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Monophonic in Music: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is Monophonic Texture?
  • 0:30 Understanding…
  • 2:28 Special Considerations
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

Monophonic texture is one of the most rare textures in popular music today, but you can still find it if you know what you're listening for! In this lesson, you'll learn how to recognize and describe monophony in music.

What Is Monophonic Texture?

Just like fabric, music has texture. In fabric, texture is created by the materials used to weave the fabric. In music, texture refers to the combined layers of sound and the relative function of those layers in a piece of music. Monophonic texture is the simplest and most basic texture. The word comes from Greek and literally means 'one sound.' This texture involves only one musical layer: melody.

Understanding Monophonic Texture

Most music has multiple layers that form both melody and harmony. Listen to your favorite pop song. Chances are it has a singer, some background instruments like a guitar and bass, and a percussion layer. Which layer is the melody?

Melody is the most memorable part of music. It's what you would sing. If a piece of music has a vocalist, most often the singer's line is the melody. If you strip away all the other layers, you get monophonic texture.

Graphic representation of musical layers

The above image shows possible musical layers in a song. The vocal line (red) is the melody. The guitar (green) plays harmonic accompaniment in the form of chords, and the bass (blue) plays a lower harmony line. The drum pattern (purple) is neither melody nor harmony.

So, is monophonic texture always defined as one singer with no other instruments? Not quite. There are several types of monophony. Most people can only sing one pitch at a time, and so if you are singing by yourself without musical accompaniment, you are singing in monophonic texture. What if your friend joins you? Now there are two voices singing the same melody. Is it still monophonic? If you are both singing the same pitches at the same time, then yes, it is still monophonic. If your friend starts to sing a different melody or a harmony at the same time, it is no longer monophonic.

Graph of textures.

Look at this image. In the first example, both voices follow the same melody at the same time, making it monophonic. In the second example, the pitches are different, so it is not monophonic.

It doesn't have to be two singers. You can have a singer and a flute, an oboe and a trumpet, or all four of them together! In monophony, there is no limit to how many voices or instruments there can be. If they are singing and playing the same notes, it is monophony. This is also called singing or playing in unison.

Special Considerations

Some instruments, like the piano or the guitar, can play several pitches at the same time. It is important to understand that monophonic does not necessarily mean 'one instrument.' A piano can play monophony, but it can also play many other kinds of textures as well. For example, if each finger plays one note, you can have as many as ten different pitches played by one person on one piano.

Men and women have different musical ranges. Generally, men have a lower pitch range than women. To comfortably sing together, men will often sing lower and women will sing higher. If they are not the exact same pitch, can this still be monophonic?

This is an exception to the exact-same-pitch rule called the octave. An octave occurs when two pitches sound the same but yet not the same.

Sound travels in waves and is measured in cycles per second. This is called the frequency. Many musical sounds have a specific, measurable frequency called a definite pitch. Definite pitches are given letter names. For example, a pitch vibrating at 440 cycles per second is called an 'A.' A pitch vibrating at 880 cycles per second moves twice as fast, sounds an octave higher, and is also called 'A.' A pitch vibrating at 220 cycles per second moves twice as slow and sounds an octave lower, and it is also called 'A.' These pitches blend together and sound almost like the same note. For this reason, octaves are still considered to be monophonic.

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