Centres of Polyphony

What is polyphony, or how should we define it? 

Paul Klee "Polyphony"

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. 

Where should we put the “dividing line” between multi-part (polyphonic) and one-part (monophonic) singing?

In my opinion there is no clear borderline between polyphony and monophony, I believe, that there is no purely monophonic culture in the world, the one without any elements of social/or musical polyphony. Both social and musical aspects of polyphony should be present in a tradition to be regarded as polyphonic. Cultures with a tradition of group unison singing and antiphonal forms of music (without multi-part singing) make a large group of cultures with social polyphony solely. Tradition of overtone singing (solo two-part singing), on the other hand, represents the tradition where musical aspect of polyphony is present, although the social aspect is not. Some singing styles (particularly unison-heterophony) are in a position of a “transitional phenomenon” between polyphonic and monophonic singing styles.

Is there such a thing as “polyphonic musical culture” and “monophonic musical culture”?

Despite my own belief that there is no strict division between polyphonic and monophonic singing traditions, and that there are no purely monophonic cultures in the world, some cultures could be viewed as “polyphonic” and some as “monophonic”. Being polyphonic or monophonic is one of the most important and basic characteristic features for most musical cultures. For the representatives of the so-called “polyphonic cultures” (where both – social and musical components of polyphony are widely represented) it is quite usual to regard even one part melodies as a part of multi-part texture, or to sing an accompanying part to unfamiliar melodies from their own or other cultures. For polyphonic cultures the co-sounding of different parts is often more important than the melodic development of each part. Musical texture is frequently based on repetitive short melodic phrases, and songs may not be based around the ‘main melody of a song’. From the social view point, during the process of performance society is not usually divided into “performers” and “listeners”, as in polyphonic cultures all the members of the society are usually performers and listeners at the same time. On the other hand, in the so-called “monophonic cultures” linear development is paramount and songs usually have well defined and complex melodic structure. The role of the individual performer is crucial. The importance of an individual performer in monophonic cultures leads to the professionalisation of musical culture. The role of musical instruments (particularly string instruments) is much more important in monophonic cultures, and the instruments are often technically more elaborated than in polyphonic cultures. Professionalisation of individual performers in monophonic cultures often leads to the creation of complex theoretical systems of scales and modes. Unlike the polyphonic cultures where the process of performance often does not divide the society into “performers” and “listeners”, in most of the monophonic cultures the roles of “performer/performers” and “listeners” are clearly defined. We should also remember that the musical culture of some countries consists of both – polyphonic and monophonic types of traditional music and the singing practices of certain region/regions of a country could be very different from the singing practices of the other regions of the same country.

What is the relationship between vocal and instrumental forms of polyphony?

Undoubtedly, there is an intrinsic intimate relationship between vocal and instrumental forms of polyphony (and generally music) in any culture. At the same time this relation is often more subtle and does not necessarily mean that instrumental and vocal music will have the same forms of monophony or polyphony. For example, some of Central Asian countries combine vocal monophony with quite developed instrumental polyphony. Generally speaking, instrumental polyphony is geographically spread much wider than vocal polyphony. Cultures with vocal forms of polyphony usually have instrumental polyphony as well, but at least some cultures with monophonic singing traditions have instrumental polyphony. One of the most interesting aspects of the relation between vocal and instrumental forms of music is that different types of traditional instruments within cultures show different links with their own vocal music. Wind instruments seem to have much more intimate relation with vocal tradition rather than string instruments (this could be the result of breathing – common feature for both singing and playing on wind instruments). This general closeness between vocal music and wind instrumental music allows us (to some extent) to reconstruct the presence of vocal forms of polyphony in some ancient civilizations where polyphonic wind instruments (e.g., pan pipes with two, three or four tubes) were widely spread.

What is the origin of vocal polyphony – is it the result of the development of the initial single-part singing tradition?

Strictly speaking, this question has nothing to do with the actual distribution of vocal polyphony in different cultures. At the same time this important question often affects the way we are looking at the historical dynamics of the distribution of vocal forms of polyphony in different regions of the world. The initial common belief of musicologists and ethnomusicologists that polyphony came as a late (and natural) development of the initial monophonic singing tradition is outdated. Numerous examples of wonderfully developed vocal polyphony from the most remote and economically undeveloped regions of the world suggest that polyphony could be extremely ancient integral part of human musical culture. During the last 20 years in my publications I argued that the origins of human group singing and vocal polyphony go back to the beginning of the evolution of hominids. According to this model, there are close historical links between the origins of human part-singing and the evolution of human intelligence, language and speech.

Joseph Jordania

Head of the International Bureau of the IRCTP
The University of Melbourne, Australia

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