Monday, November 30, 2020

The different types of polyphonic singing 9: synthesis polyphony

Joseph Jordania has outlined nine different types of polyphonic singing in his book Choral singing in human evolution.

I will be working through each type trying to give a simplified explanation and some musical examples.

This week it’s synthesis polyphony, the last of the nine types of polyphonic singing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. Do let me know if you come across any interesting or unusual examples of traditional polyphonic singing, or if you have any questions about any of these posts.

Not every culture has polyphonic or multi-part singing. When they do, it can take many different forms. 

In part 1, I wrote about parallel polyphony.

In part 2, I wrote about drone polyphony.

In part 3, I wrote about canonic polyphony.

In part 4, I wrote about contrapuntal polyphony.

In part 5, I wrote about ostinato polyphony.

In part 6, I wrote about heterophonic polyphony.

In part 7, I wrote about overlapping polyphony.

In part 8, I wrote about chordal polyphony.

synthesis polyphony

As usual, real life is much more complex than any theoretically constructed classification scheme. Most polyphonic singing traditions don’t fit into a neat category, but are a synthesis of the different types outlined so far.

For example: simultaneous use of the drone and parallel polyphonies; or contrapuntal and ostinato polyphonies; or the combination of pedal and rhythmic drones together with the
contrapuntal or ostinato polyphonies. These are only a very few of the existing synthesis types of polyphony.

I’m not going to go into detail about the many different possible synthesis combinations in traditional musical cultures. But I will use this opportunity to share some polyphonic traditions that I haven’t shared so far. See if you can spot which types of polyphony are being used.

16 examples of synthesis polyphony

1. South Africa

Many people still live a traditional Thembu Xhosa life in the Lumko district of the Eastern Cape province. There is a particular type of gruff singing used as vocal percussion known as umngqokolo. Although many young men sing in this style, there is another kind of umngqokolo which is sung only by women and girls which is a form of overtone singing:

2. Madagascar

Despite the title, this is not a tribal war chant! The title of the song is O Lahy E which means “Dear Friend”:

3. Georgia

Svaneti is the most mountainous region of Georgia, completely cut off for a good half of the year from the rest of the world. Svanetians are the tallest people in Georgia (and one of the tallest in Europe) with their own linguistically very archaic Svanetian language.

All Svanetian songs are three-part and the majority of them are round dances which start slowly and get faster towards the end. Although dissonances are one of the most characteristic features of all regional styles in Georgia, they play a particularly important role in Svanetian polyphonic songs.

This is the famous ritual song Lile which is dedicated to the cult of the sun:

4. Bulgaria

The shopi inhabit an area of Bulgaria known as shopluk which mainly covers central western Bulgaria, around Sofia. Here is a women’s song from the region which features clashing seconds:

5. Serbia

Krajiška singing is a traditional polyphonic folk singing of the Serbian people in the regions of the former Military Frontier (also known as Krajina) of the Austro-Hungarian empire:

6. Croatia

Klapa is a tradition of acappella singing from Dalmatia. The word klapa translates as “a group of friends”. This song is called Kroz planine (“Over the mountains”):

7. Slovenia

Polyphonic singing is an important feature of Slovenia, which consists mainly of forest-covered mountains. The older, more traditional style of singing is based on two-parts with a drone and involves dissonant seconds:

8. France

In the Southwestern corner of France (mostly in Bearn) there is a tradition of two-part singing mainly in parallel thirds. This is Tout en me promenant (“While walking around”) sung by the group Aradalh:

9. Indonesia

This is a song from Flores, one of a group of islands in the eastern half of Indonesia. The link will take you to a collection of songs from the island:

10. Peru

Probably one of the most interesting surviving musical traditions comes from the small tribe of Q’ero (only about four hundred people are left), who live in the Cusco region of the Andes in Peru. The Q’ero have interesting and sometimes unique traditions of polyphonic singing.

There is no sense of choral singing or harmony. A family, ayllu, or community may be singing and playing the same songs at the point of starting and stopping. Yet the melodies sung at communal occasions have a sustained note at the end of a phrase, permitting the other singers to catch up and share this prolonged duration, which serves as a drone.

Here is a Q’ero taki (“song”) (unfortunately the video is sideways!):

If you want to find out more about the Q’ero, here is a 30 minute documentary in English:

11. Tonga

The Tongan polyphonic tradition is one of the best preserved in Polynesia. The Tongan Lakalaka is a symphony-long grand composition in four and five choral parts, divided into antiphonal groups:

12. Italy

Trallalero is polyphonic folk music from the Ligurian region of Genoa, in northern Italy. The name derives from the monosyllabic vocables (non-lexical vocalizations), tra-la-la. Trallalero groups consist of tenor, baritone and bass parts, accompanied by a contralto and a singer whose voice imitates a chitarra (“guitar”).

This is one of the best known songs of the Trallalero, Quarto al Mare:

13. Scotland

There is a unique style of Gaelic psalm singing in the Western Isles of Scotland. The style is known as “lining out” or “precenting the line,” in which the leader of the performance, or “precentor,” sings a line, after which the rest of the congregation follows, with each member allowed to embellish the melody as they wish, in a free heterophonic fashion (see my post on heterophonic polyphony). This singing was recorded on the Isle of Lewis:

14. Tanzania

The Wagogo are a Bantu ethnic and linguistic group based in the Dodoma Region of central Tanzania. Wagogo people are well known among ethnomusicologists for their tradition of overtone singing which is unique in Africa. They also use a very specific scale system known as the ‘tetratonic’ scale which is a scale that uses only four notes within an octave.

This link will take you to a playlist of many Wagogo songs and singing:

15. Ethiopia

The Dorze are a small ethnic group ​​living in the Gamo highlands of the Southern region of Ethiopia. The polyphonic singing of Dorze can reach up to six parts:

16. Namibia

The San people are indigenous hunter-gatherers whose territories span Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and South Africa.  Polyphony is one of the central elements of their traditional music with a wide use of yodelling. There is a near absence of song texts. The singers mostly use syllables and isolated words, but extensively employ the
imitations of animal sounds, especially bird calls. There is wide use of polyrhythms.

Here are some San singers from Namibia:


two more examples of polyphonic singing styles

1. choral singing in human culture and evolution

As a resource to Joseph Jordania’s book, he has a page on his website with maps and musical examples for may of the polyphonic styles mentioned. There are 15 maps of distribution of various styles of traditional polyphony in Europe and the world, a map of distribution of stuttering in the world, and also 49 musical examples from various world cultures.

You can find them all here: Maps and musical examples for book Choral Singing in Human Culture and Evolution 

2. world polyphony

I came across an interesting playlist of 156 YouTube videos which cover a wide range of polyphonic styles across the globe.

You can find the playlist here:



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Chris Rowbury




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