When we hear the word “texture,” we tend to picture visual or tactile mediums. Paintings and photographs can vividly capture a sense of texture, as can sculptures, architecture, and things naturally occurring in nature. But what about texture in music?
What Is Texture in Music?
Texture in music is how the tempo, melodic, and harmonic content add up to form a complete composition. We identify texture with words like “thickness” and “range.” A thick texture has numerous layers of instruments, while a thin one would be more sparse. Range can refer to the distance, or width, between the highest and lowest pitches in a song.
Texture is influenced by the type and number of instruments or voices playing a part, as well as the tempo, rhythm(s), and harmony. One way to imagine texture is to think of a dynamic song you love, with rich instrumentation, huge vocal harmonies, and more. Then imagine that song covered by a singer-songwriter with just vocals and an acoustic guitar or piano. The song is the same, but the textures between each version differ.
The Four Types of Texture in Music
There are four common types of texture in music. The cool thing about music is that you’ve probably employed all of these kinds of textures before, even if you weren’t consciously aware of it. By giving it a name, though, you can further understand the “rules” and how to break them!
This is the most basic texture and an essential building block of pretty much all music. Monophonic texture refers to a single melodic line with no accompaniment. A common example of monophony is an a cappella rendition of a song, such as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Lead guitar or synth lines are monophonic textures too. You’ll normally hear a monophonic texture, or melody, comprising a song’s hook.
A polyphonic texture is defined as two or more melodic lines playing together at the same time. These can be totally independent from one another, or they can imitate each other. Chords are considered polyphonic because of their harmonic content—usually three or more notes combining to form a singular sound. So strumming a guitar or playing piano is a polyphonic texture.
The rhythm section of a composition generally provides the polyphonic texture, while a lead vocal or instrument provides the monophonic texture.
This is most common texture in all of Western music. It essentially consists of a melody with accompaniment. Traditionally, homophony is when all of the voices perform roughly the same rhythm; the lead melody stands out, while the rest of the voices create a background harmony.
Heterophonic texture occurs when multiple voices or instruments play similar melodies, with slight variations between each of them. It’s less common in popular Western music, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment with heterophony in your own productions. You might stumble across a really great sound by pitting two lead melodic instruments against one another.
How to Build Texture into Your Mix
Now that you’re familiar with the common types of texture in music, you can learn further tricks to incorporate it into your productions and arrangements. Apart from the obvious stuff like understanding that a lead melody is a monophonic texture, there are creative ways to play with thickness, width, and more in less of a “textbook” music theory way.
Formally defined texture describes the relationship between melody and harmony as we saw with the terms above. Informal texture, on the other hand, is more likely to make your mixes and productions more interesting. We use informal terms like rich, dense, thin, bass-y, warm, and so many more to subjectively describe textures.
Here are several informal ways to enhance texture in your music.
Believe it or not, sampling is one way to alter the texture of a piece. It could be as simple and brief as a one-shot sound effect, or you could layer in an entire ambient soundscape to accompany the arrangement. Either way, we’re talking about ways you can play with the thickness of a mix, for quick transient moments or during full sections.
EQ & Tone-Shaping
EQ is your best friend when it comes to shaping the texture of a mix. A great example is this: let’s say your song has a huge, hook-y chorus. You have a traditional homophonic texture consisting of the lead vocals with a bunch of background vocals creating width and depth. A really common trick to help leads stand out from background vocals is to EQ the BGs differently; usually by thinning them out with some simple filtering.
Effects present a whole slew of ways you can alter the timbre and texture of your music. It could be as subtle as a bit of saturation on an instrument to make it sound thicker, or you could totally warp a sound with heavy modulation. Effects are a great way to play with textures like width, thickness, and depth. The only limitation is your imagination.
Finally, we have sidechain compression as a helpful tool. Mixes have a tendency to get cluttered; in fact, the whole idea of mixing is about finding space for lots of different elements to live. If you’re constantly thinking about texture, and adding/removing various sounds over the course of a whole dynamic song, sidechaining is the perfect way to create breathing room during the busier parts of an arrangement.