Joseph Jordania – Distribution of Vocal Polyphony among the World’s Musical Cultures

The University of Melbourne, AustraliaThis article is designed to give a reader general picture of the distribution of vocal polyphony in different regions of the world. Due to the large number of polyphonic cultures the reader will not find the specific details of different local polyphonic traditions here.

Before the actual information about the distribution of vocal polyphonic cultures it is appropriate to discuss few important points.

“What is polyphony, or how should we define it?”

Polyphony is usually defined as a type of a music, where there is more than one pitch heard at the same time. Generally agreeing with this definition of polyphony, I believe this definition is one-sided and does not take into account a very important social aspect of vocal polyphony. I believe we must distinguish two equally important components of traditional vocal polyphony: social and musical. Socially polyphony implies active musical interaction within the group of the people. Musically polyphony implies having more than one pitch during the performance. It is clear that traditional definition of the polyphony is based on musical component only and does not take social component into account.

Social and musical aspects of polyphony do not always go together in various cultures. For example, the phenomenon of unison (/octave) singing socially represents polyphony (as group singing), although musically it is a monophony (only one pitch). On the other hand the unique overtone singing of some Central Asian cultures musically represents polyphony although socially it is not polyphony.

Social polyphony is distributed extremely wide across the world musical cultures. Most of so-called “monophonic cultures” (such as Chinese, Australian Aboriginal, or most of American Indian music cultures) have traditional forms of social polyphony (group singing). Arguably, there is no culture without some traditional forms of group singing. One of the true universals of human musical cultures – the antiphonal dialog between two parties (between soloists, two groups, and particularly between soloist and a group) represents the most basic and widespread form of social polyphony.

Our review mostly represents cultures where vocal polyphony is represented by both – social and musical – components. Regions where multi-part singing is represented by musical component only (without social component) are marked as having “elements” of vocal polyphony. Cultures with social polyphony only (unison or octave singing) are not discussed in this article, but readers should remember that there is hardly a culture without social polyphony.

“Where should we put the “dividing line” between multi-part (or polyphonic) and one-part (or monophonic) singing?

According to my attitude towards the definition of polyphonic singing, there is no clear borderline between polyphony and monophony. Strictly speaking, I do not believe there is any purely monophonic culture in the world, the one without any elements of social/or musical polyphony.

Both social and musical aspects of polyphony should be present in a tradition to qualify as polyphonic. Cultures with a tradition of group unison singing (without multi-part singing) are in the group of cultures with social polyphony only. This is a huge group of cultures comprising about the half of the world musical cultures. These cultures (without musical aspect of polyphony) in my classification represent the group of cultures traditionally known as monophonic cultures. Tradition of overtone singing, on the other hand, represents the tradition where musical aspect of polyphony is present, although the social aspect is not. Some singing styles (particularly unison-heterophonic singing) are in a position of a “transitional phenomenon” between polyphonic and monophonic singing styles.

“Is there such a thing as “polyphonic musical culture” and “monophonic musical culture”?

Despite my own belief that there is no strict division between polyphonic and monophonic singing traditions, and that there are no purely monophonic cultures in the world, some cultures could be viewed as “polyphonic” and some as “Monophonic”. Being polyphonic or monophonic is one of the most important and basic characteristic features for most of musical cultures. For the representatives of so-called “polyphonic cultures” (where both – social and musical components of polyphony are widely represented) it is quite usual to view even one-part melodies as a part of multi-part texture, or to sing an accompanying part to the unfamiliar melodies from their own or other cultures. For polyphonic cultures co-sounding of different parts is often more important than the melodic development of each part. Musical texture is often based on repetitive short melodic phrases, and songs may not be based around the ‘main melody of a song’. From the social point of view during the process of the performance society usually is not divided into “performers” and “listeners”, as in polyphonic cultures all the members of the society are usually performers and listeners at the same time.

On the other hand, in so-called “monophonic cultures” linear development is paramount and songs usually have well defined and complex melodic structure. The role of the individual performer is crucial. The importance of individual performer in monophonic cultures leads to the professionalisation of musical culture. The role of musical instruments (particularly string instruments) is much more important in monophonic cultures, and the instruments are often technically more elaborated than in polyphonic cultures. Professionalisation of individual performers in monophonic cultures often leads to the creation of complex theoretical systems of scales and modes. Unlike the polyphonic cultures where the process of the performance often does not divide the society on “performers” and “listeners”, in most of the monophonic cultures the roles of a “performer/performers” and “listeners” are clearly defined.

We should also remember that musical culture of some countries consists of both – polyphonic and monophonic types of traditional music, and the singing practices of certain region/regions of a country could be very different from the singing practices of the other regions of the same country.

“What is the relationship between vocal and instrumental forms of polyphony?

There is no doubt that there is an intrinsic intimate relationship between vocal and instrumental forms of polyphony (and generally music) in any given culture. At the same time this relationship is often more subtle and does not necessarily mean that instrumental and vocal music will have the same forms of monophony or polyphony. For example, some of the Central Asian countries combine vocal monophony with quite developed instrumental polyphony. Generally speaking, instrumental polyphony is geographically spread much wider than vocal polyphony. Cultures with the vocal forms of polyphony usually have instrumental polyphony as well, but at least some cultures with monophonic singing traditions have instrumental polyphony.

One of the most interesting aspects of relationship between vocal and instrumental forms of music is that different types of traditional instruments within cultures show different links with their own vocal music. Blown instruments seems to have much more intimate relationship with the vocal tradition rather than string instruments (this could be the result of breathing – common feature for both singing and playing on blown instruments). This general closeness of the vocal music with the blown instrumental music allows us (to some extend) to reconstruct the presence of vocal forms of polyphony in some ancient civilizations where polyphonic blown instruments (e.g., double polyphonic flutes) were widely spread.

“What are the origins of vocal polyphony – did it come from the further development of the initial one-part singing tradition?

Strictly speaking, this question has nothing to do with the actual distribution of vocal polyphony in different cultures. At the same time this important question often affects the way we are looking at the historical dynamics of the distribution of vocal forms of polyphony in different regions of the world. The initial common belief of musicologists and ethnomusicologists that polyphony came as a late (and natural) development of the initial monophonic singing tradition is outdated. Numerous examples of wonderfully developed vocal polyphony from the most remote and economically undeveloped regions of the world suggest that polyphony could be extremely ancient integral part of human musical culture. During the last 20 years in my publications I argued that the origins of human group singing and vocal polyphony goes back to the beginnings of the evolution of hominids. According to this model, there are close historical links between the origins of human part-singing and the evolution of human intelligence, language and speech.

Before we start discussing distribution of vocal polyphony in different regions of the world we should note, that polyphony is truly a world phenomenon, and it is spread (in different forms and different quantities) on every continent of our planet. Primarily because of such a wide distribution and complexity and diversity of styles, the detailed map of polyphony is as difficult to create, as the detailed map of the entire world musical styles. Our article, as it mentioned before, does not go into the details and does not (and can not) represent the whole richness of the world of polyphony.

Secondly, this article discusses vocal forms of polyphony only. We will be mentioning instrumental polyphony only in the context of its links with the vocal forms of polyphony.
And finally, we should remember that our article represents not the distribution of polyphonic singing among the contemporary populations, but rather the distribution of polyphony among the ideally represented “indigenous” populations of the world. For example, discussing American continents we will mostly concentrate on distribution of polyphonic singing among different American Indian tribes of the North and South America. Distribution of polyphonic styles in relatively new European, African and other populations of Americas will be briefly mentioned. I will also try (wherever this is possible) to convey the information about the distribution of polyphonic singing in earlier epochs. We have such a possibility because of the richness of literary and archaeological evidence from some regions (such as North Europe, North Africa, West Asia and Central America).

My comments will follow the continents and the large sections of the continents, generally accepted in contemporary regional studies in different disciplines. We will start with Africa, followed by Europe, Asia, Americas, Australia and Oceania.

A F R I C A. Starting with Africa is justified by the fact, that African continent represents the biggest and the most active region of the distribution of traditional forms of vocal polyphony.

African continent is traditionally divided into two big regions: (1) North Africa and (2) Sub-Saharan Africa. This division has its merits for understanding of the distribution of vocal polyphony in Africa, although the distribution of traditions of polyphonic and monophonic styles makes good sense to actually distinguish three big regions in Africa: (1) sub-Saharan Africa, (2) North Africa, and (3) Sahara.

Sub-Saharan Africa represents arguably the largest region of distribution of vocal polyphony in the world. Representatives of all language families in Africa enjoy singing in groups. Responsorial singing is ubiquitous. The main compositional principle used in African polyphony is parallel movement of parts. Parallel movements of parts in African polyphony are obviously connected to the tone character of African languages. According to the influential work of Gerhard Kubik, the main principle of traditional polyphony in Central and East Africa is parallel movement of parts together with the principle of “skipping the neighboring note”. So in case of the full diatonic scale we will have parallel thirds all the time. In case of the hexatonic scale (and in its most popular version – major scale without the 7th grade) we will have mostly parallel thirds with occasional fourths, and in case of pentatonic scale we will have mostly parallel fourths with an occasional third. Consonants (particularly thirds and triads) are the basis of the vertical coordination of different parts, and the drone is almost completely absent in sub-Saharan African polyphonic traditions.

Crucial importance of the polyphony and harmony for the African music led one of the first native African musicologist George Balanta to declare famously (and rather controversially) that “All African melodies are constructed upon harmonic background…”

African traditional music is among the best recorded of the World. This led Alan Lomax to declare that Africa was “the best recorded of the continents”. Hugh Tracey, who valued African music primarily for its esthetical value, arguably did the largest number of recordings of African music.

One of the most important and influential polyphonic traditions in Africa comes from Central African Pygmies and San from South Africa. Tradition of yodeling is extremely developed among San and particularly among pygmies (reaching sometimes the complexity of eight different yodeling parts singing in interlocking texture). Ethnomusicologists agree that music of large number of Central and southern African tribes were strongly influenced by Pygmy polyphony. Some scholars (Grimaud, Rouget, Lomax) suggested that Pygmy and San music (particularly their traditions of vocal polyphony) have common roots.

Solo polyphony (overtone singing) is also present in Africa in two isolated cultures: among Xhosa in South Africa and Wagogo in Central Tanzania.

New African music, based on the use of European musical instruments and the elements of tonal harmony together with the traditional forms of polyphony and principles of the vertical coordination of the parts (including the prevalence of the parallel thirds) is developing dynamically. After the first isolated attempt of Rycroft in 1958, the study of popular music in Africa gained momentum after the 1980s.

African component played a crucial role in the development of many musical cultures in North, Central and South Americas. Brought as slaves during the 17th-19th centuries mostly from the west coast of the sub-Saharan Africa, African populations brought the active tradition of multi-part singing together with them to their new countries, often becoming the leading element of the newly established musical culture.

North Africa consists mostly of so called “monophonic cultures”. Culturally and linguistically they are part of the bigger Arabic world and have close relationship with the cultures of the Near East. North Africa is one of the most monophonic regions of the World, with the highly developed traditions of solo professional musicians, wonderfully developed musical instruments and well established theoretical knowledge about the system of modes.

Sahara. Although this region culturally and geographically is sometimes perceived as a part of the North Africa, musically is quite distinct from both North Africa and from sub-Saharan Africa. This region is very sparsely populated due to the harsh environment of the World’s biggest desert and mountains. Sahara is the home of indigenous Tuareg and Berber tribes who once were covering the most of the North Africa up to the Mediterranean Sea. Pushed southwards into the desert and mountainous regions by the invasions of Arabs, Berbers and Tuaregs preserved many unique features of their culture. Tradition of vocal polyphony is one of the most important features of Berber-Tuareg musical culture.

Vocal polyphony of Berbers and Tuaregs do not have close relationships with the rich polyphonic traditions of sub-Saharan African populations. On the other hand, traditional polyphony of Berbers and Tuaregs demonstrates links with the polyphonic traditions of northern (European) side of the Mediterranean Sea. Wide use of the drone both in European Mediterranean polyphonic traditions and among Berbers and Tuaregs is the most salient feature shared in both regions.

Musical culture of the Ancient Egypt does not offer as much historical and archaeological evidence as ancient civilizations of the Middle East of North Europe, but there are interesting indications that polyphony was not alien to the musical culture of Egypt. In his attempt to interpret heyronimic musical signs, Hickmann suggested that Ancient Egypt had two-part polyphonic music based on drone. This suggestion is supported by the richness of polyphonic traditions of Mediterranean peoples and the earliest population of North Africa – Tuaregs and Berbers (mostly based on drone).

E U R O P E. Europe is another very important region of the distribution of vocal polyphonic traditions. Unlike sub-Saharan Africa, Europe does not represent a single and almost unbroken region of distribution of vocal polyphony. On the contrary, quick glance at the regions of the distribution of vocal polyphony in Europe reveals that polyphonic cultures are clustered here in few isolated geographic areas.

Mediterranean Region with the adjacent territories comprise major part of European polyphonic cultures. Most of the polyphonic cultures are concentrated around two types of natural environment in Europe – mountains and islands. Corsica and Sardinia have particularly rich polyphonic traditions among the islands of the Mediterranea. All the mountain ranges from the Pyrenean Apennines through to Alps, Balkans and Caucasia represent chain of isolated regions of distribution of traditional forms of vocal polyphony.

Most of the European traditions of polyphony have obvious traces of the influence of European professional music, with its system of harmonic progressions, chord structures and melodic development. Even all those regions which regained their older forms of traditional polyphony – Balkans, Caucasia, and to some extend – Alps, still have the more recent layers of vocal polyphony based on the influence of European professional music and harmonic system.

Despite the large number of isolated regional styles of vocal polyphony, earlier layers of European traditions of vocal polyphony have few important shared features. Two of the most salient features are (1) wide use of drone, and (2) coordination of vocal parts on dissonant intervals.

The same features are represented in most part-singing traditions of East and North Europe. To name only the few, these traditions include: Latvian drone singing with the small range repetitive melodies, unique Lithuanian Sutartines with the chains of seconds, Balkan part-singing with the inventive use of seconds and fourths, Polesye and other Slavic regions with long drones and small range melodies, Mordovian wide range drone-based polyphony and Caucasian two- three-four part polyphony (the latter is found only in Georgia) also based on drone.

Regions of North Europe from Scandinavia to Iceland through British islands and array of other smaller islands are known as another important region of distribution of vocal polyphony, although some of these polyphonic traditions are known to us more from the historical sources than contemporary ethnomusicological recordings. These sources include the written monuments from the Icelandic Sagas to the medieval manuscripts, describing in detail (including the names of the parts) the existing North European tradition of singing in different parts.

A S I A. The largest continent, comprising two thirds of the World human population, with the immense geographic, climatic, cultural, religious and linguistic diversity, Asia is traditionally divided into several sub-regions. Major parts of Asian musical traditions belong to monophonic cultures, traditions of vocal polyphony are represented in several regions of this huge continent.

One of the largest areas of distribution of vocal polyphony in Asia is South-East Asia. This region does not represent the uninterrupted region of vocal polyphony, but rather many isolated regions (mostly in mountains) where part-singing is still practiced. These regions include up to 25 Chinese ethnic minorities from the southwest of China through to the ethnic minorities in Central and North Vietnam mountains. Polyphonic traditions are also present in several of Indonesia’s islands (particularly on Flores). Taiwan aboriginal tribes Ami, Bunun, and Paiwan are another very important part of polyphonic cultures of this region.

Polyphonic singing of Ainus, the first inhabitants of Japanese islands, living today in North regions of Japan and in adjacent territories of Sakhalin and Kuril Islands, is possibly the most isolated part-singing tradition in the world. Ainu polyphony is often based on extensive use of canons.

Isolated vocal polyphonic traditions are also distributed in different parts of India – most notably in the Northeast region (Asam) and among South Indian tribal populations, as well as in small pockets in mountainous regions of Jammu and Kashmir. Dwellers of the eastern Afghanistan – Nuristanians are another interesting isolated region with interesting forms of vocal polyphony.

Unique solo polyphonic singing style of Central Asian peoples is often called “overtone singing”. The original Mongolian name for this style of singing – khoomii translates as “throat” (hence the ambiguous English term “throat singing”). In overtone singing singer produces a specific tense drone, and using it as a fundamental pitch, on top of the drone produces a melody using the selected series of overtones, avoiding non-pentatonic overtones. This singing style (actually, consisting of several different techniques of voice-production) is particularly widely spread in western part of Tyva (or Tuva), in western Mongolia and adjacent territories (particularly – Altay mountain ranges), Khakassia, Bashkiria, Uzbekistan. Distantly resembling although different singing techniques (using overtones) is also known to exist in Tibetan Buddhist chant, among the Khosa in South Africa and Wagogo in Central Tanzania. Specific “vocal games”, making use of overtones (although this style involves two performers, both women, using each-others mouth cavities) are distributed among Ainus in Japan and Sakhalin and Inuit in northeast Canada.

Elements of vocal polyphony are also found in isolated regions of Anatolia in Turkey, as well as among fisherman of the Persian Gulf and Marsh Arabs of Iraq. These later traditions are particularly interesting in the context of the rich historical and archaeological information about the musical life of ancient civilizations of the Middle East (particularly Sumerrians and Hettites). Polyphonic double blown instruments with two pipes with clearly different functions (often consisting of one drone and one melodic pipes), existence of the temple choirs (Nar-Nari) and lots of figures of ‘singing heads’ in Sumerian temples, and even the first alphabetical musical recordings of two and three-part music from Sumer and Hittites suggest that cultures of the ancient Middle East were familiar with the vocal forms of polyphony some 4000-5000 years ago.

Very interesting three-part-drone singing still exists among Nuristani in Eastern Afganistan.

North & South A M E R I C A. Both North and South Americas mostly represent monophonic cultures with few isolated regions of distribution of vocal forms of polyphony. In North America the most important region of distribution of vocal polyphony is British Columbia in South-West Canada, and California in the USA. Tribes Nootka, Kwakiutli, Selish in British Columbia have interesting forms of vocal polyphony. North-West and North-Central California are another important regions with elements of vocal polyphony. According to the historical sources, vocal forms of polyphony were also spread in southern California

Al for the other regions of North American Indian musical cultures, unison singing (particularly between the soloist and the responding unison chorus) is widespread.

In South America polyphonic traditions are spread geographically wider that in North America, and major part of these traditions (particularly among Amazon rainforest Indian tribes and in Ands) is based on group singing with free heterophonic texture. Elements of canonic polyphonic singing also exist in isolated regions of the Indians of Amazon Peru and Venezuela. In musical traditions of the tribe Q’ero in Peru (they live in high mountains east of Cusco) polyphonic tradition with some unique features is found (particularly interesting are elements of drone, unique for South American Indian music).

The picture of distribution of polyphonic traditions would not be compete without mentioning the polyphonic musical instruments from the ancient civilizations of Central America. Array of double, triple and even quadruple flutes were found in the archaeological cultures of this region. The construction of these instruments suggests that two, three and four part music was played on these instruments, and the use of drone (or even double drones) was widely spread. There is an interesting evidence of the use of parallel seconds as well in some instruments. As polyphonic blown instruments show promising parallels with vocal traditions, there is a possibility that a tradition of vocal polyphony based on drone and use of some dissonances was present in ancient civilizations of Central America.

Among contemporary populations of Central and South America (particularly in the cities), representing a mixture of Indian, European and African populations, polyphonic singing is widely spread. These traditions are particularly rich in the regions with major African populations. Contemporary polyphonic singing is mostly based on European harmonies with parallel thirds.

A U S T R A L I A. Traditional musical culture of Australian aborigines in mostly monophonic, although singing in unison-heterophonic style is widely spread (particularly among Central and South Australian tribes). Musical cultures of the North Australian tribes have clear links with the nearby island cultures. Singing together with the didgeridoo (arguable the deepest drone instrument of the world, thought to be initially introduced from the island cultures) creates interesting vocal-instrumental drone polyphony.

O C E A N I A. Oceania is another very important region of distribution of different forms of vocal polyphony. Vocal polyphony is spread on all three big groups of the islands of the Pacific, although to a very different extend. Micronesia mostly has monophonic singing traditions (although group singing is widely spread here) with some elements of polyphony. Melanesian islands have diverse forms of traditional polyphony, including parallel polyphony and polyphony based on drone and dissonant harmonies. The richest traditions of vocal polyphony are distributed on the vast distances of the Polynesian Islands. Apart from New Zealand Maori almost the whole Polynesia represents the unbroken region of distribution of vocal polyphonic traditions. Part singing in Polynesia unites all strata (genders, ages) of Polynesian population and is one of the central elements of traditional cultural and social life. Polynesian traditional music and polyphony was strongly influenced by the European music brought by Christian missionaries during the last couple of centuries.

For the further reading about the distribution of vocal polyphony in different regions and cultures of the world, ‘Garland Encyclopedia of world Music’ would be a good starting point to look at the general picture and to find the available publications. Two existing books that summarize the available information on world polyphonic cultures for the time of their publication (‘History of Polyphony’ by Marius Schneider, 1934-1945, second edition 1969, and ‘Georgian Traditional Polyphony in an International Context of Polyphonic Cultures: The Problem of the Origins of Polyphony’ by Joseph Jordania, published in 1989) are not available in English.

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