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I understand that polyphony is multiple melodies, while homophony is a single melody with chordal accompaniment (in my own words).

I've read that hymns are generally homophonic, yet I find that hymns don't follow a pattern of chordal accompaniment very closely. Specifically, the alto and tenor parts tend to move around considerably, though they generally wouldn't stand alone very well as a single melody.

It seems for a piece of music to be considered polyphonic, the lyrics usually need to be independent for each "voice", but this is not a definition I've read anywhere and it wouldn't fit for a piece of music that is without lyrics.

How can I distinguish polyphony from homophony? Are there some pieces of music that have characteristics of both and cannot be easily distinguished?

  • A harmonization that followed a strict chordal pattern would generally be considered incorrect as it would violate the standard voice leading rules. Presumably that's why we don't need a word for it... – Micah Aug 25 '14 at 22:10
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I think you're about right. Homophony is the concept of a single 'line' as such, potentially split across several parts, but all moving at the same time - parts mainly follow the same rhythm. Polyphony is when there is multiple melody lines at the same time, interacting with each other.

What's important to remember is that there should be a degree of flexibility in these definitions, pieces are often 'predominantly homophonic', or have 'polyphonic sections' - a small amount of different movement may mean a piece isn't homophonic in the strictest sense, but would often be referred to as such, if that was the overriding characteristic. As you mention, Alto and Tenor vocal parts often move around to create resolutions within held notes - however if the the parts mainly work with the melody line, this wouldn't be considered polyphonic.

It seems for a piece of music to be considered polyphonic, the lyrics usually need to be independent for each "voice", but this is not a definition I've read anywhere and it wouldn't fit for a piece of music that is without lyrics.

Depends what you mean by 'independent'. A good example of polyphonic songs would be a 'singing in the round' situation, where each voice has it's own line it is following, and not the same melody, simultaneously. With regards to music without lyrics the principles are just the same, polyphonic music would have multiple melody lines; homophonic: multiple parts all moving at the same time.

Some examples: Homophonic music example

Homophonic. Note there are some minor, additional decorations on some of the parts, but they mainly follow the same rhythmic pattern.

Polyphonic music example

Polyphonic. No relation between the parts at a certain point of the music.

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Homophony and polyphony are the two ends of a spectrum. Most music lies between the two extremes. As soon as a guitarist accompaning a singer realises that it sounds better when the bass notes move in contrary motion to the melody, we have an element of polyphony. When we write SATB harmonisations of a hymn tune, with everyone singing the same words and rhythms, but aiming to give each voice a singable line and taking care to avoid parallel 5ths and octaves, we are using the principles of polyphony. Even in a fugue, the epitome of polyphony, once each voice has presented the subject there may well be sections where they are less independent. Things are rarely black or white!

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