Monday, March 27, 2017

An Introduction to Polyphony

This month, Clef Notes has been looking at music from the Medieval era. It’s impossible to cover everything in just one month’s time. Hopefully, however, you have at least been given a good glance at where our Western music tradition finds its roots. This week, let’s wrap up the month by looking at polyphony – music in which multiple voices sing together on independent parts.

Polyphony first rose in significance during the 11th and 12th centuries with the purpose of adding ornamentation to liturgical music. It helped develop the ideas of counterpoint and harmony. It likely existed prior to this point in history, however the earliest written records of this type of music date from this time period. There are various genres of polyphony. We will look at organum today.

Organum consists of a melody sung against a drone or a melody doubled at a consonant interval. It includes two voice parts that follow counterpoint rules. There are various types of organum that we will briefly mention here, but I strongly encourage you to explore more on your own if you find this topic interesting. Parallel organum uses a pre-existing chant in one voice and adds an “organal” voice a fifth below, note for note. Free organum allows the “organal” voice more independence, moving in similar motion (same direction but different interval), contrary motion (opposite direction), or oblique motion (one voice stays the same while the other moves) to the chant voice. Later in the 12th century we see more ornate examples of this type of polyphony, with anywhere from one to three notes in one part to every one note in the original chant voice. Around this time, we see musicians beginning to compose rather that just improvise music, and their system of notation began to indicate duration of notes. It didn’t look quite like music notes do today. They used combinations of note groups rather than note shapes to show the desired duration.

Two important Notre Dame musicians of the time were Leonin and Perotin. These men wrote polyphony, specifically organum. Leonin was known for his collection of two-voice organum, while Perotin also wrote for three or even four voices!


I think that’s probably enough early music for one sitting. Let’s look more at another polyphonic genre next time – the motet!

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