In this series, we are exploring how music therapists do live music differently than other musicians, even though it may not be easy to see. This is part five of a ten-part series. You can find an introduction and links to all ten posts here.
Musical texture refers to the way that melody, harmony, and rhythm are combined to create a particular musical sound. There are formal terms for musical texture (including monophonic, homophonic, polyphonic), but for our purposes, we can think in terms of how thick or thin the musical sound is.
What is thick or thin texture in music?
For a thin or light texture, think about the solo violinist playing on a stage, before the full orchestra comes in. Or imagine an open mic night, with one guy singing while strumming his guitar. The sound is simpler, with fewer musical lines crossing over each other. You could hear every single note if you wanted.
By contrast, for a thick texture, imagine the moment the full orchestra swells behind that solo violinist, carrying the concerto through to the finale. Or imagine a rock band pumping out a power ballad, with guitars and drums and backup singers. Now you’re hearing a bigger sound, something closer to a wall of sound. Many musical lines are happening at once, and it might be difficult to hear individual parts.
In terms of musical entertainment, composers, arrangers, and producers are generally the folks who determine the texture of the music, by deciding which instruments or voices to include in the composition, or how many layers to add to a recording or live performance. Performers have some control, too, by adjusting the complexity of their arrangements or adding more instrumentalists or singers to their performance. (Of course, the latter often becomes a matter of logistics, too – how many performers will fit in the venue? How many can we afford to pay?)
For me as a music therapist, though, musical texture is on my mind frequently for clinical reasons.
Musical texture plays an important role in clinical music-making.
Music therapists do a lot of in-the-moment arranging of music to meet the demands of a given clinical situation, in both group and one-on-one sessions.
How do music therapists use musical texture in groups?
Take the example of Janet leading a group in “Singing in the Rain.” In the scenario described here, Janet was facilitating music with a very thick texture, with every group member playing an instrument. The aim was to have everyone in the group making music together at once. But what if the sound of Edith playing the rain stick was getting lost in this thick musical sound? Janet could have everyone stop playing except for Edith, highlighting the rain stick solo.
This change could facilitate a few goals for group members – shifting attention to one instrument, encouraging the group to support Edith and allowing Edith to feel that group support, bringing down the volume level to decrease the potential for agitation due to noise or discomfort for those with hearing aids, or bringing attention back to the session theme of weather, providing a natural shift back to a group discussion. The music therapist facilitated shift from a thicker texture to a thinner texture to meet a clinical purpose.
Music therapists pay attention to texture in one-on-one sessions as well.
When facilitating music for entrainment with a hospice patient, for example, a music therapist might start with a strummed guitar accompaniment, then taper down to a finger-style pattern, before ending with a cappella singing. Here, the shift from a thicker texture to a thinner texture is meant to facilitate relaxation. Or, a music therapist might shift from finger-style playing to a thicker, strummed guitar accompaniment to support someone in playing an instrument. Here, the shift to a thicker texture provides a stronger musical support for someone trying out an instrument.