Texture in music refers to the way that different sounds created by either musical instruments or singing contribute to the overall effect of the musical piece. There are four main musical texture types: monophony, polyphony, homophony, and heterophony. 

The difference between polyphony and homophony is single versus multiple melodies. Homophony refers to a piece of music that features a primary melody with accompaniment. In contrast, polyphony refers to a piece of music consisting of a mix of melodies, each separate and independent, yet in harmony with the rest. 

Homophony is the most common texture in Western music and, when in one single rhythm, can also be referred to as homorhythmic. Polyphony features many independent melodies, which we can also refer to as counterpoint or contrapuntal.

This article will take an in-depth look at what constitutes the difference between these textures and where they are most prevalent.

Homophonic Music and Its Applications

Homophonic music has one clear melodic line, which is generally easily discernible. The other parts that make up this type of music are used to fill in the chords or serve as the accompaniment. 

In some well-written homophonic musical pieces, the accompanying parts may still have a melodic interest, meaning that they are interesting to listen to on their own.

However, it will be clear that these accompaniments exist to fill in the melody rather than serve as melodies themselves. 

Homophonic music is the most natural texture in Western music and easily recognizable even by the layman. 

Most choral music, such as Protestant hymns and barbershop quartets, fall into the homophonic category, as does a small instrumental combo where, for example, a bass, a piano, and a drum set provide the rhythmic background for a trumpet solo. 

Easily the most common and recognizable form of homophonic texture in music is the commercially-produced music we listen to from individual singers. 

These singers are generally accompanied by either a guitar or other instruments, which is an excellent example of homophony as they are carrying the primary melody with their voices and musical instruments accompany them (source).

Although most modern pop songs are homophonic by nature due to the presence of a single clear melodic line, they can often temporarily incorporate polyphonic effects.

These effects can happen when a singer might ad-lib or improvise at the end of a song while the chorus continues the refrain.

Polyphonic Music and its Applications

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Polyphony defined a lot of European music up to the 20th century, although details regarding its exact origin is still unclear.

Some theoretical treatises dating back to the early Middle Ages detail music with two separate vocal parts intended to complement one another. 

However, the general consensus is that the earliest known examples of a musical piece written explicitly for multiple voices date back to the year AD 1000 from The Winchester Troper collection (source). 

In polyphonic music, layering is key. Layering occurs when two or more voices are moving at independent yet closely related rhythmic levels.

We can liken this to different parts of a machine that move at different speeds to one another but are all interrelated. 

In polyphonic texture, no specific importance is placed on a single voice. Two or all of the voices may be of equal importance, or one may be slightly more prominent than another.

The voices can also often join one another in conversation-like ways or couplings. 

Counterpoint is an important feature mentioned concerning polyphony as it describes the interaction of the multiple voices.

Imitative counterpoint happens when one voice mimics or repeats another. Canonic counterpoint occurs when a second voice or numerous voices exactly repeat a prominent voice (source).

We find polyphonic texture in most late Baroque music, as well as most music intended for large instrumental groups like bands or orchestras. 

The Difference between Polyphony and Homophony

Most commercially-produced music contains more than just one melodic line.

It is quite common for several instruments to be playing a song together, each contributing a specific part, and singers also often sing along to an instrumental chordal accompaniment. 

In the simplest of terms, polyphony describes music that has multiple active melodies. In homophony, the emphasis is on a single melodic line, which means that one melody will draw most of the listener’s attention.

In polyphony, it is the interplay of motives, contour, continuity, and rhythm that are important. This means that the relationship and interaction of the multiple melodies are what draws the attention, instead of a single clear melody.

In homophonic music, the individual voices won’t often change their roles, meaning that the most essential instrument or voice will remain the same throughout.

However, in polyphony, individual voices can change roles very frequently, moving from prominent to accompaniment from time to time.

Although they change roles, the voices in polyphony may all share the same motive ideas and relate through content, or they may use different motives, which can cause greater independence. 

Homophony and polyphony generally represent two ends of the spectrum, and a lot of the music we know today actually falls somewhere in the middle of these extremes. 

An accompanying guitarist to a singer may soon realize that they produce a better sound when bass notes move in contrast to the melody of the singer’s voice — and then an originally homophonic texture becomes temporarily polyphonic. 

A fugue is a polyphonic technique and often considered the epitome of the polyphonic texture.

And even in a fugue, once each voice has played its part, there may be following sections where the voices are less independent and move more towards the homophonic side of things (source). 

In musical texture, there are a lot of grey areas where it concerns homophony and polyphony. This happens because the two often coincide, albeit temporarily.

Certain homophonic pieces may incorporate small sections where polyphonic techniques create intrigue or a mood variation, and vice versa.  

The Parameters of Music 

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General Parameters

Musical texture can vary in form throughout a piece, and it is this variation that is important when considering the mood or tone of a composition as a whole.

Composers are known to utilize changes in texture along with changes in key, melodic pattern, rhythm, harmony, and continuity. 

A composition is a system made up of many parts, almost like a machine. All the factors must work together for the piece to work as a whole.

Key Changes and Musical Texture

The key or key changes is a critical harmonic factor to consider when thinking about the texture or textural changes in music.

We can understand the key as the pitches that make up the basis of musical composition in classical or Western music. It generally features a tonic note and corresponding chords (source).

However, even if a musical piece is written in “C,” there may be different voices present. The musical texture may also vary between polyphony and homophony.

This variation is because when you play “C” on a piano, for example, and sing in the key of “C,” it sounds different even though you produce the same pitch.

Each musical instrument or voice produces characteristic sound patterns and overtones, which gives it its unique quality. In homophony, these qualities work together, and in polyphony, they can often contrast one another. 

Certain musical instruments can only play a particular key or the music written for them will always be in a specific key, of which the most common example is the clarinet.

Likewise, the design of some instruments produces a specific key. In Western music, the musical key has significant consequences for the composition as a whole. 

Favored Musical Keys

In modern-day Western music, which is mainly homophonic by nature, the easiest key to sing in is generally G, as the music for these artists is mostly composed on either piano or guitar, and G is convenient for both of these instruments.

In polyphony and homophony, the key of the piece is tantamount to the composition as a whole. It can influence the timbre, or mood, of the music and the emotive impact it has. 

C Major is one of the most popular keys in modern-day music as it is the easiest because it requires no sharp or flat notes.

However, more than a third of all songs in existence are written in one of four keys: G Major, D Major, A Major, and, of course, C Major. Of these, G and C seem to be the favorites.

Although G and C Major are favored keys in Western music, composers can write both polyphonic and homophonic music in any key. Polyphonic music can frequently be polytonal, which means that it can feature multiple keys in one piece (source).

Final Thoughts

Homophony and polyphony are two of the four main music textures. Homophony describes a single primary melody with accompaniment that is in rhythm or fills in the harmony.

Polyphony describes a musical texture that allows for multiple independent melodies occurring at the same time.

Most Western music today is homophonic, and polyphonic music traces back to Baroque and Renaissance eras when orchestras were popular.

Generally speaking, individual singers that are accompanied by a musical instrument will make homophonic music, whereas a band or orchestra often creates polyphonic musical pieces.