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Polyphony vs. Homophony: Understanding Music Texture

Music is a form of expression found across all cultures since the first humans. We use the base elements of music to produce songs and, when we layer these elements over each other, we call this musical texture.

There are a few musical texture forms, but let us focus on the two most commonly used in today’s music: homophony and polyphony.

Homophony has one melody with multiple harmony layers playing in the background. Polyphony has multiple different melodies layered over each other simultaneously, which can even be the same melody layered over each other but started at different times, called a “round.”

In this article, we will break down the fundamentals of music texture to thoroughly compare polyphony against homophony. Once you have finished reading, you will be an expert on the difference between the two.

Musical Layers

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Before discussing the difference between homophony and polyphony, let’s review the concepts of harmony, melody, rhythm, pitch, and beat to help us better understand the layers that form musical texture.

We can roughly divide music into layers based on elements that build upon each other to form a rich or sparse texture, so let’s have a look at these elements, starting with rhythm and pitch.  

Rhythm & Pitch

We can discern the pitch based on where the note is on the staff, and we know what rhythm to play by what type of note it is in the measure.

A measure is the section of music that comes between two bar lines. Each measure satisfies the staff’s specific time signature, and we know this time signature as the beat.

Rhythm does not have to be regular and evenly spaced as with a beat, so we understand rhythm as the movement of music through time. Rhythm builds on the beat, and both are always related to each other (source).

As an interesting side note, in Greek, rhythmos means “to flow.” 

Beat

A beat is the unit of time we use in a piece of music, and it is the steady and regular pulse we hear in music. We refer to beat as tempo, pulse, and meter.

A beat happens when you have the main beat and an opposing beat with a different sound, which you perform using high and low drum beats or long and short beats.

Melody

A melody is the fundamental element of music. The melody is the frame of a song built by a series of individual notes/pitches strung together, forming the most prominent layer in a piece of music by being louder, more dynamic, and having a higher pitch than the harmony.

Harmony

A harmony is supporting pitches that accompany a melody. Harmonies do not draw your attention away from the melody; they merely build a texture behind it, adding substance to the piece of music.

Cords often build up harmonies, and chords are multiple pitches played at once.

Harmony plays a role in the music’s feel, often displaying the song’s emotion, either the composer’s feelings or those the composer wants the listener to feel.

Texture

Musical texture is the layering of a musical piece; it can have one layer or multiple layers, which will build the texture and quality of a song.

We can conceive of musical texture as the density or thickness of a musical piece, showing the range between the lowest and highest pitches. Musical texture can also range from one dimensional to multidimensional (source). 

There are four musical textures known in music: monophony, heterophony, polyphony, and homophony. Let us go into more detail to help us understand these textures.

Monophony

Monophony is a musical texture with a single melody line. There is no harmony; it is very basic, and it is either played by one instrument or sung by one voice but all at the same rhythm and tempo in unison.

We view monophony as a single string. It is the base of musical texture, and the rest builds over this layer.

Heterophony

Heterophony is a musical texture with the same melodic line’s simultaneous performance, with slight individual variations, by two or more performers (source).

Heterophony is a variation of monophony with an embellishment of the secondary melody. This type of texture is not used often in western music; we find it more commonly in eastern music.

However, there is one common form of heterophony that you may know, which is Bluegrass music.

Homophony

Homophony is a musical texture with many notes, but they follow the same rhythm, shown by having one clear melodic line that draws your attention.

All the other parts form a harmony to provide accompaniments. An example of this is a singer accompanied by a guitar-strumming chord.

Polyphony

Polyphony is a musical texture where two or more melodic lines of equal importance are performed simultaneously, parallel to each other, and displayed with multiple voices relatively independent of one another. An example of this is a “round” or canon (source).

Now that we have a basic understanding of texture and the types you can find in music, let’s look more specifically at homophony and polyphony and compare them throughout.

Polyphony vs. Homophony

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In Greek, “poly” means many, and “homo” means the same, indicating the fundamental difference between polyphony and homophony is the number of melodies.

Polyphony uses more than one melodic line and the addition of several instruments.

Both Polyphony and Homophony are musical textures that combine tempo, melody, and harmony to form a piece of music, and yet they produce vastly different types of music.

To better grasp how this works, let us comparing and contrasts the two textures based on their history, density, range, form, number of voices, and the relationship between voices, as well as the common uses for both to show how different and similar the two are.

History 

Both textures are rich in history, though they developed on different timelines. 

For example, homophony appears in the seventeenth century with western classical music during the Baroque period. Homophony also appeared in the 15th century in West Africa and has also been found in Asian music.

Polyphony, on the other hand, has existed since the twelfth century, where harmonizing Gregorian chant from the European monks became popular in the churches.

In the mid-18th century, the English protestants introduced polyphony to North America, where it then grew to other parts of the world.

Both textures are still in use today, but you will find homophony used more commonly in western music. 

Form

Both Homophony and Polyphony follow a beat, rhythm, and have a melody.

Still, the one difference is that homophony has one melody accompanied by a harmony, where the melody is the primary focus attracting the listener’s attention.

This form of texture is very linear and sparse, with not much depth to it.

In contrast, polyphony features two or more melodies of equal importance played in parallel to each other, which can either be different melodies played simultaneously or the same melody started at different time intervals.

This musical texture is very dense and thick due to the independence of multiple melodies.

The musical lines in a polyphony texture may be instrumental or vocal or both. The melody (musical line) may be accompanied by other melodies or chords that do not challenge the overall polyphonic musical piece.

In contrast, the musical line in homophony is either vocal or instrument, forming the main melody, and the accompaniment may consist of chords moving together with the melody.

The harmony is built up by the instrumentals building up depth to the primary focus, which is the melody.

Both polyphony and homophony can dominate an entire musical work, a significant section of a piece, or appear for only a short time within the musical piece. 

Sometimes the boundary between homophony and polyphony is blurred, which can happen if the accompaniment seems especially rich, detailed, or carries important rhythmic motives.

A polyphonic texture is called a round or a cannon and is when two melodies are the same, but one starts at a later interval than the other. 

A very popular display of this polyphonic texture is the wedding song  “Canon in D” or “Pachelbel’s Canon.”

This music piece shows two emotions: one of joy where the bride walks down the alter to her soon-to-be husband and her new life and the sadness of the father losing his daughter.

A homophonic texture in classical music is best displayed by Yiruma’s song “River flows in You.”

You hear one obvious melody played by the right hand on the piano, and the left plays the harmony. This song displays a somber emotion throughout.

Both homophony and polyphony show emotion, but polyphony is better at showing multiple emotions in one piece of music due to multiple melodic lines.

The added lines also provide texture to the music as the melodies weave over each other.

Conversely, homophony shows a single emotion very well as the melody displays the main theme and the harmonies just emphasize that main theme.  

An interesting side note, you can also find polyphones and homophones in the English language.

A polyphone is where one letter has two or more pronunciations.

Take the letter “c,” for example. In “car,” the “c” has a “k” sound, but in “cell,”  the “c” has an “s” sound.

A homophone is where one word sounds the same but is spelled differently.

For example, “too,” “to,” and “two” all sound the same but mean different things.

Common Uses For Both

The most common uses for polyphony in modern music are:

  • Rock-and-roll
  • Soul
  • Funk
  • Rap

The most common polyphony being Rock music, where there are often one or more singers providing a melody and usually a guitar playing its own independent melody.

Rap music is another good example, where there are often two rappers facing off with two different melodies.

An excellent example of this is “Tha Crossroads” by the group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.

The four singers sing two independent melodies, but they follow the same beat. You will hear them interchange their pitch so that one melody stands out over the other.

Also, the combination of the two melodies expresses the artist’s emotions of the situation.

The bouncing between the singer’s melodies conveys the confusion, anger, and hurt of the situation.

The most common uses for homophony in modern music are:

  • Acoustic songs
  • Choral music like protestant hymns.
  • African music — where you will hear many drum melodies played together.
  • Asian music
  • Folk music
  • Jazz

Acoustic music is an excellent example of homophony, where one singer performs the main melody and instruments playing harmonies behind it.

An excellent example of this is “Ed Sheeran-Perfect.” The lead artist is singing a melody that shows the song’s primary focus and displays one emotion — love and admiration.

Worship music also displays homophony. The lead singer or cantor sings a melody, and the rest of the congregation sings the melody in unison with the lead singer.

Final Thoughts 

When looking at the music of today, you will find that it is mostly polyphonic.

Still, it is becoming very blurred as most songs are now mixing textures together. Artists are also breaking up songs into parts of a different texture to make it more captivating. 

It is difficult to determine if one is better than the other, as this depends on your personal preference in music. Both homophony and polyphony have very distinct sounds.

The difference between the two is polyphony is very busy, whereas homophony is very basic, and both have a place in music.

I hope this guide has helped you distinguish between homophony and polyphony, as well as through some basics in music terminology.

Now when you listen to music, see if you can determine the textures used.