The Emergence of Polyphony


This blog post introduces the concept of polyphony. It explains the defining characteristics of polyphonic music, and it describes the first permutations of polyphony in notation. This blog post will also introduce two influential composers of polyphonic chant who were operating in Paris during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries–the famous Leonin and Perotin.


Polyphony denotes music having more than one simultaneous melody. The simplest species of polyphony is the drone. Music possessing a drone has a single note, usually low in pitch, that is held out and repeated while a melody, usually higher than the drone in pitch, sounds simultaneously.

The hurdy-gurdy, mentioned in the last lecture, demonstrates a drone nicely, as does the bagpipe—which is another drone-based instrument. Listen to the bagpipe recording made for the Golden Disc sent out into space aboard the Voyager probe in 1977. Apparently, polyphony is one of the art forms that humans feel the need to share with aliens.


The exact time of the origin of polyphony as a human activity is the subject of debate.

One model on the origin of polyphonic singing, known as the Evolutionary Model, describes the origin of polyphony as occurring before the birth of the human species. That is, the origin of polyphony lies with proto-humans such as Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis.  The other model, known as the Cultural Model, describes the origin of polyphony corresponding to the birth of the human musical tradition, which happened with the advent of activities such as burial rituals and religious ceremonies (“Polyphony” para. 4).

In any case, one cannot say that polyphony emerged as something new in the medieval period. In the Western tradition, the existence of polyphony shows up in the historical record via the Greeks and Romans of antiquity (Taruskin 147).

Despite these facts, for our purposes, we can talk about the “emergence of polyphony” in a musicological sense because, during the medieval period, composers of liturgical music adopted polyphonic practices.  

Moreover, these composers wrote their music down. As a result, polyphonic music became part of the historical record.

The first notated example is from the famous tenth-century treatise known as musica enchiriadis (discussed in lecture 3). Another tenth-century treatise known as scolica enchiriadis, which was a contemporaneous response to musica enchiriadis, also deals with polyphonic practices. Both treatises date from about the year 900 (Taruskin 148).

In these books, the method of singing a simultaneous but varied melody along with the original chant melody is referred to as organum. A chant sung in such a style is called “an organum,” so the style, and the pieces themselves are called organum (Burkholder et al. 85). 

Also in these books are explanations of the two basic types of polyphony on offer during this time: (1) parallel organum and (2) mixed parallel and oblique organum (Burkholder et al. 86).

Parallel organum features note against note harmonization. The original chant melody, known as the principal voice, is traced in lockstep by the additional melody, known as the organal voice, which exists a perfect fifth below.

Here’s an example of parallel organum from Musica Enchiriadis:

Parallel Organum (Burkholder 86) 2(Burkholder et al. 87)

Enchiriadis also details a method for handling organum sung in fourths. However, since singing in fourths eventually yields a tritone–a very dissonant sounding interval–special techniques had to be employed. The pejorative, diabolus in musica, “the devil in music,” is the way medieval musicians referred to this dissonant sounding interval (Randel 684). The special technique used to avoid this sound–mixed parallel and oblique motion–breaks the lockstep pattern in favor of textures that yield oblique movement.

Oblique movement means that one voice moves while the other voice remains stationary: one voice sings different notes; the other voice sings the same note.

Here is the figure from musica enchiriadis in which mixed parallel and oblique texture is explained:

Mixed parallel and Oblique Organum (Burkholder et al. 87) 001(Burkholder et al. 87)

Here is the same phrase indicated with modern notation:

Mixed Parallel and Oblique Organum (Burkholder 87) 2(Burkholder et al. 87)

Notice how one voice performed a drone-like phrase and the other voice performed a moving, contoured phrase. Also, take note that one additional contour is employed: contrary motion. Contrary motion occurs when the voices move towards one another. In the last example, this texture occurred with the lyrics, famulis and flagitant (Burkholder et al. 87).   

The second notated example of polyphony in the historical record is an ample collection of polyphonic chant dating from about the year 1006. Found in a cathedral in Winchester, England, the collection contains responsories, antiphons, sequences, tropes, and many other chants for the mass and for the office, all existing in staffless-neume notation. The music is, therefore, undecipherable. This collection of musical documents is usually called the Winchester Troper by musicologists (Taruskin 155).


The third notated example of polyphony in history is from Guido of Arezzo’s treatise, Micrologus. (The same book that introduced the staff and set up the working principles of sight singing.) Guido introduced two ideas that were influential to the development of polyphony and to the development of Western music. One, harmonizing a melody admits to more than one correct solution, and two, harmonizing a melody should proceed with small melodic movements that avoid large leaps (Taruskin 153).

Guido’s book influenced medieval music more than any other contemporary treatise because of its popularity. Just about every church and monastery in Western Europe had a copy of Micrologus (Taruskin 154).

Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer Cod. Bodmer 77 Guido Aretinus, Micrologus; Prologus in 1v.jpg

After Guido’s time, probably sometime about 1100, composers began putting the organal voice above the principal voice instead of below. This habit continued from this point on. Harmonizing a melody in this fashion evolved into the standards of counterpoint that continue to form the basis of “Classical” music today.  

The original chant melody is sometimes referred to as the tenor. The word tenor comes from the Latin tenere, which means, “to hold.” The tenor holds the principal melody, and the organal voice sings above (Burkholder et al. 89).

Polyphony in Aquitaine

In Aquitaine, around the same time that the troubadour tradition was flourishing (1100-1200), advances in polyphonic chant were underway. Composers from this region in southern France diverged from the simple note-against-note harmonization strategy laid out in musica enchiriadis and micrologus. They began, instead, to harmonize melodies by using more than one note against each note.

Two innovative approaches to organum evolved using this concept: discant organum, which refers to note clusters of about three to five pitches set against each note of the tenor, and florid organum, which sets long, pitch-intensive melismas over each note of the tenor (Burkholder et al. 89).

Listen to Jubilus, exultemus–an organum in the versus genre–in which the discant and florid techniques are on offer:

Jubilemus, exultemus (Palisca 63) 2.jpg(Burkholder, Palisca 60)

Aquitanian polyphony represented an improvement to polyphonic music, but the real advancement in the genre was to take place at the Notre Dame Cathedral school in Paris, France, under the direction of two influential composers.

Leonin and Perotin

The Notre Dame Cathedral School was an important center for learning in the Middle Ages.

The massive cathedral to which the school was attached is the prototypical piece of Gothic architecture. It has two, massive 200-foot towers and a 300-foot spire. It also has pointed arches, many ornamental pinnacles, and castle-like turrets. Its construction took place from 1163 until 1345. (“Notre Dame de Paris” para. 10-11).


Notre Dame’s vaulted ceilings, buttressed walls, and stained glass windows perfectly analogize organum’s ornate melodies, elaborate counterpoint, and multi-voice textures.

The cathedral school had two composers (that we know of) operating within its walls at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries: Leonin and Perotin. (In some histories, their names are spelled Leoninus and Perotinus.)

Leonin (ca.1135-1201) is the first named composer of organum known to historians. He was a priest, cannon, and music teacher at the Notre Dame cathedral school from about 1150 until 1200. He was responsible for composing many pieces of organum and for compiling a book of such works (Randel 371).


Perotin (fl.1200) was Leonin’s student and successor. He made even more innovations to the art and craft of organum. Some of his pieces are composed for three and four simultaneous voices, which was an unprecedented compositional feat (Taruskin 187).  



We know what we do about these two composers because of a book written by an English clerical student studying at Notre Dame in the thirteenth century. The book is known as Anonymous IV and dates from about the year 1285. It contains short descriptions of Leonin and Perotin as well as short descriptions of the music these musicians produced (Burkholder 93).

Here is part of what Anonymous IV wrote:

“…And note that Leoninus was an excellent organista, so it is said, who made the great book of organum on the gradual and the antiphony to enrich the Divine Service. It was in use up to the time of Perotinus the Great, who edited it and made many better clausulae or puncta, being an excellent discantor, and better than Leoninus was.”  

The most important document from Notre Dame cathedral school is this “great book” that Anonymous IV mentioned. Historians know this text as the Magnus Libre Organi, “the big book of organum.”

This book contains thirteen organa written for the office and thirty-three written for the mass (Randel 392).


Two versions of the Magnus Liber exist: one in Florence, Italy, and one in Wolfenbuttel, Germany. There are some variations between the two copies suggesting that the music in the Magnus Liber was in a constant state of revision (Burkholder et al, 94).

In addition, concerning authorship, it is far from certain who the composers of these pieces really were. It is assumed to be primarily the work of Leonin and Perotin, but their colleagues at Notre Dame probably wrote some of the music, too (Burkholder et al. 94).

This next example, a version of the Viderunt omnes chant, happens to be the same in both the Wolfenbuttel and Florence versions of the Magnus Liber. It is imagined to be the work of Leonin:

Viderrunt omnes (Leonin) 1.jpg(Burkholder et al. 95)

Notice that Leonin greatly expanded the length of the original chant by lingering on each syllable of the text. For example, notice that the first lyric “viderunt” takes three lines of music to complete. This gives Leonin plenty of room to have fun with the organal voice as it performs elaborate melismas and melodic turns above the tenor.

This became the primary technique employed by composers for the next several centuries: Take a tenor melody, explode its pitch duration, and then create a new melody for the organal voice.

Perotin took this idea and ran with it. His organa expanded to include compositions of three and four voices. Such compositions are known as organum triplum and organum quadruplum respectively.

Check out this piece from the Magnus Liber featuring four voices. It’s thought to be the work of Perotin:

Viderunt omnes (Perotin) 1(Burkholder et al. 99)

Rhythmic Modes

Students of music will recognize that Perotin’s Viderunt omnes features an elaborate rhythmic motif that departs markedly from the flowing, nebulous rhythm of Gregorian chant.

The motif was made possible through another innovation under way at Notre Dame: rhythmic notation. The manner of rhythmic notation being developed at the cathedral school took the form of set patterns that could be mapped onto any chant or organum desired.

Writing more than half a century later, Johannes de Garlandia (fl. 1270-1320) detailed six rhythmic modes for such a purpose (“Johannes de Garlandia” para.1-2).

Here are Garlandia’s modes, notice that they consist of patterns for handling long and short (breve) note values:

Rhythmic Modes 1.jpg

Most often used for organum were modes one and five. The basic note value—the short one, here transcribed as an eighth note—was referred to as a tempus. The tempus was organized into pockets of three, this yielded the meters 3/8 and 6/8. Ligatures, which were note groupings, could show pockets of twos and threes (Burkhoolder 92).
So, if a singer saw ligatures such as these…

Rhythmic Modes 3.jpg

…then he or she would know to use mode one.

That is because there is a pocket of three notes followed by three pockets of two notes–a pattern which is best grouped by mode one.  

To make this clear, look at the same thing in modern notation:

Rhythmic Modes 4.jpg(Burkholder et al. 92-93)

The rhythmic modes offered a huge improvement to musical notation. But measures, the ultimate rhythmic improvement, were not yet available to the composers at Notre Dame.

Garlandia’s treatise, De mensurabili, explains the innovation in 1260. However, Leonin and Peroitin, both flourishing about the year 1200, only had the rhythmic modes to work with.


Although polyphony was not invented in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it certainly came of age during this time. Polyphony became the standard practice for composition in the Western music tradition. The developments made to polyphony during this time, and the influence of Leonin and Perotin, set the stage for the next seven hundred years of musical composition.

Leonin and Perotin are the first names atop a chronology that includes Bach, Beethoven, and Vivaldi.

Works Cited

Burkholder, J.,Grout, D. and Palisca, C. A History of Western Music. New York: Norton, 2014. Print

Burkholder, J. and Palisca, C. Norton Anthology of Western Music. 6th ed. New York: Norton and Company, 2010. Print.

“Polyphony.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.

“Johannes de Garlandia.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.

“Notre Dame de Paris.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.

Randel, Michael D. The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. Print.

Taruskin, Richard. Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

Wade, Nicholas. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.




2 thoughts on “The Emergence of Polyphony

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: