If you have already read about the composer Claudio Monteverdi, you’ll know that Monteverdi changed from polyphony to a more modern style of composing. But what does that mean, and why does it matter?
The ending –phony just means “tone” or “sound.” (Maybe a better translation would be “voice.”) The terms monophony, polyphony, homophony and others describe different ways that composers arrange the voices they’re working with into something that makes sense to listen to.
It can get pretty complex, but here’s a simplified explanation of some of the basic ideas:
Monophony means one tone or voice. Generally it’s a melody. Sing a verse of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” on your own, and you’ll be hearing monophony. If your friend starts singing with you, starting exactly at the same time as you, it’s still monophony, even if she’s singing an octave higher than you are.
Now get your friend to start the song, but don’t start with her. When she starts the second verse “Merrily, merrily, merrily…,” jump in with “Row, row, row your boat…” Now you have polyphony, which means many tones or voices. Each voice has its own melody, which could be sung alone. The melodies sound good together, but don’t always share the same rhythm.
The round you’re singing is a very simple form of polyphony. It can get a lot more complex. (Click here for an example of 40-part polyphony.)
Now, what if you were to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” along with chords on your guitar or piano? Here you’ve got more than one voice, but only one has the melody. This is an example of homophony. (Homo means the same, and phony of course means sound.)
Homophony just means a “textured” arrangement where two or more parts move together in harmony. Usually they have the same rhythm, and they make chords with each other. When you sing the song along with your guitar you’re creating a melody-dominated homophony. One part has the melody (the main line of the song) and the other part(s) support it with harmony and/or chords.
The next time you listen to your favorite Taylor Swift or Green Day song, listen for the different voices and how they work together. Chances are, you’ll be hearing a melody-dominated homophony – just like the pieces Claudio Monteverdi introduced over 400 years ago.
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