Homophony Play glossary entry PODCAST
A musical texture consisting of one melody and an accompaniment that supports it.

Homophony is a musical texture of several parts in which one melody predominates; the other parts may be either simple chords or a more elaborate accompaniment pattern. In this example from Haydn's Symphony No. 94 (nicknamed "Surprise" because of this movement), the violins carry the melody, and the lower strings support it with a bass line and chords.

[Example 1, Haydn, "Surprise" Symphony, mvt. 2]

The Food of Love

Fig. 1: "The Food of Love"
London, National Gallery

If a singer is accompanied on the guitar or the piano, the resulting texture is usually homophonic. In the song (Lied) "Bliss," by Schubert, the piano has its own melody when the voice does not sing, accompanied by chords played by the left hand. During the sung stanzas, the piano simply accompanies the vocal melody with an "oom-pah-pah" pattern.

[Example 2, Schubert, "Bliss" ("Seligkeit")]

If the chords move together with the melody, with the same rhythm in all voices, the resulting sound is a type of homophony that is called homorhythmic. This is the texture of church hymns. Homorhythmic homophony may be performed by singers only or by singers together with instrumentalists, as long as the rhythm of the main melody is maintained in the accompanying parts.

[Example 3, Christmas carol, "All my heart this night rejoices" (G. Eberling) ]

A melody need not be in the highest part of the texture. A melody played by the cellos and accompanied by the rest of the orchestra may be homophonic, as this excerpt from Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony reveals.

[Example 4, Schubert, Symphony no. 8 ("Unfinished"), second theme]

Homophony in Dance and March

Homophony in Dance and March

Fig. 2: Shrove Tuesday Celebration, 1519.
Nuremberg, German National Museum, 5664.

In Western music, homophony may have originated in dance music, in which a simple and direct rhythmic style was needed for the prescribed bodily movements of individual dances, as in this sixteenth-century example by Tilman Susato.

[Example 5, Susato, Ronde]

Accompaniments to the main melody had to be relatively simple so as not to confuse the dancers. Another good example of this is the "oom-pah-pah" of dances like the waltz.

Program cover Carnegie                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Hall, New York Public Library.

Fig. 3: Program cover Carnegie Hall. New York Public Library.

Marches like those of John Philip Sousa also require a straighforwardly homophonic texture. The melody, carried by high brass instruments like cornets and high wind instruments like piccolo, is accompanied by deeper brass instruments such as trombones and tuba.

[Example 6, Sousa, "Stars and Stripes Forever" ]

When composers during the eighteenth century and after included stylized versions of minuets in their symphonies and string quartets--dance music for which no dancing was intended--homophony was often the prevailing texture as well.

[Example 7, Haydn, Symphony 97, Trio of Minuet ]

Woman at the piano.

Fig. 4: Berlin, Archive for Art and History

Stylized dance music for piano, like that of Chopin in the 19th century, is also often homophonic. The melody is usually played by the right hand, with chordal accompaniment in the left hand.

[Example 8, Chopin, Mazurka in A minor, op. 17 no. 4]

History of Homophony

In Renaissance music, a distinction may be made between the way composers conceived of the texture of their a cappella vocal music--as note-against-note counterpoint--and the way some of it sounds to us--as a series of chords. Palestrina's music, for example, was designed to sound homophonic and even largely homorhythmic so that the words might be clearly understood, in the spirit of the Counter-Reformation, but was thought of by Palestrina himself and by subsequent generations as a very simple kind of polyphony.

[Example 9, Palestrina, Pope Marcellus Mass, Gloria: Et in terra pax ]

In music for solo voice or solo string or wind instrument of the basso continuo era--the period we call Baroque (the 17th and early 18th cenuries)--the music of the bass line and chords is often but by no means always intended to be subordinate to the melody. The harpsichordist accompanying a Bach or Handel flute sonata, for example, may improvise imitative or other polyphonic lines, and some of the movements may even be fugues. The following example of a dance movement in a Handel flute sonata is homophonic.

[Example 10, Handel, Flute Sonata in G, Bourrée]

In the Classical era of the later eighteenth century, the prevailing texture is a kind of "enriched" homophony, in which accompaniment patterns may have important rhythmic ideas. Polyphony, especially imitative polyphony, was saved for special effects, passages of greater complexity (such as the development sections of sonata-form movements), and deliberate attempts to evoke an earlier or more serious style (as in church music). The following example of the beginning of Mozart's Symphony no. 40 in G minor is a kind of enriched homophony with an active, agitated accompaniment that changes its pattern at the cadence.

[Example 11, Mozart Symphony no. 40, mvt. 1]

Identifying Homophony

The biggest question faced by the student of musical texture is this: "When is the accompaniment truly subordinate and when is it independent enough to qualify as polyphony?" Homophony can be thought of as occupying a middle ground on the continuum between the poles of monophony (a single line of musical tones) and polyphony (several lines or melodies). Like all middle grounds, it is less firmly bounded and less subject to easy or fixed definition than are the poles it lies between.

Marian Anderson

Fig. 5: Marian Anderson, Carnegie Hall
Frank Driggs Collection

In a Lied like Schubert's "Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel," for example, the piano accompaniment is subordinate to the vocal melody, but it contains important elements of the meaning of the song: it represents the spinning wheel at which Gretchen sits, the right hand turning round and round like the wheel itself and the left hand rhythmically pressing the pedals.

[Example 12, Schubert, "Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel"]

Homophony may also characterize a chorus singing homorhythmically, which is at the same time accompanied by an orchestra playing semi-independently, creating a polyphonic texture between the homophonic voices and polyphonic orchestra, as in this excerpt from the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah.

[Example 13, Handel, Messiah: Hallelujah Chorus]



Homophony written by: Elaine Sisman
Recording & Mixing: Bradford Garton, Terry Pender
Narration: Thomas Payne
Producers: Ian Bent, Maurice Matiz
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