What is Polyphony?

Polyphonia (English Polyphony from the Greek ‘many’, ‘a voice’)

Polyphony is a term applied by musical historian to a certain species of unaccompanied vocal music in which each voice is made to sing a melody of its own, the various parts being bound together in obedience to the laws of counterpoint, into an harmonious whole, where it is impossible to decide which voice has the most important task allotted to it since they are all equally necessary to the general effect.

It is in this well balanced equality of the several parts that polyphony differs from monodia in which the melody is given to one part only while supplementary voices and instruments are simply used to fill up the harmony.

The development of polyphony from the first rude attempts at diaphonia, discant, or organum, described by Franco of Cologne, Guido d’Arrezzo, and others.

The first quest of the musicians who invented part-singing was some method of making a second voice sing notes which, though not identical with those of the canto fermo, would at least be harmonious with them.

While searching for this, they discovered the use of one interval after another, and employed their increased knowledge so that they were able to assign to the second voice a totally independent part.

It is true that the greater number of their progressions were intolerable, less, however, because the mistook the character of the intervals they employed than because they did not at first understand the proper method of using them in succession.

They learned this in course of time and discarding their primitive sequences of fifths and fourths, attained the power of bringing two voice parts into really harmonious relation with each other.

The rate of their progress may be judged by the two following examples, the first of which is from the 11th century in the Ambrosian collection at Milan; and the second from the 14th century in the Paris library.


In both these cases, the two parts are equally melodious. There are no long chains of reiterated notes, merely introduced, as Guido would have introduced them, for the purpose of supporting the melody upon a pedal point. But, each part has its own work to do and it cannot be more important than the other.

Equal care was taken to preserve an absolutely independent melody in each several part, when composers attempted the production of motets, and other similar works in three or four parts.

We find no less pains bestowed upon that of the Tenor, or Motetus; and very rarely does one exhibit more traces of archaic stiffness than the other.

The following example from a Mass composed by Guillaume de Machault for the Coronation of Charles V., in the year 1364 shows a remarkable freedom of melody, for the time, in all the parts:


Rude as this is, it manifests a laudable desire for the attainment of that melodious motion of the separate parts, which, not long after the death of its composer, became the distinguishing characteristic of medieval music.

With all their stiffness, and strange predilection for combinations now condemned as intolerable, we can see that the older writers did their best to provide every singer with an interesting part. However, true polyphony was not yet invented.

For that is was necessary that each voice should take its share in the elucidation of one single idea, not singing for itself alone, but answering its fellow voices, and commenting upon the passages sung by them.

It was necessary that every voice should take up a given subject, and assist in developing it into a fugue, or canon, or other kind of composition.

This was the one great end and aim of true polyphony. We are indebted to the great masters of the early Flemish school, to whose ingenuity we owe the invention of some of the most attractive forms of imitation and fugal device on record.

The following from a ‘Chanson a trois voix’ by one of the earliest of them, Antonius Busnois, who is know to have been employed as a singer in the chapel of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, in the year 1467, will show the enormous strides that art was making in the right direction.


Here we see a regular subject started by the tenor, and answered by the triplum, note for note, with a clearness which at once shows the unity of the composer’s design.

When this stage was reached the polyphonic school can be said to have been established.

The list of these masters is a long one but certain names stand out before all others.

  • Guillaume Dufay
  • Okeghen
  • Josquin des Pres
  • Waelrant
  • Arcadelt
  • Adrian Willaert
  • Costanzo Festa
  • Giovanni Croce
  • Luca Marenzio
  • Palestrina