Monday, November 09, 2020

The different types of polyphonic singing 6: heterophonic 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 heterophonic polyphony.

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.

heterophonic polyphony

This is when members of the singing group sing different variants of the main melody. Variant heterophony is very widely distributed all around the world and particularly important among Eastern Slavs.

To have heterophonic singing, all you need is to have a group of singers, singing in unison, where some members of the group do not strictly follow the unison.

5 examples of heterophonic polyphony

1. Polesia

In some polyphonic traditions of East Slavic peoples there is a tradition of ‘thick’ heterophonic performance of the main melody, contrasted by only one singer on top, who sings a functionally different part from the main melody part.

Here is a song from the region of Polesia:

2. Nekrasov Cossacks

Songs of the Nekrasov Cossacks: here is a clear and simple example of where the second singer varies from the main melody just occasionally:

Click to find a complete playlist of Nekrasov Cossack songs.

3. Mordvins

Among the peoples of the Volga-Ural region Mordvinians are maybe the best known for their rich traditions of vocal polyphony. Heterophonic polyphony is found mostly among the Erzya-Mordvinians:

4. Ukraine

One type of heterophony is the two-part Russian type known as podgolosochnaia polifonia. In this style the main melody is performed by the majority of singers and a solo singer performs a contrasting melodic part on top of the melody. Podgolosok means “supporting voice.” Here is an example from the Ukraine:

You can find plenty more videos and loads of information about the musical folklore of Ukrainian villages on the Polyphony Project website.

5. China

The majority of Chinese are Han, and China is generally known among ethnomusicologists as a country of vocal monophony (unison singing). However, many Chinese minorities have polyphonic traditions. This is from the Dong people:

next week

In the next post in this series I’ll be looking at overlapping polyphony.


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Chris Rowbury




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