Polyphony

I have a secret to confess.

Despite my many years as a choral singer, I don’t really choose to listen to classical music that much. In fact, most of the classical music I’ve been exposed to has been at a) my brother’s band recitals in school, b) that one Handel concert my parents made me go to and c) choir. I don’t think I’m alone when I say: sometimes I find classical music difficult to listen to. I just don’t always “get” it.

Fortunately, one of Sonoro Choral Society’s missions is to make music of all forms accessible to the lay listener/singer like me. We’re a teaching choir! And here’s what I’m learning about polyphony.

One of the cool things you can do with choirs that you can’t do with soloists is give each voice a different part. Many, many, many (all?) songs on the radio are homophonic which means they have one melody line and some accompaniment. The accompaniment (voiced, instrumental, or both) is designed to support the melody, but isn’t usually that nice to listen to by itself. [Side note: homophonic is not to be confused with monophonic which is a melody by itself with nothing else].

Polyphony, on the other hand, is multiple melody lines playing independently of each other at the same time. They are harmonically related, but usually rhythmically independent. It’s similar to a fugue in that a musical theme or “subject” is often passed from voice to voice with each voice expanding upon or changing the subject. But it is different from a fugue in that it doesn’t have to be as orderly. Here is a short video with a really great example of polyphony. He breaks down each snippet for you, so that it’s easy to hear the interplay.

I think polyphony is one of the ways Classical music can be hard to listen to, because the many melodies and rhythms can feel dense–cacophonous even. Fortunately, there’s a few tricks I’ve learned which make polyphonous music fun to listen to.

  1. Polyphony is really big in the Romantic era of music which valued music’s ability to produce intense and multi-layered feelings in the listener. So ask yourself: what does each melodic line have to say? How does it support or re-frame the lyric or emotional content of the piece. Are the voice parts in conversation?
  2. If there’s a theme, listen for it to pop up from the morass. How is it disguised this time? Listen for counterpoint like in the video above. Do they compete? enforce the main? How do they change the context in which the initial theme sits?
  3. Now that you’ve listened to the melodies weave in and out, metaphorically stand back from the music as if from a painting. How does it sound together? How does the piece as a whole swell and fade?

While researching for this article, I came across this quote from music expert John Rahn:

It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole.

He makes a good point, I think. I’m tremendously impressed by people who compose, but to compose TWO simultaneous, interdependent pieces? That’s cool.

Find out where Sonoro is singing polyphony at our events page.

–Johanna Hanson, Marketing Director and singer in Sonoro Women’s Choir.

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