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Saturday morning quotes 6.18: Implied polyphony

September 17, 2016

ropeTotal immersion in polyphonic music of the sixteenth century may tend to skew one’s perceptions in terms of fitting into modern life.  For instance, polyphony in the context of most modern music usually means digitally multi-tracked cacophony rather than the elegant intertwining of several strands to make a many faceted whole.  Organists typically love to burst eardrums with later music that requires an elaborate chart and 30 minutes of adjusting stops before playing a 5-minute piece, but they always return to the densely polyphonic music of J.S. Bach when they want to impress one another.  Even so, they have ten fingers, two feet, and multiple stops available to highlight the character of different voices in a fugue.

Lutenists have four fingers of the left hand and four fingers of the right hand and tactile contact with strings to achieve the same effect.  How about a little respect?

Nevertheless, as players of stringed instruments possessing a more compact range, we find it necessary to understand and manage polyphonic music, even when it’s not entirely clear from the notation that polyphony is intended.  This case applies to the better sort of music from the late 15th century through the 18th century: Nearly every instance of what appears to be a long monophonic string of notes has a latent or implied polyphonic character, and it is up to the performer to identify and realize it as such.  Total immersion in 16th-century polyphony helps if one’s mind is open and one’s ears are alert to implied polyphonic passages, but it is baffling when recordings of even some of the most facile players demonstrate that a quite a bit more attention to detail is required.

Early and thorough grounding in polyphonic music, such as learning the duos from Mass movements intabulated by Fuenllana and Valderrabano, is a valuable aid to lutenists.  But perhaps a good middle ground for guitarists discovering lute repertory is found in the music for solo stringed instruments by J.S. Bach. Our quotes are from an excellent paper by Stacey Davis, “Implied Polyphony in the Unaccompanied String Works of J.S. Bach: A Rule System for Discerning Melodic Strata“,from the Sixth International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, Keele, UK, August 2000, Proceedings edited by C. Woods, G.B. Luck, R. Brochard, F. Seddon, & J.A. Sloboda.

“One of the most striking and oft discussed characteristics of these pieces is their polyphonic structure. Although there are certainly movements within these sonatas that reflect the predilection of 18th century German composers for multiple stops in solo string music, the majority of these pieces are almost completely monophonic. Still, countless performers, pedagogues, and theorists maintain that there is a sense of polyphony in these movements, and that Bach created counterpoint by outlining multiple voices within a single instrumental line.”

“In a 1968 dissertation entitled Heinrich Biber and the Seventeenth Century Violin, Elias Dann made the following reference to Bach’s unaccompanied violin pieces.”

“Any superficial examination of these solos, the most polyphonic pieces ever written for the violin, will reveal so many single notes rather than double-stops or chords that the musician unacquainted with these works (a hypothetical one, if necessary), may well wonder where the polyphony is to be found . . . If these movements, in which only one tone at a time is sounded, are to be considered polyphonic, it becomes obvious immediately that no usual definition of polyphony, predicated upon the combination of several sustained parts, will suffice. Any attempt at a coherent analysis from the standpoint of melody alone soon raises more questions than it can possibly answer. Careful study would seem to suggest that either these movements are polyphonic or they cannot be explained at all (196-97).”

“From this and many other similar comments, it is apparent that a general consensus about the existence of this implied polyphony has been reached. There is, however, very little explanation of how this monophonic music is actually parsed into these different voices.”

“General principles of auditory stream segregation may help to explain some cases of this type of linear polyphony. In many ways, these principles coincide with the fundamental claim of Gestalt psychology. As Lerdahl and Jackendoff describe, this claim is that “perception, like other mental activity, is a dynamic process of organization, in which all elements of the perceptual field may be implicated in the organization of any particular part.”

“In creating melodies, composers have long realized the influence that these grouping principles have on perceptual coherence, especially the repetition rate and the frequency separation of tones. For instance, various studies have shown that much Western music is dominated by small melodic intervals, thereby reflecting the idea that notes closer together in frequency tend to produce stronger perceptual groupings.”

“In an interesting reference to the very style of music that Bach’s unaccompanied string pieces represent, Bregman states,

“Rapid alternations of high and low tones are sometimes found in music, but composers are aware that such alternations segregate the low notes from the high. Transitions between high and low registers were used by the composers of the Baroque period to create compound melodic lines – the impression that a single instruments, such as a violin or flute, was playing more than one line of melody at the same time. These alternations were not fast enough to cause compulsory segregation of the pitch ranges, so the experience was ambiguous between one and two streams. Perhaps this was why it was interesting.”

Playing a long string of notes with a “destination” point of view simply will not do, and in order to find the polyphony in a single line, it’s necessary to seek it out.  By way of example, we offer a live recording (on a lute tuned in F) of a well-known prelude in D by Henry Purcell, originally for keyboard but arranged for lute in viel ton.  Most keyboard players zip through this music as though they can’t wait to be done because it is considered to be a rudimentary didactic piece.  Upon closer examination, Purcell’s genius for weaving many strands into a single line becomes apparent.


  1. An interesting issue indeed. And you’re right, in many recordings of Purcell’s Prelude keyboard players conceal fairly well that they should be used to articulating several voices. Perhaps they are simply careless since implied polyphony is unexpectedly easy to play for them compared to the explicit one they usually deal with. Their renditions admittedly lack sensitivity and rather become a speed race than an artistic interpretation. Performing the piece within 20 seconds, that’s sporty.

    Stacey Davis’ set of rules to identify different voices in apparently monophonic pieces and the validation through comparative analysis make sense. Nevertheless, as far as music and art are concerned I’m not a fan of numerical and quantitative scrutiny. In my estimation, this tends to diminish the natural magic of the music, whereas the performer’s individual attention to detail is required, of course.

    What I can’t understand is why Elias Dann chose five staves “for convenience” to demonstrate his attempt of segregation, if he doesn’t even intent to argue in favor of five voices, as he states. While I agree that Purcell’s Prelude and Bach’s Sarabande Double are undoubtedly polyphonic and the different voices come out clearly, I think five strands – for whatever purpose – are a bit too much here. Not because of David Huron’s finding that there seems to be a treshold at three voices when trying to identify the number of threads by listening. But because, in my view, the idea of a further segregation disturbs the aesthetic flow of these pieces and contradicts the principles of Gestalt psychology.

  2. Thank you, J., for your insightful comments after actually wading through the reference material. It is a rare experience to engage in dialogue with an informed person.

    I agree that music can be done to death by being over-analyzed, as pointed out in the quote from Charles Rosen that “musicology is for musicians what ornithology is for the birds”. But sometimes we have to make allowances for academics who are obliged to quantify the ephemeral just to appear legitimate in the eyes of colleagues and sources of funding for research. It up to those of us who are patient and broad-minded to distill academic research into useful information.

    I don’t think Davis fully backs Dann’s premise that results in a five-voice separation of the bit from Bach’s partita in h-moll. Dann seems to base his analysis on a fairly subjective reading of the possibilities while admitting that many notes could potentially function in more than one voice line: “…the melodic function of each individual tone in this music is dependent on the tones that surround it, its rhythmic placement within a measure or phrase, and whether its range ever crosses into the frequency space of another voice.” It’s far too easy to over-analyze music, as I’ve seen when a person with too much training attempts to harmonize a simple folk tune, with shifting harmonies on nearly every note.

    Davis concludes that such microscopic analysis is helpful for secure musicians who may tend to overlook polyphonic possibilities, a point with which I agree – as long as the new information results in a more musical interpretation.

    The idea that a person is only able to track a maximum of three polyphonic lines is probably generally true. But there are always exceptions. Anyone who sings polyphonic music (mindfully) on a regular basis is able to track different parts, as would a keyboardist playing the six-part ricercar from Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer. As for the principles of Gestalt, you’ve got me there. There’s only so much learning one can stuff into an overly taxed brain.


  3. Thank you for your further elucidations, Ron. I guess it’s up to me to add a few words on Gestalt psychology (once part of my studies) for clarification. The theory is based on the idea that people perceive things as a whole, which is different from the sum of its parts, having a reality of its own.

    The fundamental principle is the law of
    – Good Gestalt: In order to create meaning, elements are grouped in a manner that they form a good shape or pattern implying pithiness (salience, conciseness, and orderliness).

    Five further laws, also introduced by Wertheimer (1923), contribute to fulfill this principle and seem to provide the basis for Davis’ set of rules:
    – Proximity: Elements close to one another are grouped (rule 1: interval size).
    – Similarity: Similar elements are grouped (rule 3: conjunct motion).
    – Closure: Elements forming essential parts of a shape are grouped, while perception fills in the gaps to complete a regular figure.
    – Common Fate: Elements moving in the same direction at the same time are grouped (rule 2: contour direction).
    – Continuity: Elements forming continuous lines are grouped (further rule to be implemented according to Davis).

    The laws of Good Gestalt and Continuity are the ones I was particularly referring to when mentioning the aesthetic flow. If music is over-analyzed into bits and pieces, you cease to feel the Good Gestalt of the whole, whereas artists can actually support the favorable experience by giving attention to inherent details. You both do.

    By the way, good luck for Sunday – et beaucoup de plaisir. J’aimerais pouvoir venir, mais que faire?

  4. Thanks for your clarification, J. Tu serez dans nos pensées à travers les mers.

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