What Is Polyphonic Music?
Heard the term polyphonic music but aren’t sure what it is?
Polyphonic music isn’t often referred to but is commonly used in modern music today. Some of your favorite songs may even utilize a polyphonic technique, but before we go over some of the most recognizable tunes, let's define polyphonic music.
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What Is Polyphonic Music? Definition
Polyphonic music’s definition is the use of multiple melodies and voices. It’s that simple.
Achieving a successful polyphonic song isn’t as easy, especially since these voices and melodies need to be different enough to stand out from each other but complement one another in some way. These different voices can harmonize as long as there are background instruments.
Most modern songs implement homophonic music, a singular melody, and voice, but others push the boundaries and find ways to alternate between one or two melodies within one song.
Polyphonic Music Characteristics
Polyphonic music has a unique texture and quality you don’t find in homophonic music. With its multiple melodies, voices, and rhythms, polyphonic music creates stunning harmonies when done with expertise. If the melodies don’t work together, it won’t work.
8 Examples of Polyphonic Music
Most polyphonic songs are instrumentals that focus on the detail of meshing melodies and rhythms, but these eight examples are modern songs that implement polyphonic music to enhance their songs.
You’ll be surprised how many of the most popular songs, even the ones not on our list, use polyphonic music.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody uses a polyphonic texture. The polyphonic technique is seen halfway through the song, but with how chaotic this song is all while being a masterpiece, Queen pulls it off seamlessly.
Not to mention the length of this song leaves room for all kinds of musical textures. The song doesn’t fit any particular music category, and neither does the song's meaning.
Apart from the evident relationship struggles, the meaning behind Bohemian Rhapsody is one big question mark.
“Shake That” by Eminem
Shake That is one of several songs by Eminem that implements polyphonic music. Right off the bat, you can hear the first melody and the moment the second melody crosses over. Then you have Nate Dogg’s voice combined with Eminems, making this a polyphonic masterpiece.
The song itself is about going out to the club and having a good time. It has many sexual innuendos as well as leaving little room for interpretation.
“Sing” by Ed Sheeran
Ed Sheeran is well-known for his singer and songwriter abilities, but his overall musical talent for all types of songs is overlooked by many. Sing starts monophonic and becomes polyphonic by the second chorus, using different voices, instruments, and melodies that make the song loud.
Sing is another fun song. It's a song to listen to when you're hanging out with people or you're dancing at a party. The lyrics refer to drinking, meeting someone new, and dancing and singing with them. Its upbeat melody and the use of polyphonic music matches the energy of the song.
“Ultralight Beam” by Kanye West
Ultralight Beam becomes polyphonic through the different voices played at separate times alongside two different background melodies that occasionally play. It’s a beautiful and powerful song that uses polyphonic melodies to push the religious meaning of the song forward.
It’s the journey of someone who struggles with religion but wants to stay on the right path despite the adversity they’ve experienced throughout their life.
“Music For A Sushi Restaurant” by Harry Styles
Being one of the most recent releases on our list, Music For a Sushi Restaurant is one of Harry Styles's most notable polyphonic songs. With a combination of two different melodies, a chorus of background singers alongside his singing creates a beautiful polyphonic song.
There is no distinct meaning behind the song, like most of the songs on our list, polyphonic music is used in modern music to create powerful and fun energy. It’s sensual and fun, and the lyrics refer to the singer loving someone, finding them attractive, and wanting more.
“This is America” by Childish Gambino
This song is an incredible example of popular polyphonic music today. The use of so many different voices saying different things in the beginning, combined with the different melodies in the background, creates a powerful effect to drive home the meaning of the song.
The is America dives deep into the violence shown every day in the United States. The music video itself tackles police brutality, mass killings, and racism, but the song itself can be interpreted in several ways. It’s subjective to the listener.
“Section 35 (Hold Yourself Up)” by The Polyphonic Spree
The Polyphonic Spree is one of the most popular polyphonic musicians today. This song is only one example of the kind of music they create focusing solely on polyphonic elements.
Right from the start, you can distinctly hear the different melodies that mesh perfectly. The lyrics are as positive as the music complimenting them. They go over the comforting words of a woman who keeps the singer pushing forward.
“I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz
This is an example of polyphonic music being at the end of a song. The song keeps a relatively simple monophonic style until the end when we have the lead singer’s voice, paired with a chorus ending by singing against his words. Two melodies play at the same time as well.
I’m Yours is a love song. The lyrics feel like an ode to someone, admitting you are theirs and that there is nothing either of you can do about it. The simplistic approach that becomes slightly more energetic at the end drives the point home that this is something that can’t be changed.
5 Top Polyphonic Musicians
While we’ve gone over popular modern songs that implement polyphonic techniques, these five polyphonic musicians are not as well-known. They focus solely on creating music with diverse melodies and voices.
The top five polyphonic musicians range from when they first started to now. The music itself has evolved, but its roots remain the same.
The Polyphonic Spree
The Polyphonic Spree is a modern music group that only makes polyphonic music. They are one of the most popular polyphonic music groups. Since they formed in 2000, they’ve worked with a few music labels and have had songs featured in the background for movies.
The Polyphonic Spree has 27 members, a ten-piece choir, and instruments ranging from classical to rock.
Polyphonic Exophilia is a music group, and recording studio, with an independent label. They are a group that pushes boundaries and loves finding new music that compliments one another. They aren’t as well known as others on the list, but they constantly try new polyphonic sounds.
Polyphonix is a music ensemble that creates high-energy, techno music in Tokyo, Japan. They are a large number of songs and a smaller following, but their followers are loyal.
It’s a modernized version of polyphonic music that contrasts deeply with the original, classical tone most polyphonic songs derive from.
Polyphony is a choir group that was founded in 1986. Their music range typically stays in the classical range, but they can expand depending on the project. They are well-known around the world and have been critically acclaimed as one of the best small choirs.
Rustavi Ensemble is a Georgian folk music group that put on a show for its viewers. Their polyphonic singing, costumes, and dances capture the eyes of anyone who witnesses them perform.
They’ve even won the UNESCO Pacha Prize for keeping Georgian polyphonic music alive.
The History of Polyphonic Music
Polyphonic music became popular during the Renaissance, which took place in the 15th and 16th centuries, but the earliest piece of polyphonic music discovered came from the 10th century.
The Renaissance focused intently on culture and artistry amongst the many political changes of that period. Music was a massive part of the Renaissance, and polyphonic music was everywhere, in churches, court chapels, and masses.
Bach is the most notable composer in the past that utilized polyphonic music and is still listened to this day, but he wasn’t the one to invent it. Perotin, a french composer, was the first to use polyphonic music.
Bach, alongside Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, inspired thousands of artists with their polyphonic techniques, even modern music.
Popular polyphonic music is seen today mixed in with homophonic and monophonic songs. It’s used as a technique within a song as opposed to consuming the entire length of a music piece.
What Is Polyphonic Music? Final Thoughts
Polyphonic music utilizes a mix of different melodies, rhythms, and voices to create an impeccable sound. Music today uses polyphonic techniques within songs to create an effect on the listener, but it started as a type of music to stand alone in the Rennaisance.
Polyphonic music has a rich history and remains prevalent today, but it isn’t as well-known or highlighted as it was in the past.
You’d be surprised at how many of our favorite songs utilize polyphonic music, so even if you aren’t a fan of the classics, we have them to thank for almost all the music techniques implemented today.
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