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Chapter 6
How Music Works, Part IV:
Texture and Form
Musical “characters” – notes, rhythms, melodies,
patterns, and vocal and instrumental parts – are similar to
how the characters in a novel relate and interact.
Texture describes the kinds of relationships that emerge
and evolve between these characters.
Form is the element of music that pertains to large-scale
dimensions of musical organization. Study of form is
concerned with the development and shape of entire
pieces, phrases, and sections.
There are many kinds of musical textures.
Single-line textures are the simplest, and are also
known as monophonic textures. One, two, five, or a
thousand individuals can create a monophonic texture,
so long as all are playing the same sequence of pitches
with the same rhythm.
Polyphonic textures include two or more distinct parts.
This may result from the playing/singing of different
parts on different instruments, or from a single
instrument that can play more than one note at the same
CD ex. #1-6 is an example of Mongolian khoomii, in
which a single human voice creates polyphony.
A drone accompanying a melody is a common and simple
type of polyphonic texture.
CD ex. #1-16 is an example of a Scottish bagpipe
ensemble performing a melody over a sustained, long
Harmonized textures emerge when notes of different pitches
occur together to form chords, or “harmonies.”
CD ex. #1-11 (harmonized voices); CD ex. #1-27
(chords on guitar accompany melody on saxophone).
Multiple-melody texture occurs in polyphonic music
that features two or more essentially separate melodic
lines being performed simultaneously.
CD ex. #2-3—two groups of male vocalists
generate multiple-melody texture.
Javanese gamelan music, as in CD x. #1-7,
provides rich multiple-melody textures.
CD ex. #2-4 features a traditional BaMbuti
elephant hunting song. The relative equality in
the vocal parts reflects the egalitarian nature of
the society.
Polyrhythm describes music in which there are
several different parts or layers, with each defined by
its distinctive rhythmic character rather than by
melodies or chords (CD ex. #2-5).
When musical melodies and rhythmic lines are stacked
upon each other, a single melody may be divided
among two or more instruments. This is called
interlocking parts.
CD ex. #2-6 features folkloric music of the
Andes mountains of Bolivia, South America.
The melody is divided between two sets of
instruments (panpipes), which rely upon one
another to complete the musical scale.
Call-and-response is also linked to musical texture.
It involves back-and-forth alternation between
different instrument or voice parts.
This conversational approach to texture takes many
forms, including:
Between a lead singer and background singers,
as in CD ex. #2-7 (a West African piece.)
Between a singer and instrumentalist
Between two groups of instrumentalists or two
groups of singers
Insights and
The Debate over
Polyrhythms in
West African
Much West African music is described as polyrhythmic by
Westerners, but some scholars and musicians believe that
this does not reflect how West Africans conceptualize their
Rather than perceiving it as “many rhythms” (i.e.,
polyrhythms), it it is possible instead to perceive it as
music defined by a single, unified rhythmic expression
with multiple manifestations.
The technicalities of both sides of the argument are complex,
but the controversy itself is a good example of how music as
sound is difficult to separate from the study of music as
The Designs of Musical Works
Understanding the form of a piece involves
understanding how it is laid out from beginning to
end, with how the music unfolds and develops as it
If there is no repetition and the music has a lack of
distinct sections, it is said to be through-composed.
More often, however, repetition, patterns, and
sectional organization are present in music and define
its forms.
Forms Based on
Repetition and Patterns
Repetition and patterning are key features of most music.
Elements including melodies, rhythms, chord progressions,
metric cycles, and large sections of material may be presented
and repeated in a performance – either once or many times.
Repetitions may be exact, or may change through subsequent
repetitions. This is known as varied repetition.
Repetitions and patterns are often intuitive, even when one is
not familiar with the musical style. For example, you can
often tell when the catchy ‘hook’ of a song is about to arrive.
Unexpected twists and turns are also key tools in keeping
listeners engaged and interested.
Some musical works are based upon the repetition or varied
repetition of a single musical pattern or phrase. A short figure
that is repeated multiple times is called an ostinato, and is
normally the smallest unit of organization upon which
musical forms are built.
CD ex. #2-8 features “Xai” (Elephants). It is from the
Qwii people of the Kalahari desert and repeats an
ostinato roughly every two seconds.
Layered ostinatos are achieved by stacking two or more
ostinatos, creating a rich and complex texture.
CD ex. #2-9, Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” features
saxophone, trombone (0:15), and trumpet (0:31)
ostinatos, creating a layered ostinato texture.
Cyclic forms are similar to ostinato-based forms, but the
repeated cycle is longer than an ostinato.
An example is the 12-bar blues, a common cyclic form
used for blues songs. Each cycle is 12 measures and has
the same basic chord progression as the others.
CD ex. #1-19, Charles Atkins’ “A Funny Way of
Asking,” features the 12-bar blues form.
Forms with Contrasting Sections
Formal Sections are identifiably distinct sections
found within a piece. The different sections often
contrast with each other – for example, through a
change of key, instrumentation, rhythm, or a
combination of many changes.
Verse-chorus form is a common formal design
featuring contrasting sections. It alternates verses (A
sections) and choruses (B sections), sometimes
including other sections like an introduction,
interludes, transitional passages, or instrumental solos.
CD ex #2-10 features “Ingculaza (AIDS),” by Dumisani
“Ramadu” Moyo. It is a social commentary about the AIDS
pandemic in Africa, the text of which may be found on page
81 of the textbook.
The form includes two sung verses (the A sections) and three
sung choruses (the B sections.)
See page 82 for a full chart of the form.