Homophonic and Polyphonic

The words homophonic and polyphonic describe two ways a piece of music can be layered to create different textures.

Homophonic describes music that has one main melody, which is supported by an accompaniment. Most of the time (but not always) the melody is in the highest sounding part, and the accompaniment is lower. The listener tends to focus on the melody part, while the accompaniment is less noticeable.

The accompaniment might be written as chords, broken chords/arpeggios, octaves, or as a harmonisation of the tune, usually a 3rd or 6th lower.

This Schubert Waltz is in a homophonic style. The melody is the top line of music, the left hand has a chordal accompaniment, and there is an intermittent harmonisation in thirds in the alto part (e.g. bars 2 and 4).

Schubert - homophonic

The prefix “homo” means “the same”, so “homophonic” means “with one sound”.

Polyphonic describes music that is built of two or more rhythmically independent, equally important melodies. Often the melodies have the same (or similar) rhythm but begin at staggered intervals. Harmony is created when the melodies blend together, but there is no separate “accompaniment” part.

This is Rigaudon (rigadoon) dance by Rameau begins in a 2-part polyphonic style. The left hand echoes the right, starting four beats later and an octave lower. Both parts are equally important. The listener’s focus is usually on the part that is moving fastest at any point.

Rameau- polyphonic

The prefix “poly” means “many”, so “polyphonic” means “with many sounds”.

Many pieces of music are either homophonic or polyphonic all the way through, but others might switch between the two textures as the music progresses.

Describing Texture

Texture in music refers to the way that individual sounds are combined to create a musical whole. It is the overall sound quality or “feel” of a piece of music and can be influenced by many factors, such as the number of voices or instruments used, the rhythm, melody, harmony, and timbre of the sounds. Texture plays an important role in shaping the overall character and emotional quality of a piece of music.

We have already seen two types of texture – homophonic and polyphonic.

Textures can also be described in terms of their density or thickness, with dense textures having many sounds occurring at once, and thin textures having fewer sounds.

Mozart’s 40th Symphony in G minor begins with just the string section. This is an example of light or thin texture. The second violins are doubling firsts an octave lower, and the cellos and basses just have single notes, so the effect here is a single melody line with light accompaniment on the violas.

light texture, Mozart's 40th Symphony

Contrast this with a later section in the same piece (bar 126). At this point, the whole orchestra is playing, so the overall sound will be louder, but also there are several layers of music involved which adds to the complexity. The violins still have the melody, but the quaver (8th note) accompaniment is now in the bassoons, cellos and basses as well as the violas. In addition, the high woodwind provide a third layer, by playing sustained overlapping chords to fill out the harmony. This is an example of dense or thick texture.

thick texture, Mozart's 40th Symphony

A transparent texture is characterized by its clarity and simplicity. In a transparent texture, the individual voices and instruments are clearly audible and distinguishable, creating a clear and open sound. This type of texture is often achieved by using a small number of voices or instruments with each allowed to play a distinct part. String quartets often have a transparent texture.