When I photograph landscapes, I frame the scene so there is a sense of balance, depth and form. I compose so the viewer's eye is drawn to the most important object, e.g., the moon in "Moonrise Over Tantalus." Musicians design the texture and form of their soundscapes as precisely and deliberately as visual artists. Let's look at the basic types of musical texture and form.
Moonrise Over Tantalus | Honolulu, Hawaii | Peter Kun Frary
In general, musical texture refers to how melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic materials combine in a composition. For this course, we are mainly concerned with perception of the horizontal and vertical aspects of texture.
The horizontal or linear arrangement of texture involves melodic lines, i.e., a succession of notes. Sing a song with no instrumental or vocal backup. That's a melodic line.
The vertical aspect of texture involves how melodic lines combine together to form harmony or counterpoint. For example, singing with a friend and a guitar creates layers of melodic lines and chords. How the two voices and guitar sound together any given point is the vertical aspect of texture.
Musicians are picky about texture and we spend a lifetime learning how to create and control texture for expressive purposes. And, of course, we have names for the various textures: monophonic, polyphonic and homophonic. There are also textural subclasses but we'll focus on these three main texture types for now.
Monophonic texture consists of a single melodic line. Imagine singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat in the shower by yourself. The sounding of a single melodic line is called monophonic texture. It's still monophonic even if twenty friends join you as long as they stay synchronized rhythmically and don't harmonize (or mess with the hot water).
Polyphonic texture consists of two or more lines of relatively equal importance. Again, you're singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat but this time a friend joins in with "Row, Row" when you get to the word "Gently." And, two measures later, another friend follows suit. You now have three independent melodic lines of equal importance. This is an example of polyphonic texture. The particular technique used in Row, Row, Row Your Boat is called imitation, i.e., you and your friends are imitating or echoing one another. The compositional technique of writing layers of independent melodic lines is called counterpoint.
Finally, you sing Row, Row, Row Your Boat but accompany yourself by strumming chords on a guitar while your little sister grooves on bass. This texture—melody with supportive chords—is called homophonic texture.
These three textures—monophonic, polyphonic and homophonic—are important characteristics of style and are one of many clues to help distinguish one musical style from another. With that said, it is not unusual, especially after the 17th century, for composers to create contrast by featuring different textures within a short span of time.
As we listen to music, important ideas—melodies, harmonic progressions, etc.—stick in our memory. A sense of form is created as prior ideas return and are contrasted with new material. This organization of musical ideas in time is called musical form. Today, we merely need to examine the universals of musical form. Later, as we work through each historical era, we'll address specific forms.
The details of musical forms vary throughout history but most forms are based on the techniques of repetition, variation and contrast.
Repetition creates unity, balance and symmetry in a musical work, drawing on our enjoyment of recognizing and remembering something.
A key principle of repetition technique is to repeat a musical idea just enough to make it memorable. Too many repeats would be monotonous. The answer to excess repetition is variation. A variation is simply a repeat of a prior idea but with enough changes to keep it interesting without losing its essential character. Variation has the advantage of repetition—unity—but adds tension and drama due to changes in melody, harmony, rhythm, instruments, etc.
Finally, contrast is used to create variety, conflict and mood changes. The return of a prior idea is stronger if preceded with a contrasting section. Contrasts may involve a new melody, harmony, instruments, key, tempo, etc.
Let's listen to repetition, variation and contrast at work. The composer, Beethoven, introduces a simple four-note motive at the beginning.
Beethoven immediately imprints it into your memory by repeating and varying this four-note motive incessantly. Near the end of the track, he introduces a contrasting melody, a more lyrical and gentle theme.
Symphony No. 5: 1. Allegro con brio (1:04) | Beethoven (excerpt)
Musical form is a template composers pour their ideas into. For example, millions of songs are organized around the chorus-verse form. Although they use the same formal structure, each song sounds different. If every song had a new formal structure, listeners would be confused. We expect music to be organized a certain way.
In form analysis we use capital letters (A) to stand for major sections of a piece and the prime symbol to indicate variation of repeated sections. For example, A B A means there are three sections: two identical outer sections (A) and a contrasting middle section (B). This use of two identical or similar outer sections to frame a contrasting middle section is one of the most universal formal structures. It even has a name: ternary form (three-part form).
Ternary form has a few common variants: A A B A' means the A section is repeated, followed by a contrasting middle section and, finally, the first section returns with variations. The term, coda, means a ending section has been added.
Here's a diagram of my ternary form piece, Eleventh Hour:
| A | A | B | A | Coda |
The A section is cast in a dark and mellow minor mode. The contrasting B section starts at 0:51 with a key change to the major mode and a new melody. A returns at 1:31. Finally, a short coda ensues at 1:51.
Eleventh Hour (2:31) | Peter Kun Frary | Peter Kun Frary, guitar