Polyphony is usually defined as a type of music, where more than one pitchis heard at a time. This definition of polyphony is one-sided and does not take into account a very important social aspect of vocal polyphony. I believe we must distinguish two equally important components of traditional vocal polyphony: social and musical. Social polyphony implies active musical interaction within the group of people. Musical polyphony implies having more than one pitch during performance. It is clear that traditional definition of polyphony is based on a musical component only and does not take social component into account. Social and musical aspects of polyphony do not always go together in various cultures. For example, the phenomenon of unison (octave) singing socially represents polyphony (as group singing), although musically it is monophony (only one pitch). On the other hand the unique overtone singing of some Central Asian cultures musically represents polyphony although socially it is not polyphony. Social polyphony is distributed extremely wide across the world musical cultures. Most of the so-called “monophonic cultures” (such as Chinese, Australian Aboriginal, or most of American Indian music cultures) have traditional forms of social polyphony (group singing). Arguably, there is no culture without traditional forms of group singing. One of the true universal phenomena of human musical cultures – antiphonal dialogue between two parties (two soloists, two groups, or more often between a soloist and a group) is the most basic and widespread form of social polyphony. Our review mostly deals with cultures where vocal polyphony is represented both by social and musical components. Regions where multi-part singing is represented by musical component only (without social component) are marked as having “elements” of vocal polyphony. Cultures with only social polyphony are not discussed in this article, but readers should remember that there is hardly any culture without social polyphony.
Covering about half of our planet (but only a fraction of the world’s population), the Pacific Ocean is the home of an amazing richness of vocal polyphonic traditions. Both Marius Schneider in his 1934-1935 “History of Polyphony” and later Alan Lomax in his 1968 “Folk Song Style and Culture” placed the Oceania islands (particularly Polynesia and Melanesia) among the three most polyphonic major regions of the world (the two others being sub-Saharan Africa and Europe).
Perhaps one of the most important historical lessons that Oceania (and particularly Polynesia) taught European musicology (in the 18th century) was the shock of the discovery that well-organized part-singing can exist far from European civilization. The very first encounters of European travelers with the Pacific Ocean Island communities brought to light their strong predilection towards vocal polyphonic singing. From 1773 records come the following descriptions: “This set most of the women in the circle singing their songs were musical and harmonious, noways harsh or disagreeable”, or: “Not their voices only but their music also was very harmonious & they have considerable compass in their notes” (Beaglehole, 1962:246). Some descriptions are even more precise: “They sing in parts, keeping the same time and varying the four notes without ever going beyond them. So many singers and so few notes you always hear the whole together. The difference of Words & Voices makes some variety. The singers (that I heard) were all women. One confined herself entirely to the Lower Note which acted as Drone” – this eloquent description comes from Cook’s second 1772-1775 voyage (Burney 1975:84. Cited from Kaeppler et al., 1998:14). Very clear information on the Oceanic people’s part-singing capability came from Cook’s third voyage as well: “Where there is a great number they divide into several parts each of whom sings on a different key which makes a very agreeable music (Beaglehole, 1967:2:944. Cited from Kaeppler et al., 1998:14). Early records even indicated the use of unusual chords as well: “We now and then remarked some discordant notes, with which, however, the ear of these people seemed very much gratified” (Labillardiere, 1802:133). These and many other travelers’ notes did not leave a place for any skepticism about the wide distribution of a polyphonic singing tradition in Oceania before their first contacts with Europeans.
It became a commonplace in ethnomusicological publications to note that South American Indians’ singing traditions contain much more polyphony than those of their North American counterparts. “In spite of the dearth of polyphony in North America, it has often been taken for granted that Central and South American Indians had complex polyphonic styles” (Nettl, 1961:354). According to Alan Lomax, “Polyphonic singing, which is frequently diffusely organized counterpoint, occurs in South America especially along the eastern slopes of the Andes. In this area too one encounters an unemphatic, soft-voiced, subdued, feminine-sounding style, with a frequent use of harmony. Such singing can be heard in the backwoods of highland Peru (Q’eros) and from the Campa of the eastern Andean slopes, through Venezuela and Colombia, into southern Mexico among the Tzotzil” (Lomax, 1968:85).
Probably one of the most interesting surviving musical traditions comes from the small tribe of Q’ero (about four hundred people only left), who live in the Cusco region of the Andes in Peru. Although some consider Q’ero to be Inca survivals, scholars think that Q’ero musical culture “probable reflects an even earlier diversity with an Inka overlay” (Cohen, 1998:225). Most importantly for our topic, the Q’ero have interesting and sometimes unique traditions of polyphonic singing. According to Cohen: “The general Q’ero musical aesthetics allows different pitches, texts, and rhythms to sound at the same time. Though the Q’ero sometimes sing in perfect unison, their songs are structures to be sung individually. There is no sense of choral singing or harmony. A family, aullu, 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. When the new verse starts, the heterophony begins anew” (Cohen, 1998:230).
Cohen describes the singing of women during the Palchasqa festival among Q’eros (held during February or March): “… several families join together outside and throw flowers (palcha) at the alpacas while singing and playing pinculu. Five or more women sing at the same time, interspersing ritual phrases with complaints about their daily lives. Each tells her own story in song. At times, the musical texture consists of different people singing personalized songs simultaneously. Only occasionally do they meet on ritual phrases or on final notes” (Cohen, 1998:228). Another interesting tradition is the big family singing sessions with the elements of drone polyphony: “twenty people may be packed together inside, drinking, singing heterophonically, with conch trumpets blasting. Sometimes, late in the night, the individual qualities become less apparent as people find accord between them, reaching a degree of musical consensus. At this point, the sustained final note of a phrase provides a drone beneath the individual voices. Occasional multi-part texture occurs, and the whole event takes on a choral sound” (Ibid, 229). Another interesting tradition of big communal singing happens during the carnival, where few groups of women sing in disregard of each other, together, while men play the musical instrument pinucllu. Cohen notes the closeness of this tradition to the celebration singing tradition of Amazonian Indians (ibid, 229).
The musical traditions of Native Americans are stereotypically regarded as monophonic. Despite the presence of strong group-singing traditions in most American Indian traditional music, monophonic (solo, unison and often loosely heterophonic) singing predominates.
At the same time, unlike many of the other “monophonic” regions of the world, where the study of dominant monodic music totally pushed away any study of the elements of polyphony, quite a few American scholars (mostly musicologists and ethnomusicologists) contributed to the study of elements of part-singing among North American Indians (see the survey in Nettl, 1961).
According to the available sources, mostly summarized in a concise and very informative article by Bruno Nettl (1961), information about the polyphonic singing styles of different Indian peoples is quite abundant. Although some regions and peoples lack any references to polyphony, solid information is available on other regions and peoples. Most importantly, this information questions the existing general stereotype about the general monophonic nature of American Indian vocal singing traditions.
Among different regions of North America two regions are particularly rich in information about vocal polyphony: (1) the Northwest Coast, and (2) the East Coast.
Plenty of information indicates that the Northwest Coast Indians (particularly the Nootka and Salish) were familiar with a part-singing tradition, and particularly often used drone polyphony. Drone could be the highest part (as among the Makah) as well as the lowest part (Salish Indians). Makah used a so-called “metal pitch”, a drone that sounded on top of the melody. According to Densmore’s informants, the “metal pitch” [high pitch drone] was sung by individuals, mainly women, who “either did not know the song or wished to improve its quality” (Densmore, 1939:130). It is very interesting that the Makah would use a “metal pitch” drone to accompany a stranger when he would sing his own song for them. Densmore provides some very interesting information about the additional harmonic tones that Salish singers used to place during the long notes in the melody (Densmore, 1943:31). Abraham and Hornbostel transcribed this example of drone polyphony from Thomson River Indians:
Singers were divided into two groups (so both parts were sung in unisons). Some of them sang a melody, and others occasionally repeated the same note, a third lower than the main tone of the melody (Abraham & Hornbostel, 1922:32).
The musical symbol of Central Asia is a unique polyphonic style, known by the names “overtone singing” or “throat singing”. A solo performer produces two different sounds simultaneously. This singing style has been found on a wide territory comprising Tuva, western Mongolia and Altay and Sayan mountain ranges. According to the information received from Yuri Sheikin from Yakutsk, there are few different distinct styles of overtone singing in this region:
(1) Northwestern Tuva is the most important region for this style, with 14 styles of singing (term – khoomei).
(2) Unlike western Tuva, eastern Tuva is much less known for overtone singing traditions, and singers here are far apart. Three styles have been documented here (the term khoomei is used here as well).
(3) Five styles of overtone singing have been recorded in Mountain Altay. Overtone singing in known here under the term kai.
(4) Three styles have been recorded among the Mountain Shoria. They are also known under the term kai.
(5) Khakassia has two styles of overtone singing, known as khai.
(6) One style of overtone singing has been documented in Yakutia as well, under the name khabarga.
(7) And finally, outside the Russian Federation, six styles of overtone singing have been documented in western Mongolia (under the term khoomei)
The region of the Middle East, according to the main elements of its musical cultures, unites a vast region, which comprises parts of three continents: parts of western and central Asia, northern Africa and a small part of Europe (the European part of Turkey). Garland Encyclopedia frames the Middle East within the regions from Northwestern Africa (Morocco) up to Kazakhstan and Northwestern China.
As imperfect as most generalizations are, we can characterize the Middle Eastern region as having the following features:
Vocal polyphony does not play an important role in most of the musical cultures of this region;
Traditions of very developed instrumental polyphony (particularly of the string instruments) are quite usual for many Middle Eastern musical cultures;
Despite the absence of vocal polyphonic traditions, group singing (mostly in unison or in octaves, sometimes with heterophonic elements) is quite common in folk-singing traditions of this region;
The Middle East is one of the most advanced regions of the world in terms of early professionalism and the role of the solo performer in musical culture;
Although vocal music has primary importance in a musical culture (this idea is clearly expressed in the classifications of one of the greatest thinkers of humanity Al-Farabi), musical instruments, and particularly string instruments, play an important role. This idea is also clearly expressed in the writing of another great thinker of the Medieval Middle East – Ibn-Sina (Avicenna);
Following a great tradition of writing about music from Ancient Greece, many of Middle Eastern musical cultures have a great tradition of theoretical works about music, with lengthy discussions ranging from the role of music in society to specific scales and melodic models. The music of Ancient Greece itself is considered by many to be a part of the Middle Eastern family of musical cultures;
Also starting from Ancient Greece, Middle Eastern thinkers have long discussed the value of different kinds of music. There were suggestions that certain scales, modes or musical instruments should be banned (for example, Plato suggested a ban on the aulos, a double-reed aerophone). This tendency was dramatized after the advance of Islam, and resulted in a general disapproval (and sometimes a strict ban) of non-religious-related musical activities in some of the Middle Eastern countries. As a live example of such a ban, our friend and colleague from Monash University spent two years in an Iranian jail for performing classical music.
With its internationally renowned opera traditions and bel canto singing style so universally popular, Italy has long been a symbol of “beautiful singing”. Unlike some other European countries, where folk singing styles became the symbol of national musical identity, “rarely shared at the national level, folk song in Italy never became a national symbol. Instead, during the second half of the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century, opera and so-called Neapolitan popular song served such purposes” (Sorce Keller et al. 2000:604). Four main regions are distinguished in Italy: (1) North Italy, (2) central Italy, (3) the Mediterranean south and Sicily, and (4) Sardinia. The tradition of vocal polyphony is distributed in three out of the four regions: in north and central Italy and on Sardinia. Although the southern part is mostly monophonic, geographically more isolated Sicily has vocal polyphonic traditions. As a matter of fact, central Italy is more of a transitional region between the polyphonic north and monophonic south, so polyphonic singing decreases from north to south of Central Italy.
“Choral singing belongs mainly to the alpine area and the north, where a variable number of singers sing two, three, or four parts. The accompanying part sings below the leading part or, less commonly, above it. This type of polyphony, structures in thirds or sixths, is widespread from the southern German territories to the valley of the river Po, and into Slovenia, Dalmatia, and northern Croatia. In playfulness and intricacy of texture, the richest polyphonic forms include the tiir, from the town of Premana in Lombardy; the trallalero, in the area around Genoa, in which five (sometimes six) vocal parts imitate various instruments; and the bei in Tuscany. These styles are neither song forms nor song types, but polyphonic procedures applied to different kinds of songs” (Sorce Keller et al, 2000:610).
According to the Garland Encyclopedia article written by the expert of the Portugal traditional music and polyphony, Castelo-Branco (2000), vocal polyphonic singing occurs in few isolated pockets of northern and southern Portugal. In the mountainous north part of Portugal these are the districts of Viana do Castelo, Braga and Aveiro. In the central part of the north of Portugal there is the district of Viseu, and in central-east Portugal the district of Castelo-Branco. Another important region of traditional polyphony is in the district of Beja in the southern part of Portugal.
The polyphonic traditions are mostly connected to the European major-minor harmonic system. Two-, three- and four-part singing in Portugal is based on European triadic harmonies and parallel thirds.
The scales are mostly European major and minor, but in the Beja and Castelo-Branco districts older scale systems are also used. The melodies in the central, eastern and south Portugal polyphonic traditions use melismatic ornaments (but not in the Northwestern districts). In most of the polyphonic regions women sing polyphonic songs. Only in southern Portugal (district Beja in Alentejo) is polyphony primarily a part of the male repertoire.
Generally speaking, central France is the largest territory of non-polyphonic singing traditions in the Western Europe. As Hugh Shields put it, “centuries of classical polyphony have made little impression on the monophonic popular tradition and its realization mainly as solo performance” (2000:542). Elements of polyphony and harmony are usually confined to the use of accompanying instruments, or, in vocal music, to the use of heterophonic singing.
Heterophonic elements had been documented in Breton (a specific historical region in western France) dance songs. Historical sources about the musical traditions of Breton society documented the staunch resistance of their pagan rituals, songs and dances. For example, the ritual dancing around a fire on St John’s Eve has survived, despite a religious ban from the 600s (Kuter, 2000:561). The singing style tuilage, where two voices (“singer” – kaner and “countersinger” – diskaner) alternate and sometimes overlap, exists in Breton (and neighbouring regions).
Other region with the elements of polyphony is the Southeast France and particularly the Southwestern corner of France. Here (mostly in Bearn) there is a tradition of two-part singing mostly in parallel thirds, although the use of traditional modes (for example the use of natural 7th step) suggest older origins of this type of polyphony.
Switzerland is another extremely important region of polyphonic traditions of Central Europe. With polyphonic choral singing based on European classical harmony and yodel, many regions of Switzerland (particularly of the Swiss-German areas) are close to the Austrian style of vocal polyphony.
The Swiss-German regions are perhaps the most polyphonic, with several regional styles of the yodel and traditions of vocal polyphony, and with a tradition of festivals of singers, organized from 1825 onwards. Perhaps the most archaic style of yodeling exists among several families of Muotatal (under the name juuz, juuzli). This three-part singing tradition is still based on European classical harmony, although the singing style is not refined and is based on glissandos and uncertain and sometimes non-tempered pitches during singing.
In Appenzell special yodeling competitions are traditionally held. Here the tradition of polyphonic singing also features yodeling (in a local style the yodel is lower in range), and is accompanied by two or three other parts – drones (gradhabe “to keep it straight”) (Hoffman & Delorenzi-Schenkel, 2000:691). Another yodeling style (schnelzer) in the same region (Appenzell) is known for its acceleration. Lucerne polyphonic singing also includes long drones with European harmonies and the use of yodel (Hoffman & Delorenzi-Schenkel, 2000:691). In still another region, Solothurn, “singing was formerly accompanied by clapping hands, slapping thighs, or drumming on a table. Other movements – holding the hand or little finger to the ear, pressing the throat to manipulate vocal quality, and other techniques – were commonly associated with singing in many areas. Tight closed circles, in which singers held their heads close together, commonly occurred” (Hoffman & Delorenzi-Schenkel, 2000:691).