Thursday, January 16, 2014

Understanding Classical Music: Texture

Many children discover that they prefer food of a specific texture. Toddlers tend to prefer foods that are smooth and easy to chew.  As the child ages, he becomes more willing to explore new textures as long as there is a comfortable and appealing taste at the forefront. With maturity, we learn to appreciate the variety and contrast that vegetables and delicate sauces bring.

Music can also be described as having various textures. Some compositions have a single melody line that soars above an unobtrusive accompaniment. Others are marked by a single musical line that dances about our ears without the aid of any other sound. Still others delight our senses as the multiple melodies intertwine, making a beautifully complex sum of its individual parts.

There are three basic types of musical texture.  First comes monophony. Monophony literally means "one sound." Monophonic music is the simplest in texture, having only one musical line. No contrasting accompanying figures compete or support the line. It is not a matter of how many voices or instruments are involved, but rather that they are all "singing" the same musical line.  A child singing a familiar nursery rhyme alone on a playground is an example of monophony. A classroom full of children singing the same nursery rhyme in unison without an accompaniment also constitutes monophonic music.

In art music, monophony is most obviously found in Gregorian chant of the Medieval era. Monophony can be used in later eras as well when a composer wants to draw special attention to the melody. To hear an example of monophony, listen to this Kyrie.

Homophony implies "same sound." Homophonic music has multiple voices (or musical lines) that are all supporting a single melody.  In other words, a simple melody is set against a chordal accompaniment. The supporting voices never threaten to take the interest away from the melody. Many early art songs and arias are homophonic in texture.  The aria "Tu se morta" from Monteverdi's Orfeo demonstrates the use of homophony in early opera. The texture can also be heard in Chopin's Nocturne in Eb Major. (While the accompaniment of both pieces is rather active, notice that the melody is always the focus; the accompaniment simply serves to propel the piece along.)

Polyphony is quite possibly the most commonly found musical texture. Polyphonic music has multiple voices that are all of equal importance. That's why we call it polyphony, meaning "many sounds." Polyphonic music is the most complex texture and the most interesting to our ears. As an example of polyphony, listen to this fugue by J.S. Bach as well as the energetic "Gloria" from Bernstein's Mass.

It is important to remember that textures can change within a single composition. So a composer can begin with polyphony, briefly shift to monophony and/or homophony, before returning to polyphony. Want to hear an example of mixing textures? I can think of no better example than Handel's glorious Hallelujah Chorus!