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Polyphonic chant (and a little polyphonic trivia for the digital age)

gregorian chant

K Leb – Old book of Gregorian Chant; some place in Aragón via Flickr

Polyphonic chant is a type of Christian devotional singing developed in the 10th century where two or more melodies or parts are sung together in a composition.

As with anything new, not everyone approved of polyphony.

Some believed that melodic complexity was the work of the devil, who tried to seduce believers through the sin of pride. Pope John XX II was dead against polyphony and in 1324 CE warned his flock not to fall into the satanic lure of musical innovation.

Pope Clement VI Cameo

Pope Clement VI Cameo via Wikipedia

However, such narrow-mindedness couldn’t stop the flow of musical evolution.

As different cultures and musical styles increasingly intermingled, more complex forms of polyphony emerged in the medieval and renaissance eras, like the motet, the rota, the canon, polyphonic masses and madrigals. Another Pope (Clement VI) actually championed polyphony. So not all the Popes were backward looking duds.

The 18th century saw further development of the fugue, which had roots in simpler, medieval compositions. A good, lighthearted example of a modern fugue is found in Glenn Gould‘s “So You Want To Write a Fugue?”¹

Today, the word polyphony takes on whole new meanings with electronic instruments.

Oberheim 4voice '"Used by 808 State, Depe...

Old analog synthesizer – Oberheim 4voice ‘”Used by 808 State, Depeche Mode, Styx, The Shamen and John Carpenter. Produced from ’75 to ’79. Killed by the Prophet-5.” via Wikipedia

Most hardware and software synthesizers allow users to select the number of notes or layers they want to work with. For example, one might set polyphony to 4, 8, 16 or 32. Generally speaking, the higher the polyphony, the more complex the sound. But increased polyphony puts more demand on a computer processor.

Composing a pop song with “phat bass” and lush synth sounds, for example, would probably require more PC power than an ordinary phone or tablet could provide. Great strides are being made to make bigger sounding virtual instruments work on mobile devices and everyday computers. It’s all about clever, efficient software coding to get the most bang out of lighter processors without any unwelcome stuttering, freezing or crashing. If only those owning high-end gaming computers and expensive sound cards could run commercial music software, not too many units would be sold.

Sylenth1, a popular virtual instrument that runs on a computer, with polyphony settings at top left – via

Back in the early days of computing I thought all PCs ran at the same speed because information is carried by electricity, and electricity runs practically instantaneously. Ha ha. Not so. Like anything, electronic data transfer follows basic laws and principles much like water moving through plumbing.

A bit of a diversion here, but it serves to demonstrate that polyphony demands more energy than monophonic performances. Be it with human singers and musicians, or with artificial electronic instruments.²

¹ More about polyphonic music thru my LINER notes »

² I added “artificial” lest we forget that human beings are also electrical to some extent.

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Slamming (also Slammin, Slammin’)



Slamming (also Slammin, Slammin’) is a term used by rap artists and hipsters conveying several possibly interrelated meanings:

  • rhythmic verse and music of intense vitality or aggression—slammin’ vibes, slammin’ groove
  • something very good, hot, sexy, cool, happening, etc.
  • some form of power and, perhaps in some instances, spiritual power

The connection between music and power has been known since the dawn of mankind. Some anthropologists believe that the musical bow evolved from the ancient bow and arrow used for hunting and warfare.¹

Piano strings are struck with a “hammer.” And rock and jazz musicians often call the guitar an “axe.” A leading hip-hop artist was MC Hammer.

Serious Slammin'

Serious Slammin’ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the bow, arrow, hammer and axe are used for both aggressive and peaceful purposes, at bottom some notion of power is connoted by all of these terms.

Urban Dictionary adds:

1. adj. Something which is very good.
2. vt. to inject a drug intravenously
1. “Dude, this Lobster Bisque is SLAMMIN”
2. “SLAMMIN dope is not what it used to be.”²

Related » Shamanism, Song


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It’s generally believed that the emotional, vibrational and spiritual aspects of music and song can evoke uniquely different experiences.

St. Augustine is often cited as having said “He who sings, prays twice.” Since the 9th century, so-called Gregorian chants have been sung in monasteries for worship and spiritual elevation. And the emergence of polyphony¹ appeared in a liturgical context, sometimes viewed by the old world authorities as too radical for religious music.

Jazz and Rock and Roll developed from the Blues, which itself emerged from the black spiritual music of the American old south.

In the East, it’s believed that chanting the sacred AUM syllable facilitates spiritual liberation.

The French structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009, pictured above) noted that a certain shaman‘s song was used to assist a woman in childbirth. In classifying human experience within a complex system of binary oppositions that (he believed) are fundamental to thinking, Levi-Strauss suggested that song, speech and signals are categorically different.

But Levi-Strauss’ classification scheme doesn’t really hold up in light of a more contemporary understanding of music. One only has to listen to the work of, say, T. Power to realize that electronica spans several of the categories outlined by Levi-Strauss.

Today, C-pop and Hindi pop blend ancient Eastern and contemporary Western musical forms. And EDM, Punk, Jazz, Ambient, World and contemporary classical music defy old categories of what used to be understood as song and music.

¹ The Tallis Scholars sing the music of William Byrd, a leading Renaissance polyphonic composer

Related Posts » Bauls, Bhagavad-Gita, Lorelei, Mela, Orpheus, Polyphonic Chant, Shamanism, Sirens, Slamming, Soul

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Steppenwolf is a Canadian rock band popular in the 1960s and early 1970s, credited with being the first heavy metal band because the single, “Born to be Wild,” included in its lyrics the phrase heavy metal thunder.

Hesse, Hermann: Der Steppenwolf. Berlin: S. Fi...

Hesse, Hermann: Der Steppenwolf. Berlin: S. Fischer 1927, 289 Seiten. Erstausgabe (Wilpert/Gühring² 155) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other hits include “Magic Carpet Ride,” which describes a sort of psychedelic mysticism, and a slow moving song called “The Pusher” that seems to condone marijuana use but condemns heavier, addictive drugs, such as heroine. In the “The Pusher” addicts are described as “walkin round with tombstones in their eyes.”

The band still tours and has sold 25 million records worldwide. Steppenwolf’s music has been used in about 50 movies.

Steppenwolf is also an introspective novel by Hermann Hesse that explores the Jungian idea of the shadow, and to which the rock band most likely owes its name.




Most associate synthesizers with electronic music equipment but, historically speaking, this isn’t quite right. Since ancient Greece, people have been combining different sounds and playing more than one instrument at a time.

In the 3rd century BCE the Greek engineer Ktesibios invented the hydraulos, a prototypical pipe organ using a hand-pumped air chamber located in a tub of water.

In the 1400’s, the hurdy gurdy played several melodies with a background drone.

In 1761 the panharmonicon automated the playing of flutes, clarinets, trumpets, violins, cellos, drums, cymbals, triangle and other instruments; notably, it was used by Beethoven.

In 1867 one of the first electronic keyboards appears in Switzerland. And in 1899 the Singing Arc was used to obtain sound from different lamps. And in 1928 a Russian, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, invented the Theremin, which was the first mass produced electronic instrument.

In the 1960s and 70s the analog synthesizer made its debut in pop music. It emulated symphonic strings and created new, far out sounds. Some groups used it somewhat conventionally (e.g. the synthetic strings of the early Doors) while others created distant sonic landscapes that arguably rival the classical greats in terms of sheer innovative brilliance (e.g. Yes, ELP, Genesis).

English: Depeche Mode live at the O2 Wireless ...

Depeche Mode live at the O2 Wireless Festival in 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 1980s digital sound became supreme. With digital sampling, any natural sound could be digitally reproduced without any sound quality degradation from the original sample.

Taken for granted today, this was a sonic revolution in the 80s, giving birth to a new era of musical innovation with groups like Depeche Mode, The Eurythmics and The Art of Noise.

In the 1990s (and beyond) the rise of home computers along with the development of the internet, mp3s, YouTube, SoundCloud and other technologies enabled just about anyone with a PC to become an aspiring superstar, sharing musical creations on the web. With this came the rise of VST (Virtual Studio Technology).

Virtual Studio Technology (VST) is a software interface that integrates software audio synthesizer and effect plugins with audio editors and recording systems. VST and similar technologies use digital signal processing to simulate traditional recording studio hardware in software. Thousands of plugins exist, both commercial and freeware, and a large number of audio applications support VST under license from its creator, Steinberg

In other words, VST (plugins) and VSTi (instruments) try to simulate through software what was once achieved through hardware synthesizers. But, actually, VST and VSTi go beyond mimicking old sounds created in decades past. Sounds that were popular in the 1970s and 80s, for instance, are now called “old school” and may be respected just as music lovers in the 1970s and 80s looked back to the relatively primitive electric guitar songs of the 1960s.

Many VST and VSTi are totally free. So one can get started with so-called “bedroom music production” on a shoestring budget.²

Image via


² Some of the better sites listing free VST and VSTi products are:

Related Posts » Orpheus

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Throat Singing

A Rizong monk seated at a special sutra stool ...

A Rizong monk seated at a special sutra stool reading Mahayana sutras outside the main prayer hall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Diverse cultural, scientific and religious practices suggest that different types of music bear distinct effects on consciousness.

The biologist Lewis Thomas says we enjoy classical music because we’re getting a glimpse inside the fantastically complicated mind of the composer. But others say there’s more to music than that. In fact, it’s generally believed that certain musical forms can literally transport consciousness to a different kind of awareness.

Tibetan Buddhist throat singing is no exception.

Individual performers or monks practice for years to perfect their ability to simultaneously produce two notes. Some see this as a reflection of the spirituality in nature. Others take it a bit deeper, believing that the vibration created through their singing helps to deliver the soul blinded by maya (the illusion of physicality) and dukkha (the sorrow arising from bondage to maya) to a better plane of existence.

Ultimately this can lead to nirvana, which for Buddhists is an ultimate, blissful release from worldly ignorance.

Throat singing actually appears throughout the world. It’s not just a Buddhist thing by any stretch of the imagination. And, personally, I think different world religions tend to puff themselves up a bit with the alleged importance of their practice. The way I see it, any kind of sound can transport listeners to a different place. It doesn’t have to be overtly religious or spiritual. EDM music is one example. But again, any kind of music can be transcendent, mystical—what have you.¹

Just how music affects listeners probably depends on the music and, also, where the listener is at.

¹ A similar kind of religious elitism arguably appears with mantras, sacred characters and certain words in world religions. In my view, language itself has a numinous quality. The full range of linguistic numinosity, however, is far more subtle than most overt religious demonstrations and recitations. But it’s still there.

Related Posts » Buddhism, Orpheus

On the Web:



Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein 2

Ludwig Wittgenstein 2 (Photo credit: Christiaan Tonnis)

Ludwig Wittgenstein (Josef Johann, 1889-1951) was an Austrian-born British philosopher.

Wittgenstein studied mathematics at Cambridge under Bertrand Russell, who spoke highly of his alleged genius. While serving in the Austrian army during WW I, he argued in Tractatus Logico-philosophicus that any sentence is a representation of a fact and any kind of thought is a sentence.

In 1953 he rejected these ideas presented in Tractatus, coming to believe that linguistic meaning relates to the use of expressions. This involves certain “language games” that inform and are informed by expressions. At one point in his career he apparently believed that his philosophy had figured everything out.

To be honest, I don’t find him terribly interesting. He had extremely narrow-minded views about music, which apparently “came to a full stop with Brahms.” He continued to say that “even in Brahms I can begin to hear the noise of machinery.”¹ One can only wonder what he’d think about EDM!

Related Posts » Linguistics, Semiology

¹ But clearly, many do find Wittgenstein intriguing. See the lengthy Wikipedia entry if interested, and also for the above quotations >>