Skip to main content Skip to main content

Exploring the World of Music


The way different voices and instruments work together to produce the overall sound gives music its texture. This program examines texture in Japanese shakuhachi, Trinidadian steel band, Bosnian ganga, West African percussion, and modern Australian choral music.

View Transcript

Exploring the World of Music Program #8 “Texture” Transcript



The fabric of music can be woven in many different ways. Throughout the world people have devised fascinating methods of blending instruments and voice to produce an infinite variety of musical textures.



Texture refers to the relationship of voices and instruments in an Ensemble. It’s the way they’re blended together into a musical whole.



What I’d like to do now is to start with the tenor section, then the alto, and the soprano, and then I’ll add the bass. (music) one, two three and (chorus sings “Jesus is a rock in a weary land”).



The subject of musical texture raises a number of questions. How are the different voices or instruments in a performance put together and organized?



Let’s add the altos, altos, tenor, and bass, ready, and (chorus sings “Jesus is  a rock in a weary land”).



How many parts are there? Does one voice or melody stand out? How do the various parts relate to each other?



One more time, without piano…



Any music is a set of preferences, we like it like that. This is how we think things go together, okay. And people really have strong  preferences  in terms of something like texture. There are large  regions  where  people really only like to hear one or two things happening at the same time.

There are other places where people seem to feel that’s not enough. They want a really complex texture with alot of different things going on at the same time. These are choices, it’s basically about an aesthetic and traditionally people have had very strong aesthetic feelings in terms of texture as much as anything else they do with their music.



Texture in music is basically the density or sparseness of the music. One very understandable example would be that if you think of a single  voice or a single instrument and contrast that to an entire orchestra or an entire chorus, you can hear the difference between the thinness of one line and the density of a very large orchestra.



Western music scholars classify texture into four main categories: monophony, heterophony, homophony, and polyphony. While these categories are not employed everywhere, they can be used to talk about texture in all music.



Monophony means that the music is in one part, a solo voice or instrument. A good example of this is Irish Sean-NOS singing. At a Sean-NOS session song is a very personal expression. Although several singers are present, only one person sings at a time.


Where there are two or more musicians performing the same melody but in slightly different ways the texture is heterophonic. In this traditional Irish dance music everyone is playing the same tune.  However, each musician may ornament or vary it according to his or her instrument or taste.


When a dominant melody is accompanied  by one or more parts the texture is said to be homophonic. Nicaraguan ensemble “Groupo Camayo” sings accompanied by guitars and percussion, the melody is supported by the rest of the ensemble.


Music that simultaneously combines two or more different lines is said to be polyphonic. The term polyphony has specific meaning within the Western classical idiom, describing much of the multi-part music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. However, it is also used generally to describe any multi-part musical tradition. In the Javanese Gamelan of Indonesia, layers of music produced by gongs and metalaphones create a polyphonic web of sound. These layers are made up of interlocking percussion parts and different melodic lines. Polyphony can be rhythmic as well as melodic as in the West African Manjani rhythm played on the jembe family of drums. Here the lead drummer improvises over the different rhythmic patterns played by members of the group.


When the texture of music is monophonic, what can add richness to the single line? In Japan the shakuhachi, an end blown flute, has a long history as a solo instrument. In the honkyo ku or meditative style, great emphasis is placed on the tone color or timbre of each and every note.



The roots of shakuhachi music lie in zen meditative practice. This sect of Buddhism they believe playing the shakuhachi, playing even a single tone, was a means or vehicle for enlightenment. Shakuhachi has such a palette of different  color sounds.  For example, if we want a very strong  round sound, more like a western flute, very hard edged sound, we have (plays example). Very, more strong kind of shakuhachi  sound.  Then we also want a very airy sound so the same kind of (plays example).



When another instrument and voice are added to the shakuhachi, what kind of texture results?



When shakuhachi plays with the ensemble, with koto and with vocalist, these kinds of lines together are heterophonic in nature. The same melody is being played but there are little nuances particular to each instrument.

So the koto might play a line that sinks down (sings example) like this. Shakuhachi, they may not play in that kind of ornamentation, that kind of subtlety, so we might play just an introductory note to the phrase, where we play (sings example). All of these various sounds create such a beautiful heterophonic texture.



Ganga, a polyphonic song form, is performed throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina. This heartfelt music is sung outdoors by groups of men or women. The lyrics reflect personal experiences, themes of love or the singers connection to community and tradition. One of the intentions of singing ganga is to combine the voices in a way that results in a powerful and resonant texture.



If we are listening to ganga we can think of texture in terms of one voice being relatively speaking, thin in comparison with two voices that thicken the texture. We can also think of texture in the context of just single voice the neck ensembles. They’re carried around the neck. And this limits the number and types of instruments their range and the texture is as a result thinner. When you place these instruments on stands and begin to arrange them on a stage, each player has access to more pans, more range, the texture thickens up, the stageside band is a small version of this.  The largest band in Trinidad is the conventional steelband and conventional bands are wheeled onto stage for the carnival performances and these ensembles number one hundred to one hundred and twenty players with major sections for each instrument. The dynamic level of these bands is extraordinary that you can hear these for miles around and the texture as a result is extremely thick and powerful.



Within the Western classical tradition, composers have written for a large variety of ensembles, ranging from the soloist to orchestras of more than one hundred players. As a result, textures may vary significantly. Even within one piece they may shift from moment to moment.



Composers love to write for more than one instrument.  Sometimes  they will write for, combinations, small combinations of instruments and if there’s more than two players, that’s called chamber music.  The piano trio  is a very popular ensemble. In a piano trio we have a piano, we have a  violin and we have a cello.



For the chamber musician an awareness of textural changes and how each part fits into the overall work at any given moment, is critical to a successful performance.



The Ghost Trio has an amazing variety of textures within it. For instance, right at the very beginning you have an abrupt and almost violent start.

And the interesting thing is it’s completely in unison. The violin, the cello and the piano are all playing the exact same notes. So that’s one kind of texture. And then immediately after that  you get not only a change  in texture but a change in the mood where the cello takes a very beautiful solo all of a sudden and we accompany, and then I answer the cello with a melody on the violin.  So you get these very sudden shifts in character and  in texture, it’s one of the big challenges of playing the piece.



huge ensemble, the great diversity of musical textures found around the world is unlimited.


Credit Roll