What Is Polyphonic Texture In Music?

Polyphonic texture, also called polyphony, is the least popular of the three main formal textures. The other two types besting monophonic and homophonic texture. Polyphony is most commonly associated with Baroque and Renaissance music, as well as the music of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

In this post we’ll fully explore polyphonic texture, but before we do that we should first remember what texture in music is. 

What is texture?

Musical texture is how we describe the overall quality, or sound, of a piece of music.

It is often characterized by how many layers of melody and harmony can be heard at the same time.

Some things that can change musical texture are the tempo, the type and number of instruments playing, the genre, and the style and structure of the harmonies, among others.

Let’s dive into the least common and most intricate type, polyphonic texture.

Polyphonic texture definition

Polyphonic texture, is when there are multiple independent melodies being played or sung at the same time.

The term polyphonic comes from the Greek words poly, meaning “many” or “multiple”, and phonic, meaning “sound” or “voice”.

Because the other two main types of texture, homophonic and monophonic texture, only deal with one melody line at a time, polyphony is thought of as more complex and dense.

This is typically the case, as we’ll see, because polyphonic texture is often just when a piece of music with a monophonic or homophonic texture adds a second, unrelated melody. However, some children’s songs are polyphonic and very simple and easy to sing or play.

There are many different styles of music that are considered polyphonic. In this article we’ll look at canons, fugues, Dixieland jazz, and heterophonic texture, a subtype of polyphony.

Canons

In music, a canon is when we play or sing a melody and then, after a set period of time, play that same melody (or an imitation of it) again, one or more times.

The simplest form of a canon is a round, which is a canon where every melody is musically identical. Many children’s songs can be sung as rounds, such as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Frere Jacques”.

In the round version of these songs, only one person sings at the beginning, and each individual person comes in after a specific amount of time.

This clip of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is a perfect example of a five-person round, with each one starting four beats after the person before them:

Row, Row, Row your boat

However, canons can also have imitative (follower) melodies that are not musically identical to the original (leader) melody.

For example, this piece by Konrad Kunz, “Canon No. 114, has the left and right hand of the piano playing in canon, but the melody of each hand starts on a different note:

Konrad Kunz, “Canon No. 114″

Perhaps the most famous canon in music is Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”, a very popular piece you’ve probably heard played at weddings.

While the cello and harpsichord are not in canon form, the three violin parts are. The melody starts with Violin I, with Violin II starting the melody two bars after, and Violin joins in two bars after that.

Try to follow along to all three melodies at the same time, it becomes difficult when they’re all playing very fast!

Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”

Fugues

A fugue is an example of polyphonic texture because, like a canon, it introduces a melodic theme and imitates that theme throughout a piece.

A fugue is different from a canon in two ways.

The first is that the repetitions of the main melody do not have to stay the same in a fugue, each imitation can change the notes or rhythms from the one before, and they don’t have to copy the melody at any point.

The other difference is that a fugue is usually a lot more structured – it has different sections to it, and it lasts longer than a canon. Fugues were popularized in the early 1700s, and are considered one of the defining musical styles of Baroque music.

Johann Sebastian Bach is the most popular composer of fugue music. An example that he wrote is “Fugue No. 17 in A-flat Major”:

J.S. Bach – Fugue No. 17 in A-flat Major”

In this piece, the right hand starts with a melody that is one bar long, generally goes from lower pitches to higher pitches, and contains two semiquavers (sixteenth notes) followed by four quavers (eighth notes).

This happens twice in the right hand, then three times in the left hand, and then it alternates between right and left hand for a few bars. This theme will be repeated throughout the piece, and the harmonies will be structured around it.

Dixieland Jazz

Dixieland Jazz is a style of jazz music that came out of New Orleans in the 1910s and 1920s. It’s also sometimes called hot jazz, or traditional jazz.

A typical Dixieland band line up would consist of a trumpet, clarinet, and trombone as the main horn section alongside a rhythm section of bass, piano, guitar/banjo, and drums or sometimes a washboard.

What makes Dixieland Jazz an example of polyphony is that the trumpet, clarinet, and trombone tend to all play different, unrelated melodies throughout a song.

The trumpet would typically play the lead melody, while the clarinet played a melody that was much faster and more intricate, doodling up and down.

The trombone would play a slower, simpler melody in the background of the other two. Often all three of these melodies are improvised, which means they are made up on the spot. 

A famous example of Dixieland Jazz is the piece “Dippermouth Blues” by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, from 1923.

“Dippermouth Blues” – King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band

Heterophonic Texture

In music, heterophonic texture is a subtype of polyphony, and occurs when there are two or more variations of a single melodic line.

Although this sounds like a round or a canon, it is different because the two versions of the melody are sung or played at the same time.

Imagine two people singing the same melody together, but one adds extra embellishing notes and variations – this would fall under heterophonic texture. 

This kind of texture is found most commonly in non-Western music, such as traditional Turkish, Arabic, Japanese, or Thai music.

In all of these cultures, it is traditional to have multiple singers or instrumentalists playing the same melody, but with each musician adding their own personal twist to it.

It is rare to find in Western music, and especially classical music, but here is an example found in Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor”.

Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor”

In the section starting at bar 211, bars 212-214 have the piano and violins playing the same melody, but the piano melody has many semiquaver embellishments added, and the violins play simple crochets (quarter notes).

Summing up Polyphony

Polyphonic texture is the only one of the three main types of texture that has more than one melody being played at the same time.

As its name implies, there are multiple musical ideas that draw your attention in different directions. Because of this, polyphony can often sound disordered or hard to follow.

Music that is monophonic or homophonic can become polyphonic if a second melody is added to it, like a singer at the end of a song improvising while the back-up singers sing the main melody.

There are many different styles of music that have a polyphonic texture. Some of these are the canon or round, the Baroque style of fugue music, Dixieland Jazz, and non-Western heterophony.

We hope this article helped you to learn more about polyphonic texture!

Samuel Chase

Samuel Chase

Samuel Chase has been playing music since he was 5 years old, and teaching music since he was 13. He has a PhD in Music from the University of Surrey, and he has composed music that has been played in three different countries. He is currently working as a film composer and writing a book on film music.

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