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Thread: Why vocal polyphony ?

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    Default Why vocal polyphony ?

    I understand how polyphony developed in both sacred and secular vocal music. But I have not found any explanation of why this compositional method developed. There must have been some kind of events or theoretical considerations that led composers of vocal music back in the medieval days to actually start composing in this highly complex way.
    I don't believe it just happened.
    Polyphony in my view makes it difficult, if not impossible in many cases, to follow the words that are sung. So it feels like a contradiction.
    Important words are sung (especially in sacred music), but in such a way that the words themselves are obscured.

    Again, the question is not how vocal polyphony developed but rather why.

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    Senior Member Rasa's Avatar
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    Because they could.

    It should also be noted that by papal edict, complex music was forbidden at one point, and composers like Palestrina returned to a simpler style.

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    How diffrent is "why vocal polyphony" question from "why poliphony at all"? At the time we are talking about vocal music was the most important part of music, not to say: the only one that did matter.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Aramis View Post
    How diffrent is "why vocal polyphony" question from "why poliphony at all"?
    I frased the question this way on purpose to keep discussion away from instrumental polyphony and counterpoint.

    Quote Originally Posted by Aramis View Post
    At the time we are talking about vocal music was the most important part of music, not to say: the only one that did matter.
    I'm well aware of this. That's why I'm asking this question.

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    Western music seems to have shifted in what to emphasise its own complexity from counterpoint to harmony (melodically and rhythmically Western music is generally relatively simple). Other cultures may have an absence of harmony, but are complex in ways that western music is not (complex polyrhythms in certain African musics, complex microtonal embellishments in Arabic singing).

    I would imagine polyphony was the next logical step from single line plainchant: just multiply the lines-- it would not have occurred to medieval musicians to have anything resembling homophony. They could only imagine at that point a quantitative change in the melodic line, not a qualitative change, those blocks of sound we call "chords." Of course, in order to do this, they had very complex rules to make sure the individual lines could be discerned.

    If you really think about it, the idea of "chords" is a strange one, and the western ear has gradually gotten used to it. If we took a someone from medieval times through a time machine to the year 1750, he would find a straightforward Bach chorale alien sounding. We would hear the logical progression of chords (even if we don't know music theory), but our time traveller wouldn't hear it at all (just as we might not hear or comprehend the logic of Japanese Gagaku music). And even hearing Spem in Alium may be a moving experience, but today we probably find it hard to "follow" what is really going on.
    At last to guess, instead of always knowing. To be able to say “ah” and “oh” and “hey” instead of “yea” and “amen. ” ~ Wings of Desire

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    One more thing: at least in terms of sacred music, this would all be in Latin, and mostly (???) taken from traditional texts (mass, Biblical texts, etc.). Would it have been necessary to hear these Latin texts that would've been heard many times over? (that's not a rhetorical question!)
    At last to guess, instead of always knowing. To be able to say “ah” and “oh” and “hey” instead of “yea” and “amen. ” ~ Wings of Desire

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    The answer is in plainsong. Organum was developed by monks who were limited to using the set texts of plainsong. Evidently over time some noticed that when a voice at a different pitch and/or interval was added (initially probably as a result of mistakes) it could sometimes create a pleasing effect. This was the only variation to the traditional chants that the church could countenance (although Bernard of Clairvau despised polyphony for its' lack of austerity and because the words were obscured). In the course of the twelfth century this was developed into the form we hear in the Notre Dame School with the use of intertwining melodies to alternate counterpoint and harmonies evolving. Evidently this made a great impact ('outsinging even the birds' was a memorable contemporaneous comment on Leonin and Perotin's music) and the style of music spread beyond church music to dominate secular music too. Over the centuries it became increasingly elaborate and the various different styles of polyphony developed. It even made a huge impact in South and Central America such that there are surviving polyphonic vocal compositions in the native tongues of the Aztecs.

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    Quote Originally Posted by hocket View Post
    The answer is in plainsong. Organum was developed by monks who were limited to using the set texts of plainsong. Evidently over time some noticed that when a voice at a different pitch and/or interval was added (initially probably as a result of mistakes) it could sometimes create a pleasing effect. This was the only variation to the traditional chants that the church could countenance (although Bernard of Clairvau despised polyphony for its' lack of austerity and because the words were obscured). In the course of the twelfth century this was developed into the form we hear in the Notre Dame School with the use of intertwining melodies to alternate counterpoint and harmonies evolving. Evidently this made a great impact ('outsinging even the birds' was a memorable contemporaneous comment on Leonin and Perotin's music) and the style of music spread beyond church music to dominate secular music too. Over the centuries it became increasingly elaborate and the various different styles of polyphony developed. It even made a huge impact in South and Central America such that there are surviving polyphonic vocal compositions in the native tongues of the Aztecs.
    So what you are saying is basically that polyphony became a way for composers to make a name for themselves ?
    I can understand that when it comes to church music. But when those composers took a secular text (sometimes two different texts at the same time) and made polyphonic music it gets harder for me to grasp why. Were the meaning of the words not important ?

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    janne wrote:

    So what you are saying is basically that polyphony became a way for composers to make a name for themselves ?
    er...no, you seem to be misunderstanding me. Polyphony thrived becaue it was beautiful. What may well have started as a result of miscues and errors was perceived to create an aesthetically attractive effect and became popular as a result. It caused controversy in the 12th C but rapidly came to dominate music.

    Were the meaning of the words not important ?
    I think that you should remember that in church music only a small proportion of the congregation would've understood the words of a Latin text anyway. The immediacy of the music was more important -and you really should think of polyphony as 'pure' music rather than as 'songs' IMO. For those educated enough to understand the words they might serve as food for contemplation and the musical treatment of them might be analysed -but the musical immediacy was more important. That, no doubt was what infuriated traditionalists like St. Bernard back in the 12th C.

    In secular music polyphony was already the fashion so it simply crossed over. I think it should be borne in mind that in secular music the use of two or more texts simultaneously usually involved songs that were already popular (and their individual tunes too) so the lyrics would already have been known. Rounds are the kind of thing where I'd expect pretty much everyone to know the words in order to take part in a sing along ('Sumer is icumen in' for instance). Undoubtedly polyphony would've resulted in the obscuration of words to secular pieces of music though. It would just have been a cultural feature of the times.

    In the sixteenth century the controversy about the words being drowned resurfaced (even before the Reformation as Josquin and his contemporaries began a move to much more syllabic use of words -whilst in England that had to wait another generation as they still used extreme melismas). The Reformation and Counter-Reformation continued this process as we can see in the careers of people like Tallis and Palestrina and those who followed them.

    Anyway, the answer to your question, IMO, is that it's not that the words are unimportant but that the music comes first and is more important. The words might be viewed as a hidden code (usually one amongst many in this kind of music) that are something you can come to appreciate the treatment of once you have already appreciate the music itself. A classic case of the religious message being sugar coated. For secular music it was just a consequence of the fashion though.

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    Senior Member TresPicos's Avatar
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    Is it really an established, objective fact that words get obscured in vocal polyphony? And if so, why does that effect occur?

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    TresPicos wrote:

    Is it really an established, objective fact that words get obscured in vocal polyphony? And if so, why does that effect occur?
    Well, I don't think any scientific studies have been done but I'd have thought it was pretty obvious that they do. Trying to make out the words in the Notre Dame school's works is extremely challenging due to the extreme use of melismas where a single word can last several minutes and it can be difficult to keep track of which voice is which and where they have got to in the text. In 15th century polyphony this is compounded by the frequent overlaying of a greater number of vocal lines, or more intricate patterns of them, often at very different rates so that even the words that you can make out are difficult to place in their positional context. This is mitigated in some 16th C music by a more syllablic approach, though the words are still difficult to make out, and make sense of, in quite a lot of music from that era too. Imitation is used by some composers (particularly in the late 16thC) to make the text clearer, but it can also be used to have quite the opposite effect.

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    Quote Originally Posted by hocket View Post
    TresPicos wrote:
    Well, I don't think any scientific studies have been done but I'd have thought it was pretty obvious that they do. Trying to make out the words in the Notre Dame school's works is extremely challenging due to the extreme use of melismas where a single word can last several minutes and it can be difficult to keep track of which voice is which and where they have got to in the text. In 15th century polyphony this is compounded by the frequent overlaying of a greater number of vocal lines, or more intricate patterns of them, often at very different rates so that even the words that you can make out are difficult to place in their positional context. This is mitigated in some 16th C music by a more syllablic approach, though the words are still difficult to make out, and make sense of, in quite a lot of music from that era too. Imitation is used by some composers (particularly in the late 16thC) to make the text clearer, but it can also be used to have quite the opposite effect.
    Of course the words become more difficult to distinguish if they are not sung at the same time by all singers, or if they last for a long time. But are those really core features of the polyphony concept?

    Does polyphony as such, i e more than one person singing different notes (but the same words) at the same time compared to only one person, necessarily make it more difficult to distinguish the words?

    And if so, is that caused by being "distracted" by listening to a chord compared to one single tone, or by the inability of different people to sing the same consonants at the exact same time, thereby blurring the sounds (which would then also occur if several people sing the exact same melody), or maybe by something else?

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    TresPicos wrote:

    Of course the words become more difficult to distinguish if they are not sung at the same time by all singers, or if they last for a long time. But are those really core features of the polyphony concept?

    Does polyphony as such, i e more than one person singing different notes (but the same words) at the same time compared to only one person, necessarily make it more difficult to distinguish the words?
    Well I can't answer that question for you -and it seems rather academic. I don't believe that was what janne was asking about. The question was about the music of the polyphonic era and why obscuration of the words was permitted to occur rather than whether polyphony in its' narrowest sense, when not used together with all the other characteristic techniques of the relevevant period, would actually be obscuring.

    Not that you can't ask such a question, but it is a bit misleading in the context. I think that perhaps you needed to make what you were asking about a bit more specific.

    Anyway, my instinct would be to say that what you're talking about is slightly obscuring but not enough to make the words unintelligible, but I can't think of much polyphony that I've heard that operates solely this way so my experience on which to base a reponse is necessarily limited.

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    Quote Originally Posted by hocket View Post



    er...no, you seem to be misunderstanding me. Polyphony thrived becaue it was beautiful. What may well have started as a result of miscues and errors was perceived to create an aesthetically attractive effect and became popular as a result. It caused controversy in the 12th C but rapidly came to dominate music.



    I think that you should remember that in church music only a small proportion of the congregation would've understood the words of a Latin text anyway. The immediacy of the music was more important -and you really should think of polyphony as 'pure' music rather than as 'songs' IMO. For those educated enough to understand the words they might serve as food for contemplation and the musical treatment of them might be analysed -but the musical immediacy was more important. That, no doubt was what infuriated traditionalists like St. Bernard back in the 12th C.

    In secular music polyphony was already the fashion so it simply crossed over. I think it should be borne in mind that in secular music the use of two or more texts simultaneously usually involved songs that were already popular (and their individual tunes too) so the lyrics would already have been known. Rounds are the kind of thing where I'd expect pretty much everyone to know the words in order to take part in a sing along ('Sumer is icumen in' for instance). Undoubtedly polyphony would've resulted in the obscuration of words to secular pieces of music though. It would just have been a cultural feature of the times.

    In the sixteenth century the controversy about the words being drowned resurfaced (even before the Reformation as Josquin and his contemporaries began a move to much more syllabic use of words -whilst in England that had to wait another generation as they still used extreme melismas). The Reformation and Counter-Reformation continued this process as we can see in the careers of people like Tallis and Palestrina and those who followed them.

    Anyway, the answer to your question, IMO, is that it's not that the words are unimportant but that the music comes first and is more important. The words might be viewed as a hidden code (usually one amongst many in this kind of music) that are something you can come to appreciate the treatment of once you have already appreciate the music itself. A classic case of the religious message being sugar coated. For secular music it was just a consequence of the fashion though.
    Okay, thanks hocket for taking time to write all this!
    I really appreciate your answers and most of it makes sense to me. I also find a lot of useful information in your posts.

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    Actually, while the words themselves were frequently in Latin (esp. religious works), they were usually familiar to most. While you may have many different musical settings for the latin Mass, the words were the same, and were taken from long-recited religious declarations. Common people may not have understood the words, but the practice of performing the Mass in Latin is more to blame for that than the introduction of polyphony. For those who spoke Latin, the words were understood regardless - they, especially the clergy, would have recited them numerous times, and so it would really be more about the music, or a way to package these sacred utterances in even more beautiful ways.

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