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What is Polyphonic Music?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By zenmaster — On Sep 11, 2010

Another interesting contrast to polyphony is heterophony, or heterophonic texture.

This is the kind of sound where you have two voices (or more) doing a simultaneous variation on a melody line.

This is much more common in Asian music, especially Japanese Gagaku and traditional Thai and Filipino music, but some Western composers do make use of it.

However, it's so rarely used that heterophony sounds "weird" to most Westerners when they first hear it.

I will say, heterophony is certainly an acquired taste, but one well worth cultivating.

By lightning88 — On Sep 11, 2010

Homework question for you all -- I've got a fill in the blank question:

"The center of polyphonic music in Europe after 1150 was..."

Any music buffs out there who can help me out?

By CopperPipe — On Sep 11, 2010

I recently became interested in learning more about the history of polyphonic music after a friend turned me on to Gregorian chant and music.

It really does have a very fascinating history, which you did a good job of tying in to this article.

There are a lot of technical aspects of polyphonic music too, like polyphonic texture, for instance.

Some people would simplify this down into "harmony", but polyphonic texture is different than that.

Polyphonic texture is when you have two or more voices playing independently of each other, with different rhythms, melodies, and harmonies, yet in a complimentary way.

How's that for complicated? It sounds really great though, when composed and performed properly. Learning the background and technical aspects of polyphonic music really gives you a new appreciation for composers though!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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