The inevitability of polyphony, and lack thereof

Music history is fascinating to me. I have a music history minor, except for Theory II which Paul Althouse insisted on holding at 8:30 in the morning Monday, Wednesday and Friday. After my experiences with Theory I at that time, I didn’t think my GPA was up to it. But I took all the requisite classes otherwise.

I’m transfixed by music before it’s fully formed. Consider, my friends, that a mere thousand years ago (or so) music had no standard pitch. It had very little in the way of rhythmic variation, and nothing in the way of tempo. Written music only dealt with one set of voices at a time — there were no parts and no polyphony. Music was not written for specific instruments. Chant notation, while it has it’s own beauties and complexities was basically relational: you hold this note for twice as long as this other note, and then you go a step up from the first note you started with. (Yes, my musical friends who have studied it far more than I, I’m simplifying. Bear with me.) From that, in only a half century, you get to music so complex (hocketing) it wasn’t rivaled for another five hundred years. First you give different voice parts different notes, even though all the voices move together. Then you start having one set of voices move at a different time than the other. You standardize rhythmic notation. You create clefs and keys and accidentals. You start specifying which instrument you want used. You say whether you want it loud or soft. Fast or slow. (They even created an entirely different way of notating music for keyboards and strings, but I won’t go there lest I display my ignorance further.)

In some ways, I think learning to write words was inevitable. Many cultures came up with different solutions to the same problem — letters, phonemes, hieroglyphics, characters representing words, etc. But when Western civilization came up with a way to accurately communicate music by means of writing… well, I consider that little short of a miracle. And without that miracle, there can be no Bach fugues. Or rather, there could have been, but they probably would have died with Bach. Can you imagine trying to communicate a Wagner Opera line by line to the musicians, and then have them memorize it and try to put it all together? It might not be impossible, but it would be close.

I love polyphony. I think that’s one of the reasons a lot of modern (and by modern, I mean 20th century) popular music bores me. It’s not truly polyphonic. Ok, granted the base line is doing one thing, and the singer is doing another, so it KIND of counts, but I love the complex interplay between voices and lines. My favorite “pop” music has a rich harmony in multiple voices — like the Beatles at their best. My favorite music of all — mostly to participate in — is a quintet or similarly sized ensemble. It’s small enough so that you can pick out each line as a separate individual, but rich enough that you have to really pay attention to do so. I love Gabrieli for this. He passes the lines back and forth in downright enchanting ways.

I wonder: is complicated polyphony unique to Western culture? Did any other society create a fully-fledged way of communicating music, other than rote teaching? Is it possible that Pachabel’s Canon in D represents a truly unique cultural achievement?

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Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.

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