Texture in Music:
The pitter-patter of rain, chirping of birds, waves crashing in the sea, rustling of leaves are all beautiful sounds Mother Nature has gifted us with. These rhythmic sounds are often a great source of inspiration for musicians.
Previously, we discussed texture in food and I am certain a lot of us were salivating, reading that piece. Being the auspicious month of Margazhi, the music season in Chennai, I felt it was apt to talk about texture in music. Just like physical objects, music also has texture but the difference being that it is characterized by sound.
As mentioned before, the elements of design: point, line, shape, colour, texture, form, tone, and text are found everywhere. Similar to them, there are 8 elements of music: dynamics, form, harmony, melody, timbre, rhythm, tonality, and of course texture. Each of these has their own significance. The way these elements interact with one another determines the overall feel and impact of the music. And so, texture in music is influenced by the other 7 elements as well.
Often, texture in music has two meanings associated with it. One is the overall sound created by multiple instruments, which is usually a term used in music production. The second comes from music theory which refers to texture as the combination of sounds produced by the different layers in a piece of music. These include monophonic, homophonic, heterophonic and polyphonic.
Monophonic: As the name suggests, this texture has a single melody line without any harmony or musical accompaniment. This can be defined as a “thin” texture. Example:
Homophonic: This musical texture consists of a melody line with an accompaniment. It could be played on multiple instruments or singers. They play different notes; create chord and harmony changes but play to the exact same rhythm. Example:
Polyphonic- It consists of two or more simultaneous melodic lines by multiple voices and separate rhythms. Example:
Heterophonic: This texture has multiple variations of the same melody that follow each other but are heard across different voices. These range from small embellishing tones in each instrument to longer runs in a single voice keeping the melodic material constant. Example:
In simpler terms, take the example of any song. If one person was singing without any accompanying instruments, the texture would be called monophonic. If the same song is sung by a duet with a piano accompaniment, then it becomes homophonic. Further, if several singers and instruments perform the song at different times, it would be polyphonic. Lastly, if these characters sang and played with fancy vocal embellishments and over the top vocal flourishes, it becomes heterophonic. In the above example, the texture progressively shifts from light and thin to heavy and dense.
The role of texture in music composition is quite significant, and is determined by the tempo, melodic and harmonic components. Similar to the characters in a theatre play, these components each have a role to play in shaping how the instruments sound. The same note played on different instruments produces varying results.
The number of instruments in a piece of music often determines its “thickness” or density. The texture can sound considerably different with a change in the number of instruments, their timbre (or tone colour is the perceived sound quality of a musical note, sound or tone), tempo, rhythm and whether they are played together or at different intervals. Music can also be described with other textures like open, wide and/or spacious. This is when there is a large gap between the highest and lowest notes. On the contrary, a closed or tight texture is when the notes are played very close to each other. For example, an entire orchestra could sound heavy and thick in comparison to a single instrument which might sound light.
Musical texture allows composers and musicians to create dramatic and contrasting effects and layers with a range of sounds. A majority of native music from Asian and African cultures predominantly use monophonic and homophonic texture with emphasis on melody and rhythm. This creates a dramatic effect with different layers of ornamentation, microtonal changes and diverse rhythms.
In the Indian context, most classical Indian music, be it Hindustani, Carnatic or folk, are homophonic in texture, as they typically follow a single melody supported by drones and rhythm percussion. The melody is performed by a vocalist or with a string instrument like the sitar or veena. The harmony is provided by a repetitive drone instrument (also stringed) like the tanpura which creates a shimmering and buzzing effect. The rhythmic component is presented with a percussion instrument such as the table and mridangam. The texture is rather subtle and expressive but complex in nature.
A simple melody is also made more alluring by adding different kinds of ornaments called alankar, adding finer nuances to give it texture. In fact, these ornaments help express and convey the emotions of the song without the need for an accompaniment.
Personally, while growing up, I watched a lot of baithaks (a social gathering of musicians and performers creating music) at home as my father was a mridangam player. There would often be duet performances of Hindustani and Carnatic music, both singing the same raag but with their own style and respective instruments. This is called a jugalbandi, which elevates the contrast in musical texture.
Writing this article made me realise the enormity of the world of music and unlocked its realm of texture. The presence of texture in every aspect of our life is infinite and is quite amazing. Discovering these details and nuances undoubtedly adds value to our lives in many ways.
Kalyani Pramod is a Designer, Artist, Fibre artist, Design teacher, Mentor and also a Director in Shuttles & Needles