Abstract and Keywords
This chapter considers musical texture as an emergent property. The first section shows how the interplay of rhythm and pitch—specifically, degrees of synchrony and similar motion—produces basic textural categories (monophony, homophony, polyphony, and heterophony). These textural types may be transformed or hierarchically combined. The second section further argues that such textural structures are supplemented by textural materials, involving timbre, articulation, dynamics, and so forth. This focus on sound quality suggests a more “tactile” approach, imagining musical texture in terms of embodied performance and instrumental materiality. The third section explores texture’s interaction with large-scale form, musical metaphor, dramatic meaning, and social values. Throughout, the chapter mixes perceptual principles and theoretical formalization with analytical comments on diverse repertoire.
Musical texture is commonly described in terms of four categories: monophony, homophony, polyphony, and heterophony. Yet applying these concepts can be complicated. For example, consider the C-major prelude from the first book of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Its texture is consistent and seems simple, especially when compared to the following fugue or, say, the Brandenburg concertos. But how does it fit these textural categories? I imagine three possibilities:
1) Heard as a series of broken chords, the prelude would have a homophonic texture. In this view, the sixteenth notes on the musical surface articulate sustained, underlying harmonies (as represented in Example 1a). This hearing might be encouraged by performances that let each note ring: when a pianist is generous with the sustain pedal, or when the piece is played on classical guitar or harp. (Performers on these instruments may also feel the homophonic texture in the hand positions that are held for each measure.)
2) Alternatively, the prelude could be monophonic. Since each note is attacked separately, it can be conceived as a single, flowing line (see Example 1b). Monophonic instruments with wide enough ranges can play the piece, with the final chord excepted. The American singer Bobby McFerrin even performs it as a vocal solo. This brings out melodic contour or vertical movement, more than chord-to-chord voice leading.
3) Where homophonic or monophonic hearings fuse the notes into a harmonic or melodic whole, a polyphonic hearing splits them apart. Though this analysis might be less plausible in general, it seems appropriate for Glenn Gould’s 1963 recording of the prelude. Here Gould sustains two left-hand voices against an articulated upper part. This somewhat literal interpretation of Bach’s notation suggests a form of tiered polyphony, a characteristic Baroque texture in which parts move at distinct rates (see Example 1c).1 Performing the piece with hands on different organ manuals might effect a similar separation, using stops instead of touch. An arrangement by the Swingle Singers maximizes the polyphony, with the eight pitches of each measure corresponding to the eight singers in the group.
The sketches in Example 1 share the same pitches and surface rhythm. Yet they imagine different groupings, different relations between parts. All are based in Bach’s score, but as the contrast between McFerrin and Gould shows, they are also related to instrumentation, articulation, and so forth—that is, to aspects of performance.
This interplay of notation and performance points to a double meaning. “Texture” does not only refer to the coordination of parts. It also refers to sensual or material qualities of sound, involving timbre, density, and register, that are often described via tactile metaphors. (McFerrin’s falsetto, for example, sounds smooth, while Gould’s piano sounds a little dry.) The first sense of the word corresponds roughly to certain uses of the German Satz, as a technical term in counterpoint; the second sense encompasses the Italian tessitura, among other factors; and the Kaluli dulugu ganalan—translated by Steven Feld as “lift-up-over sounding”—involves aspects of both.2 But none of these foreign words captures the precise meaning of “texture,” which as a musical term is unique to English.3
This might seem to be an unfortunate terminological ambiguity, and confusion may arise if scholars use one meaning or the other out of context. This chapter, however, claims that the double meaning is significant. Like “text” and “textile,” “texture” derives from the Latin verb for weaving, texere. Many authors have exploited this etymology, comparing music’s “vertical” and “horizontal” dimensions to the warp and weft threads of woven fabric.4 Here I extend the metaphor by considering a passage from the Bauhaus-trained textile artist Anni Albers:
The structure of a fabric or its weave—that is, the fastening of its elements of threads to each other—is as much a determining factor in its function as is the choice of the raw material. In fact, the interrelation of the two, the subtle play between them in supporting, impeding, or modifying each other’s characteristics, is the essence of weaving.5
Albers distinguishes between a fabric’s structure and its material. Woven structure involves the crossing of horizontal weft threads over and under vertical warp threads. For example, an uneven twill pattern goes over one, under two, over three, then under one.6 Material differences—for example, between silk and wool—may seem more immediate, though harder to quantify. In isolation, though, neither structure nor material accounts for the finished fabric. In other words, its properties are emergent.7
Mapping structure onto the first meaning of texture and material onto the second, this chapter argues that musical texture involves a similar kind of emergence. Whereas pitch, duration, dynamics, and timbre may, to some degree, be independently adjusted, texture arises from dynamic interactions among these different elements. Texture, then, is not a fully separable musical parameter but an “auxiliary variable” or “superparameter.”8 Like musical form, it involves high-level wholes. It is made with smaller parts, though irreducible to them.
Moreover, as demonstrated by my textural variations on the C-major prelude, texture emerges in particular listening experiences. Perceived texture may shift with individual listeners’ memories, intentions, or actions. Psychologically it involves both bottom-up and top-down processes, both perception and cognition.
This chapter’s organization follows Albers’s distinction. The first section investigates “textural structure” in terms of perceptual principles and music-theoretical tools. The second supplements that with timbral and performative aspects of “textural materials,” while the third considers some of texture’s cultural affordances. Throughout, the chapter offers a critical introduction to foundational research on texture and diverse analytical vignettes. By exploring texture as an emergent phenomenon, I hope to show that the term’s two meanings are distinct but also interrelated, that their subtle play is the essence of musical texture.
“There is always texture,” writes Leonard Meyer, “whether it be that of a single melodic line or that of a complex polyphonic web.”9 Though I agree with Meyer, many writers associate texture with density, richness, and roughness—as in the unsettling intensity of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima or the intertwined voices of a mass by Josquin des Prez. This opposition of melody and texture appears in music journalism, too. For example, a recent review in Entertainment Weekly magazine states that “LP1 [by British R&B artist FKA twigs] is sparing with its hooks, favoring texture over melody.”10 Literary scholar Renu Bora identifies a similar tendency in discourse on nonmusical textures: “Technically speaking, all materials have texture, though colloquially we often say that only rough things … do. Smoothness is both a type of texture and texture’s other.”11 Like smoothness, then, an unaccompanied melody is both a type of texture and texture’s other.
Following Meyer, I claim that hearing a single part as a single part already involves textural emergence. Monophony, in this view, is no more self-evident than other kinds of texture. It depends on the same musical conditions, the same principles of perceptual grouping.
This might be clearest in a counterexample: with compound melody, a sequence of notes is perceived in terms of multiple parts. As Meyer notes, “if the over-all articulation is simpler when a piece for a single instrument is understood as implying several ‘lines’ or voices, then this mode of organization is the one that will probably appear.”12 At the beginning of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, for example, the two pianists play a rapid looping figure in unison (see Example 2a). At some point, however, my hearing switches from monophony to polyphony; I perceive an upper part, moving between B4 and D5, and a lower one on E4 and F#4. (This is represented in Example 2b.) Splitting the notes around a perfect-fourth gap here involves a simpler grouping, even though it involves more streams.
While Piano Phase offers an example of “virtual polyphony,” the converse—what might be called “virtual monophony”—is also possible. Here notes produced by different musicians would be heard as a single stream. This is primarily associated with the hocket techniques found in various traditions, including many kinds of African drumming and medieval polyphony.13 Like the Reich example, passages of hocket often afford multistable textural interpretations. Example 3 presents an excerpt from a fourteenth-century Florentine madrigal in which a florid upper part and held lower part lock into hocket to imitate a lamb’s bleating. It is possible to hear this as one leaping melody. At faster tempos, though, I have trouble hearing it as a single stream instead of two interlocking parts. (This may be enhanced by the differentiation of parts before and after the hocket.)
In other cases, it may be difficult to perceive any sustained line, and listeners may experience what Albert Bregman calls “a kind of perceptual granularity.”14 In the pointillistic, varied texture of Pierre Boulez’s Structures 1a for two pianos, streams flicker in and out without fully coalescing. Notes that are close in pitch and time group together in fragments, though the larger sequence of events may feel discontinuous. For many listeners, this textural instability may be as challenging as the piece’s pitch organization. A distinct musical “figure” may emerge only with extensive practice or repeated listening.
These examples suggest that monophony requires a sense of continuity, which can be surprisingly fragile. Empirical research on auditory streaming shows that this integration involves several factors. Greater pitch distances, of course, encourage perceived separation, which helps explain cross-cultural preferences for small melodic intervals.15 But as Bregman notes, tempo is also a central factor: “At slower rates, the listener can integrate the whole sequence even at fairly large frequency separations, but at high speeds, the separation must be less than five semitones.”16 This is to say that melodic integration and segregation, fusing and splitting, emerge from interactions of pitch and rhythm.
Bregman explains this by connecting musical and everyday listening. He argues that auditory streaming processes evolved to track sounding objects and events in the world. Accordingly, sounds that share timing and movement characteristics—and contiguous sequences that repeat or transform such sounds—are streamed together because they are likely produced by the same source.
From this perspective, monophony need not have the minimal density of one note. Thicker events may also form a single stream if they move together in pitch and time. I distinguish, then, among different kinds of monophony: solo, unison, and doubling. Unison represents a strict form of doubling—that is, a consistent doubling at the same pitch.17 Other strong doublings might use parallel motion or intervals that promote tonal fusion, such as perfect fifths. Of course, traditional voice-leading rules prohibit such doublings because of their textural effects.18 Weaker doublings might use imperfect consonances or dissonances, or similar motion, which would produce varied harmonic intervals.
Thickened monophony requires shared rhythms and shared pitch motion. Yet these conditions for monophony, along with their opposites, account for multipart textural structure in general. A statistical analysis by David Huron arranges a diverse sample along dimensions of onset synchrony and “semblant motion.”19 This generates a square “texture space,” reproduced in Example 4. Its corners correspond to the four traditional terms for texture. In strict homophony, parts share attacks but not motion; in heterophony, they elaborate the “same” melodic material with asynchronous rhythms; in strict polyphony, parts are doubly independent.20
Measurements in both dimensions are percentages that compare two parts.21 They may be calculated in various ways. Huron’s measure of onset synchrony takes the percentage of all onset points that are shared, while Ben Duane’s is based on the part with more onsets.22 Likewise, “semblant motion” may be measured in terms of shared contours, though Duane employs a more sophisticated function that uses logarithms to account for degrees of pitch comodulation.23 Regardless of such details, these measurements productively “fuzzify” the traditional textural categories. That said, the space’s crisp boundaries may still be relevant, since the mind tends to “improve” the perceived organization and to continue it once it is established.24
I see a couple of ways to extend this model. First, besides summative single points, it is possible to trace dynamic paths here. To illustrate, Example 5a charts some upper-voice relations in Bach’s three-part Sinfonia in E-flat Major, BWV 791. (The relevant excerpt appears in Example 5b.) The soprano and alto lines start with weak doubling. Then, in mm. 5–8, they become independent, though some small degree of pitch comodulation remains (because of the descending sequence).
Second, this space might be used to plot multiple concurrent streams. This is to say that the basic textural types can be combined in a kind of “hyper-polyphony.” Just as higher-level polyphony can theoretically be decomposed into several lower-level monophonic voices, a melody-and-accompaniment texture might be conceived as a monophonic stream plus a homophonic or polyphonic stream. Duane’s research considers how thresholds of synchrony and pitch comodulation might cue such hierarchical streaming.25 I want to emphasize that this approach might conceive the basic textural categories as elements to be layered, juxtaposed, and combined. Imitation may contribute to this hierarchical streaming. On one level, it distinguishes parts. The alto’s entry in Bach’s Sinfonia seems less like doubling, because it echoes the opening melody. But imitation also helps group the upper parts, separating them from the nonimitative bass.
Like these proposed extensions, Wallace Berry treats texture as fluid and multilayered. In other words, whereas Huron establishes criteria for defining textural structures, Berry develops a textural energetics. His analysis hinges on this distinction between larger streams and their components:
Two lines moving in parallel thirds may in an important sense be said to constitute a single real textural factor consisting of two components. At any point at which differentiation is established—in rhythm, in direction of motion, in the distance of motion, or in any other sense—a texture initially consisting of a single real factor (of two sounding components) becomes a texture of two real factors (or at least progresses in the direction of such differentiation).26
Berry represents this numerically.27 Each number stands for a textural stream (or “real factor”), with its cardinality corresponding to the number of voices (or “sounding components”) that it contains. For example, 2 denotes a single stream with two components, whereas 1/1 would represent two streams with one component in each. Berry uses curves to plot changes in the number of streams and changes in the overall number of components (which he calls the “density-number”).28 He illustrates with an excerpt from Darius Milhaud’s Six Sonnets for mixed chorus (see Example 6). Four voices enter in imitation, then align homophonically as they approach a cadence. Berry’s analysis, reproduced in Example 7, considers this as a pattern of textural progression and recession.
Berry’s work on texture is full of analytical insights and proliferating jargon. It is as rich as it is idiosyncratic. Perhaps it is productive, then, to translate his numbers into the more familiar terms of transformational theory. This would model textures as ordered pairs of the form (s, d), where s is the number of streams and d is Berry’s “density-number.” Both variables involve the group of integers under addition. Some information is initially lost, since this translation does not show how the components in d are divided among the streams in s. (Where this is problematic, sets of textures—as in ((s1, d1), … , (sn, dn))—offer a workaround.) More important, the transformational approach can clarify both a formal space of possibilities and particular “textural gestures.” Example 8 analyzes the Milhaud passage via a transformational network. It includes only two operations: (+1, +1), which corresponds here to the addition of a new, independent voice, and (-1, 0), the fusing of two voices. The inverses of these operations, which are not used in this excerpt, point to other possibilities. (-1, -1) would represent the removal of an independent voice, while (+1, 0) would split a stream without a change in density. Operations of the form (0, +n) and (0, -n) would thicken or thin layers without changing s. It is fairly simple to define other transformations in this space, such as “Split,” which would make s equal to d—making every part independent—or “Fuse,” which would take s to 1, joining all parts into a single stream.
This transformational model shares a weakness with Berry’s approach: the numbers alone cannot specify relations between streams. They do not distinguish, for example, between melody and accompaniment. Here, inspired by Leonard Meyer, I find it useful to supplement measurements of textural structure with terms borrowed from gestalt psychology. For Meyer, “texture has to do with the ways in which the mind groups concurrent musical stimuli into simultaneous figures, a figure and accompaniment (ground), and so forth.”29
The visual analogy seems helpful. With dense counterpoint, as in an intricate drawing, people generally perceive an overall image instead of discrete lines.30 The alternative hearings of Reich’s Piano Phase pattern recall optical illusions like the well-known picture of the duck/rabbit.31 And a melody with polyphonic accompaniment suggests a solid figure over a patterned background. It would also be possible to have a polyphonic figure against a monophonic background—say, a drone. It is no coincidence that, in this last example, the background drone is static, since gestalt theory teaches that smaller or more active elements tend to form the figure.32
At the same time, auditory figure-ground relationships may differ from visual ones. To begin with, sounds are transparent. As Bregman notes, “a nearer but softer sound can never occlude from perception a farther but louder one.”33 And Meyer argues that music may present a figure without any ground.34 Gestalt theorist Kurt Koffka would disagree. “There exists a ground in the auditory field as well as in the visual field, or in any other sensory field,” writes Koffka. “This ground may be ‘stillness’ or it may be the mixture of street-noises which, in a city, never cease during the day-time.”35 Aron Gurwitsch’s phenomenological refinements to gestalt theory might resolve this dispute. Gurwitsch distinguishes among “theme” (figure), “thematic field” (a ground that frames the figure), and “margin” (an irrelevant background).36 This would clarify the difference between accompaniment—which supports and affects the theme, as a thematic field—and underlying silence or noise.
Meyer also notes that it is possible to hear an auditory ground with no figure—an unaccompanied accompaniment. He illustrates with the opening of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The rustling perfect fifth seems like a background, even before the first violins’ entrance. “All the factors making for a clearly articulated relationship are present,” writes Meyer. “Not only is the ground much more uniform than the figure, but it begins before the figure is introduced, thus surrounding it in a temporal sense.”37 This textural articulation is particularly remarkable, given that the figure and ground use the same two pitch classes! This confirms principles of textural structure discussed above. Onset synchrony and pitch comodulation are low between streams and high within them. The ground is homophonic, though rhythmically activated.38 Meanwhile, the figure might be conceived as monophony or polyphony, depending on whether the violas and contrabasses are heard to continue or to echo the first violins’ motive.39
Meyer goes on to show that this initial distinction between parts weakens.40 Late in the introduction, the figure starts to dissolve into the ground. As the Huron-style measurements of Example 9a show, this involves increasing onset synchrony. It creates a slight shift from polyphony toward homophony. (Note that pitch comodulation stays at 0 in mm. 1–16.) At the same time, Berry-style analysis would indicate a substantial growth in density, while maintaining the number of higher-level streams (see Example 9b). Furthermore, both methods can help chart the momentous textural change following the introduction in m. 17—as an outbreak of strict rhythmic and pitch doubling, or as the fusing of two streams without a change in density (see Example 9c–d).
These approaches, though, also leave something out. Beethoven’s symphony—being a symphony—involves orchestration, timbre, and dynamics. And this leads away from textural structure, toward textural materials.
Just as Anni Albers represents thread-crossing patterns with numbers, I have examined textural structures through functions and transformations. Yet these relatively abstract structures are realized using raw materials, which are less easily measured. Albers illustrates their interplay with the balanced plain weave, a kind of fabric in which the horizontal weft threads alternately pass over and under the vertical warp threads: “The fact that warp and weft appear on the surface in equal amounts and intersect visibly leads to the use of contrasting materials and colors for them, thereby underlining the original structure of the weave.”41 This example resonates with long-standing conceptions of timbre as sound color.42 If color affects the perception of visual shapes, timbre, articulation, or loudness may emphasize one of two competing musical figures.43
This happens often in ensemble arrangements of solo works.44 Consider the third piece from György Ligeti’s Musica ricercata for solo piano. It involves Bartók-like counterpoint, passing a motive between the player’s hands (see mm. 11–12 in Example 10). Then, in mm. 13–14, the hands play the motive in synchronized parallel motion, fusing into a single layer.
Ligeti’s arrangement of the piece as the first of Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet adds timbral coloring. The antiphony in mm. 11–12 becomes trading between oboe and horn. The timbral distinction enhances the polyphonic implications of the piano version. In the second, paired part of the passage, however, Ligeti continues the antiphony, now between a clarinet/bassoon pair and an oboe/horn pair. Example 11 uses my transformational model to bring out the difference. Both versions end with a fusing gesture, modeled via the operation (-1, 0) or the Fuse transformation. But the wind quintet involves an intermediate stage: where the piano’s upper and lower parts potentially fused, the quintet first thickens the polyphony with two new timbral strands.
Here Ligeti amplifies the piano’s polyphony, “underlining the original structure of the weave.” Yet timbre may also suggest new groupings. Perhaps the best known case of this is Anton Webern’s orchestration of the six-part ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering.45 Webern divides Bach’s lines among various instruments. The initial fugal answer, for example, starts with the flute, then passes to the clarinet, oboe, and harp (mm. 9–16). It still may be followed as a single stream, though the variegation makes this more demanding. Against this wind-based line, the countersubject is presented by muted strings (alternating between the second violin section and a solo viola). In other words, Webern’s orchestration presents timbral differentiation both within and between layers of Bach’s polyphonic texture.
This example suggests that a sense of timbral homogeneity or heterogeneity depends on the context of the ensemble. Still, the distinction seems useful. Instruments with similar timbres—like the members of a string quartet—may fuse into what Eric Clarke calls an imaginary “multi-instrument.”46
In larger orchestral works, timbral differences may be used to support the “hyper-polyphony” mentioned in the previous section. The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives, for example, involves three distinct streams: the slow-moving string section forms a homophonic background for two alternating figures, a solo trumpet and an increasingly agitated flute quartet. While the trumpet provides a monophonic figure, the flute quartet—though timbrally unified—projects a polyphonic one, which itself involves fusing and splitting. The composer emphasizes the importance of the performance setup in defining the relationships between these layers. “The string quartet or string orchestra (con sordini), if possible, should be ‘off stage,’ or away from the trumpet and flutes. The trumpet should use a mute unless playing in a very large room, or with a larger string orchestra.”47 In other words, dynamics and even spatial layout, along with timbre, contribute to the separation of streams.
Timbral separation of streams is also prevalent in popular music. For example, mixing practices contribute to the textures of rock music. Especially with stereo recordings, they often isolate instrumental strands, as in the common rock-band setup of two guitars, bass, and drums.48 At the same time, though, multitrack recording can facilitate thick textures with many layers, creating a wall of sound in which individual strands blend into a larger sonic fabric. That is, timbre can separate but also fuse textural layers. Materials may underline structure—or they may subvert it.
A brief excerpt from “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n”—the first of Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder—can serve as an illustration. According to a piano reduction, the phrase at rehearsal number 10 has a straightforward three-part texture. The melody is supported by gently rocking harmonic filler and a sustained bass.49 Yet Mahler orchestrates this with a series of timbral overlaps: the first violins heterophonically double the voice; the second violins double the harp’s upper part; and low strings, then horn, double the harp’s bass. Textural material, then, cuts across textural structure. The muted strings color both the voice and harp, softening textural definition. In a sense, this intertwining—in which layers cannot readily be separated—is crucial for experiences of texture as a higher level phenomenon. Here texture seems to emerge as a whole, with distinct yet connected parts.
That said, textural materials are not only about defining or blurring structural streams. Surely the affect of the Ives and Mahler pieces is related to their sound quality. Both use muted strings to create atmosphere. In the Ives, this is set against the brightness of the flutes and the fullness of the trumpet’s middle range; in the Mahler, it blends with the decaying plucks of the harp and the expressive voice. From this perspective, timbre does not merely color a preexisting design but is an essential aspect of—or a precondition for—such designs.
But perhaps calling this “sound quality” is still too abstract. Perhaps the very idea of “timbre” isolates sound from performance.50 As the examples from Ives and Mahler show, timbre, register, and dynamics are all tied up with each other and with specific instrumentation. In The Unanswered Question, the flutes end in an extremely high register, where the instrument is particularly shrill. Instead of an absolute measure of pitch height, then, this suggests a more holistic concept of tessitura, according to which a part is not simply high or low but also easy or demanding, stable or volatile, smooth or harsh, given a particular context of performed action. Like textural structure, then, textural material would involve a kind of emergence. Sound quality would be produced by several combined elements—register, dynamics, articulation, and so on—that are grounded in interactions between instruments and performers’ bodies.51
In this view, sonic materials may index the materiality of performance. This resembles the interplay of vision and tactility in object textures.52 I can see that this mug feels smooth, that the blanket feels soft. So too, musical texture might be intersensory: I hear that this voice feels strained; that drum sounds like metal, wood, or plastic.53 This resonates with research in ecological acoustics that shows how various sonic characteristics relate to their physical production. Dynamics, for example, generally correlate with the force of an interaction, while timbre correlates with material properties of the objects involved.54 Both dynamics and timbre may be affected by spatial location, contributing to the sense of nearness or distance—which contributes to the haunting presence of the muted strings. Like Bregman’s perspective on auditory streaming, this ecological view may imply continuity between musical and everyday listening. Many listeners recognize familiar instruments, though admittedly, instrumental identities may also be masked, indistinct, or creatively ignored.55
This suggests a different and potentially rich approach: an account starting from raw materials instead of formal structure might view musical texture in terms of embodied practices and cultural meanings.
Besides structure and material, there is a third element hidden in Albers’s definition of weaving: function. The interplay of structure and material affects a fabric’s flexibility, its strength, and its potential use for garments or upholstery. In this section, likewise, I am interested less in what texture is and more in what texture does. How does it mediate other musical features? How does it communicate? Though my answers here are far from exhaustive, I hope they suggest varied functions for texture.
This investigation builds on the work of Janet Levy. In her essay “Texture as a Sign in Classic and Early Romantic Music,” Levy distinguishes between contextual and conventionalized signs. Contextual signs involve “particular sets of associations or idiosyncratic relationships between or among textures within a given piece.”56 She illustrates with the opening movement of Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in C, op. 74, no. 1.57 In the movement’s primary theme, the violins and viola form a stream with a high degree of rhythmic synchrony and similar motion, accompanied by a “drum bass” figure in the cello (see Example 12). Later, this theme appears with different textures. Leading into the exposition’s closing material, for example, the three-part stream returns without the bass’s rhythmic and harmonic support. Instead, a new, active line is added in the first violin (see Example 13). These streams compete for listeners’ attention: one was established earlier in the piece; the other moves more quickly. Levy argues that the change in texture has formal significance. As the new texture destabilizes the theme, it implies that the section at hand is not a straightforward presentation but is more open-ended and developmental.
Other styles—from post-tonal to popular music—also employ contextual signs. Texture articulates form in Witold Lutosławski’s 1964 String Quartet, where doubled octaves come to function as a contextual sign that denotes sectional boundaries.58 For an example in a different style, consider “I Love Rock N’ Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. In this song, the third presentation of the chorus varies the texture. The guitars rest, and only the drums accompany the singers.59 Like the “false recapitulation” examples discussed by Levy, this defers closure. Though the song is nearly finished, the new texture signals that this is not yet the final chorus. (This seems to have two further functions: first, varying the texture of repeated material may reengage listeners; second, the simplification in texture may encourage participation.)
Whereas contextual signs involve intra-opus associations, conventionalized signs reflect more general stylistic tendencies. Levy discusses three kinds of conventionalized signs: accompaniment patterns, solos, and unisons.
For Levy, the entrance of a repetitive accompaniment pattern signals stability:
There is a kind of double psychic economy provided by our recognition of this kind of textural sign. First, we are “told,” by the appearance of the Alberti or other familiar pattern, that stability is likely to reign—at least until closure or until other signs contravene this one. Because for the moment there is no question of what the passage is, we can relax and simply experience its unfolding. Second, some of the perceptual work is, so to speak, done for us. The Alberti bass (or other regular) pattern provides a kind of palpable motor action that measures or marks off time regularly for us; the palpability of meter is in inverse proportion to the amount of effort the performer/listener must expend.60
As a ground awaiting a figure, the accompaniment pattern suggests that a melodic presentation is about to occur. It may even define a figure as such. Example 14 presents the beginning of Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, op. 27, no. 1. Levy argues that the left-hand sextuplets indicate that the slow-moving upper part is, in fact, a melody (see Example 14).61
This textural effect may also appear in less conventionalized situations. Arnold Schoenberg’s op. 19, no. 2 begins with a repeated third, staccato and pianissimo (see Example 15). Establishing this background in mm. 1–2 helps the following melody cohere as a figure, despite its opening leap of a thirteenth.
Solos, for Levy, imply a kind of beginning, a call awaiting a response. Because of this, they may deny musical closure, as in cadenzas and lead-ins.62 And unisons—that is, ensemble unisons—are marked for attention, even if their significance is ambiguous. They may seem to gather streams together or to dissolve a more complex texture into a single line.63 While Levy focuses on Western art music from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, she suggests that some of these principles may be realized in other musical cultures. For example, she notes that classical Indian music distinguishes between an unaccompanied prelude and the beginning marked by the entrance of tabla drums.64
Like contextual signs, conventionalized signs cue expectations about formal organization. But there is another aspect to Levy’s theory that anticipates later research on music and metaphor.65 She suggests that solos are analogically understood as vocal utterances and unisons as regulated collective action. This reflects texture’s capacity to support extramusical references. These mappings, I argue, respond not to individual parameters but to the ways that they are interwoven. Emergent sonic streams make it possible to hear metaphorical bodies, voices, agents, and objects in music.66 This might commonly be monophonic or homophonic, though a polyphonic stream could represent the coordination of two independent hands or feet. As Rolf Inge Godøy writes, “it seems that most (or perhaps all) features at different timescales may be correlated with some kind of body movement and/or posture, hence that musical textures, be they instrumental, vocal or electroacoustic, may also be seen as choreographies of sound-related movements.”67
If the interplay of figure and ground resembles a body in an environment, music without a singular figure may support kinesthetic metaphors less well. Numerous interlocking streams might more readily suggest the interplay of multiple agents: a flock of birds, conversational partners, and so on. Dense or fluid textures might also imply sonic landscapes, as in depictions of seas and storms.
These textural signs rely on some kind of resemblance. Following Charles Sanders Peirce’s trichotomy of sign-object relations, they might be called textural icons. Along these lines, textural indexes would be signs based on co-occurence or association.68 Like Levy, I suggest that textural signs may involve fairly general principles that are, obviously, realized in particular ways in different cultural groups. As such, I illustrate this distinction between textural icons and indexes through Steven Feld’s ethnomusicological work with the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea. First, Kaluli music theory describes melodic motion in terms of waterfalls.69 This involves iconic resemblance between musical and aquatic streams. Second, Feld argues that heterophony in Kaluli music reflects social values.70 These “in sync but out of phase” textures do not simply resemble social relationships; for participants, they indexically embody them as well. As Thomas Turino writes, “When music makers and dancers are in sync, such signs move beyond felt resemblances to experienced fact of social connections and unity.”71 Turino argues that dense textures like the heterophony of Kaluli music are common to participatory musics—and that texture typically differentiates participatory and presentational styles of performance.72
In various styles of music theater, textural indexes can help depict characters’ social relationships. (Again, singing in homophony or unison does not merely resemble coordinated action; it embodies it.) For example, consider a number from the first act of Don Giovanni, in which the eponymous rake seduces the peasant girl Zerlina. In “Là ci darem la mano,” Giovanni sings the first stanza alone. Zerlina repeats his music with her own words. They then repeat the same material but split into counterpoint, trading lines. The two intertwined voices compete as a polyphonic figure. Giovanni insists. Zerlina hesitates, remembering her poor fiancé. In the duet’s final section, however, she assents. In homophonic harmony, they sing “Andiam, andiam, mio bene …” [“Let’s go, let’s go, my love … ”]. The shift in texture indexes Zerlina’s capitulation. This textural strategy is common in theatrical duets: starting with monophony, moving into antiphony, then to some form of rhythmic synchrony. (This recalls the splitting-fusing trajectory of the Milhaud network in Example 8.) In Don Giovanni, this textural journey represents seduction. A very similar pattern, culminating in a unison, is used to represent vows of commitment (in the act I finale from Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor) or reconciliation (in the climactic duet, “For Good,” from Stephen Schwartz’s contemporary broadway hit, Wicked).
Texture may also refer to musical instruments. For example, the pastoral topic conventionally imitates the texture of small rural bagpipes, with a drone and diatonic pitch collection.73 Of course, the resemblance is not always exact. The opening of Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894, for example, echoes the pastoral pipes in a more pianistic style. This blend of instrumental textures may reveal the sonata’s opening as an instance of what Robert Hatten calls “troping”: “the bringing together of two otherwise incompatible style types in a single location to produce a unique expressive meaning from their collision or fusion.”74 Material and symbolic gaps between the two instruments affect my hearing of Schubert’s pastoralism. By transforming pipes into the piano, Schubert seems to take a distinct perspective on the pastoral, mixing rural and urban, peasant and bourgeois, public and private, past and present.
Many musical topics are based on instrumental textures like this, especially those not related to the rhythms of dance.75 Chorale textures are similar, based as they are on a style of collective singing. As another case, consider a common jazz rhythm-section texture, in which a walking bass line is distinct from rhythmically irregular homophonic comping. This conventional texture typically supports a melody. But it might also be used to reference the genre (or at least particular styles of jazz).
These diverse textural functions suggest a hermeneutic or semiotic approach to texture that would respond both to stylistic conventions and to contexts of performance and reception. Of course, this would pursue textural effects that are sometimes unstable. Their implications are not always fulfilled, and they are culturally specific. Still, coming to terms with such effects seems important, because they get at texture’s apparent immediacy. As Levy puts it, “texture is at once the most surface and most complex.”76
This chapter has argued that musical texture is emergent on several levels. Textural structure and textural materials interact with each other, but both are also produced by multiple factors. Similarly, listeners’ experiences of texture combine bottom-up and top-down processes, both basic grouping principles and cultural understanding.
The first section showed how textural structure emerges from the interplay of pitch and rhythm. Following David Huron, it located basic textural categories—monophony, homophony, polyphony, and heterophony—in dimensions of onset synchrony and pitch comodulation. Adapting Wallace Berry’s theoretical work added new perspectives on textural change and intensity, while Leonard Meyer’s gestalt-based approach helped characterize relationships between streams. The second section, however, claimed that textural structure is supplemented by textural materials. Timbre, articulation, or dynamics might support groupings suggested by pitch and rhythm—or work against them. Moreover, because sound quality is rooted in performance, texture is related to embodied action and instrumental materiality. The third section explored texture’s varied functions. Starting from Janet Levy’s research on textural signs, this touched on large-scale form, musical metaphor, dramatic meaning, and social values.
The chapter’s trajectory might be understood as a series of metaphors. The first section emphasized visual imagery, with its discussion of lines, shapes, and figure-ground relationships. (Indeed, textural structure is often visible in musical notation.) The second section turned from sight to touch. It compared sound quality to the tactile textures of objects, while also indicating the contact of body and instrument in performance. With its semiotic focus, the third section imagined texture as discourse. This suggested similarities between texture and linguistic or gestural communication.
This conceptual variety is matched by the diversity of the chapter’s musical examples. Texture’s importance in many styles seems to warrant further research involving theoretical formalization or psychological experiments. Yet I also expect important insights to come from sustained investigation of texture in particular repertoires. This might productively engage the statistical and computational methods of corpus studies, or it could be combined with more traditional modes of analysis. Either way, I believe that texture has great interpretive potential. If texture is an emergent phenomenon, it resists reductionism. Attending to texture, then, may help sensitize scholars, students, listeners, and performers to ways that music holds together and ways that it comes apart, to ways that music moves and ways that it moves us.
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Berry, Wallace. Structural Functions in Music. New York: Dover, 1987.Find this resource:
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Cai, Camilla. “Texture and Gender: New Prisms for Understanding Hensel’s and Mendelssohn’s Piano Pieces.” In Nineteenth-Century Piano Music: Essays in Performance and Analysis, edited by David Witten, 53–93. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1997.Find this resource:
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Downey, Greg. “Listening to Capoeira: Phenomenology, Embodiment, and the Materiality of Music.” Ethnomusicology 46 (2002): 487–509.Find this resource:
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(1) Brent Auerbach, “Tiered Polyphony and Its Determinative Role in the Piano Music of Johannes Brahms,” Journal of Music Theory 52 (2008): 273–320.
(2) “Texture,” Grove Music Online, www.oxfordmusiconline.com (accessed February 26, 2014); Steven Feld, “Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style, or ‘Lift-Up-Over Sounding’: Getting into the Kaluli Groove,” Yearbook for Traditional Music 20 (1988): 74–114.
(3) Jonathan Dunsby hypothesizes that the term was introduced by discourses of post-tonal music (Dunsby, “Considerations of Texture,” Music & Letters 70 : 47). But though the term may have gained prominence in the early twentieth century, it is much older. For example, it appears throughout Charles Burney, A General History of Music, from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period (London: 1776–1789).
(4) See, for example, Lewis Rowell, Thinking about Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), 158; Albert S. Bregman, Auditory Scene Analysis: The Perceptual Organization of Sound (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 456; and Camilla Cai, “Texture and Gender: New Prisms for Understanding Hensel’s and Mendelssohn’s Piano Pieces,” in Nineteenth-Century Piano Music: Essays in Performance and Analysis, ed. David Witten (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1997), 63.
(5) Anni Albers, “On Weaving,” in The Craft Reader, ed. Glenn Adamson (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2010), 29.
(7) For an introduction to ongoing philosophical debates about emergence, see Niels Henrik Gregersen, “Emergence and Complexity,” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, ed. Philip Clayton (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199543656.003.0046.
(8) Janet M. Levy, “Texture as a Sign in Classic and Early Romantic Music,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 35 (1982): 482; Dalia Cohen and Shlomo Dubnov, “Gestalt Phenomena in Musical Texture,” in Music, Gestalt, and Computing: Studies in Cognitive and Systematic Musicology, ed. Marc Leman (Berlin and New York: Springer, 1997), 387.
(9) Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 263.
(10) Miles Raymer, “FKA twigs, LP1,” Entertainment Weekly, August 15, 2014, 66.
(11) Renu Bora, “Outing Texture,” in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1997), 98–99.
(13) For example, see Willie Anku, “Principles of Rhythm in African Drumming,” Black Music Research Journal 17 (1997): 211–238; Ernest H. Sanders, “The Medieval Hocket in Practice and Theory,” The Musical Quarterly 60 (1974): 246–256.
(15) David Huron, “Tone and Voice: A Derivation of the Rules of Voice-Leading from Perceptual Principles,” Music Perception 19 (2001): 25.
(17) With doubling, it can be interpretively revealing to ask: “Who is doubling whom?” See W. Dean Sutcliffe, “Haydn’s Piano Trio Textures,” Music Analysis 6 (1987): 321.
(19) Huron, “Characterizing Musical Textures,” in Proceedings of the 1989 International Computer Music Conference (San Francisco: Computer Music Association, 1989), 131–134. “Semblant motion” includes both parallel and similar motion.
(20) Polyphonic music tends to avoid onset synchrony, according to the analysis in Huron, “Note-Onset Synchrony in J. S. Bach’s Two-Part Inventions,” Music Perception 10 (1993): 435–443.
(21) With an n-part texture, these measurements can be arranged in an n × n matrix that covers all pairs.
(22) Huron, “Note-Onset Synchrony in J. S. Bach’s Two-Part Inventions,” 437; Ben Duane, “Auditory Streaming Cues in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century String Quartets: A Corpus-Based Study,” Music Perception 31 (2013): 51.
(26) Wallace Berry, Structural Functions in Music (New York: Dover, 1987), 186. As this quote suggests, Berry imagined a textural “spectrum” similar to Huron’s texture space. This model, however, is overcomplicated, with three dimensions—rhythm, direction, and interval—each of which may be homo-, hetero-, or contra- (193–194).
(27) Berry’s notation resembles a shorthand used by Orin Moe, “Texture in Haydn’s Early Quartets,” The Music Review 35 (1974): 4–22.
(28) Berry, Structural Functions in Music, 188, 209. For Berry, changes in the number of streams are “qualitative” (as in a qualitative shift from monophony to polyphony), while changes in density-number are “quantitative.”
(30) Listeners have difficulty distinguishing more than three parts with the same timbre, as shown by Huron, “Voice Denumerability in Polyphonic Music of Homogeneous Timbres,” Music Perception 6 (1989): 361–382.
(31) For a more general treatment of multistability in music, see Gary S. Karpinski, “Ambiguity: Another Listen,” Music Theory Online 18 (2012), http://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.12.18.3/mto.12.18.3.karpinski.php.
(35) Kurt Koffka, “Perception: An Introduction to the Gestalt-Theorie,” Psychological Bulletin 19 (1922): 554. Koffka further notes that experiments with auditory stimuli do not require complete silence; consistent background noise produces the same results.
(36) Aron Gurwitsch, The Field of Consciousness (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1964), 4.
(42) See Emily I. Dolan, The Orchestral Revolution: Haydn and the Technologies of Timbre (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
(43) See David L. Wessel, “Timbre Space as a Musical Control Structure,” Computer Music Journal 3 (1979): 45–52; Stephen McAdams and Bruno L. Giordano, “The Perception of Musical Timbre,” in The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology, ed. Ian Cross, Susan Hallam, and Michael Thaut (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199298457.013.0007.
(44) It is common, of course, to imagine different layers of a piano piece in terms of orchestral instruments. To some degree, this may reflect a longstanding culture of transcription for piano. But it is still a way of imaginatively adding articulation or clarity to textural layers.
(45) See Jeffery Dethorne, “Colorful Plasticity and Equalized Transparency: Schoenberg’s Orchestrations of Bach and Brahms,” Music Theory Spectrum 36 (2014): 126–133.
(46) Eric F. Clarke, Ways of Listening: An Ecological Approach to the Perception of Musical Meaning (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 179.
(47) Charles E. Ives, The Unanswered Question (New York: Southern Music Publishing, 1953), 2.
(48) See Allen F. Moore, Rock: The Primary Text: Developing a Musicology of Rock, 2nd ed. (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001), 120–126.
(49) This kind of three-part texture, common in nineteenth-century piano music like Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, is examined in Cai, “Texture and Gender.”
(51) For analysis of body-instrument interaction, see Jonathan De Souza, Music at Hand: Instruments, Bodies, and Cognition (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
(52) For an overview of nonmusical texture perception, see Ruth Rosenholtz, “Texture Perception,” in The Oxford Handbook of Perceptual Organisation, ed. Johan Wagemans (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199686858.013.058.
(53) For further discussion, see Greg Downey, “Listening to Capoeira: Phenomenology, Embodiment, and the Materiality of Music,” Ethnomusicology 46 (2002): 496.
(54) William Gaver, “What in the World Do We Hear? An Ecological Approach to Auditory Event Perception,” Ecological Psychology 5 (1993): 11.
(55) In this respect, I agree with the critique of ecological acoustics in Joanna Demers, Listening Through the Noise (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 36–37.
(58) For analytical comments on texture in Lutosławski’s quartet, see Nicholas Reyland, “Notes on the Construction of Lutosławski’s Conception of Musical Plot,” Witold Lutosławski Studies 2 (2008): 19–23.
(59) I am grateful to Brett Kingsbury for suggesting this example and to Jillian Bracken for her insights about it.
(65) For example, see Lawrence Zbikowski, Conceptualizing Music: Cognitive Structure, Theory, and Analysis (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
(67) Rolf Inge Godøy, “Images of Sonic Objects,” Organised Sound 15 (2010): 58.
(68) Levy’s conventionalized signs, incidentally, might be a form of textural symbol. For introductions to Peircean semiotics and music, see Thomas Turino, “Signs of Imagination, Identity, and Experience: A Peircian Semiotic Theory for Music,” Ethnomusicology 43 (1999): 221–255; David Lidov, Is Language a Music? Writings on Musical Form and Signification (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005).
(69) Steven Feld, “Flow Like a Waterfall: The Metaphors of Kaluli Musical Theory,” Yearbook for Traditional Music 13 (1981): 30–31.
(71) Turino, “Signs of Imagination, Identity, and Experience,” 241 (emphasis in original).
(72) Thomas Turino, Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 44–45.
(73) On pastoral instruments, see Raymond Monelle, The Musical Topic: Hunt, Military, and Pastoral (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 207–215. For more general discussion of instrumental idioms and topics, see De Souza, Music at Hand.
(74) Robert Hatten, Interpreting Musical Gestures, Topics, and Tropes: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 67.
(75) See Kofi Agawu, Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classic Music (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 30; Stephen C. Rumph, Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 83.