Polyphony

As I have noted here before, one of my attempts to escape my fate as a writer—I knew at age six I was born to write—was to compose music. As child, I taught myself to play the piano and read music and learned to write down the music I heard going through my head. I ended up composing many pieces, especially for chorus and folk group when I was music director in various churches. My first college degree, a BA, was in music.

Through it all, I found myself drawn to polyphony, sometimes called counterpoint, which means more than one vocal line going at the same time. Traditionally, melody lines were called vocal lines and thought of as fitting a voice range, that is, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. When more than one vocal line is going at once, the coincidence of tones must fit the rules of harmony. That means deciding whether the musical piece is conventional harmony (in a major or minor key) or if it is modal. There are basically seven modes, each a scale beginning on one of the white keys on modern pianos, called Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. The Ionian is the same as the modern major scale, and the Aeolian is the minor scale.

By 1600, with the arrival of the Baroque period of music, composers, players, and listeners had settled on the major and minor scales that we know today as the standard for all music. And harmony emphasized the third (two tones three steps apart sounded simultaneously) and the triad (a chord consisting of three tones a third apart) as the most pleasing. The result was that composers writing more than one melody to be sounded at the same time had to follow the rules of what was harmonically pleasing.

All that led to the fugue, arguably the highest musical form ever invented. In its classic form, as used by Johann Sebastian Bach, probably the greatest composer who ever lived, it uses the four vocal lines (soprano, also, tenor, bass). It starts with a single voice, often the alto, stating a melody. Two or three measure in, another voice repeats the melody, usually starting a fifth above or below the first voice which continues the melody. The remaining two voices enter stating the melody from the beginning, starting on the first or fifth note of the scale.

More next time

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