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I’m looking for the for the study of the role and rhythm of each voice in multi voice composing. For example “lead part/voice/melody or supporting part/voice/melody”. By rhythms what I mean is the length of the notes usually used in each role (say whole and half notes for the supporting voice and an eighth sixteenth and quarter notes for the lead part). Texture seems to be close to what I’m speaking of, but I’m still not sure if I’ve come across a specific theorist that covers this.

I’m currently studying part writing & voice leading, counterpoint, texture (monody, polyphony, homophony) etc. I’ve done plenty of research in each but I still haven’t come across exactly what I want to study within these ideas.

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  • What is your question?
    – PiedPiper
    Sep 30, 2023 at 22:45
  • @PiedPiper I apologize for the confusion. I’ve slightly edited the question. I’m looking for the term or name for music theory that covers an idea similar to homophony.
    – Lecifer
    Sep 30, 2023 at 22:53
  • I'm not aware of any field that fits the description. It's possible there is some mathematical analysis, so maybe search for something along the lines of "stochastic rhythm polyphony". A quick search of Google Scholar shows at least one paper that seems relevant.
    – Aaron
    Oct 1, 2023 at 0:20

2 Answers 2

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In short:

  1. There probably is not a specific term for this intersection of "musical role" and "rhythm".
  2. The nearest thing to what you describe would be analysis of style, or maybe directly analysis of rhythm itself.

Part 0: Terminological clarification

Now, the explanation must first start with a little correction in terminology. In polyphonic music, and even in homophonic music, terms such as "lead part" and "supporting part" are not the ones typically employed. In simple homophonic music, the ear will naturally tend towards the two extremes. Most frequently, the top voice is the "melody" (in a choral piece, this is also usually sung by the "soprano" section, so that's another term) while the lowest one is the "bass line" (or simply the "bass").

Where this gets more complex, and why I'm making a point out of this, is that in polyphony, there is no such clear cut distinction. The whole point of polyphony, in fact, is that there is usually no true "leading" or "supporting" voice, but that each part has something interesting of its own (in properly written homophony, each voice will also be "interesting", i.e. relatively melodic and singable, but they will usually not be that independent). Instead, using terminology borrowed from vocal music, each part will be designated by its approximate register, for ex. the top one will (unless you're specifically dealing with vocal polyphonic music written for a different grouping) be the "soprano", then "alto", "tenor", and the lowest one "bass" (of course, this can be extended in different ways if there are more than four voices in your polyphony). For ex., in the first fugue of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, we have, in order, the alto, soprano, tenor and bass introducing the fugue's subject: Bach, Fugue in C major (WTK I), opening bars

Part 1: There are no (broadly-speaking) standard rhythmic patterns

Moving on, rhythmic and melodic differences between voices in polyphonic music can range from basically none, say if voices are singing a simple piece in canon, ex. the 4th stanza (from 1 min. 27 sec) of this recording of a tune by Tallis, each voice starting one full measure after the other one...

...through to contrapuntal pieces based on augmentation and diminution (where each part has technically the same rhythm, but at a different pace, for ex. no. 3d of Bach's Musical Offering, BWV 1079)...

...all to way to a complex interplay of question and answer topped off with a fugue in the final part as in Bach's "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied", BWV 225 (audio with score; the whole piece is very interesting).

My examples so far are mostly vocal but of course this also holds for instrumental music. By the time Mozart and Haydn, when polyphony took a backstep, and the new genre en vogue was the piano sonata, the rhythms and melodic patterns did become somewhat more clearly hierarchised, for example the typical "Alberti bass", or the melody being rather freer than the accompaniment, ex. Haydn's Sonata in F major, Hob. XVI:23. Here again composers like showcasing their craft and creativity, and it's not uncommon to see a melodic fragment passed between the "melody" and the "accompaniment", or a motive which one has seen in the bass then appearing in the melody: ex. the first movement of Mozart's Sonata in A minor, K.310. In fact, it would be quite boring if there was no such variety: compositions would be very predictable... This also applies to romantic Lieder (where although the singer is very clearly the main thing, the accompaniment is by no means some static background). As you may have guessed, I could go on and on with examples (symphonies?, ...)

Part 2: What common patterns one can find are more properly attributed to style

The main point is that what rhythmic and melodic devices (and other tools used to organise musical speech) are most common depends a lot on the specific style and era, and the nature of the piece itself. After all, a piano sonata will not feature the same instrument-specific writing as a string quartet; and a choral piece by a composer such as Mendelssohn will not have so much in common with the contrapuntal writing of baroque motets or the word painting of late renaissance madrigals, even if all are written for the same instrument, i.e. the human voice.

Musicologists do study these differences within and without particular genres, but in a far wider scope than simply "what is the length of the notes usually used in each role". One can find plenty of specific references depending on the repertoire you're interested in, though of course I can neither read your thoughts nor guess what that would be for you.

Of course, if what you're looking for is literature specifically about rhythm and its role in music, mostly independently from other stylistic considerations, such documents are indeed quite plentiful, a good starting point if you have none would be the bibliographies provided in specialist encyclopedias such as Grove (art. "Rhythm") or the German-language MGG (art. "Rhythmus").

Hopefully, this at least provides further food for thought about the matter, if not the precise answer you're looking for.

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  • Thanks for the detailed response! Yep, as you can see i'm pretty much confused from flipping through tons of different studies and not exactly comprehending all of them. In a way, i'm looking sets of rules that can explain composing tonal music. One other theorist that interests me is Schenker but i also have trouble comprehending his concepts to an extent. I find the ideas from the masterworks and free composition most interesting (background, middle ground, and foreground). Those ideas some to be very close if not exactly what i'm describing but i'm still unclear about some of the concepts.
    – Lecifer
    Oct 1, 2023 at 16:48
  • (cont.) Also I notice that people tend to disagree with other theorists theories which further adds to my confusion. The idea of there being a background within every composition, that is composed out from, is nearly perfect. To summarize though, I just want to develop an understanding of the different structural pieces in composing. From the simplest voice to the most complex voice. For example, the minimum amount of single notes (root progressions) or chords to establish a key is what i'd view as the "background".
    – Lecifer
    Oct 1, 2023 at 17:03
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    From what I get from the above, the best advice I can give is that Rome wasn't built in one day. You seem to be trying to grasp several complicated concepts, maybe without having entirely understood the fundamentals. Schenker is complex and, in particular, somewhat controversial, and might not be an ideal starting point. Re. "sets of rules that can explain composing tonal music" - most music theory textbooks will cover this, starting with simple, strict counterpoint and voice-leading and moving on to harmony and larger formal considerations.
    – AlexJ
    Oct 1, 2023 at 17:52
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    Your "Haydn's Sonata in F major, Hob. XVI:23" link leads to Tallis's canon instead.
    – Dekkadeci
    Oct 2, 2023 at 9:50
  • @Dekkadeci Thanks, will correct.
    – AlexJ
    Oct 3, 2023 at 21:01
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Here's a shorter, simpler answer: No, there's no particular word for this. If there is a correlation between note value and textural role, it's sort of a coincidence of the way we perceive musical texture.

First of all, not all music has this distinction between "melody" (aka lead or solo) and "harmony" (aka backing or accompanying) roles.* Think about a barbershop quartet; typically all voices move together in the same rhythm ("homophonic" texture).

Where we do have a melody/harmony distinction, we do often see differences in note values, but this is partly to help create that distinction, and keep it from seeming so homophonic. Often the melody will have shorter note values while the harmony will have longer ones, as this makes us notice the melody more (human attention is attracted by change). So we wind up with a "stable foundation" of large chordal notes, supporting a melody that's free to twist and turn in interesting ways.

We might also see the opposite: a "busy" harmony part supporting a melodic line made up of long, lyrical notes. But so far, for most examples I can think of this, the "busy" harmony part is simply arpeggiating or repeating chords that don't actually change very rapidly. Like when Gounod floated an "Ave Maria" over Bach's arpeggiations:

Or the habit in doo-wop of restriking chords underneath a sustained melody:

("Unchained Melody" also comes to mind, but that's arpeggiation just like Bach/Gounod)


* Heck, there's actually a lot of music in which there's only one voice at a time anyway—"monophonic"—like ancient or medieval music and most of the traditional musics of global cultures.

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