by Professor Terry Dwyer


What do we mean by texture? It is a consideration of how many separate elements are involved in the music at any one time, and what they are doing. Thus we can talk about a thin texture, a dense texture, a busy texture, a static texture, a simple texture, a complex texture. Note well that an “element” means one layer, strand or melody, not one instrument: it is possible to have the whole orchestra playing the same tune in octaves – this is only one element, and thus a simple, thin texture, even if fortissimo.

Some commentators refer to texture as the vertical consideration, but it is really two-dimensional, since we must also consider its progress through time.

Generally speaking there are two main classes of texture: polyphonic and homophonic. Polyphonic is where every strand is melodic, vying equally for the attention of the listener. This is the time when each melodic strand can be in a different tonal colour, because a blend is not mandatory. However, there is nothing wrong with a polyphonic texture having similar tone-colours on each line, if it is still possible to detect each part separately: it’s just that different colours make things easier to follow. Look how easy it was to follow the lines of a Bach keyboard fugue when Wendy Carlos treated every line with a different colour, in Switched-on Bach.

But most music has a homophonic texture, which strictly speaking implies all the parts moving together in the same rhythm, however in practice it usually turns out to be a melody and accompaniment based on chords. Sometimes the bass is melodic to some extent, or at least semi-melodic, so perhaps we are halfway to polyphony? Let’s agree anyway that a common situation is melody, bass and harmony – three elements, so that’s the situation I am going to concentrate on.

Melody, Bass and Harmony

The first piece of advice I shall give is not to maintain the same texture for too long; some changes are necessary, as in every department of music. So the first type of texture I am going to list is :

Melody Only. It is not necessary that a melody should be harmonised all the time, and a bar or two of unaccompanied melody makes a welcome relief in almost any kind of music. It is often effective as a melody begins, with the first few notes, or even just the first note, being left unharmonised, and the accompaniment coming in on the first beat of a following bar.

J. Strauss: Blue Danube

At times it may work nicely to have an unaccompanied melody in octaves, as hinted above.

Mozart: Overture The Marriage of Figaro

Bass Only. Rarer, but possible, if the bass is of a melodic character

Schubert, Unfinished Symphony

Stravinsky Firebird Suite

Harmony Only. Much rarer. The opening of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture comes to mind: a sequence of chords that hardly create even a bass part between them.

The same is true of Debussy’s Nuages.

Melody and Bass Only. This is often all that is necessary to sound complete, if well written. The effect is light, if played softly, or bold, if taken loudly, as in Mozart’s Minuet from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

Full Accompaniment. I’m assuming a melody somewhere, rather than just a harmonic mass. The melody need not be on top; it can be in an inner part or in the bass, so long as it is perceptible. It’s what we do with everything else that needs looking at. But before I list various possible textures, there’s an important matter to consider first.
Textures need air. Often a vague feeling that something is wrong with a composition may be due to nothing more than a failure to relieve the constant flow of sound in every part. Put rests in your music! Break the flow up if there is something to be gained. So we need to remember the Rest Rule: A short rest after a note usually acts melodically as if the note had been sustained until the next note in that voice. How else would a xylophone melody or pizzicato strings make sense? This rule is not cast- iron but it works in most cases, especially in the bass. So we can not only make use of pizzicato bass, but short bass notes in any context.

Types of inner texture, representing the harmony

So – on to some types of texture:
1) Sustained chords. You can sustain each chord until the next. In chorale style it is fine to have sustained chords throughout, one per melody note; but don’t get into the habit of over-using this in all types of music.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

2) Detached chords. In large-scale music, very often one chord is kept on for several bars; must we have everyone holding on? One possibility is to have the chord repeated on every beat or half-beat. More likely the inner parts would repeat more frequently than the bass.

Rossini: Overture The Barber of Seville

3) Arpeggios. A thin accompaniment can make up for this by rippling up and/or down in arpeggio format. This way you can achieve full harmony and still achieve a light texture.

Debussy: L’apres-midi d’un faune

And Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is another familiar example using a smaller arpeggio (broken chord) pattern.

4) Vamping is very common. The bass plays one note on each new chord, or on the first beat of each bar, and maybe rests for the remainder of the bar. The middle voices rest on the first beat and play repeated chords on the other beats. Hence the popular term “oom-pah”. There are various vamp and related patterns; these can give a definite character to the music:

5) There are many other ways of deploying chords: it all depends on how much movement is needed to make the texture busier. Taking the following snippet as the prototype:

we will look at some possibilities. N.B. to save space, each musical example shows more than one method in the same passage (not recommended in practice):
a) Shimmering. Tremolo strings will do it, or trills. The main note still makes its harmonic effect, and the trills give the illusion of fast movement.

b) Wavering. This is just slow trills: you move the note up one and back repeatedly, at a reasonably slow rate (quavers or semiquavers). Can suggest water if taken legato. And…….
c) Oscillating. Similar to wavering, but over a larger interval, usually a third. Very common in orchestral writing, and in some piano music. Again gives a sense of movement although there is none really.

d) Various figures. Starting with the well-known Alberti Bass, we are including anything which moves in a more complex manner, maybe mixing leaps and repeated notes, or bringing in chromatic decorations, and so on. Such figures begin to stamp a particular character on the music. The only limit (apart from the fact that they must fit the harmony) is the imagination of the composer. This is the area where there is most room for variety.

Hybrid Textures
  1. Multidimensional textures. Here we simply mix up the different methods so that we have more than one type simultaneously. For example some instruments sustain, others punctuate with detached notes, others weave figuration. This is so common in orchestral music that it might almost be regarded as the norm.
  2. Heterophony. Two variants of the same melody simultaneously. So one instrument plays a complex tune, another plays a simplified version of it in unison or in octaves. (Double Basses often have a simplified version of the cello part; a flute may have a more elaborate version of a violin part; horns often have a simplified version of a nimble woodwind tune.)
  3. Pedals. A pedal is defined as a single bass note which is sustained or repeated under a changing superstructure. So, whatever else is going on, one can always have a long low note under it all. A common trick of some TV and film composers is to play a slow melody, usually minor, over a low tonic pedal. Nothing else, no harmony. This can give an effective air of mystery for a short while, but is irritatingly poverty-stricken if prolonged. A timpani roll, or even a bass drum roll, could count as a pedal of sorts. Tonic pedals give stability, so avoid them if you want action. Dominant pedals give an air of expectation, so you had better be leading up to something significant.
  4. Semi-polyphonic. Add a countermelody to the usual melody, retaining the normal bass and harmonic elements. Quite common and useful.
A texture is rarely held throughout a piece or complete section without changing to some other type. Make sure you change yours periodically. However, it is good to hold one type for a fair time as this helps to give unity. Both extremes (changing all the time, never changing) are to be avoided. A good model is Mozart, whose supporting textures seldom outdo their welcome. (I wanted to say never, but he did blot his copybook at least once: the second movement of his easy Sonata in C, K.545, has the left hand’s Alberti Bass mind-numbingly constant throughout almost all the piece.)

Another factor worth considering is the register of the music, i.e. is it high, low, does it cover a wide range of notes? If a really light texture is wanted, consider leaving out the usual bass instruments and writing everything in the treble clef, perhaps really high. Tchaikovsky made a move in this direction in the Miniature Overture of his Nutcracker Suite, by omitting the lower sounds completely: it is as if he was saying “Adults not admitted”.

Do not overlook the fact that the texture contributes to the mood, and to the overall meaning of the piece. Inner parts should not be regarded as mere filling-in of the harmony, but valid contributors to the structure. You do not want fussy, busy inner parts in a lullaby; you do not want stodgy held chords in a film score for a chase, and so on. (And stodgy held chords are not going to be enjoyed by the players in an orchestral piece. I always try to give interesting parts to every player in my orchestral music, even the humble 2nd flute, violas and double basses. They are invariably grateful, and perform much better as a reward.)

By their textures shall ye know them. Compare the polyphonic weavings of Bach with the lightly tripping music of Haydn. Compare the thundering repetitions of Beethoven with the airy flow of Mendelssohn: the rich tapestries of Brahms with the rocky slabs of Bruckner; the magic glitter of Debussy and Ravel with the river-like flow of Elgar or the mysterious rustlings of Sibelius. It’s all part of the meaning.