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Polyphonic Texture: Definition, Music & Examples

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  • 0:00 Polyphonic Texture
  • 1:50 A Brief History
  • 2:53 Examples of Polyphony
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ryan Hultzman
Polyphony took hold in the 13th century and became the primary way of writing music for the better part of 500 years. This lesson will look at this important musical texture, providing some history and some examples along the way.

Polyphonic Texture

We're going to focus on music that developed through the European classical tradition in this lesson, especially as it relates to polyphony. Polyphony is the simultaneous performance of multiple melodies. It's a bit like two people giving speeches next to each other, but the speeches are independent of each other. Eventually, rules developed to control what was probably incredibly confusing. Imagine having four speakers giving four independent speeches at the same time. These rules became known as counterpoint, or the practice of controlling the relationship between the different melodies.

Polyphony is one of the musical textures. You may hear music as dense, thick, sparse, ambient, or any other of a number of different ways. This is musical texture. Polyphony is typically described as thick or densely textured, due to the independence of multiple melodic lines. Polyphony developed from earlier musical textures. In progressing order, you have monophonic to heterophonic to polyphony, though some theorists argue that biphonic music came before polyphony.

Polyphony became homophony around the turn of the Classical Era, with strict polyphony not being found again until the Modern Era with the new Austrian school of composers, or Schoenberg and his students. It can be argued that homophony is a simplification of polyphony, focusing on the harmonic aspects of polyphony, rather than the melodic independence. However, the essence of polyphony was lost with the transition to homophony. True polyphony only lasted until the Classical Era.

A Brief History

We now need to focus on sacred music for a minute, mostly because anything written in the early Medieval Era was basically controlled by the Church. Early sacred music was strictly monophonic. It had a single melody, sung by everyone. Around the year 900, we have some rules establishing that music can be sung in octaves, or notes that are eight steps apart. This isn't polyphony because, despite being different notes, they're the same melody, just at a different pitch.

At some point during this time, heterophony developed, giving us multiple voices singing the same melody with some melodic changes in different parts. Some theorists argue this is the beginning of polyphony and call it polyphonic stratification. Either way, the effect was the same: we're starting to hear something more than everyone singing the same thing. However, the first polyphonic mass, the Messe de Nostre Dame by Machaut, wasn't performed until 1364.

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