Polyphonic music is music which includes multiple melodies or voices, in contrast with homophonic music, with a single melody, and harmony, in which chords harmonize with a leading melody or voice. Bach is probably one of the most notable composers of polyphonic music, and the height of polyphonic composition came in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when this type of music became very popular. For people who are interested in hearing some examples of polyphony, a search for “Bach” will turn up an assortment of sound clips. Most modern music is harmonic in nature.
In polyphony, multiple voices diverge during the performance, creating a rich, textured piece. Composing polyphonic music is quite challenging, as the voices must be distinct while complementing each other. Small variations in tone can create a piece which clashes, jarring the ear and sounding extremely unpleasant. Polyphonic music can be composed for voice, instruments, or both, and compositions may have just two or many melodies. The melodies may also periodically converge before diverging again to create more texture.
Homophonic music is probably the oldest type of music, since it is the most simple to compose and perform. Although evidence of polyphonic music did not start appearing until the Middle Ages, people undoubtedly performed polyphonic compositions before this period, and simply failed to write the music out. The Church is probably largely responsible for the flourishing of polyphonic music in the Middle Ages, thanks to Church subsidies to composers and wealthy people who commissioned works of music for performance in churches.
To people who are accustomed to harmonic music, polyphonic music can seem very strange to the ear. The sound is distinctly different from that of harmonic music, and a well-performed composition can achieve an almost alien sound which is quite remarkable. Homophonic music also sounds distinct from these two music types, with a more droning, regular nature. Gregorian chants are an excellent example of homophonic music.
Some of the music of Asia demonstrates polyphony, which is part of the reason why Asian music sounds so alien to Western listeners. Asian music also utilizes different keys and time signatures, making it instantly recognizable to people with some musical training as the product of a non-Western culture. Some Westerners grow to like Asian music, after listening to enough to become accustomed to its unfamiliar stylings. Likewise, some Easterners become interested in Western music, once they overcome its unusual sound.