One of the biggest things I see beginner producers struggle with is creating a full, dynamic arrangement. There’s either too little or too much going on, and the songs don’t feel like they’ve taken you on a journey either way.
If you struggle with creating dynamic arrangements, you’re not alone. It took me years to figure this out, and I’d like to help you get there sooner. The most important step towards making the kind of arrangements you hear in popular music is to gain an understanding of musical texture.
What is Musical Texture?
Firstly, this is separate from sonic texture (think warm tube amps and tape sims), but musical and sonic textures draw from similar ideas.
Just like we may describe the texture of a surface as smooth, rough, or sticky, musical texture can be described as the way music “feels” influencing the impression it has on us.
Consider two different arrangements of the same song, such as an anthemic U2 hit vs a stripped-down acoustic cover of the same song. You are essentially hearing the same musical work both times, but the texture has been vastly altered. For the sake of this article, we’re not focusing on how the singer’s voice sounds different from Bono’s.
Instead we are focusing on how the musical texture is changed by simplifying the arrangement for acoustic guitar and one singer – removing the bass, drums, and other accompanying musical elements (such as harmonies) in the process.
By understanding the different types of texture in music, you can enhance your music’s emotional impact on the listener and create arrangements that take people on a sonic journey.
The Four Types of Musical Texture
Music has four main types of texture: monophony, polyphony, homophony, and heterophony.
We’ll take an in-depth look at each of these and how they can be applied and combined in your productions to create interesting arrangements.
We will be getting into a bit of music theory here, but even if your theory knowledge is limited (like mine), you will be able to understand these concepts too!
The first three types of musical texture go hand in hand and are common to most contemporary Western Music. We’ll start with monophony.
A monophonic texture consists of a single melodic line. This is probably the easiest texture to pick out when listening to music.
A good example of monophony would be one person singing “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The singer often sings one melody line at a time with no additional vocal accompaniment. Other examples of monophony would include a lead guitar riff or a lead synth part.
These textures are used to create “hooks,” the most memorable parts of a song that get stuck in our heads.
For example, take a listen to “Day Tripper” by The Beatles. The monophonic texture of the guitar riff immediately grabs your attention and gets stuck in your head.
In your productions, creating these monophonic hooks will help your songs stick out and become more memorable to the listener. We often think of creating hooks with the vocal melody line in the chorus, but most modern arrangements also have at least one instrumental hook from a guitar, piano, or synth.
A polyphonic texture consists of two or more independent melodies coinciding.
Polyphonic texture gets a bit muddled up in the industry, as the term is also used in conjunction with a type of synthesizer (polyphonic synths). Polyphony’s usage in the case of synthesizers is broader, and refers to the machine’s ability to play multiple notes simultaneously. Hence, one may be led to believe that polyphony also includes chords, which is not in line with how we describe polyphony in musical textures.
In modern recording, polyphony is often used on vocals. One of my favorite tricks that was used often during the “pop-punk/emo” era of the 2000s was to have two or more vocal melodies occurring at the same time, creating a rich vocal sound at the end of a song. Here’s an example:
Polyphonic textures are also often used as rhythm or support instruments in an arrangement. In a rock band setup, there is often a rhythm and lead guitarist, and the rhythm guitarist is adding polyphonic texture to the music.
In other genres of music, this may be accomplished with a piano or synth pad. This creates a rich, full sound that supports the monophonic texture created by any lead guitar parts, synths, etc.
Combining Monophony and Polyphony
Most instrumental arrangements are combinations of monophonic and polyphonic textures. This combination is referred to as monody. Adding or removing these different textures or instruments at different times during a piece of music is a massive part of what creates dynamics in an arrangement.
When we talk about dynamics in music, we are essentially referring to varying degrees of “loudness” throughout the song. Some sections you will want to be quieter, others louder, and varying these textures can help you create that contrast.
A homophonic texture consists of a central melodic line with additional voices or parts simultaneously serving as a harmonic accompaniment. An excellent example of this in pop songs is a vocal melody with additional harmonies.
Each part sings the same lyrics and has the same rhythm, but each part has a slightly different melody. These pieces are then combined to create one harmonically rich vocal sound.
Take a listen to “Driver’s License” by Olivia Rodrigo. Different harmonies are stacked during the bridge to create a rich vocal texture.
The use of homophony is something I see many young producers skimp on in their music, and I understand, I certainly did too. It’s understandable because when we listen to music, we’re often not picking out every harmony because those parts are doing their job!
They are meant to add texture to the vocals without being super noticeable. However, mainly if you are producing pop or electronic music, homophonic texture is crucial to getting the rich vocal sound you hear in those genres.
Adding or subtracting homophonic textures in your vocal arrangement can create stronger dynamics throughout your music, much like adding or subtracting instruments.
To go back to the “Drivers License” example, in the first half of the song, it feels softer and more intimate because we are hearing just the main vocal. As the instruments’ dynamics increase during the bridge, however, those additional harmonies are added to make the vocals feel like they have increased in dynamics.
In many pop songs, it can be common to keep the verses sparse but add harmonies into the choruses, and even more in the final chorus to create dynamic contrast between sections and make the choruses feel huge.
If you combine these changes in vocal dynamics with changes in instrument dynamics, you’ll have some pretty powerful arrangements on your hands!
(If you want more info on how to layer sounds in your music, check out this article I wrote!)
So far, we have discussed standard musical textures in Western music (a.k.a most contemporary music). The last musical texture to discuss is found if you study music history.
This texture, known as heterophony, is often used in the traditional folk music of European, Asian, or Middle Eastern origin. A heterophonic texture is created when multiple instruments play similar melodies, but the melody may vary slightly between players.
This duet is a good example. You can hear that the two parts sound related to each other, they both seem to follow the chord changes of the piece. If you listen closely, however, the melodies being played vary slightly from each other.
While this texture may not be typical in Western Music, that certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t find creative ways to use it in your music! Maybe you can add a part in your song where two synthesizer melodies play together like this, with each melody line slightly different from the other!
Having unique qualities in your music will make you stand out from other producers, and maybe tastefully using heterophony could be that unique quality for you! Don’t be afraid to experiment with this texture in future productions!
Wrapping It Up
Congratulations, you’ve made it to the end! No more music theory terms!
Whether you know nothing or everything about music theory, you can see how understanding the use of texture in music is an important part of creating dynamic, compelling productions.
Each of the four different types of texture has a unique role to play in a piece of music. By combining them in different ways in each song section, you can create the exact amount of dynamics you want in your productions.
I’ve provided many examples of musical texture here, but I’d encourage you to listen to your favorite music and analyze the types of texture being used. Pay attention to how they are added and subtracted throughout the song to create a sense of dynamics.
I can guarantee that when you start analyzing musical texture like this, it’ll give you a bunch of new ideas to try out in your music and bring you closer to the full, dynamic sound you want in your productions. Have fun producing!