Like other traditional Chinese folk ensemble
traditions, xian shi yue has a heterophonic texture. All the ensemble musicians perform the melody
of a given qupai together. Yet each musician elaborates on
it and embellishes it according to the idiomatic techniques
of the individual instrument.
The ensemble as a whole performs successive repetitions of the melody, each time varying the beat structure by doubling or halving the meter, and by inserting melodic interpolations in the basic melody. A succession of variations forms a suite-like structure called taoqu ("set of melodies") and follows an ordered sequence.
Modal variation substitutes untempered non-pentatonic pitches for pentatonic ones at structural points of the melody, thus altering its modality.