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Polyphony ( ancient Greek πολύ polý , German 'much' and φωνή phonḗ , German 'voice' ) or polyphony describes different types of polyphony in music . The word polyphonia first appeared in this meaning around 1300, but was rarely used until the 18th century.

In German, a distinction is often made between musical polyphony as a more general phenomenon and polyphony as a compositional technique ( polyphonic composition ) in European music, whereas English uses the term polyphony for both, i.e. in a more general sense.


In music, polyphony means the autonomy and independence of the voices in a piece. From the late Middle Ages to the 18th century, certain techniques of polyphony developed in Europe that receded at the end of the 18th century, but were partially revived in the music of the 20th century . They are since the Renaissance in the subject of counterpoint taught. A textbook ideal since Gradus ad Parnassum (1725) by Johann Joseph Fux is the so-called Palestrina style as a counter-principle to the theory of harmony founded by Jean-Philippe Rameau in 1722 .

The term polyphony is used to distinguish it from other musical phenomena. In general there are three distinctions:

Polyphony - homophony

Polyphony can denote the independence of voices that sound together . Then one understands polyphony as the opposite of homophony (the polyphony, but only chordal music-making). If you only play chords on a guitar instead of several independent melodies , you would not play polyphonically in this sense of the word. It is similar with the register sounds of organs or electronic instruments: when a key is pressed, several voices sound, but they are not independent.

Polyphony in this sense is a form of polyphony in which the individual voices are essentially equivalent. This is achieved by having a composer guide their course according to the rules of counterpoint . Polyphonic pieces of music are strongly linear or horizontally oriented in their internal structure, i. H. The independence of the individual voices is expressed in the fact that they have different rhythms , pitches and duration of the tone .

Polyphony - monophony

In modern (but also in late medieval) language, polyphony can simply mean polyphony as opposed to unanimity . For example, a guitar can be played in several voices (chords) or in unison (melody). An electronic musical instrument (e.g. synthesizer ) that can produce several tones at the same time is called “polyphonic”. Early jukeboxes were called polyphonic .

In western music history , this distinction is emphasized by the fact that homophony retains a last residue of polyphony: The rules of harmony , in which fifths and octave parallels are excluded, strictly separate the mixture sound (in which several voices run in parallel, for example the register sounds of the organ or the spontaneous “ barbershop harmonies” when singing), from the chord , the coherent composition of which requires knowledge of all vocal progressions in order to create the illusion of their independence. In this way, a one-part music-making with an enriched overtone spectrum is distinguished from a polyphonic one.

Polyphony - heterophony

The compositional technique of polyphony can be differentiated from variants of heterophony . This is basically a contrast between scriptural and script-independent polyphony. A composed polyphony that allows or avoids parallels and dissonances according to certain rules is distinguished from a relatively independent, but rather improvisational sounding together of voices, as is common in many non-European cultures, but also in Western popular music.


Polyphony as polyphony in the western, "occidental" tradition is always "graphogenetic", i. H. depending on the font . The term is hardly applicable to improvised and traditional polyphony. It is also strongly influenced by the doctrines of the 19th century, which assume a distinction between theory of harmony and counterpoint , which makes a transfer to earlier times problematic.


The written polyphony developed in European vocal music in the late Middle Ages . It is related to the universals problem of scholasticism . The so-called Notre Dame School of Polyphony is located in the period between the strict realism of Wilhelm von Champeaux and the founding of the Paris Sorbonne . The relationship of the voices to one another shows the relationship of the individual to the general , i.e. above all of the individual human being to a whole, be it a divine world order or a state. Frequently in polyphonic vocal music are symbols of the trinity such as the harmonic triad or the tense perfectum of the mensural notation .

The first two-part musical records in connection with Gregorian chant appear in the Organum since the 9th century. Presumably they initially reflect a practice of musical improvisation. The further development of the Discantus in the 12th century made a notation of the polyphonic sound structure necessary. Léonin and Pérotin are known as the earliest composers of polyphonic music.

Renaissance and Baroque

In the 14th century, the new possibilities of expression of Ars nova encouraged the emergence of a secular, courtly vocal polyphony. In the music of the 16th century , polyphony reached a climax (cf. Dutch polyphony ) and dominated Renaissance music . It was criticized by the church with the argument that the text was incomprehensible. According to an unproven hypothesis, Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina saved polyphony from a papal ban with his Missa Papae Marcelli , in which the text of the fair is set to music in an easily understandable manner. Around 1600 the “muddle of voices” of polyphony was juxtaposed with monody : a leading melody was placed in front of a choir of accompanying voices .

In the age of absolutism , polyphony regresses (see baroque music ), which was only perceived afterwards. Jean-Philippe Rameau stated that the chords were meanwhile more important than the individual voices ( Traité de l'harmonie , 1723), called this a “natural principle” and was therefore strongly attacked. The independence of the voices, he had noticed, had become an illusion.

Now the increasingly suppressed imitation between the voices was considered a characteristic of polyphony. In this late period, polyphonic musical forms that had existed for a long time, such as the fugue, were perfected, especially by Johann Sebastian Bach .

Classic and Romantic

In general, the rise of instrumental music let polyphony recede and favored the architectural structure of longer musical movements in periodic structure. The composition of fugues was still part of musical training, but in practice it only played a subordinate role. Hence polyphony took on the aspect of the scholarly or esoteric. Polyphonic passages in compositions since the Viennese Classic often seem like historical quotations.

The romantic music discovered the coloristic not structurally belonged effect of polyphony. Richard Wagner has developed a kind of chordal polyphony to overcome the musical period, in which the individual voice dissolves into the overall sound. In doing so, he increased the lack of independence of the individual voice as well as the appearance of their independence, which he justified with socio-political ideas such as the institution of the cooperative : the longer joint breath of the performers enables an “ infinite melody ”.

20th century

Many composers of the 20th century, such as Arnold Schönberg , rebelled against this kind of community experience and revived older ideas of polyphony, combined with a new treatment of dissonances.

See also


  • Wieland Ziegenrücker: General music theory with questions and tasks for self-control. German Publishing House for Music, Leipzig 1977; Paperback edition: Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, and Musikverlag B. Schott's Sons, Mainz 1979, ISBN 3-442-33003-3 , pp. 152-155 ( homophonic and polyphonic typesetting ).

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