Listening for Texture in Classical Music


We can learn to be better performers or composers or even become better informed audiences by learning to listen for texture in classical music.

Many of us learned the basic descriptions of musical texture, using their textbook definitions: monophony, homophony, and polyphony.

Listening for Texture in Classical Music: Monophony

Listening for Texture in Classical Music: Homophony

Listening for Texture in Classical Music: Polyphony

We may have even learned a fourth texture, found primarily in non-Western cultures such as Native American, Middle Eastern, and South African:

Listening for Texture in Classical Music: Heterophony

But these distinctions barely scratch the surface of the possibilities of texture encountered by today’s composer or listener!  In 20th and 21st century music, texture can often play just as important a part as melody, harmony, rhythm or form.  Our listening choices are now rich with lush, thick textures that would have been a scandal and an outrage in earlier times!

Consider the difference between one of the very earliest examples of polyphony and the texture of a 20th century piece by Charles Ives:

The first example is “Sumer Is Icumen In” – a traditional English medieval round.  It is the oldest piece of six-part polyphonic music known.  The composer is anonymous, possibly W. de Wycombe.  It was composed around 1260. 

This delightful rendition is a multi-track recording by an 8 year old and a 10 year old, and is accompanied by their drawings based on the words:

The Housatonic at Stockbridge – Charles Ives –  written in 1911

What a difference 650 years can make!  And yet, both these textures fall into the broad category of polyphony – more than one voice sounding simultaneously, and each doing its own thing, so to speak.  Back in the “early” days, before the 20th century, the polyphonic masters wove many threads together, but the threads themselves had the same source.  A round is a great example of this type of polyphony.   The threads are many, but the source is identical.

Even the most complex of early polyphonic music was all based on common musical elements of theme, rhythm, related tonality, symmetry.   The many are still essentially one, as we can hear in this amazing performance of Thomas Tallis’s “Spem in alum” .  This polyphonic composition is for 40 singers – 8 choirs with 5 singers in each.

Thomas Tallis – Spem in alum – circa 1570

Complex textures of early polyphony create a texture of similarity:


Today we have a different world, and our ear has to expand to take it all in!  

Complex textures of 20th and 21st century combine polyphony with polyrhythm, polytonality, poly-just-about-anything!   This richly textured musical world gives us a huge spectrum of seemingly unrelated elements which, in the hands of a master composer, somehow comprise a harmonious whole:

IvesCounterpoint - ALlColorsOfTheWorld

In Ives, as in the painting above, entitled “All Colors of the World”, we have a scene with many layers.  “Housatonic” was inspired by a walk that Ives took with his new bride, Harmony:

We walked in the meadows along the river, and heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had not entirely left the river bed, and the colors, the running water, the banks and elm trees were something that one would always remember.

Each of these elements has a different “flavor” or “texture” – the slowly rising mist, the flowing river, the fog rolling over swirling eddies, the church folks singing in the distance.  The combination of all these elements at once creates a thick texture of many colors and layers, rich in meaning and in experience.  The discerning listener can find new treasures on many successive hearings, and the composer looks even more closely to see how all these elements are woven together successfully.

The complexities of texture are taken to the extreme in Ligeti’s Atmospheres, an orchestral piece of such thick and dense texture that it almost approaches stasis. Harald Kaufmann has described it as “acoustically standing still”, a stationary sound which has movement within it that is similar to breathing.

Large portions of the piece consist of extremely dense counterpoint, with up to 56 voices (each string instrument has his or her own individual part to play). But the imitative entrances are so close to one another that it is impossible to perceive them separately, with apparent immobility as the result.

Excerpt from a live performance of Atmospheres – Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker

Atmospheres – Full performance with graphic analysis

 At the other end of the texture spectrum, John Cage’s famous 4′ 33″ asks us to consider silence.  In various composition classes, we’ve discussed the eternal question, “Is 4′ 33″ really a composition??”   We’re all agreed, it is definitely a composition and a rather profound one at that.  What seemed to all of us at first as a musical joke is now the basis of many compositional breakthroughs.  As musicians, and especially as composers, we treasure silence and all that it gives to the texture of music.  As Debussy said “Music is the silence between the notes“. 

John Cage: A three-movement orchestral performance of 4′ 33″:

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