period, the bass and the soprano lines assumed a greater importance, with the bass defining the harmony, and the soprano voice usually having a more melodic importance than the other voices, though there are many exceptions. In some polyphonic compositions of the Renaissance, there will be moments of pure block-chordal texture for contrast, but never is there a texture of melody and accompaniment. During the Renaissance period melodies were not accompanied in the modern sense of the word. They were either treated polyphonically or heterophonically, or occasionally in block chords.
At this juncture I must point out that there are two kinds of polyphony, free polyphony, and imitative polyphony. Imitative polyphony has been around for many centuries but became much more important during the baroque period. Canons and fugues are the most common forms of imitative polyphony. In imitative polyphony, each voice plays or sings the same melody, but the voices are offset from each other. (Look up the word ‘stretto.’) The most primitive form of this is singing in rounds. In canons and fugues many sophisticated devices can be used, such as playing the melody backwards, called crab motion or retrograde motion, or playing the melody upside down, called inversion.
In free polyphony, each voice sings different melodic material rather than singing the same material with overlapping as in imitative polyphony. Ideally no voice sings a melody that is more important than what any other voice sings. The most salient feature of polyphonic music that differentiates it from homophonic music is that the voices are rhythmically independent. You hear them as separate lines. In polyphonic music, the voices seem to be going on with their melodic lines without regard to the fact that the other voices above or below them are also singing melodic lines, except for the fact that when they happen to produce notes simultaneously, they create harmony just as in homophonic music, though the harmonic movement or chord progression, is usually not as obvious as in homophonic music.
The style that Haydn and Mozart inherited is basically a homophonic style. With the exception of church music, the musical forms of the late eighteenth century were homophonic. In their mature works Haydn and Mozart incorporated polyphonic textures into forms that are basically homophonic, usually using polyphonic texture as an intensifying device in the development section of a sonata form movement. With the finale to his so-called Jupiter Symphony, Mozart spectacularly combined polyphonic texture with sonata form. Beethoven in his later works incorporated polyphonic texture very successfully and in his own unique way. Other composers, notably Mendelssohn and Brahms were very successful at creating polyphonic textures.
Popular music is largely homophonic, but occasionally a song or instrumental piece will have a section with some polyphonic texture. Jazz sometimes uses polyphonic textures. New Orleans jazz is famous for its polyphonic sound.
Texture is only one element in music but is very important. Manipulation of texture has always been a vital part of serious composition.