Would I be correct if I were to define homophony vs polyphony as chords vs lines? If homophony is defined as a single melody with chordal accompaniment, and polyphony as several melodies with equal importance, then would homophony be limited to

To be honest applying this concept in most of the modern music lowkey baffles me. I can identify when a song has many layers that are formed by different motions in the instruments (e.g. vocal + a constantly moving bassline + thrumming beats with certain pattern), but the 'equal importance' criteria of polyphony is what blurs the line for me. For example, in a rock song, even if there is an independent melody developing in the electric guitar playing at the same time as the vocal, wouldn't the guitar melody still take a backseat to the vocal? Is this polyphonic?

Also one extra question : would the addition of simple melodic pattern still be homophonic? e.g that xylophone part from Somebody That I Used to Know

3 Answers 3


Would I be correct if I were to define homophony vs polyphony as chords vs lines?

Yes, this is correct. Mind that a) homophony and b) polyphony are just 2 different aspects of composing or analyzing a set of voicings:

a) is prioritizing the vertical aspect, as you say the chords, b) is concerning the horizontal aspect of the voicing: the lines. The more 2 or more voices are independent, leading their own way or imitating each other, the more we are speaking about polyphony, while a setting of voices, that are streaming together horizontally in equal rhythm accompanying a tune we have a homophonic setting.

For example, in a rock song, even if there is an independent melody developing in the electric guitar playing at the same time as the vocal, wouldn't the guitar melody still take a backseat to the vocal? Is this polyphonic?

I agree, that some styles are difficult to categorize as one of these 2 types. How about the early organum with parallels of 5ths? Hindemith says, this was not real polyphony, just a simple preliminary stage of it.

  • Be careful. There's the Monophonic/Polyphonic distinction where Polyphonic merely means 'more than one voice'. In this sense a note-for note harmonisation of a hymn tune could be said to be 'polyphonic'. This is rather different to the Homophonic/Polyphonic distinction, where 'Polyphony' might better be called 'counterpoint'.
    – Laurence
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 19:00
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    @LaurencePayne "Polyphony" means multiple independent voices. The independence is part of the definition.
    – Aaron
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 20:24
  • @Aaron Yes, that's what Wikipedia says. There are other, looser definitions!
    – Laurence
    Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 13:13
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    @LaurencePayne That's insulting. And I made a point of looking up the definition in a variety of different sources. All agreed.
    – Aaron
    Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 13:23
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    I have never heard of a note-for-note hymn-tune harmonization referred to as "polyphonic." I agree with Aaron and Albrecht that voice independence is a vital aspect of polyphony.
    – Richard
    Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 13:54

Homophony and Polyphony are not absolute, mutually exclusive terms.

A melody with strummed guitar chords is pretty much homophonic. Add a bass line that does anything more interesting than just stick on I, IV or V and we're beginning to get an element of polyphony. Add the idea that it's effective to have the bass rise where the melody falls, that a long note in the melody works well against a little run in the bass and there's even more.

Let's start from the other direction. A Bach fugue is basically polyphonic. But every now and again there'll be a bit that could have come straight out of a traditional hymn book. A bit of homophony.

Don't suffer over whether a particular piece of music is Homophony or Polyphony. Just look for homophonic and polyphonic elements in it. You'll generally find both.

Also, be clear over your definition of 'polyphony'. It doesn't always mean several INDEPENDENT voices. A homophonic SATB note-for-note harmonisation of a hymn tune could be called polyphonic - it has 4 voices! A one-oscillator synth is monophonic, a 2,4,20... oscillator one can be 2, 4 20... -voice polyphonic. Better perhaps to talk of Monophony and Counterpoint.

  • Nice explanation, clarifying that music can have elements of both. Suggest two small changes to the final paragraph: 1) OP mentioned polyphony containing voices of "equal importance", but the key element is not "importance", but "independence", as you point out — seems worth amplifying. Also 2) polyphony does mean "independent" voices; calling an SATB hymn polyphonic is too wide a definition — it would make even a singer with chordal guitar accompaniment polyphonic, the guitar playing multiple voices simultaneously.
    – Aaron
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 19:10
  • @Aaron thanks for pointing this out! After doing some futher research, I agree that it's the independence of the lines that matters most to polyphonic texture. I'm still a bit ambivalent about the 'equal importance' trait though. The literatures that I read are pretty conflicting, in the sense that some only attributed the equal importance trait specifically to couterpoint or fugue, while other says that 'equal importance' in general is a must-have for any polyphonic texture. Can anyone clarify this? Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 6:29
  • @Anastasia Celine You're trying to make a hard distinction between homophony and polyphony/counterpoint. There isn't one. Counterpoint starts the moment that any voice shows independence from the melody. It doesn't have to be complete independence, and it doesn't have to have equal musical interest to the melody. Fugue is, indeed, an extreme manifestation of counterpoint. But less intense counterpoint is still counterpoint!
    – Laurence
    Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 13:11

From my understanding polyphonics are a single instruments ability to play two or more notes concurrently (at the same time). Therefore a singer’s voice is considered monophonic and not polyphonic because the singer can only reproduce one audible voice at a time. More examples of monophonic instruments include trumpet or a trombone. Many synthesizers are only capable of monophonic playback being able to play sound from only one depressed key on the keyboard at a time and at any given point in time regardless of how many keys are depressed at the same given point in time. If a voice is to be reproduced synthetically with the sampler on a polyphonic synthesizer, it then can support multiple playback of the audible voice.

Now a grand piano is considered polyphonic because you can play multiple notes at the same time like playing a cord or triad. Stringed instruments would be considered polyphonic to a degree because a musician are capable of playing two strings at the same time with one bow. Guitars are also polyphonic capable. Many other synthesizer keyboards support polyphonic playback so that capable of playing multiple audible notes at the same time mimicking an analog piano's polyphonic abilities.

As far as homophonics are concerned , YourDictionary describes -

The definition of homophonic is having one sound or line of melody at a time that >is played by multiple instruments at the same time, or two words that are >pronounced the same but differ in their meanings.

An example of something homophonic is a piece of music with chords, where two >instruments play the same line of melody in the same rhythm; however, one >instrument plays one note and a second instrument places a note in harmony.

An example of homophonic words are pair and pear.

I’ll quickly summaries that homophonics are the act of an instrument playing in unison or harmony with another or other instruments.

Another example of the latter definition of homophony are the difference of the two words won, and one. – they both are words that mean two different things, but, homo-phonetically audibly sound the same as if they were the same word.

Therefore two or more polyphonic or monophonic instruments vs. a homophonic instrument or instruments can be played in homophonetic unison and in harmony. These instruments playing in unison are not exactly considered to be playing in polyphony.

These answers should satisfy the initial question even if whatever notes being played sound out of tune or out of harmony. :)

  • These are different usages of these words than what is being asked about. The question regards the musical textures known as polyphony and homophony rather than the terms as used in describing the capabilities of instruments.
    – Aaron
    Commented Apr 25, 2021 at 0:25
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    I must be confusing polyphony as it relates to heterophonics instead of homophony. I learned something new. Thank you. There is a lot to learn from a good question like the one that is asked. I enjoyed reading all of the great and interesting answers.
    – Stereomac
    Commented Apr 25, 2021 at 0:37

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