MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

Three Textures
In this unit we will focus on the three textures we see in Medieval and Renaissance music - monophony, polyphony, and homophony.

Check out the explanation below, and click on the clips.

Assignment #4 asks you to listen to more clips and decide which of the three textures they represent. Also, we've got a free practice exercise that is not graded, and you can do it multiple times, so you probably want to try that first!

Texture

Musical "texture" is difficult to define in the abstract. It has something to do with how the piece of music is constructed. One definition I've come up with is "the pattern a piece makes in musical sound-space" which is pretty accurate but doesn't really tell you anything. But don't worry, this will make a lot more sense if we just dive into our three kinds of texture.

Monophony

Monophonic music (or "monophony") is just a single line with no other parts. Everyone sings the same thing and no one is harmonizing. Our Kyrie eleison is monophonic.

Now, just because a piece of music is monophonic doesn't mean there is only one singer or one instrument. A group of people can perform monophonic music together, as long as they all follow this one line and do the same thing.

Polyphony

Polyphonic music (or "polyphony") involves more than one part. There is evidence that people were experimenting with polyphony as early as the year 900, and by 1200 we see some significant compositions with multiple lines running simultaneously.

Here is a polyphonic secular song from the 15th century called the Agincourt Carol. It starts with a little monophony and then branches off into two (and sometimes three) lines.

So far this seems really simple, right? However, there is one more important aspect to polyphony that you need to know - it knits together multiple voices in a complex or somewhat chaotic way. The different parts have a certain degree of independence.

We can hear that in the Agincourt Carol, where two voices sometimes ping-pong back and forth and sort of play off of each other. Let's spin it again and focus on that aspect. Moments where one voice pops out are marked with arrows.

Homophony

As we move forward into the Renaissance composers became interested in creating a new kind of texture. Homophonic literally means "sounding alike." It also involves multiple parts, but in a homophonic texture the parts stay in sync to create blended chords.

To our ears homophony usually sounds simpler than polyphony, and it's easy to imagine that it must have been invented first. However, it took composers a while to learn about these pretty chords and start building them up carefully. We don't really see homophonic music until the 1400s.

Here's my favorite homophonic passage from the Renaissance. (It's from Guillaume Dufay's Alma Redemptoris Mater II.)

Polyphony vs. Homophony

So the real challenge here is to remember the difference between polyphony and homophony. In Exercise 4 we'll try to tell the difference by ear!

Homophony remains pretty rare even in the Renaissance. Most Renaissance music is still polyphonic. If you can hear the voices doing different things at different times and acting independently, it's polyphonic, but if the parts are *always* in sync it is homophonic!

So here's an example of a piece that students think blends together well, and they are tempted to call it homophonic, but if you listen closely you can still hear the parts kind of shifting around and doing different things - it's actually polyphonic.

Josquin des Prez: Mille regretz - polyphonic!

Exercise #4 + the "free practice" exercise

Assignment #4 asks you to listen to six clips and decide whether they are monophonic, polyphonic, or homophonic. Because this is a slightly challenging task I'll give you a check plus if you can get more than half of them right, and a check just for playing.

In addition we've got a free practice exercise that is basically the same thing, but it is not graded and you can do it as many times as you like. So, try that first!

back to blog