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In music, polyphony is a texture consisting of two or more independent melodic voices, as opposed to music with just one voice (monophony) or music with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords (homophony).

Within the context of Western music tradition the term is usually used in reference to music of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Baroque forms such as the fugue which might be called polyphonic are usually described instead as contrapuntal. Also, as opposed to the species terminology of counterpoint, polyphony was generally either "pitch-against-pitch" / "point-against-point" or "sustained-pitch" in one part with melismas of varying lengths in another (van der Werf, 1997). In all cases the conception was likely what Margaret Bent (1999) calls "dyadic counterpoint", with each part being written generally against one other part, with all parts modified if needed in the end. This point-against-point conception is opposed to "successive composition", where voices were written in an order with each new voice fitting into the whole so far constructed, which was previously assumed.



Although the exact origins of polyphony in the Western church traditions are unknown, the treatises Musica enchiriadis and Schola enchiriadis, both dating from c. 900, are usually considered the oldest extant written examples of polyphony. These treatises provided examples of two-voice note-against-note embellishments of chants using parallel octaves, fifths, and fourths. Rather than being fixed works, they indicated ways of improvising polyphony during performance. The Winchester Troper, from c. 1000, is the oldest extant example of notated polyphony for chant performance, although the notation does not indicate precise pitch levels or durations.

Traditional (non-professional) polyphony has a wide, if uneven distribution among the peoples of the world. Most polyphonic regions of the world are sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and Oceania. It is believed that origins of polyphony in traditional music vastly predates the emergence of polyphony in European professional music. Currently there are two contradicting approaches to the problem of the origins of vocal polyphony: Cultural Model, and Evolutionary Model. According to the Cultural Model, origins of polyphony are connected to the development of human musical culture; polyphony came as the natural development of the primordial monophonic singing; therefore polyphonic traditions are bound to replace gradually monophonic traditions.[citation needed] According to the Evolutionary Model, origins of polyphonic singing are much deeper, and are connected to the earlier stages of human evolution; polyphony was an important part of a defence system of the hominids, and traditions of polyphony are gradually disappearing all over the world.[1]

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