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12/4: Monophony and Polyphony

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Monophony and Polyphony

In addition to chords allowing for harmonic movement, the polyphonic tradition of the West began at the same time that we began abandoning the drone, in 12th century organum. In organum, only octaves, fifths and fourths are allowed as consonant intervals.   The simplest form of polyphony (more than one melody at a time) is the practice of playing the same melody in parallel fourths or fifths (or later, parallel thirds). Somewhere in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, perhaps there was a tone-deaf congregant singing a Catholic hymn using all the right intervals but starting from a completely wrong pitch. Who knows, maybe a monk heard it, thought it was cool, and created the first polyphonic work in history as a result! That tone-deaf singer could have ultimately been the inspiration for the rich polyphonic tapestries of Bach fugues some 600 years later. This is pure speculation, of course.

Monophony (only a single melody being performed) is the rule for most music around the world. There are certainly examples of secondary melodies and arpeggios etc. in music outside of the West, but nothing like the structure of a fugue emerged anywhere outside of Western Europe. Most music worldwide is not chordal, not polyphonic, and often dronal — unless of course it is influenced by Western musical traditions, which is very often the case.

Just as 53-eq music allows for greater harmonic clarity and therefore a wider range of recognizable harmonic relationships, I believe 53-eq can also offer greater contrapuntal clarity to Baroque-era music. Once again, the “noise reduction” I love in 53-eq means the ear can absorb greater complexity before it descends into cacaphony.

The great English Renaissance church composer Thomas Tallis composed a 40-part motet, “Spem in Alium,” which became a hit when it was employed in a sado-masochistic scene in Fifty Shades of Gray. When a chorus sings in a meantone temperament popular in the Renaissance (or perhaps even in Just Intonation) and the five choirs of eight separate voices each are spread out a bit in a live performance, the ear can actually hear a surprising number of those parts at once. Bach fugues, performed on the keyboard, are usually limited to four voices, on very rare occasions perhaps up to seven polyphonic voices at a time. And Bach’s music in Werckmeister tuning yields vastly greater clarity than in 12-eq, as Johnny Reinhard and the American Festival of Microtonal Music proved in their live performance of the first Brandenburg Concerto. The recorders and trumpet played together and both parts came through with crystal clarity!

It’s an open question how far the ear can go with polyphony in 53-eq tuning. I would guess that the ear could follow ten or more separate parts, offering much greater contrapuntal density than is possible in harmonically noisy 12-eq.

In conclusion, the new boundaries of the human ear and the degree of harmonic esoterica and polyphonic density it can take in are certain to be expanded by the 53-eq composers of the future!

If you would like to learn more about this chapter, “Monophony and Polyphony,” and much more, you can buy the entire book, The Grand Unified Theory of Music, in pdf form for $25 with hundreds of embedded musical examples of scales and chords from all over the world.

A free introduction to what The Grand Unified Theory of Music offers is on this website and includes both text and a few musical examples from each webpage. If you would like to learn more about this chapter and the full contents of this entire e-book, you can buy The Grand Unified Theory of Music for $25, with hundreds of embedded musical examples of scales and chords from all over the world — and ideas for how to set up your computer system —


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