Music Memes: Monophony and Polyphony

29 Jul

Medieval music can be subdivided into two eras known as the Ars Antiqua and Ars Nova. A technological revolution in agricultural production enabled the population to grow dramatically between 1000 AD and 1300 AD. This allowed more people than ever to participate and experience music. Church schools were pervasive across the continent, teaching music and other aspects of the Quadrivium.

Ars Antigua is translated from Latin as  ‘old art’. It was an era of musical innovation that transpired across Europe from 1160 to 1320. It was a period of evolution from monophonic music styles to polyphonic styles and a continuation of many Greek and Gregorian traditions. As notation became the prevalent foundation for compositional preservation, the visual aspect was developed in a horizontal format. The monks who were the main sources of all things written, standardized this musical notation to indicate familiarity of movement across the page, in the same way as the written word. By using this format they were also successful in indicating the passage of time to the musician, performer and listener.

Monophonic music is a single line of music. The single line or melody, as we perceive it, has a horizontal aspect. 

Polyphony is the combination of two or more independent lines, the resulting permutations and combinations of the single lines interweaving in infinite ways. This relationship of horizontal musical lines coming together gives music a vertical aspect. 

Today, we think of this vertical aspect as ‘harmony’; “the sound that results when two or more pitches are made simultaneously”. When multiple lines interweave it creates the complexity of chords, textures, and melodies which can be thought of as the vertical aspect of music. 

The brilliance of the monks’ notations helped facilitate a new way of thinking about music. Adding the vertical aspect to music was a major advancement because it allowed more complexity and subtlety. The vertical concepts of music are now essential, advancing rhythmic and harmonic practices.

polyphony