“Exactly what is going on in this piece of music? Is there just one melody? Are there several melodic lines being played at the same time? Are chords being played? Is it busy with constant activity? Is it simple and clear in its sound?”
All of these questions can be answered by understanding texture. Texture is an overall description of what is going on with the musical parts. In discussing the nature of a piece of music we can say that it is thick, thin, heavy, or light. These words all refer to the texture of the composition.
There are three types of texture — monophonic, homophonic, and polyphonic. Monophonic music, as the name mono indicates, consists of one single musical line. Nothing else is happening or interfering with this melody. When you sing, hum, or whistle a tune by yourself, you are performing a monophonic song. Gregorian chant and almost all other music of the Middle Ages was monophonic. Several people singing the exact same melody performed it. When two or more people are performing the same notes at the same time, they are playing in unison.
Music with a homophonic texture has a melody that is accompanied by chords. All of the parts either move together or the chords have a simple rhythm that does not detract from the melody. Homophonic texture is most common in popular music of all kinds. Folk music, church hymns, and Christmas songs are almost always homophonic.
Polyphonic music consists of two or more independent musical lines that are played at the same time. Another name for polyphonic texture is counterpoint which literally means “point against point,” or in more musical terms “note against note.” There are often four or more independent parts being played at once in a polyphonic piece.
There are two types of polyphony — imitative and free. Imitative counterpoint, like the name suggests, features one line that is imitated by another. When the parts are copied exactly it is called a canon. A simple version of a canon is a round. Think back to when you sang Row, Row, Row Your Boat, which is a perfect example of a round. In performing this piece, the first group sings “Row, row, row, your boat, gently down the stream,” at which point the second group enters and sings the exact same words with the exact same pitches. On the opposite end of the counterpoint spectrum, when there is no imitation involved in the polyphony, it is called free counterpoint.
In the late middle ages composers started writing polyphonic music to contrast the monophony of Gregorian chant. In the renaissance, the Mass, motet, and madrigal were almost entirely polyphonic, with as many as five separate vocal lines being sung at once. The baroque era brought a significant change to texture. The most important part was the melody and chords in a homophonic texture accompanied it. By the late baroque though, counterpoint was gaining in importance, especially in the music of Bach.
Texture in the classical era was predominantly homophonic with an emphasis on melodies in the higher ranges. The romantic era was also mainly homophonic, but as the music became more complex and as orchestras grew in size, the texture became much thicker and heavier. With the twentieth century spirit of “anything goes,” we have seen every type of texture.