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  • Writer's pictureEricsson Hatfield

Polyphony vs Cacophony

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

During my studies of counterpoint, I found myself encountering a recurring issue. I would adhere to the strictest procedures and manage all the voices in a clean manner - there were no parallel 5ths or 8ves, the harmonic syntax was in order and the formal unfolding of the piece was well paced. Yet, there was no counterpoint.

What I had achieved was cacophony (I colloquially call it "contrapuntal white noise" with my students). That is, a hairball of voices that obey the regulations of voice leading yet do not interact with each other in any meaningful way. This comes from an approach to counterpoint that is akin to solving a sudoku puzzle, where the composer feels obligated to fill in the blanks through arduous calculation.

What I had failed to achieve was polyphony, which is the harmonious interaction of several lines of music. This interaction stems from many things, principle among them being imitation. But even a canon is at risk of becoming cacophonous, so the composer must turn to other rhetorical devices such as character and line design. Counterpoint of character and line design, rather than counterpoint of voices, will have an immense impact on the quality of your polyphony. To illustrate this, let's first look at a student work and see how it can be improved. Then we'll take a look at how this principle is present in J.S. Bach's Aria "Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder" from the St Matthew Passion, BWV 244.


Here is an excerpt from an exercise one of my students submitted. It is a canon at the unison, but I have selected just the first measure of imitation between the leader and follower to illustrate the point.

The follower is a very strong idea that is structurally compact, harmonically sound and has a distinctive character. Furthermore, it has imitative relevance to an earlier measure. The leader, however, creates cacophony rather than polyphony for several reasons - it is too rhythmically similar and is in fact, an ornamented obscuring of parallel 8ves with follower. Most importantly, it is simply too alike in character to have any meaningful interaction with the follower.

So let's take a very simple and rhetorical approach to this. Let's describe the follower as militant or march like - something you could goose-step to with tanks and ICBMs. A great contrast to this would be a long and simple lyrical vocal line that has elegant contours. Here's my solution...

I think this is a graceful solution to creating better counterpoint between the two voices. It is less cacophonous and more polyphonic. Incidentally, it also clears up some of the technical issues that were occurring. So, remember to evaluate the character and design of your lines and ask how you can maximize the rhetorical counterpoint between them. A busy line is in better counterpoint with a still line, rather than another busy line.


Let's take a look at the ritornello from J.S. Bach's Aria "Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder" from the St Matthew Passion, BWV 244, to see how this idea of rhetorical counterpoint is employed to maximize polyphony. Here is an excellent YouTube recording I highly recommend (I greatly admire Sayuri Yamagata's playing).

In the opening ritornello, we see a fantastic display of differing contrapuntal styles between the orchestra and violin solo. After the opening presentation, the violin solo engages in a charged bariolage texture that is contrasted with a very rustic stomp-like interaction in the orchestra. As the phrase nears its conclusion, we have the introduction or a more lyrical and pastoral line to harken the imminent cadence.

If Bach had interwoven an intricate bariolage texture into the orchestra, it would no doubt have been very impressive and interesting to a degree. But, it may have also created cacophony rather than polyphony. By having distinct characters and designs between the voices, Bach creates counterpoint that is clear and rhetorically convincing.

If you're interested in not only studying but also mastering and applying these concepts, consider reaching out to me for lessons!

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