Texture: Say what you hear?

At each of the courses I led over 2013 when I asked the teachers present, “what musical elements do our students find difficult to recognise?”, the first response was always texture. It seems ridiculous that there are only a handful of ‘terms’ to describe texture in the various syllabi of GCSE and A-level music courses; to music teachers they seem glaringly obvious what they terms mean and how these textures manifest in pieces of music. We lose sight of the fact such glaringly obvious distinctions between textures ‘homophonic’ and ‘melody and accompaniment’ (?!) are not apparent to our uninitiated students; we assume they are simple enough to understand yet some students still can’t use the terms with confidence or muddle them up with ease.

Music terminology is confusing. It contradicts, and it misleads. Let’s be sympathetic to our students and recognise our fluency with these concepts has come over a life time of musical experience. In that respect it seems naive to expect a student to ‘get’ all the concepts that we often find listed in specifications for GCSE Music. They appear as just words to ‘tick off’ in our teaching, but each has a web of connections and situations where the word or concept might not be applicable. Deciding on a trajectory through this misleading vocabulary is a challenge for a music teacher; a challenge particularly when the classes can be diverse not only in musical abilities but also in stylistic preference and experience.

Catchphrase was a favourite TV show of mine as a kid. “Say what you see” being Roy Walker’s adage. Describing musical textures is much like Catchphrase: say what you hear. Before we introduce terms, we need our students to get used to putting the microscope on what they hear. They will spend hours each day with music of their choosing; it is immensely important to them and defines who they are. To criticise their musical tastes is tantamount to criticising them as human beings! What we need to do as music teachers is to encourage them to explore the layers that constitute what they are listening to: the texture. This can be with *any* music, from any part of the world and from any time. Once students can start to identify the layers, they can reflect on whether there is a hierarchy of the layers. Which is most important? Can they be put in an order of importance? Are they equally important? Do layers relate to each other or are they independent?

Let the students explore the repertoire they know, exploring the layers and being able to write and talk about what they hear. Then they can try this type of investigation on music of your choosing. Once patterns start to form, and students see similar layerings (soon to be labelled ‘textures’) then we introduce terms. They have a context in which to place the term, because they have experienced the music that defines the term. Experience the texture then find a label: Say what you hear.

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