January 28, 2013 4:51 PM   Subscribe

What is the difference between harmony and polyphony?
posted by falsedmitri to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Speaking incredibly generally, "harmony" is multiple notes happening at the same time. "Polyphony" is multiple melodic lines happening at the same time.


posted by KathrynT at 4:55 PM on January 28, 2013 [6 favorites]

There are technical definitions of each word in which the two words are equivalent.

In terms of the way these words are most commonly used, though, polyphony just means multiple voices. So two or more instruments or singing voices at once.

Harmony typically means multiple voices that are in some way concordant. So, there is some intentional musical relationship between the voices.

There can be music that is obviously polyphonic but the use of the word "harmony" is sort of iffy. Gyorgy Ligeti's Lux Aeterna (youtube) has 16 voices though it has more of a texture than harmony in the traditional Western sense. When people use the word harmony colloquially usually they mean the Western version which has a bunch of rules governing pitches and how they sound good together, as well as tension/release during a musical composition.
posted by kellybird at 5:15 PM on January 28, 2013

These days in classical music circles, when people refer to Polyphony, they almost always mean baroque music with multiple melodic lines - like fugues. When folks refer to Harmony, they are generally talking about the tonal kind, the sort with "key centers," the type largely codified by Bach and that more or less ended around Mahler.
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:43 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Previous commenters are right to say that although polyphony technically just "means many voices", what is more often meant is a specific sort of contrapuntal style involving the independent movement of multiple voices to create a harmonically unified whole.

In order to understand polyphony, it is helpful to consider what the alternatives are. The oldest alternative, at least in European art music, is monophony. Monophony does what it says on the tin, pretty much: a single melodic line.

(Monophony) von Bingen: O vis aeternitatis

Add other independent voices, and you get polyphony. For example:

(Polyphony) Bach: Contrapunctus I from Art of Fugue

Polyphony kind of gave way at the end of the Baroque to homophony, a style emphasizing a single melodic line with the support of a clearly subordinate harmonic texture: think block chords, left-hand arpeggios, &c. Any pop song that you can plausibly sing with open chords on a guitar is an example of homophonic style.

(Homophony) Mozart: Sonata in A major K331, 1st Mvt.

I'd also disagree slightly with KathrynT. Each of those (wonderful) pieces seems to me like a better example of the other style, but IANAM.
posted by lambdaphage at 5:54 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

"Polyphony" is usually used to refer to counterpoint before the Baroque era (for instance, the Renaissance era). Once the Baroque starts (about 1600 onward), the same basic thing is called "counterpoint." So you're more likely to hear a fugue by Bach or Handel (late Baroque) described as "counterpoint" than "polyphony," even though I'd consider either term to be technically accurate. (Wikipedia disagrees with what I just said, and claims there's a clear musical difference between polyphony and counterpoint — but I'm not convinced by that.)

Polyphony and counterpoint both refer to independent melodies going on at the same time. The crucial thing is that they move around fairly independently of each other.

If you have multiples melodies moving along in conjunction with each other, that's harmony. A classic example would be the Beatles' "If I Fell." On each word, John and Paul sing different notes. By contrast, parts of the Beatles' "Help!" involve counterpoint: the backing singers sing "When....when I was young...I never need..." while the lead singer (John) sings: "When I was younger, so much younger than today, I never needed anybody's..."

However, when I say melodies moving along in conjunction is harmony, I don't mean that's all the word "harmony" refers to. In theory, "harmony" happens anytime multiple notes are happening simultaneously, which is also true of polyphony/counterpoint. "Harmony" isn't just a method of arranging melodies for voices or instruments — it's a basic dimension of music, along with melody, rhythm, and timbre. But colloquially, when people talk about singers singing in "harmony," they generally mean the "If I Fell" style.
posted by John Cohen at 5:54 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd say the best way to understand the difference is to think of harmony as meaning "notes that are related to each-other," with the assumption that the relationship is one defined by Western Musical Theory. So, when we're talking about the harmony of a piece, we're really talking about how the notes in the piece relate. So, we can talk about the harmony of a block of notes played at once, or we can talk about the harmony of notes played separately, either way we're thinking about those notes as a unit. In other words, harmony is chords.

So when somebody says "they're singing in harmony" they mean that there are multiple voices that are all singing different notes that are related to each other.

Polyphony has been pretty well explained above.
posted by Gygesringtone at 8:15 AM on January 29, 2013

Polyphony: Ask a room full of non musicians to sing Happy Birthday together.

Or at least that's how my music dork/snob father used to explain it. But this really applies more in the Stravinskian Rite of Spring sense of the word and less in the pre-Bach pre-functional harmony sense.
posted by Polyhymnia at 11:31 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the replies.
posted by falsedmitri at 3:30 PM on January 29, 2013

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