A Structural Examination of Tonality, Vocabulary, Texture,
Sonorities, and Time Organization in Western Art Music



Chapter 3. Texture

The essential texture of the Common Practice Period is created with counterpoint, which is two or more simultaneous individual and independent lines, each of which confirms the preeminence of tonic and utilizes the vocabulary of a major or minor scale.

Chapter 1. Tonality
Chapter 2. Vocabulary
Chapter 4. Sonorities
Chapter 5. Time Organization


There is a tradition in teaching music to young children that music consists of melody and harmony. Historically, this is misleading.

The first part is correct. Melody is the primary basis for not only the Common Practice Period, but also for Western music in general, and, in fact, music in all cultures in all historical periods. This is logical, since music in various cultures begins with the human voice.

The unique invention of Western music was, however, the development of COUNTERPOINT, which is defined as two or more independent melodies working together simultaneously. This texture has been the primary texture of Western music for about a thousand years, and is relatively rare in other cultures.

The most traditional distribution of these lines is in four voices: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. The bass is always the lowest voice, and provides the foundation for the other three voices. The soprano is always the highest voice, and generally provides the greatest melodic interest. The alto and tenor are inner voices, which enrich the musical texture.


There are four fundamental textures traditionally found in music:

  1. Monophony:

    Music of a single line. Many cultures throughout the world make use of this texture since it is the simplest. The beginnings of Western music were monophonic (chant).

    Listen to some examples of monody:

  2. Heterophony:

    Music of multiple lines, but the structure of each line is virtually the same. This is a texture found extremely rarely in Western music, but is common in many musical cultures. It is essentially a monophonic texture in which some of the performers add decoration and embellishment to a simple melody. In the example below notice how the soprano and tenor add notes to the bass melody, only coinciding at the marked notes.

    Listen to some examples of heterophony:

  3. Homophony:

    Music of multiple lines, and each one is structured independently, but moving at fundamentally the same rhythm. This is counterpoint and is a fundamental texture of Western music, and typically can be found in hymn singing. The primary focus is on the soprano line, with the bass line providing support; the alto and tenor are generally less interesting. Due to the basic rhythmic similarity throughout, it is sometimes referred to as homorhythmic music, and due to the obvious harmonic structures that are formed, it is also known as chordal music.

    Listen to some examples of homophony:

    Another type of homophony is created when there is an obvious primary melodic line supported by an accompaniment. The music is still contrapuntal, but the focus is directed to the soprano line. This texture is found in much music literature.

  4. Polyphony:

    Music of multiple lines, and each one is structured independently and moves with distinctly different rhythms. This counterpoint is evident in any piece of music which consists of independent and equal parts, such as a fugue.

    Listen to some examples of polyphony:

    The following piece is an outstanding example of all four musical textures encorporated into one composition:

    Mozart: "Jupiter" Symphony (Allegro molto)


There are four ways two lines may move against each other in counterpoint:

  1. Parallel motion:

    Lines that move in the same direction, always with the same basic melodic and harmonic intervals.

  2. Similar motion:

    Lines that move in the same direction but not always with the same intervals.

  3. Oblique motion:

    One line remains stationary while another line moves against it.

  4. Contrary motion:

    Lines that move in opposite directions from each other.


It is impossible to understand music from 1600 to 1900 without a fundamental understanding of counterpoint, which is introduced in Chapter 6. Counterpoint is the single most important process found in Western art music. However, the development of counterpoint eventually led to a more vertical understanding of music, ultimately to a time when the concepts of "chord" and "harmony" actually became important independent considerations, which was near the end of the nineteenth century. This shift was a large reason why the Common Practice Period came to an end.

Harmony, as an element separate from melody, is real, but it essentially belongs to twentieth century music and later. Do not confuse this statement with the topic of the next chapter, which describes fundamentals of vertical structures. These structures evolved through the process of counterpoint.


Continue to drill past material at Ricci Adams' music

Texture Drills

Links to chapters in this unit:
Chapter 1. Tonality
Chapter 2. Vocabulary
Chapter 4. Sonorities
Chapter 5. Time Organization


Copyright © 2008-2009 by Phillip Magnuson.

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