Monday, September 28, 2020

What is polyphonic singing?

Most choirs sing in harmony. They sing a kind of ‘vocal polyphony’.

It’s a bit of a daunting word, but very useful. So let’s find out what ‘polyphony’ means.

I’ve been prompted to write this post by reading Joseph Jordania’s excellent book Choral singing in human evolution (you can download it for free).

I haven’t got very far yet (!), but I found his summary of the different kinds of polyphonic singing fascinating. I thought I’d try to give examples of each type from different parts of the world.

But first, I need to explain what ‘polyphony’ means in this context.

[I am not a musicologist or expert in this field, but thought it might be useful to try to explain some of the concepts used in ethnomusicology in simple language. Apologies if I get anything wrong in my (over-) simplification!]

Polyphony is when two or more voices sing different things at the same time (polyphony can be applied to any kind of music-making, but I’m focusing here on vocal polyphony). As opposed to monophony, or unison. where everybody is singing the same melody at the same time.

An alternative to the word ‘polyphony’ is ‘multi-part music’, but that’s a bit of a mouthful.

There are different polyphonic traditions across the globe. Some parts of the world only have vocal monophony and no kind of part singing at all.

Jordania is interested in these different traditions, how they differ from each other, how they arose, what their characteristics are, why some places don’t use polyphony, and so on.

There are many different forms of polyphony and Jordania divides them into nine different types.

Over the next few weeks I will try to find examples of each different type and maybe introduce you to some new vocal traditions on the way.


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Chris Rowbury




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