Polyphony – The Basis Of Real Music

I thought I would have a look at polyphony this morning, as I have stumbled across no end of videos of people singing polyphonically, and to be honest, I didn’t really know what it meant.

Well, specifically, this is what polyphony actually means:-

polyphony is a texture consisting of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, as opposed to a musical texture with just one voice which is called monophony, and in difference from musical texture with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords which is called homophony. 

So, now we know, and for those of us who refer to learn from experiencing things, here is a rather neat little video that illustrates the principles rather well I thought.

or if you prefer it in words, well here you go……

And as a last bit of theory, here is a rather neat little webpage from the BBC:-


OK, so now we have seen and heard a load of theoretical stuff about polyphony, so now the interesting bit is where is it used?

This is why I started in on this discussion, since I kept coming across polyphony all over the place as I was wandering around the web looking for music of various sorts and origins.  From the middle ages through pygmy tribes in Africa to Estonia and the Balkans, the whole world uses it, in all manner of different ways.   Paradoxically, by and large Anglo-Saxons whenever they get together and sing (such as in pubs or football matches, seem to avoid polyphony like the plague and stick firmly to singing in unison (monophony).. boring.

So to start with a rather beautiful example of polyphony, here we have some Caucasian cossacks……  Such peaceful sounds.   Bliss to listen to with your eyes closed.

As you will have noticed, they also seem to go in for a sort of yodelling sound, this type of polyphonic singing is beautifully demonstrated by this bunch of pygmy women (who also in passing, demonstrate a serious need for dentists).

Wonderful sound isnt it?

This sort of yodelling singing seems to be pretty well universal, it is found all over the world in all folk music traditions to a greater or lesser extent…

To make this point, here, about as far from the Pygmies as we can get, we have a couple of elderly Estonian women.  Not the first song obviously as that is a solo.

Or as an even more extreme example, we have these two amazing (if rather hard to listen to) Chinese guys.  The interpreter is obviously also having trouble keeping a straight face…..

The most glorious heights in polyphony were perhaps reached by Pergolesi in his Stabat Mater, so to give you a bit of real joy, here is the version of the Quando Corpus Moriet as used in the film Amadeus.   This is truly as good as it gets in my view….

And to finish of this short look at polyphony around the world, here we have a Spanish Polyphonic Choir giving off their best for us..  Rather fine singing it is too…

Obviously, polyphony was invented (discovered?) by humans waaaayyyy back in the very beginning of our story on this planet, and is still alive and well among us, happily.


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