What Is Musical Texture?

Version 2As I was writing my lesson plans for this week, I decided I wanted to teach a lesson on musical texture. I had mentioned texture in passing, but decided I needed to go further with it than that. As I prepared my lesson, I was surprised to find a limited amount of information on the subject. I found definitions and some examples, but not much more than that. Over the years I’ve learned that nothing is worth teaching unless it is going to be used by the students I teach it to. Simply teaching definitions and having students identify the major musical textures from listening examples just isn’t enough. Identifying is a low level cognitive task, and why should the opening bars of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik being an example of monophony matter to any of my students? What is the value of a understanding musical texture to my students?

In answering these questions, I hope to not only shed some light on teaching musical texture, but also on how to approach teaching any topic in a way that is relevant and engaging for students; something that can be challenging. As with most concepts, the best way to teach texture is to have students experience music that is representative of the various musical textures and make them aware of the interactions of the various parts and voices. Have students sing a simple canon and point out that at any given moment, students are singing different melodies (or different parts of the same melody) at the same time. The pitches are different, the rhythms are different, even the words are different at any given beat or measure.

Or perhaps you have taught your class a partner song. Some students sing one song while others sing a different song at the same time. Music that is written this way is polyphony. Poly (from the Greek polu),  meaning many, and phony (from the Greek phone), meaning sounds. I like to dwell briefly on the first part of the word, poly, because students are already familiar with polygon from math, so polyphony is a new use of the familiar prefix poly.

When it comes to listening, this is both a great opportunity to use classical music in a lesson, and an opportunity to connect a concept most often associated with classical music with popular music students are more likely to be familiar with and have a preference for. For example, both Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, third movement, and Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” can be used for polyphony. The use of Lady Gaga should not be dismissed too quickly, unless your objective is to teach classical music. My purpose here is to teach musical texture, so using any musical genre that helps me teach the concept is preferable to teaching a specific musical genre that impedes my teaching of the concept. The music that is best to use the the music with which the students most relate.

Students also learn about texture when they analyze music as part of preparing to

New World Example

Opening of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor

present it. Who has the lead voice, who has the background voice, who has the counter-melody? What is the role of the voices that do not have the melody? Are any of these voices a melody? Are they sustained chords? Do they have the same rhythm as the melody? Answering these questions helps students understand the role that their part plays as part of the overall performance. Knowing what the musical texture of the piece is gives students clues as to the what these roles will be, and gives more meaning to what they are doing as they perform their part.

There is also the issue of texture as it pertains to purely non-pitched percussion. West African traditional drumming, with its layers of contrasting rhythms is decidedly polyphonic, while a standard rock beat, because the back beats are privileged compared to the ride cymbal or hi-hat, is quasi homophonic in the sense that homophonic music is characterized by a privileged melody line while other voices are background. Complementary rhythms as found, for example, in World Music Drumming is polyphonic, while a rhythm ostinato used to accompany a song is Homophonic. Letting students categorize the texture as homophonic or polyphonic and providing evidence for their decision after learning about textures in tonal music is a good way to extend the lesson and have students engage in higher level thinking.

My strategy throughout this discourse is to take a concept and present it as a part of something that the students are already invested in. I give them the chance to consider something they are already doing in the light of something new and something that will further their understanding and enjoyment of something to which they already like to listen. Once I have established the concept as integral to music they like, then I can introduce them to other music and continue teaching the concept as something that both musical genres have in common. This helps open their minds to new genres, making them more receptive to music that they realize has something in common with the music they already prefer. It also sets up the opportunity for students to explore and critically think about the concept in new contexts and to consider familiar music in light of new learning. The more we can get our students “inside the music” the more they are likely to enjoy whatever music we include in our music classroom activities.

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