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polyphony (pəlĭfˈənē), music whose texture is formed by the interweaving of several melodic lines. The lines are independent but sound together harmonically. Contrasting terms are homophony, wherein one part dominates while the others form a basically chordal accompaniment, and monophony, wherein there is but a single melodic line (e.g., plainsong). Polyphony grew out of the practice of organum, in which a plainsong melody is paralleled by another melody at the interval of a fourth or a fifth. This practice, first described in the Musica enchiriadis (late 9th cent.), developed into freer forms of countermelody, culminating in the great age of polyphony in the 15th and 16th cent. In the music of this period, harmonies seem to be generated by the melodic lines sung simultaneously. The gradual ascendancy of harmonic relationships over melodic considerations and the resultant development of major and minor tonalities led in the baroque era to a polyphony controlled by harmony. The fugues and chorale settings of J. S. Bach are the epitome of this type. Homophonic texture is more characteristic of the music of the classical and romantic eras, but in the 20th cent. there was renewed interest in polyphonic aspects of musical texture and structure. See counterpoint.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a type of many-voiced music, the fundamental characteristic of which is the equal importance of the voices constituting the texture. (“Counterpoint” is a term related to polyphony.) In polyphonic music, the voices are combined in accordance with the principles of harmony, which ensure a coordinated sound. Unlike polyphony, homophonic or harmonic many-voiced music is dominated by a single voice, usually the upper voice, which is called the melody. It is accompanied by other voices that sound together as chords, heightening the expressiveness of the melody. Polyphony takes shape through the joining of independent, linear melodic voices that are extensively developed in a composition.

There are a number of types of polyphony, classified according to the melodic and thematic content of the voices. In pod-golosochnaia (supporting-voice) polyphony, a principal melody is heard simultaneously with its variants, or podgoloski. This type of polyphony is characteristic of some folk-song cultures (for example, Russian folk music), from which it has been borrowed by professional composers. In imitative polyphony a single theme is developed by means of restatement or duplication in every voice. The canon and the fugue are among the forms based on this principle. In contrast-thematic polyphony, the voices simultaneously introduce independent themes, which, in many instances, belong to various musical genres. This type of polyphony synthesizes the thematic material and contrasts and combines the various lines of music.

In music of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, the various types of polyphony have sometimes been brought together in complex combinations: fugues and canons on two or more themes, and the fusion of imitative development with a consistently independent theme in forms such as the chorale (J. S. Bach’s cantatas) and the passacaglia (P. Hindemith).

Since the 12th and 13th centuries, the forms of polyphony have changed considerably. It is customary to distinguish two periods of polyphony: the period of strict polyphony, which culminated in the creative work of Palestrina, and the period of free polyphony, which reached its peak in the art of J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel. The traditions of free polyphony were developed by Mozart, Beethoven, and other composers of that period.

In the USSR, polyphony is important in Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian folk music. The origins of polyphony in professional music are linked to partesnoe penie, or part-singing. Russian polyphony received its classic formulation in works by M. I. Glinka and the classic Russian composers of the subsequent generation.

Polyphony is an important element in the musical language of 20th-century composers, particularly I. F. Stravinsky, N. Ia. Miaskovskii, S. S. Prokofiev, D. D. Shostakovich, R. K. Shchedrin, P. Hindemith, and B. Britten.


Taneev, S. Podvizhnoi kontrapunkt strogogo pis’ma, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1959.
Skrebkov, S. Uchebnik polifonii, 3rd ed. Moscow, 1965.
Protopopov, V. V. Istoriia polifonii v ee vazhneishikh iavleniiakh: Russkaia klassicheskaia i sovetskaia muzyka. Moscow, 1962.
Protopopov, V. V. Istoriia polifonii v ee vazhneishikh iavleniiakh: Zapadno-evropeiskaia klassika XVIII-XIX vv. Moscow, 1965.
Prout, E. Counterpoint: Strict and Free. London, 1890.
Riemann, H. Grosse Kompositionslehre, vols. 1–2. Berlin-Stuttgart, 1903.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


polyphonic style of composition or a piece of music utilizing it
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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