If you’re studying music theory and textures, you’ve undoubtedly heard of polyphony once or twice. But what is polyphony in music, exactly, and what importance does it have in the history of sound and composition?
Read on to know more about polyphony in music, including its rich history and influence on musical history.
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What Is Polyphony in Music?
Polyphony, also known as a counterpoint or contrapuntal music, is a formal musical texture that contains at least two or more lines of independent melody.
It’s believed to be the least popular among all three textures. Polyphony is often associated with Renaissance music and Baroque forms, such as fugue.
Origin and History of Polyphony
Although widely distributed across all known countries in the world, polyphony’s most significant influence is in regions of sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and Oceania.
The origins of polyphony are the subject of many debates. Although unknown, the oldest written examples of polyphony are the treatises Musica enchiriadis and Scolica enchiriadis, both of which date back to C.900 A.D.
These treatises utilize two-voice note-against-note chant embellishments with parallel octaves, fifths, and fourths. Another example is the Winchester Troper, from C.1000 A.D, the oldest known extant example of chant polyphony.
Compared to monophony and homophony, polyphony is mostly improvised during the performance. Improvising performances is pretty common among professional musicians.
According to historians, polyphony relates to the development of human cultural music and the earlier stages of human evolution, the Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis.
They believed that polyphony stemmed from the melismatic organum, the earliest known harmonization of chant that developed in the Middle Ages.
In any case, polyphony was already heavily established during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, roughly between the Medieval period of 500-1450 and the Renaissance period of 1450-1600. Historical records of Greek and Roman antiquity further solidified this.
Polyphony’s Influence With the Church
Polyphony rose during Western Schism. Avignon, a city in France’s southeastern Province region, influenced sacred polyphony. At the time, Avignon was the center of secular music-making and the primary seat of the antipopes.
Polyphonic music, therefore, caused offense to medieval ears because merging secular music with sacred music is considered “taboo” and “uncultured” by the papal court.
After all, polyphony sounded jocular and jagged, a stark contrast to the solemn melodies they were accustomed to.
For decades, the medieval church considered polyphonic music to be lascivious, frivolous, impious, and evil until the end of the fourteenth century.
In fact, polyphonic music was considered the devil’s music by the church for a time because it uses forbidden modes and instruments that clash against secular music rules and pagan rites. Due to this, they banished polyphony from the Liturgy in 1322.
In the 1324 Bull Docta Sanctorum Patrum, Pope John XXII warns the people of the unbecoming and preposterous elements of polyphonic music. Even so, Pope Clement VI, who, at the time, was the head of the Catholic Church, favored and even indulged in it.
It was only when Pope Urban V came around in 1364 that the church finally authorized the use of polyphony in sacred music. This is all thanks to priest and composer Guillaume de Machaut and his piece, La Messe de Notre Dame.
How Is Polyphonic Texture Achieved?
Polyphonic comes from the Greek words poly and phonic, which consecutively mean “many” and “sound.” It’s usually divided into two main categories: imitative and non-imitative.
Compared to monophonic, a musical texture with just one voice, and homophonic, a musical texture with multiple different voices, polyphonic is dense and complex.
Be that as it may, it isn’t rare to find simple polyphonic compositions. For instance, Row, Row, Row Your Boat, and Frere Jacques uses a type of polyphonic texture called canons.
Typically, polyphony adds a second, unrelated melody to a monophonic or homophonic texture. In Western music, polyphony includes a counterpoint separation of bass and melody.
However, these terms aren’t always mutually exclusive; several composers from the 16th through the 21st century use varied textures of rhythmically complex polyphony in the same piece to create a polyphonic texture.
Polyphony is considered to be the most complicated musical texture because it challenges predetermined notions of harmony and melody.
Rather than the usual y-axis, polyphony puts its notes on the x-axis. Although playing the same melody, polyphony operates independently at different points.
Types of Polyphonic Textures
Canons, fugues, Dixieland, Heterophonic, and Iso, are four of the most common subtypes of polyphony. Let’s take a look at how each subtype differs from the other:
In music, you can achieve canon when you play a melody then play the same theme one or more times after a set period of time.
The least complex form of canon is called round, where the musicians only play identical or near-identical melodies.
Row, Row, Row Your Boat is an excellent example of a multiple-person round, with each individual singing his or her line four beats after the person before them.
Canons can also consist of melodies that aren’t musically identical to the original piece. For instance, Konrad Kunz’s Canon No. 114, a popular canon used for hand independence, plays a repeated rhythm pattern, with each hand starting on a different note as the song progresses.
Another personal favorite canon of mine is Pachelbel’s Canon in D; a popular piece played during holidays and weddings.
As you’ll hear in the original piece, the violin parts are played in three different periods. The second violin begins two bars after the first violin, and the third violin plays three bars after that.
Popularized in the early 1700s, many believe that fugues are the defining musical styles of Baroque music.
Like canons in music, fugues imitate a melodic theme throughout a piece. However, unlike canons, the imitated melody or rhythm doesn’t have to stay the same as the original (leader) melody.
Fugues are a lot more structured than canons, as well. They have different, complicated sections and tend to last longer than a canon.
Johann Sebastian Bach (J.S. Bach), one of the most notable fugue composers of his time, wrote a brilliant fugue piece in The Well-Tempered Clavier, Fugue No. 17 in A-flat Major. Here, the right hand starts with a one-bar-long melody and goes from lower pitches to highest pitches.
Two semiquavers are followed by four quavers—twice in the right hand, three times in the last hand, then alternating between the two for several bars with lots of sharps or flats.
Heterophonic polyphony is achieved when a single melodic line consists of two or more variations. It’s similar to canon, or a round, except the song’s melodies are sung or played with extra variations and notes in between.
You can hear this type of polyphony in non-Western music, such as traditional Arabic, Japanese, Thai, Gamelan, or Turkish music. It’s also found in Baroque cantatas or oratorios.
In European traditions, you can hear dissonant heterophony in traditional music found in Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegroall—attributed to the ancient Illyrian tradition of the Dinaric Ganga.
A relatively popular example of heterophonic texture is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor. While the pianos and violins play the exact same melody, you’ll notice the occasional semiquaver embellishment weaving in between as the song progresses.
Dixieland jazz, also commonly known as old-style jazz, traditional jazz, or hot jazz, is a style of jazz that developed in New Orleans in the early 1910s and 1920s.
Like most jazz music at the time, Dixieland jazz consists of trumpets, trombones, and clarinets alongside rhythmic sections of piano, bass, guitar, and drums.
The main horn section plays different, unrelated melodies throughout the song over a two-beat rhythm, with the trumpet leading the piece.
Usually, the clarinet is played intricately; faster than the central trumpet, doodling up and down against the other melodies. The trombone is mostly heard in the background, deep, slow, and simple. Piano, bass, guitar, and drums serve as the song’s main body.
With all its intricacies, Dixieland jazz is usually made up on the spot, improvised as the rhythm goes on. Popular Dixieland jazz songs include Louis Armstrong’s When The Saints Go Marching In, King Oliver’s Dippermouth Blues, and Charlie Christian’s I’ve Found a New Baby.
Iso-polyphony is a type of traditional Albanian polyphonic music. The UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) proclaimed that Albanian iso-polyphony is a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
Iso divides into two major performance groups: the Ghegs of northern Albania and the southern part of Tosks and Labs. Iso-polyphony is related to incipient polyphony and drones—both of which accompany iso-polyphonic singing.
Musicians perform Iso in two different ways. Among the Tosks, iso-polyphonic is on a continuous ‘e’ syllable with staggered breathing. With the Labs, it’s performed with a rhythmic tone between two-, three-, or four-voice polyphony.
An example of polyphony would be the song "This Is How We Do It" by Montell Jordan. Another great example of polyphony would be "Ghetto Gospel" by Tupac. Both of these songs have interdependent choruses which align with the hip hop style of each of the artists, illustrating counterpoint.What does polyphony mean in music? ›
[Example 1: Fourth Brandenburg Concerto, 3rd movement.] Polyphony is a musical texture that features two or more equally prominent melodic lines played at the same time. Each of these lines can be thought of as a melody in its own right -- one that could be sung, played, or listened to independently of the others.What were the first examples of polyphonic music? ›
The inscription is believed to date back to the start of the 10th century and is the setting of a short chant dedicated to Boniface, patron Saint of Germany. It is the earliest practical example of a piece of polyphonic music – the term given to music that combines more than one independent melody – ever discovered.How do you identify polyphony? ›
Polyphony is characterized by multiple voices with separate melodic lines and rhythms. In other words, each voice has its own independent melodic line, and the independent voices blend together to create harmonies.What is an example of polyphonic in instrument? ›
Almost all classical keyboard instruments are polyphonic. Examples include the piano, harpsichord, organ and clavichord. These instruments feature a complete sound-generating mechanism for each key in the keybed (e.g., a piano has a string and hammer for every key, and an organ has at least one pipe for each key.)What song is a good example of imitative polyphony? ›
Bach's "Little" G Minor Fugue is an example of this type of imitative polyphony. The video below allows you to follow the basic contours of the different parts without needing music notation. For more on the fugue, see the section on form in popular and art music.What is an example of polyphony on a piano? ›
For example, if you play five notes with just the piano voice, that's five-note polyphony. However, if you select both piano AND strings, that five notes now becomes ten notes.What is the style of polyphony? ›
Polyphony (/pəˈlɪfəni/ puh-LIH-fuh-nee) is a type of musical texture consisting of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, as opposed to a musical texture with just one voice, monophony, or a texture with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords, homophony.What are three polyphonic examples? ›
- Pachelbel's Canon.
- Anything titled “fugue” or “invention”
- The final “Amen” chorus of Handel's “Messiah”
- The trio strain of Sousa's “Stars and Stripes Forever”, with the famous piccolo countermelody.
- The “One Day More” chorus from the musical “Les Miserables”
Renaissance music was mostly polyphonic in texture. Comprehending a wide range of emotions, Renaissance music nevertheless portrayed all emotions in a bal- anced and moderate fashion.
Polyphony is usually divided into two main types: imitative and non-imitative. Either the various melodic lines in a polyphonic passage may sound similar to one another, or they may be completely independent in their rhythm and contour.What are notes of polyphony? ›
Polyphony refers to the maximum number of notes that a keyboard or sound module can produce at one time. For instance, if you were to play a 3-note chord with a 1-note melody, you'd need at a keyboard capable of at least 4-note polyphony.How do you tell if a song is monophonic or polyphonic? ›
Monophonic texture includes only a single melody line. If more than one musician plays the same melody together, this is called playing in unison. Polyphonic texture consists of two or more independent melody lines: Homophonic texture consist of a primary melody line with accompaniment.What is a good polyphony? ›
It is important to note that the best digital pianos will typically have over 128 note polyphony. Anything lower than this will put you into the beginner to intermediate range of digital pianos.What is the most polyphonic instrument? ›
The guitar is a polyphonic instrument. This means that it is capable of playing more than one tone at a time, which means that it can be used to play harmonies. The only other popular instrument that excels at this is the piano.What do you call the best example of polyphonic texture? ›
A fugue is an example of polyphonic texture because, like a canon, it introduces a melodic theme and imitates that theme throughout a piece.What is an example sentence for polyphonic? ›
He captures the music's epic spaciousness but also its polyphonic complexity. Here she creates and orchestrates with her voice an entire instrumental and polyphonic world of subtle, interwoven sounds, simply by working with a multi-track recorder.Can a piano piece be polyphonic? ›
However, one aspect of the piano that is often overlooked is its ability to play two different notes simultaneously. Called polyphony, this feature is what makes the piano stand out from many other instruments and is crucial to its versatility.What is the importance of polyphonic? ›
Polyphony Polyphony (polyphonic texture) is an important texture in all historic style periods. Rhythmic stratification, also called layers, results when two or more voices move at different but closely related levels of rhythmic activity. One voice may contain mostly quarter notes while another contains eighth notes.Is classical music polyphonic? ›
Compared to the Baroque period, Classical music generally has a lighter, clearer texture, and is less complex. Baroque music is often polyphonic, while Classical is mainly homophonic.
polyphony, in music, the simultaneous combination of two or more tones or melodic lines (the term derives from the Greek word for “many sounds”). Thus, even a single interval made up of two simultaneous tones or a chord of three simultaneous tones is rudimentarily polyphonic.Can you sing in polyphonic? ›
The polyphonic qualities are possible when a vocalist is able to manipulate the natural resonances of their vocal tract. As our vocalist explains, multiple notes are possible when the singer sustains a low note while simultaneously singing a high-pitched scale. The result is both enthralling and haunting.What is polyphony voices? ›
In music, the term polyphony is usually used to mean ``more than one separate voices singing or playing at different pitches one from another".What are the disadvantages of polyphony? ›
Cons: Polyphonic synthesizers tend to be larger and heavier. A monophonic synthesizer cannot play true chords. Not a great option if you want pad sounds.Did the Beatles use polyphony? ›
The Beatles' phenomenal success is often attributed to the striking euphony of their polyphonic vocals as well as the uncomplicated and easily-hummed melodies.Is polyphony exactly the same as harmony? ›
As the etymology indicates, polyphony refers to music in which more than one entity—voice or instrument—plays melodic lines at the same time. This differs from harmony in the way that harmony is usually dependent on the main melody, whereas polyphonic music has each entity playing their own independent melodic lines.What is a synonym for the word polyphony? ›
synonyms for polyphony
On this page you'll find 39 synonyms, antonyms, and words related to polyphony, such as: arrangement, chord, composition, melody, tune, and unity.
But while in mass at times sounds like Mozart mimicking his Baroque predecessors, by 1791 Mozart had fully assimilated polyphonic writing into his compositional palette, and it is used throughout the Requiem.Which are the eight modes of polyphony? ›
- D e f g a b c d. Dorian.
- D e f g a. Hypodorian. a b c.
- E f g a b c d e. Phrygian.
- E f g a b. Hypophrygian. b c d.
- F g a b c d e f. Lydian.
- F g a b c. Hypolydian. c d e.
- G a b c d e f g. Mixolydian.
- G a b c d.
The reason we say digital piano when talking about polyphony is because acoustic instruments make 'real' sound when a hammer strikes a string, so they technically have unlimited polyphony, for more information on how acoustic pianos make sound, read our guide.