Polyphony music definition: How polyphony revolutionised ancient music
We explain the basics of polyphony and how it works, with examples from well-known composers
The word polyphony comes from the Greek for 'many sounds', which gives you an instant clue as to how the term is used in relation to music.
What is polyphony?
Polyphony is essentially a term used to describe the simultaneous use of two or more melodies (or voices) within a composition. This could be anything from a simple canon (or round) to something much more complex.
When was polyphony developed as a musical style?
In one guise or another, polyphony has been a technique used within music compositions for centuries. Although – as styles and trends have changed over time – the exact form it has taken has varied. Polyphonic music was developed throughout the 10th to 13th centuries but it really took off during the Renaissance period, when polyphonic compositions started to become much more complex and intricate.
In particular Notre Dame became known as the ‘cradle of polyphony’, when in the 12th century the Gregorian chant was elaborated with two or even three additional rhythmicised vocal parts.
Monophony vs polyphony: what's the difference?
Monophony is the opposite of polyphony. While polyphony uses 'many sounds' to create texture within a piece, monophony is characterised by a single melody that isn't accompanied by harmonies - if you remember 'delighting' your parents by blasting out a tune on the recorder or singing nursery rhymes at the top of your lungs as a child, you'll have been giving them a monophonic performance. Many traditional folk songs and medieval chants offer examples of monophonic compositions too.
Polyphony vs harmony: what's the difference?
While harmony refers to the chordal consonance within a piece, polyphony refers to the relationship between simultaneous, independent melodies that work together in terms of the piece as a whole. To think of it another way, harmony is concerned with the relationship between multiple complementary notes stacked vertically on a score, while polyphony refers to multiple complementary strands of melody flowing horizontally across a score.
Examples of polyphony
From Beethoven and Bach to Handel and Haydn, you’ll find examples of polyphony in myriad works by well-known composers. The second movement of Bach’s E Minor Toccata provides a great example of polyphony, as it features two clear melodies that intertwine with each other.