Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Posts Tagged ‘Chord development

Chords versus Polyphony

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It came up at rehearsal last night. The bass was having trouble because his note was strange and he couldn’t make it line up into a chord. The answer was simple: The music was based on a medieval song and it wasn’t a chord at all because chords hadn’t been invented yet.*

*The following history lesson pertains to European music. African, Asian, and New World music can be told in similar stories, but with some changes, like African was rhythm-based, Asian was pentatonic, and the New World was rhythmic and pentatonic.

In the beginning, there was monody. Monody is a single line of music: no harmony, no drone, not even rhythm. Gregorian chant, for instance, is usually monody. One person or a group sings a single line of music, everyone singing the same thing. If the notes have varied weights, lengths, and colors, it can be lovely. Hildegard von Bingen, my favorite composer, wrote a lot of this sort of thing.

But Hildegard didn’t invent it. Oh no. She built on about 4,000 years of tradition that came from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Israel, and Greece. All of those cultures have known songs (although the documentation situation is bleak because music notation didn’t really take off in the West until about the 8th century of the Common Era). But in the 900 years since Hildegard, all kinds of fancy things have happened.

For instance, around the end of the first millennium of the Common Era, someone noticed that in certain songs, one note stood out as dominant. In fact, it could be sung or plucked on a harp, lyre, or psaltery continuously while the melody was sung against it. And thus was harmony born.

But it wasn’t harmony like you think of today. It was a single note produced for the duration of a song. It didn’t move, although later drones did change if the mode of the song changed. (A mode is like a key signature that declares which notes occur to make a scale. It’s different, though, and I’ll save that discussion for another time.)

Suddenly, the melody was affected by the context each note had with the drone. Some combinations were prettier than others, but all had some sort of emotional impact. It was not a leap, then for the drone note to begin to move, and so began a new form of music, called organum, and later, conductus.

This new music had two discrete lines of melody: the tenor or cantus firmus, which slowly produced the melody of the chant and provided a sort of moving drone, and the duplum, which floated away from the melody and often exhibited some performance skills. Organum originated around the end of the first millennium of the Common Era. The tempo was thought to be the walking tempo of the monks entering the church up the long center aisle, but don’t be fooled—this was not rhythm. This was just tempo.

Conductus came around the 12th century, mostly in France, and allowed a more florid showing. Instead of the tenor part holding the ground (the cantus firmus), both lines of song could wander melodically around. And once that happened, the future opened up.

Conductus allowed complex melodies in more than one part. And if you can do two, you can do three or even four voices. Remember, chords weren’t invented yet, so each line was melodically interesting on its own. If one of your voices didn’t show up, no harm: the remaining voices sounded mighty fine on their own.

This gave rise to polyphony—multiple lines of melody—and the musical form called the motet. Now, the word motet comes from the French word “mot,” which means “word.” So you have to understand that the significant change here was the focus from the melody to the words.

It’s subtle, though, so let me help you. In chant, organum, and conductus, the words shaped musical accents, note duration, and sometimes the way the melody climbed or fell. The words were a sort of vehicle on which the music rode. But with polyphony and the invention of the motet, the words became the central character, and, for the first time, words that were not quotations from the Bible were documented.

If you think you don’t know what a motet is, guess again: Lots of familiar Christmas carols are based on them, such as “Deck the Hall.” That little “fa-la-la-la-la” bit is the give-away. The composer was using a kind of filler in secular music to mean something they weren’t willing to say outright. Lots of secular motets have this sort of device when the boy and girl disappear into the grassy meadow of a lovely spring day. It’s a euphemism for “frolicking ensued” and a raised eyebrow.

But to us, the interesting bit about motets is not the words. It’s the parallel lines of melody. You see, by the 13th century when motets were getting popular, people were rather likely to be run over by a cart, catch the plague, or otherwise take a leave of absence without warning. You couldn’t count on the same people showing up from one week to the next, so it was important that each melodic line stand on its own. If only one guy showed up on Sunday, the mass could still be sung. If two guys showed up, all the better. By the time you’ve got three or four, the music was getting pretty fabulous.

Now, during all this exploration of multiple lines, several other things developed. Rhythm, for instance, although it wasn’t a driving factor as it is in modern music. Rather, it provided a subtle connection so that the various sung parts could line up pleasantly. I talked about this a little in my blog post about the history of music notation. (

Once rhythm was part of the musical scene, the rules of harmony began to develop. There were new resting places in the form of longer notes where things lined up in all the parts. There were parts that moved in parallel, perhaps a few notes apart, perhaps in opposite directions and crossing in the middle. And these architectures invited a whole new set of rules for harmony.

Once we had harmony (where the music lined up among the various parts), we were just a breath away from having chords. You see, if you pass through the same three lined-up notes several times in a song, you start to think of those three lined-up notes as a sort of theme. And themes have meaning, either emotional or in a sort of musical color. And presto bingo, the chord was born.

Timed nicely with the development of music notation into what it looks like today, the new rules of harmony demanded the use of chords. For vocal music, this was truly significant, as it moved the melody out of ALL the parts and into only ONE of the voices, usually a high voice. The other parts provided the chord structure underneath. So it might have been interesting to sing the alto or tenor line in the 13th century, but by the end of the 15th, your part was mostly filler, fleshing out the chord. That makes it a lot harder to sing than a more melodic line. It especially makes it hard to practice on your own.

At the same time, keyboard music was taking its place center stage. For the keyboard, once chords were available, everything became possible—in the early days, the chords were abbreviated by number within a key signature, and by the time of the great Romantic masters, chords had expanded well beyond simple three-or four-note combinations to become grand elaborate augmented and diminished whatnots involving all two dozen of your fingers and a few of your toes.

And so, dear bass singer, that is why Chopin and Ciconia don’t sound much alike and why that wasn’t a chord.

Written by Melanie Spiller

April 12, 2011 at 6:06 pm