On "Musical Texture"
by Roger E. Bissell
Note to the reader: This is a suggested expansion of Chapter 3, "An Arranger's Introduction to Musical Textures," of Gary A. White's college text, Instrumental Arranging (1992, Wm. C. Brown, Dubuque, IA). The insertions and sections with material that is original with me are highlighted in raised font. Accordingly, the material in regular type is copyright 1992 by Wm. C. Brown Publishers, and the raised font material is copyright 1995 by myself.

In what follows, there has been minimal omission of Dr. White's original writing, mainly in his discussion of examples of the melodic texture types. The new material introduces considerations of timbral texture, another dimension of textural analysis and synthesis that relates more to orchestration and the sensuous aspect of texture. This is intended to provide a supplement to and contrast with Dr. White's focus on and outstanding contribution to the understanding of melodic texture, which relates more to composition and the spatial aspect of texture.

Although the suggested additions evolved out of thoughts that arose during the writing of chapter 19 on arranging for the jazz ensemble, I believe they have much more general application, especially in this day and age, when pops and community orchestras and concert bands are increasingly expected to include jazz and commercial music pieces in their repertoire. For that reason, I think they are appropriately considered in the context of Chapter 3 of Dr. White's excellent text.

Just for the record, however, it should be noted that Dr. White's initial reaction to my suggested expansion of the definition of texture was that it was unnecessary, non-standard, and unclear. His concern was that I was trying to subsume all the elements of the sound of music in the definition of texture. He cited Jan LaRue, a music theorist who in the 1950s proposed that the concept of musical "sound" be thought of as having three components: the voices and/or instruments used (timbre), the texture of the music, and the effects of dynamics.

I find no conflict between LaRue's definition and my own suggestion. Timbre actually has two aspects--the fact that it comes from some instrument or voice, or another; and the fact that it has a certain, distinctive sensuous quality. The latter must certainly be an inseparable part of the texture of music, just as the distinctive sensuous quality of a piece of steak is an inseparable part of the texture of the steak. Surely, the fact that we can focus on the sensuous aspect of the texture of music--as I am suggesting--as well as Dr. White's well-explored spatial aspect of music's texture, must add to the explanatory power of the concept of "texture," rather than diluting or obscuring it. That is my hope, in any case!



The term texture is often used rather loosely to describe the vertical aspects of music. We will consider texture more specifically and precisely as the way the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic and timbral materials are woven together in a composition. As an arranger, it is important for you to know what texture type you are dealing with and how the various parts of the musical texture relate to each other to make sensible decisions about scoring.


The density of a texture is often described with terms such as "thick" or "thin," depending on whether there are many or few voices or parts.


The range of a texture is often described with terms such as "wide" or "narrow," depending on the interval between the lowest and highest tones.


The weight of a texture is often described with terms such as "light" or "heavy," depending on the amount of doubling of tones (or their octave equivalents).


While density, range, and weight are usually described in relative terms, the description of texture type is much more precise and useful.

Texture types are of two main kinds:

(1) Compositional or melodic texture, which is defined by the relationship between the melodic and the supporting elements of the texture.

(2) Orchestrational or timbral texture, which is defined by the nature of the timbral elements of the texture and the relationship between those elements and the timbral groups they form.

There are a number of texture types that occur from time to time, but the most common are: for melodic texture types, monophonic, polyphonic, homophonic, and homorhythmic; and for timbral texture types, homotimbral and hetero-timbral.


The analysis of texture involves the identification of texture type and the recognizing and labeling of the principal elements of the texture. You may be able to identify the texture type rather quickly by careful listening or visual inspection of the score. If not, a reliable method is to identify first the textural elements, which are as follows:

A. Melodic elements

1. Primary melodies (PM) are the most important melodic lines in a musical texture.

2. Secondary melodies (SM) are other melodies that are not equal in significance to the primary melody or melodies.

3. Parallel Supporting Melodies (PSM) are melodies that are similar in contour with a PM or SM.

B. Supporting elements

4. Static Support (SS) are sustained tones or chords or repeated melodic and rhythmic figures or ostinati.

5. Harmonic Support (HS) is an element of accompaniment texture that provides a harmonic background to the melody.

6. Rhythmic Support (RS) is an element of accompaniment texture that provides a rhythmic background to the melody.

7. Harmonic and Rhythmic Support (HRS) is a combination of HS and RS in the same part.

C. Timbral elements--the quality of each individual instrument's sound, both "in itself" and in its potential relation to other instruments.


Textures are created by combining melodic, supporting, and timbral elements. Each texture can be categorized both as one of the melodic texture types and as one of the timbral texture types.

Melodic texture types can combine to form compound melodic textures, and timbral texture types can combine to form compound timbral textures.

A. Melodic texture types

Melodic textures are constructed by combining the melodic elements with other melodic elements and/or with supporting elements. The former (PM with other melody) is characteristic of monophonic and polyphonic textures. The latter (PM with harmony, whether rhythmic or static) is characteristic of homophonic and homorhythmic textures.

1. Monophonic texture is the simplest texture type in music. It consists of a single melodic line (PM) [or a PM with one or more PSMs].

2. Polyphonic textures consist of more than one line moving independently or in imitation of each other. The lines may be equal in significance (PM) or of unequal significance (PM vs. SM). [I.e., a PM plus one or more additional PMs and/or one or more SMs]

3. Homophonic texture is the most common texture in Western music. It is made up of a melody (PM) and an accompaniment that typically provides rhythmic support (RS) and harmonic support (HS). [I.e., a PM with supporting elements, such as SS or HRS, which do not have the same rhythm as the PM.]

4. Homorhythmic texture is a texture with similar rhythmic material in all parts. This texture is often referred to as "hymn style" or "chordal texture," depending on the presence or absence of melodic material. Homorhythmic texture usually has a melody (PM), often in the top voice, accompanied by several (usually three) harmonic supporting parts (HS) in similar rhythm. [I.e., a PM with supporting elements, HS, which have the same rhythm as the PM.]

B. Timbral texture types

Timbral textures are constructed by combining individual instrument tone colors in groups of like and/or unlike tone colors. Because there are at least minute timbral differences even between instruments of the same kind, as well as at least moderate similarities between instruments of different kinds, it is obvious that "homotimbral" and "heterotimbral" are relative terms, like "thick" and "thin" or "wide" and "narrow."

By "homotimbral," we mean merely that the similarities between the sounds of, say, four trombones are greater than their differences; and by "heterotimbral," that the differences between their individual sounds and those of, say, four trumpets are greater than the similarities. It can also be helpful to group together trumpets, trombones, French horns, and tubas and regard them as homotimbral in relation to one another and heterotimbral in relation to the woodwinds, strings or percussion. The primary sense of the terms we will use here, however, pertains to sections composed of the same kind of instrument (rather than sections composed of several kinds of instruments).

1. Homotimbral texture consists of two or more instruments, each of which has the same tone color. Examples are: a trombone trio, a flute quartet. Relatively homotimbral texture is found in a string quartet, a brass quintet, a saxophone quintet. (See also "section writing" below.)

2. Heterotimbral texture consists of two or more instruments, none of which have the same tone color. Examples: "combos" in dixieland jazz (trumpet, clarinet, trombone, rhythm section) and bebop jazz (trumpet, saxophone, trombone rhythm section). Timbre that is relatively heterotimbral can be found in a woodwind quintet or a percussion ensemble. (See also "mixed voice writing" below.)

C. Composite textures

The fundamental texture types described above form the basis of most Western music, but more complex textures sometimes occur. Most of them can be described as composites of two of the fundamental textures. While not all textures can be neatly defined in general terms, it is the identification of the textural elements that will be most important for your work as an arranger.

1. Compound melodic texture--at least two layers of melodic texture, in each of which a PM (or PMs) is (or are) combined with other melodic elements and supporting elements. For instance, "Moonlight Serenade," the theme song of the Glenn Miller Orchestra (a famous dance band of the 1940s), was arranged for that group in a three-layer compound melodic texture. Taken by itself, the woodwind section (clarinet plus four saxophones) is in five-part monophonic texture (planing) on the PM; and taken by itself, the brass section (trumpets plus trombones) is in eight-part monophonic planing on another PM (or SM?) written in rhythmic counterpoint to the woodwinds. On the second level of texture, the woodwinds and brass form a polyphonic texture. On the overall level of texture, the winds constitute the melody(s), and the rhythm section constitutes the accompaniment--a homophonic texture.

2. Compound timbral texture--at least two layers of timbral texture. There are two main variants of compound timbral texture:

a. "Section writing"--a compound timbral texture in which it is relatively easy for the listener to distinguish between instrument families, due mainly to the facts that (1) each instrument of the smaller sections and each several instruments of the larger sections are given a separate voice in the harmonic structure; and (2) the kinds of voicing used are characteristic of each instrument family. This kind of timbral texture is considered conventional orchestration in large jazz ensembles. It requires that you write with each instrument family in mind. The prime level is comprised of all the homotimbral voicings in the harmonic texture, plus whatever heterotimbral instruments remain. Each successive level is comprised of relatively homotimbral clusters of voicings plus unclustered voicings and/or heterotimbral instruments. For instance, the prime level in a wind ensemble might be the flutes, piccolos, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, horns, euphoniums, tubas, percussion, plus an oboe, an English horn, and a bassoon. The second level might be the double reeds, the other woodwinds, the lower brass, the upper brass, and the percussion. The third level might be the woodwinds, the brass, and the percussion. The overall texture, then, might be winds versus percussion.

b. "Mixed voice writing"--a compound timbral texture in which it is relatively difficult for the listener to isolate families of instruments, due to the fact that the homotimbral groups have been deliberately broken up and the instrument sounds mixed together in order to get the precise sound desired with instruments that sound effectively in the register they are used in. This kind of writing is more flexible, requiring only that the instruments fit the voices to which you want to assign them. In essence, it is the kind of heterotimbral writing in which each note (or most notes) of the harmonic structure is doubled by one or more hetero-timbral instruments. For instance, in a standard-sized jazz ensemble, you could voice a five-part harmony as follows: (1) trumpets I and II, alto sax I, (2) trumpet III, alto sax II, (3) trumpet III, tenor sax I, trombone I, (4) tenor sax II, trombone II and III, (5) baritone sax, bass trombone. The prime layer is comprised of each of the heterotimbrally doubled notes in the harmonic texture. The second layer is comprised of the interaction between the heterotimbrally doubled notes.


It is interesting to note that doubling has a paradoxical effect in compound timbral texture. In other words, the effect seems opposite to what you would expect.

1. In "section writing," doubling is used for the purpose of balance, strengthening a voice to give it more prominence, or at least equal footing with other voices. As a result, the distinctive section sound is thinned out and diluted, fewer voices being available to delineate the section's characteristic sound by being spread over more notes of the harmony. This shifts the listener's awareness more toward the heterotimbral interaction between the sections of the ensemble. In other words, when extensive doubling is used in "section writing," the listener's attention is drawn away from the uniqueness of each section and toward the next higher level of texture, which is the interplay between heterotimbral groups of instruments. In effect, homotimbral writing on the lower level of texture creates a stronger heterotimbral effect on the higher level, when extensive doubling is used.

2. In "mixed voice writing," doubling is used for the purpose of blend as well as balance. As a result, the individual voices taken on a more homogenized quality, as does the overall texture, since the characteristic differences in tone color are downplayed in the interest of creating a new, hybrid, blended tone color in the heterogenous sections.

3. In other words, to summarize: section writing with large amounts of homotimbral doubling is relatively more heterotimbral sounding than simple homotimbral or strict section writing. And mixed voice writing with large amounts of heterotimbral doubling is relatively more homotimbral than simple heterotimbral writing or mixed voice writing that uses less doubling.


A. For melodic texture types:

1. In monophonic texture, if more than one instrument is playing, the concern is with blend, so that the instruments will be heard as playing "with one voice." Balance is also a concern when the texture includes PSMs that must not overshadow the PM (or one another).

2. In polyphonic texture, where the focus is on two (or more) distinct melody lines, the concern is for balance, lest any of the PMs overshadow the others or SMs overshadow the PM.

3. In homorhythmic texture, the concern is for both balance and blend, so that the lower voices do not overshadow the PM or each other.

4. In homophonic texture, the concern is for balance between the melody and the accompaniment and for balance and blend between the voices of the accompaniment.

B. For timbral texture types:

1. In homotimbral and section writing, the primary concern is balance. It is presumed that the players in a given section (which is homotimbral) will need to focus less on their tone colors than on balancing volume--and that each section will focus more on balancing its volume to the others than on blending with them (which would dilute their distinctive section sound, not usually a desired effect).

2. In heterotimbral and mixed voice writing, there can be concern with both balance and blend. For a chord to be properly voiced, none of its tones (except the melody) can be allowed to predominate in volume or tone color. This is true whether or not the chord tones are heterotimbrally doubled.

C. Shared Responsibility. Naturally, the performers are the final filter between the writer's intentions and what the audience hears. So, if the performers are not conscientiously making blend and balance a part of their concern, the best intentions of the writer may come to naught. But on the other hand, if the writer does not carefully consider the nature and limitations of the instruments and players he is writing for, even the most conscientious performers may not be able to produce a satisfying musical effect.