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Polyphony (/pəˈlɪfəni/ pə-LIF-ə-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).

Within the context of the Western musical tradition, the term polyphony is usually used to refer to music of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Baroque forms such as fugue, which might be called polyphonic, are usually described instead as contrapuntal. Also, as opposed to the species terminology of counterpoint,[clarification needed] polyphony was generally either "pitch-against-pitch" / "point-against-point" or "sustained-pitch" in one part with melismas of varying lengths in another.[1] In all cases the conception was probably what Margaret Bent (1999) calls "dyadic counterpoint",[2] 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.

The term polyphony is also sometimes used more broadly, to describe any musical texture that is not monophonic. Such a perspective considers homophony as a sub-type of polyphony.[3]


Traditional (non-professional) polyphony has a wide, if uneven, distribution among the peoples of the world.[4] Most polyphonic regions of the world are in sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and Oceania. It is believed that the origins of polyphony in traditional music vastly predate the emergence of polyphony in European professional music. Currently there are two contradictory approaches to the problem of the origins of vocal polyphony: the Cultural Model, and the Evolutionary Model.[5] According to the Cultural Model, the 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 gradually replace monophonic traditions.[6] According to the Evolutionary Model, the 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.[7]: 198–210 

Although the exact origins of polyphony in the Western church traditions are unknown, the treatises Musica enchiriadis and Scolica 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 generally considered to be the oldest extant example of notated polyphony for chant performance, although the notation does not indicate precise pitch levels or durations.[8] However, a two-part antiphon to Saint Boniface recently discovered in the British Library, is thought to have originated in a monastery in north-west Germany and has been dated to the early tenth century.[9]

European polyphony[edit]

Historical context[edit]

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. The oldest surviving piece of six-part music is the English rota Sumer is icumen in (c. 1240).[10]

Western Europe and Roman Catholicism[edit]

European polyphony rose prior to, and during the period of the Western Schism. Avignon, the seat of popes and then antipopes, was a vigorous center of secular music-making, much of which influenced sacred polyphony.[11]

The notion of secular and sacred music merging in the papal court also offended some medieval ears. It gave church music more of a jocular performance quality supplanting the solemnity of 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 considered frivolous, impious, lascivious, and 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. After banishing polyphony from the Liturgy in 1322, Pope John XXII warned against the unbecoming elements of this musical innovation in his 1324 bull Docta Sanctorum Patrum.[12] In contrast Pope Clement VI indulged in it.

The oldest extant polyphonic setting of the mass attributable to one composer is Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame, dated to 1364, during the pontificate of Pope Urban V. The Second Vatican Council said Gregorian chant should be the focus of liturgical services, without excluding other forms of sacred music, including polyphony.[13]

Notable works and artists[edit]

Protestant Britain and the United States[edit]

English Protestant west gallery music included polyphonic multi-melodic harmony, including fuguing tunes, by the mid-18th century. This tradition passed with emigrants to North America, where it was proliferated in tunebooks, including shape-note books like The Southern Harmony and The Sacred Harp. While this style of singing has largely disappeared from British and North American sacred music, it survived in the rural Southern United States, until it again began to grow a following throughout the United States and even in places such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, and Australia, among others.[15][16][17][18]

Balkan region[edit]

Albanian polyphonic folk group wearing qeleshe and fustanella in Skrapar.

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.[19][20]

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

Balkan drone music is described as polyphonic due to Balkan musicians using a literal translation of the Greek polyphōnos ('many voices'). In terms of Western classical music, it is not strictly polyphonic, due to the drone parts having no melodic role, and can better be described as multipart.[22]

The polyphonic singing tradition of Epirus is a form of traditional folk polyphony practiced among Aromanians, Albanians, Greeks, and ethnic Macedonians in southern Albania and northwestern Greece.[23][24] This type of folk vocal tradition is also found in North 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.

In Aromanian music, polyphony is common, and polyphonic music follows a set of common rules.[25]

The phenomenon of Albanian folk iso-polyphony (Albanian 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.[26][27]


The French island of Corsica has a unique style of music called Paghjella that is known for its polyphony. Traditionally, Paghjella contains a staggered entrance and continues with the three singers carrying independent melodies. This music tends to contain much melisma and is sung in a nasal temperament. Additionally, many paghjella songs contain a picardy third. After paghjella's revival in the 1970s, it mutated. In the 1980s it had moved away from some of its more traditional features as it became much more heavily produced and tailored towards western tastes. There were now four singers, significantly less melisma, it was much more structured, and it exemplified more homophony. To the people of Corsica, the polyphony of paghjella represented freedom; it had been a source of cultural pride in Corsica and many felt that this movement away from the polyphonic style meant a movement away from paghjella's cultural ties. This resulted in a transition in the 1990s. Paghjella again had a strong polyphonic style and a less structured meter.[28][29]


Cantu a tenore is a traditional style of polyphonic singing in Sardinia.

Caucasus region[edit]


Polyphony in the Republic of Georgia is arguably the oldest polyphony in the Christian world. Georgian polyphony is traditionally sung in three parts with strong dissonances, parallel fifths, and a unique tuning system based on perfect fifths.[30] Georgian polyphonic singing has been proclaimed by UNESCO an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Popular singing has a highly valued place in Georgian culture. There are three types of polyphony in Georgia: complex polyphony, which is common in Svaneti; polyphonic dialogue over a bass background, prevalent in the Kakheti region in Eastern Georgia; and contrasted polyphony with three partially improvised sung parts, characteristic of western Georgia. The Chakrulo song, which is sung at ceremonies and festivals and belongs to the first category, is distinguished by its use of metaphor and its yodel, the krimanchuli and a "cockerel’s crow", performed by a male falsetto singer. Some of these songs are linked to the cult of the grapevine and many date back to the eighth century. The songs traditionally pervaded all areas of everyday life, ranging from work in the fields (the Naduri, which incorporates the sounds of physical effort into the music) to songs to curing of illnesses and to Christmas Carols (Alilo). Byzantine liturgical hymns also incorporated the Georgian polyphonic tradition to such an extent that they became a significant expression of it.[31]

Chechens and Ingushes[edit]

Chechen and Ingush traditional music can be defined by their tradition of vocal polyphony. Chechen and Ingush polyphony is based on a drone and is mostly three-part, unlike most other north Caucasian traditions' two-part polyphony. The middle part carries the main melody accompanied by a double drone, holding the interval of a fifth around the melody. Intervals and chords are often dissonances (sevenths, seconds, fourths), and traditional Chechen and Ingush songs use sharper dissonances than other North Caucasian traditions. The specific cadence of a final, dissonant three-part chord, consisting of fourth and the second on top (c-f-g), is almost unique. (Only in western Georgia do a few songs finish on the same dissonant c-f-g chord.)[7]: 60–61 


Parts of Oceania maintain rich polyphonic traditions.


The peoples of New Guinea Highlands including the Moni, Dani, and Yali use vocal polyphony, as do the people of Manus Island. Many of these styles are drone-based or feature close, secondal harmonies dissonant to western ears. Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands are host to instrumental polyphony, in the form of bamboo panpipe ensembles.[32][33]


Europeans were surprised to find drone-based and dissonant polyphonic singing in Polynesia. Polynesian traditions were then influenced by Western choral church music, which brought counterpoint into Polynesian musical practice.[34][35]


Numerous Sub-Saharan African music traditions host polyphonic singing, typically moving in parallel motion.[36]

East Africa[edit]

While the Maasai people traditionally sing with drone polyphony, other East African groups use more elaborate techniques. The Dorze people, for example, sing with as many as six parts, and the Wagogo use counterpoint.[36]

Central Africa[edit]

The music of African Pygmies (e.g. that of the Aka people) is typically ostinato and contrapuntal, featuring yodeling. Other Central African peoples tend to sing with parallel lines rather than counterpoint.[37] In Burundi, rural women greet each other with akazehe, a two-part interlocking vocal rhythm.[38]

Southern Africa[edit]

The singing of the San people, like that of the pygmies, features melodic repetition, yodeling, and counterpoint. The singing of neighboring Bantu peoples, like the Zulu, is more typically parallel.[37]

West Africa[edit]

The peoples of tropical West Africa traditionally use parallel harmonies rather than counterpoint.[39]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hendrik van der Werf (1997). "Early Western polyphony", Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816540-4.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ DeVoto, Mark (2015). "Polyphony". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 1 December 2015.
  4. ^ Jordania, Joseph (2011). Why do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution. Logos. pp. 13–37. ISBN 978-9941-401-86-2.
  5. ^ Jordania, Joseph (2011). Why do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution. Logos. pp. 6o–70. ISBN 978-9941-401-86-2.
  6. ^ Bruno Nettl. Polyphony in North American Indian music. Musical Quarterly, 1961, 47:354–62
  7. ^ a b Joseph Jordania (2006). Who Asked the First Question? The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech (PDF). Tbilisi: Logos. ISBN 99940-31-81-3. Archived from the original (PDF) on 7 March 2012.
  8. ^ Riemann, Hugo. History of music theory, books I and II: polyphonic theory to the sixteenth century, Book 1. Da Capo Press. June 1974.
  9. ^ "Earliest known piece of polyphonic music discovered". www.cam.ac.uk. University of Cambridge. 17 December 2014. Retrieved 20 August 2021.
  10. ^ Albright, Daniel (2004). Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-01267-0.
  11. ^ Riemann, Hugo. History of music theory, books I and II: polyphonic theory to the sixteenth century, Book 2. Da Capo Press. June 1974.
  12. ^ Pope John XXII (1879). "Translated from the original Latin of the bull Docta sanctorum patrum as given in Corpus iuris canonici, ed. a. 1582" (PDF). pp. 1256–57.
  13. ^ Vatican II, Constitution on the Liturgy, 112–18
  14. ^ See Jonathan Fruoco's work on Chaucer's polyphony: Chaucer's Polyphony and Polyphony and the Modern.
  15. ^ Temperley, Nicholas; Manns, Charles G. (1983). Fuging Tunes in the Eighteenth Century. Detroit, MI: Information Coordinators. ISBN 0-89990-017-8.
  16. ^ Cobb, Buell E. (1989). The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-2371-8.
  17. ^ Lueck, Ellen (2017). Sacred Harp Singing in Europe: Its Pathways, Spaces, and Meanings (PhD). Wesleyan University. doi:10.14418/wes01.3.69.
  18. ^ Karlsberg, Jesse P. (2021). "The Folk Scholarship Roots and Geopolitical Boundaries of Sacred Harp's Global Twenty-first Century". In Shenton, Andrew; Smolko, Joanna (eds.). Christian Sacred Music in the Americas. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 221–240. ISBN 978-1-5381-4873-0.
  19. ^ "Startseite - Forschungszentrum für Europäische Mehrstimmigkeit". www.mdw.ac.at. Archived from the original on 9 January 2018. Retrieved 14 November 2011.
  20. ^ Kartomi, Margaret J.; Blum, Stephen (9 January 1994). Music-cultures in contact: convergences and collisions. Currency Press. ISBN 9780868193656 – via Google Books.
  21. ^ Александър Заралиев, Двугласът в българския фолклор, Младежка историческа общност, 08.03.2013.
  22. ^ Koço, Eno (27 February 2015). A Journey of the Vocal Iso(n). Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. xx. ISBN 978-1-4438-7578-3. A free, unpublished version of this passage is available on Google Books.
  23. ^ 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 [in Albania]."
  24. ^ Engendering Song: Singing and Subjectivity at Prespa by Jane C. Sugarman, 1997, ISBN 0-226-77972-6, p. 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 Farsherotii (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 "
  25. ^ Kahl, Thede (2008). "Multipart singing among the Aromanians (Vlachs)". In Ahmedaja, Ardian; Haid, Gerlinde (eds.). European Voices I: Multipart singing in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Böhlau Verlag. pp. 267–280. ISBN 9783205780908.
  26. ^ European voices: Multipart singing in the Balkans and the ..., Volume 1 By Ardian Ahmedaja, Gerlinde Haid p. 241 [1]
  27. ^ "Albanian Folk Iso-polyphony". UNESCO. Retrieved 31 December 2010.
  28. ^ Keyser, William. "Learn about Corsican traditional music, groups and recordings". www.corsica-isula.com. Retrieved 18 April 2018.
  29. ^ Bithell, Caroline (1996). Polyphonic Voices: National Identity, World Music and the Recording of Traditional Music in Corsica. British Forum of Ethnomusicology.
  30. ^ Curcumia, R. Jordania, Joseph, 1954- (2009). Echoes from Georgia : seventeen arguments on Georgian polyphony. Nova Science Publishers. ISBN 978-1-60876-477-8. OCLC 432991038.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  31. ^ "Georgian Polyphonic Singing". UNESCO.
  32. ^ Jordania, Joseph (2011). 'Polyphonic regions of the world' in 'Why do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution'. Logos. p. 36.
  33. ^ Kaeppler, Adrienne L.; Christensen, Dieter. "Oceanic Music and Dance". Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved 7 August 2018.
  34. ^ Jordania, Joseph (2011). 'Polyphonic regions of the world' in 'Why do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution'. Logos. p. 35.
  35. ^ Kaeppler, Adrienne L.; Christensen, Dieter. "Oceanic Music and Dance". Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved 7 August 2018.
  36. ^ a b Jordania, Joseph (2011). "Polyphonic regions of the world". Why do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution. Logos. p. 20.
  37. ^ a b Jordania, Joseph (2011). "Polyphonic regions of the world". Why do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution. Logos. p. 21.
  38. ^ Facci, Serena; Ciucci, Alessandra (2020). "The Akazehe of Burundi: Polyphonic Interlocking Greetings and the Female Ceremonial". Ethnomusicology Translations (10): 1–37. doi:10.14434/emt.v0i10.30278 – via IUScholarWorks Journals.
  39. ^ Jordania, Joseph (2011). "Polyphonic regions of the world". Why do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution. Logos. pp. 21–22.

External links[edit]