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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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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:

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