Stages of polyphony

Aspects of the development of multiplicity of voice in music

With its own set of rules, each of the stages of polyphony shown below displays an aesthetic world of sound, a world characterised by the degree of distance created between the tonal worlds of the individual voices.

It turns out that both harmonically and rhythmically, an ever-expanding distance between the individual voices can be perceived as a musical ‘whole’.

The distance between the voices can consist in differing harmonic spaces or different rhythmic levels … or in both together.

Mental polyphony exists where the listening or performing consciousness is nevertheless able to comprehend musical events taking place in otherwise dissociated tonal worlds as part of the same musical situation.

Awareness of the diversity of possible tonal languages/tonal worlds and a growing ability to grasp this fact and enlist it artistically are both a source of enrichment for the palette of musical possibilities for latitude in the composition and production of contemporary musical events.

On harmonic polyphony

The following is a list of stages in the development of harmonic polyphony with an increasing degree of dissimilarity of the tonal worlds in which the players move about:

  • Modal improvisation
    Playing simultaneously within a certain diatonic tonal range
  • Chord progression
    Playing simultaneous in a recurrent succession of for the most part functionally interrelated chords
    Example: chord changes in jazz
  • Bitonality
    Playing simultaneously in two different keys
    Example: Bartók, ‘Mikrokosmos’
  • Multitonality
    Playing simultaneously in multiple different keys
    Example: Ornette Coleman, ‘harmolodics’
  • Atonality
    Playing simultaneously in the potentially twelve-tone space without more than a temporary reference to a key.
    Example: Schoenberg
  • Free tonality
    Playing simultaneously with all of the possibilities identified within the Western tonal system and with an attitude of openness vis-à-vis incorporating the world of sounds and innovative playing techniques.
    Examples: Karlheinz Stockhausen, avant-garde jazz

On rhythmic polyphony

The following is a list of stages in the develop of rhythmic polyphony with an increasing degree of dissimilarity of the worlds of temporal intervals in which the players move about:

  • Same rhythm/groove
    Simultaneously playing with the same sense of meter and beat,
    playing within the same flow
  • Polyrhythm
    Simultaneously playing within a uniform time scale with an interrelated and divergent approach to meter and beat; playing within the same flow with a divergence of interpretation and arrangement
  • Different time scales
    Playing simultaneously yet with different time scales

On mental polyphony

Mental polyphony describes the degree of dependence upon voice in which the distinguishing characteristic is the simultaneity of artistic expression, the coexistence and parallelism of different tonal worlds:

  • Different systems of reference
    Simultaneously playing in different mental worlds, moods, time zones, tonal languages, musical cultures …
    Scenic rendering of the events

Theory & Practice / Stages of polyphony © Norbert Stein Pata Music