A type of musical texture where two or more independent parts (or voices) retain their individual integrity while combining into a coherent musical unity.
Polyphony contrasts with other textures such as monophony, music of a single voice, unity, where multiple voices sing the same melody, and homophony, where multiple parts are essentially dependant on or subservient to a single voice, as when a guitar chord accompanies a singer.
Although most interesting music involves multiple parts, fully realized polyphony requires that each of the parts sustain an independent musical integrity. While the parts blend into a coherent unity, they stand in relief to one another, each maintaining a clearly separate identity. Typically, this requires that each part contrasts with the others melodically and, more dramatically, rhythmically. In vocal polyphony of the Renaissance, each part might even sing completely different texts! A reasonable test for polyphonic texture is to query whether each individual part sounds compelling by itself. And of course, to maintain a polyphonic texture, by definition, each part must carry on along with and against the others in a continuous discourse. Unique to polyphony is the musical experience of diversity and unity combined in a coherent complexity; when all requirements including artistry combine, the essence of polyphony is simultaneity.
The science and art of how multiple parts combine coherently is called counterpoint. A central force in creating musical coherence of any variety is a recurrent melodic theme. Extending this to polyphony, it seems natural that all parts would at some point participate in this recurrence. While each part is likely to repeat itself, it is also essential and more powerful that parts repeat other parts, that is, voices imitate other voices. Indeed, at the core of most counterpoint is what is known as imitative counterpoint. The chief historical forms of such contrapuntal music are canon, invention and fugue.
Owing to their origins in vocal music, polyphonic parts are typically called voices. This reinforces the notion that each part is a coherent melodic line; it sings. But any or all of the parts may actually be instruments. More astonishingly, polyphony can be achieved by a single instrument such as a keyboard where a single player manages multiple parts simultaneously. This phenomenon is testament to both the skill of the performer and the artistry of the composer. The most vivid examples are the keyboard compositions of Bach, Beethoven and Shostakovich. The effect is nothing short of miraculous.
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