What is Polyphonic Texture? A Musician’s Guide

Polyphonic texture, also called polyphony, is one of the main types of texture in music. It’s less popular than the other two textures, monophonic and homophonic textures, but it was very popular in Baroque and Renaissance music. Also, Johann Sebastian Bach used polyphony in many of his songs.

So what is polyphonic texture? In this post, we’re going to look at the definition of polyphony, as well as some examples. But before we do, let’s talk about texture in music.

What is Texture in Music?

Musical texture is a term we use to describe the quality of the piece of music.

That includes the different layers of melody and harmony that you can hear at the same time.

Musical texture can be changed by the types of instruments that are playing, the tempo, the structure and style of harmonies, and much more.

There are three main types of musical texture, including melodic, harmonic, and polyphonic.

So what is polyphonic texture? Let’s look at the definition and how polyphony works in music.

Polyphonic Texture Definition

Polyphonic texture is when there are multiple different melodies, and they are played (or sung) at the same time.

In Greek, the word polyphonic means “many sounds,” and that’s exactly what polyphony is– many sounds all coming together to produce one piece of music.

Since polyphonic texture is the only musical texture that uses more than one melody at a time, many people think that it must be complicated and hard to understand. But it’s really not that complex. In fact, there are several children’s songs that are polyphonic, and very easy to play or sing.

There are several different types of polyphonic texture, including canons, fugues, Dixieland jazz, and heterophonic texture. Let’s start by looking at canons and fugues.

Canons

Canons in music are songs where the melody is repeated at different intervals.

One type of canon is a round. In a round, every melody is musically identical, but they are played or sung at different times.

For example, in the children’s song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” one person starts singing the melody line, and the second person comes in at a specific time. Then the third person starts singing, then the fourth person, and so on. They all sing the same identical melody (“row, row, row your boat gently down the stream”), but they sing it at different times.

Here’s a video of a five part round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Notice how each of the singers comes in four beats after each other.

In this example, the imitative (following) melodies are the exact same as the leading melody. However, sometimes this isn’t always the case with canons.

The piece “Canon no. 114” by Konrad Kunz is a canon. The right and left hands play the same melody, but they start on different notes. Listen to the way these melodies work together, even though they aren’t exactly identical:

And of course, the most popular canon in music is Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.” Chances are, you’ve heard this song performed at weddings.

In this song, the three violin parts are in canon form, where the melody is repeated by each violin. The first violin starts the melody, the second violin starts playing the melody two bars after, and two bars after that, the third violin starts playing.

This piece also includes the harpsichord and cello, and when all of the instruments play at the same time, it gets a little tricky to hear the repeating melodies. Listen to this video and see if you can spot the melodies repeating in the second and third violin:

Remember, a canon is a type of polyphonic texture, where the same melody repeats multiple times throughout the song. This includes rounds, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” or classics like Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”

The next type of polyphony that we’re going to talk about is a fugue.

Fugues

Fugues are very similar to canons, because they also have a melody that repeats multiple times throughout a piece.

There are two big differences between canons and fugues, and the first difference is the melody.

In a canon, the melody stays the same every time you repeat it. But in a fugue, the melody can change into different variations. You might have a starting melody that’s in C major, but when the melody repeats, it’s now in G major. Or, the tempo and rhythms could change.

With a fugue, each time you repeat the melody, it could be a little bit different. There might be six different variations of the same starting melody. With a canon, the melody has to stay the same.

Another difference between a canon and a fugue is that a fugue is much more structured. It has different sections to it, and it’s very well-organized. Fugues are also longer than canons.

Fugues became very popular in the 1700s, and many fugues were written by the famous composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. A great example of a fugue is Bach’s “Fugue No. 17 in A-flat Minor.”

Notice how this piece contains the same themes, repeated twice in the right hand, three times in the left hand, and then it alternates between the right and left hands.

Even though the melody doesn’t always sound the same, it follows the same basic pattern. It contains two sixteenth notes, followed by four eighth notes, and it usually goes from a lower pitch to a higher pitch.

This short theme is repeated throughout the piece, and all of the harmonies are structured around it.

That’s the definition of a fugue: a song that has a repeating melody and variations of that melody.

Next, let’s take a look at a more contemporary type of polyphonic texture: Dixieland Jazz.

Dixieland Jazz

Dixieland Jazz is a type of jazz music that originated in New Orleans between 1910 and 1920.

Most of the time, a Dixieland Jazz band consists of a trumpet, clarinet, and trombone, along with a rhythm section of piano, bass, guitar/banjo, and drums. Once in a while, Dixieland Jazz also includes a washboard.

The song “Dippermouth Blues” by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band is a great example of Dixieland Jazz.

Dixieland Jazz is an example of polyphony because the trumpet, trombone, and clarinet all play different melodies throughout the song.

The trumpet typically plays the main melody. The trombone plays a simpler melody in the background, while the clarinet plays a more complicated melody that is faster and more complex.

True to the original nature of jazz music, all of these separate melodies are improvised, which means they were not written down or planned beforehand.

So far, we’ve talked about canons, fugues, and Dixieland Jazz. Now we have one last subtype of polyphonic texture– heterophonic texture.

Heterophonic Texture

Don’t be fooled by the name: heterophonic texture is a subtype of polyphonic texture.

Heterophonic texture is when there are two or more variations of the same melody, that are played at the same time.

Think of two people singing the same melody, but adding their own personal flair to it. One person might sing the melody as it was written, another person might add trill notes or other musical ornaments.

Heterophonic texture is most commonly found in traditional Japanese, Arabic, Turkish, and Thai music. It’s not as common in Western music today, such as pop, but we can see an example of heterophonic texture in Mozart’s piece, “Piano Concerto No. 24 in C major.”

Listen to how the melodies and variations are played at the same time, starting at bar 214. The violins play the melody in quarter notes, while the piano plays the same melody with some eighth note embellishments.

A Summary of Polyphonic Texture

Polyphony (polyphonic texture) is one of the three different types of musical texture.

While monophony and homophony have only one melody playing at once, polyphony happens when there are two or more melodies playing at the same time.

Some songs can also start out with a monophonic texture (just one melody), and then later turn into polyphonic texture (multiple melodies).

In many cases, a song written in polyphonic texture can sound disorganized or chaotic, because there are multiple different melodies happening at once. But it can also be a very beautiful music texture, with song styles like rounds and canons.

Some other musical styles that have polyphony include fugues, Dixieland Jazz, and non-Western style heterophony.

We hope this article helps you learn more about polyphony! Do you have any questions about music theory? Let us know in the comments!

Jessica Roberts
Latest posts by Jessica Roberts (see all)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.