Entry for EPMOW by Philip Tagg

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polyphony, from Greek poly [polu] (= ‘many’) and fone [fwnh] (=‘sound’), denotes: 1. music in which at least two sounds of clearly differing pitch, timbre or mode of articulation occur at the same time (general definition); 2. music in which at least two sounds of clearly differing fundamental pitch occur simultaneously (tonal definition); 3. a particular type of contrapuntal tonal polyphony used by certain European composers between c.1400 and c.1600. This latter usage of the term, widespread in historical musicology, is incongruous since the polyphony alluded to is contrasted with homophony, itself another type of polyphony. Most popular music is, however, polyphonic according to definitions 1 and 2.

According to the first definition it is possible to qualify as polyphonic music which features the simultaneous occurrence of sounds for which no fundamental pitch is discernible, especially when such ‘unpitched’ sounds are produced by different instruments or voices articulating different rhythmic patterns (see polyrhythm). The notion of a polyphonic synthesiser rhymes well with this general definition since such instruments allow for the simultaneous occurrence of several different ‘unpitched’ as well as pitched sounds, whereas monophonic synthesisers cater only for one pitch and/or timbre at a time. In short, a broad definition of the term permits such phenomena as drumkit patterns, or single vocal line plus hand clap/foot stamp (e.g. Joplin 1971), or fife and drum music (e.g. Royal Welsh Fusiliers), all to be qualified as polyphonic, while the tonal definition would not. According to the second (tonal) definition of polyphony, all unison playing or singing not accompanied by ‘pitched’ instruments is regarded as monophonic while homophonic singing in parallel intervals is understood as polyphony. Single or unison melodic line accompanied by drone (single-pitch or multi-pitched) is, however, at least strictly speaking, polyphonic according to both definitions 1 and 2, as are all forms of heterophony, homophony and counterpoint.

The degree to which music can be regarded as polyphonic is determined by the cultural habitat of that music’s producers and users. For example, the consecutively articulated notes of guitar or piano accompaniment to popular songs are usually both intended and perceived as harmony or as chords (and thereby polyphonic), not least because the strings of the accompanying instruments are left to sound simultaneously and/or because of reverberation created within the instrument itself or by electroacoustic means, as, for example, in the introduction to House of the Rising Sun (Animals, 1964) or Your Song (Elton John, 1969). On the other hand, the fast descending scalar pattern played on sitar or vina at the end of a raga performance (e.g. Shankar 1970) may for similar reasons of reverberation sound like a chord to Western ears but it is by no means certain that such a cascade of notes is in its original context intended to be heard as a chord or cluster.


  • The Animals. 1964. House Of The Rising Sun. Columbia DB 7354.
  • The Band and Drums 1st Battalion of the The Royal Welch Fusiliers. 1995. Cassette RS/1 (Caernarfon Castle).
  • John, Elton. 1971. Your Song. DJM DJS 233.
  • Joplin, Janis. 1971. ‘Mercedes Benz’. Pearl. CBS CDCBS 64188.
  • Shankar, Ravi. 1970. Sound of the Sitar. World Pacific / Liberty WPS-21434.
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