How to Compose Polyphonic Music for Strings

Polyphony literally means “many voices”
[echoed: many voices… many voices…] As we’ve discussed so far, a monophonic texture
reinforces the melody through doubling in unisons or octaves, while a chordal
texture supports the melody through harmonization. In a polyphonic texture each voice is
called upon to act in a more independent manner while still supporting and
cooperating with the other voices involved. This isn’t to say that every instrument
should be doing its own thing or that you have to give each instrument an
unrelated melody. In fact, there should be some thematic, unifying element to the
parts, be it rhythmic, harmonic, or melodic, this commonality will weave a lush,
interconnected sonic tapestry and allow the voices to engage contrapuntally
with each other. Our opening theme, treated in a
polyphonic way might sound like this: Polyphony allows the composer to blur
the lines between melody and harmony as each part can move fluidly back and
forth between foreground and supporting material. The melody can pass through the instruments, changing register and
tambour as needed. This technique was explored and developed significantly by
20th century masters Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. They dubbed the term
klangfarbenmelodie, “sound-color-melody.” Counterpoint and polyphony go
hand-in-hand. Developing your understanding of counterpoint will
deepen your understanding of the fibers that music is made of. An excellent
practice in strengthening the mental capacity to compose in such a
contrapuntal way, which is simultaneously a horizontal melodic and vertical
harmonic process, is through canon, round, and fugue writing. In canon writing, the counterpoint must
be composed simultaneously with the melody because ultimately the
counterpoint is generated by the melody, displaced in time, interacting with
itself. This means that the melody, in its construction, has to be mindful of where
it will fit in harmonically. The consistency of tambour across the
string section makes it primed for beautiful polyphony.