In French Suite II, Air (mm. 3) it sounds like the upper voice can be separated into two parts: the upper part being Eb up to G, down to F; and the lower part being C down to Bb, down to Ab.

Bach "Air", mm. 1–4

In counterpoint, is there a name for when a single voice can serve the function of multiple voices?

  • 1
    Can you explain the D's and the scale passages involving Eb, D, and C, then? I don't think this is a good example of a "2-voiced" or split voice at all as a result.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jun 29, 2021 at 11:00
  • @Dekkadeci this may not be the best example, but it's clear enough to me what the question is seeking. (Even if it's not possible to split the entire voice into two distinct implied voices, it's possible for that half measure.)
    – phoog
    Sep 30, 2023 at 11:03

2 Answers 2


Although the terms discussed in Aaron's answer make sense to me, I've heard the term "compound melody" used much more frequently. In short, the term suggests that a single-line melody can be understood as a fleshing out of multiple different lines, hence the term "compound."

"Compound melody" largely gained popularity as a Schenkerian concept to explain—exactly as you were seeking—polyphony in Bach. But these days it's largely been stripped of that baggage.

  • Thank you so much for including this. I'm revisiting tonal counterpoint after many years, and now that you mention it, I see "compound melody" and "compound line" used frequently throughout my book. 👍
    – Giovanni
    Jun 29, 2021 at 13:55
  • +1 Compound melody is the only textbook term I've seen used to label this kind of line. Jun 29, 2021 at 14:53

It's called "implied polyphony" or "single-voice polyphony". The solo string works of Bach are excellent examples, and they function similarly to the instance being asked about here. They typically involve leaps in register that break up the sense of one voice. Bobby McFerrin is famous for doing this vocally, creating multiple voice parts by jumping from one register to another. (This is done solo, live, as opposed to his overdubbed recordings.)

A Bach example, his first suite for solo cello, performed by Pablo Casals, who "discovered" them (they'd been forgotten until he came across them):

And here is some implied polyphony by Bobby McFerrin: The Beatles's "Blackbird". This isn't counterpoint, per se, but it certainly illustrates how multiple voices can be implied.

  • 2
    Just an addition to that-- a lot of older piano educators (Josef Hoffmann, Rubinstein, and other late Romantics) used to claim that by varying touch and other techniques, you could make one line sound like a flute, another like a bell and so on. So they were addressing this very concretely and deliberately-- and possibly smoking opium I'm guessing. :D Jun 29, 2021 at 1:24
  • @Bennyboy1973: That phrasing is a bit of an exaggeration — of course the piano won’t sound much like a flute or a bell — but it makes sense: you’re aiming for subtle differences in tone between the different lines, and describing them as being (slightly) more flute-like, bell-like, and so on is about as clear as any other way of trying to describe the subtle difference.
    – PLL
    Jun 29, 2021 at 15:59
  • I think some of it was legend-- "Oh I heard Josef Hoffmann live and he could do XYZ." Jun 29, 2021 at 16:22

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