A bar from J.S. Bach's "Fugue No.17 in A flat", BWV 862, from Das Wohltemperierte Clavier (Part I), a famous example of contrapuntal polyphony. About this sound Play

In music, polyphony is a texture consisting of two or more independent melodic voices, as opposed to music with just one voice (monophony) or music with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords (homophony).

Within the context of the Western musical tradition, the term is usually used to refer to music of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Baroque forms such as the fugue, which might be called polyphonic, are usually described instead as contrapuntal. Also, as opposed to the species terminology of counterpoint, polyphony was generally either "pitch-against-pitch" / "point-against-point" or "sustained-pitch" in one part with melismas of varying lengths in another (van der Werf, 1997). In all cases the conception was likely what Margaret Bent (1999) calls "dyadic counterpoint", with each part being written generally against one other part, with all parts modified if needed in the end. This point-against-point conception is opposed to "successive composition", where voices were written in an order with each new voice fitting into the whole so far constructed, which was previously assumed.



Although the exact origins of polyphony in the Western church traditions are unknown, the treatises Musica enchiriadis and Schola enchiriadis, both dating from c. 900, are usually considered the oldest extant written examples of polyphony. These treatises provided examples of two-voice note-against-note embellishments of chants using parallel octaves, fifths, and fourths. Rather than being fixed works, they indicated ways of improvising polyphony during performance. The Winchester Troper, from c. 1000, is the oldest extant example of notated polyphony for chant performance, although the notation does not indicate precise pitch levels or durations.

Traditional (non-professional) polyphony has a wide, if uneven distribution among the peoples of the world. Most polyphonic regions of the world are sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and Oceania. It is believed that origins of polyphony in traditional music vastly predates the emergence of polyphony in European professional music. Currently there are two contradicting approaches to the problem of the origins of vocal polyphony: Cultural Model, and Evolutionary Model[1]. According to the Cultural Model, origins of polyphony are connected to the development of human musical culture; polyphony came as the natural development of the primordial monophonic singing; therefore polyphonic traditions are bound to replace gradually monophonic traditions[2]. According to the Evolutionary Model, origins of polyphonic singing are much deeper, and are connected to the earlier stages of human evolution; polyphony was an important part of a defence system of the hominids, and traditions of polyphony are gradually disappearing all over the world.[3]

Historical context

European polyphony rose out of melismatic organum, the earliest harmonization of the chant. Twelfth century composers, such as Léonin and Pérotin developed the organum that was introduced centuries earlier, and also added a third and fourth voice to the now homophonic chant. In the thirteenth century, the chant-based tenor was becoming altered, fragmented, and hidden beneath secular tunes, obscuring the sacred texts as composers continued to play with this new invention called polyphony. The lyrics of love poems might be sung above sacred texts in the form of a trope, or the sacred text might be placed within a familiar secular melody.

These musical innovations appeared in a greater context of societal change. After the first millennium, European monks decided to start translating the works of Greek philosophers into the vernacular. Western Europeans were aware of Plato, Socrates, and Hippocrates during the Middle Ages. However they had largely lost touch with the content of their surviving works because the use of Greek as a living language was restricted to the lands of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium). The ancient works started then being translated. Once they were accessible, the philosophies had a great impact on the mind of Western Europe.

This sparked a number of innovations in medicine, science, art, and music.

The oldest surviving piece of six-part music is the English rota Sumer is icumen in (c. 1240). (Albright, 2004)

Catholic Church

European polyphony rose prior to, and during the period of the Western Schism. Avignon, the seat of the antipopes, was a vigorous center of secular music-making, much of which influenced sacred polyphony.

It was not merely polyphony that offended the medieval ears, but the notion of secular music merging with the sacred and making its way into the papal court. It gave church music more of a jocular performance quality removing the solemn worship they were accustomed to. The use of and attitude toward polyphony varied widely in the Avignon court from the beginning to the end of its religious importance in the fourteenth century. Harmony was not only considered frivolous, impious, and lascivious, but an obstruction to the audibility of the words. Instruments, as well as certain modes, were actually forbidden in the church because of their association with secular music and pagan rites. Dissonant clashes of notes give a creepy feeling that was labeled as evil, fueling their argument against polyphony as being the devil’s music. After banishing polyphony from the Liturgy in 1322, Pope John XXII spoke in his 1324 Bull Docta Sanctorum Patrum warning against the unbecoming elements of this musical innovation. Pope Clement VI, however, indulged in it.

It was in 1364, during the pontificate of Pope Urban V, that composer and priest Guillaume de Machaut composed the first polyphonic setting of the mass called La Messe de Nostre Dame.

Notable works and artists

Balkan region

Polyphonic singing in the Balkans is traditional folk singing of this part of southern Europe. It is also called ancient, archaic or old -style singing.[4][5]

Incipient polyphony (previously primitive polyphony) includes antiphony and call and response, drones, and parallel intervals.

The polyphonic singing tradition of Epirus is a form of traditional folk polyphony practiced among Albanians, Greeks, Aromanians and Macedonian Slavs in southern Albania and northwestern Greece.[6][7] This type of folk vocal tradition is also found in the Republic of Macedonia and Bulgaria. Albanian polyphonic singing can be divided into two major stylistic groups as performed by the Tosks and Labs of southern Albania. The drone is performed in two ways: among the Tosks, it is always continuous and sung on the syllable ‘e’, using staggered breathing; while among the Labs, the drone is sometimes sung as a rhythmic tone, performed to the text of the song. It can be differentiated between two-, three- and four-voice polyphony.

The phenomenon of Albanian folk iso-polyphony has been proclaimed by UNESCO a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity". The term "iso" refers to the drone, which accompanies the iso-polyphonic singing and is related to the ison of Byzantine church music, where the drone group accompanies the song.[8][9]

Caucasus region

Polyphonic singing is also found in Georgia, though it is believed to be under threat.[10]

See also


  • Hendrik van der Werf (1997). "Early Western polyphony", Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816540-4.
  • Margaret Bent (1999). "The Grammar of Early Music: Preconditions for Analysis", Tonal Structures of Early Music. New York: Garland Publishing. ISBN 0-8153-2388-3.
  • Albright, Daniel (2004). Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-01267-0.


  1. ^ Jordania, Joseph (2011). Why do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution. Logos. pp. 60-70. ISBN 978-9941-401-86-2. 
  2. ^ Bruno Nettl. Polyphony in North American Indian music. Musical Quarterly, 1961, 47:354-362
  3. ^ Joseph Jordania (2006). Who Asked the First Question? The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech. Tbilisi: Logos. pp. 198–210. ISBN 99940-31-81-3. http://www.polyphony.ge/uploads/whoaskthefirst.pdf. 
  4. ^ Selected Discography on Multipart Singing in Serbia & Montenegro
  5. ^ Music-cultures in contact: convergences and collisions
  6. ^ Bart Plantenga. Yodel-ay-ee-oooo. Routledge, 2004. ISBN 978-0-415-93990-4, p. 87 Albania: "Singers in Pogoni region perform a style of polyphony that is also practised by locals in Vlach and Slav communities communities [in Albania].
  7. ^ Engendering Song: Singing and Subjectivity at Prespa by Jane C. Sugarman,1997,ISBN 0-226-77972-6,page 356,"Neither of the polyphonic textures characteristic of south Albanian singing is unique to Albanians.The style is shared with Greeks in the Northwestern district of Epirus (see Fakiou and Romanos 1984) while the Tosk style is common among Aromanian communities from the Kolonje region of Albania the so called Faserotii (see Lortat-Jacob and Bouet 1983) and among Slavs of the Kastoria region of Northern Greece (see N.Kaufamann 1959 ). Macedonians in the lower villages of the Prespa district also formerly sang this style "
  8. ^ European voices: Multipart singing in the Balkans and the ..., Volume 1 By Ardian Ahmedaja, Gerlinde Haid page 241 [1]
  9. ^ "Albanian Folk Iso-polyphony". UNESCO. http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?lg=en&pg=00011&RL=00155. Retrieved 31 December 2010. 
  10. ^ Choirs of the world: Georgian polyphonic songs Oral and Intangible Masterpieces of Humanity

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Polyphony — Po*lyph o*ny, n. [Gr. ?.] 1. Multiplicity of sounds, as in the reverberations of an echo. [1913 Webster] 2. Plurality of sounds and articulations expressed by the same vocal sign. [1913 Webster] 3. (Mus.) Composition in mutually related, equally… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • polyphony — (n.) 1828, multiplicity of sounde, from Gk. polyphonia variety of sounds, from polys many (see POLY (Cf. poly )) + phone voice, sound (see FAME (Cf. fame)). The meaning counterpoint (1864) is perhaps a back formation from the adjective …   Etymology dictionary

  • polyphony — [pə lif′ə nē] n. [Gr polyphōnia: see POLY & PHONY] 1. multiplicity of sounds, as in an echo 2. Music a combining of a number of independent but harmonizing melodies, as in a fugue or canon; counterpoint 3. Phonet. the representation of two or… …   English World dictionary

  • polyphony — polyphonous, adj. polyphonously, adv. /peuh lif euh nee/, n. 1. Music. polyphonic composition; counterpoint. 2. Phonet. representation of different sounds by the same letter or symbol. [1820 30; < Gk polyphonía variety of tones. See POLY , PHONY] …   Universalium

  • Polyphony —    The art of combining simultaneous melodies, the hallmark of Western music (excluding the non melodic drones of some Byzantine chant and Hindu music). It is believed that polyphony originated as an improvisation technique, a means of… …   Historical dictionary of sacred music

  • polyphony — polyphonie фр., нем. [полифони/] polyphonia англ. [полифо/ниа] polyphony [поли/фэни] полифония …   Словарь иностранных музыкальных терминов

  • polyphony —   n. Music, composition in separate, but simultaneous and harmonizing, parts; counterpoint; Phonetics, use of one symbol for several sounds.    ♦ polyphonic, a.    ♦ polyphonist, n. composer of polyphony …   Dictionary of difficult words

  • polyphony — polyphonic ► ADJECTIVE 1) having many sounds or voices. 2) Music (especially of vocal music) in two or more parts each having a melody of its own; contrapuntal. DERIVATIVES polyphony noun (pl. polyphonies) . ORIGIN from Greek polu many + ph n …   English terms dictionary

  • polyphony — noun Etymology: Greek polyphōnia variety of tones, from polyphōnos having many tones or voices, from poly + phōnē voice more at ban Date: circa 1864 a style of musical composition employing two or more simultaneous but relatively independent… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • polyphony — См. polifonìa …   Пятиязычный словарь лингвистических терминов

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