Monophony

Monophony (sometimes called monody) refers to music with a single melody line, and is the oldest and “simplest” form of composition. The texture created by monophonic music is incisive and singular. It's as if the music has only one discernable activity.

In monophonic composition, the ear can easily zero in on phrasing and melodic content. This is because monophony is all melody. This usually takes the form of unison singing where the vocalists all sing the exact same part. Some forms of monophony may also feature a melody in perfect octaves but if harmony is present it cannot be called monophonic. True monophony has no underlying chords, no counterpoint, and no competing melodic threads (polyphony).

Despite its relative simplicity, monophony can be very powerful music. In the west, monophony is best epitomized by the liturgical music of the Catholic Church. This monophonic style is still sung today but it reached its zenith during the early middle ages. The broad term for ecclesiastical, monophonic singing is plainchant and the most famous version of plainchant is Gregorian Chant, named after Pope Gregory I (590–604). Among many others, the Kyrie eleison is a monophonic chant featured in the Ordinary of the Mass.

By the High Middle Ages, monophonic forms of music began to be replaced by multiple, independent voices, and by the early baroque period, homophonic texture began to be used (e.g., composers Giulio Caccini and Jacopo Peri). However, monophony can be effective in modern music, principally if you wish to simulate medieval composition (which is becoming popular again).

Monophony has other uses too. For example, unison parts offer great musical clarity for listeners, especially if they are played (or sung) in contrast with musical passages that feature dense harmonies. If you wish to write a simple, unadorned tune or song monophony may also be implemented. As you will learn later in this chapter, unison writing also has its uses in minimalism. The bottom line is: Don't categorically discard monophony. Monophony can impress listeners and have a powerful effect on the mood or overall “feeling” of your music. Figure 9-2 shows an example of monophony using tenor and baritone voices.

FIGURE 9-2: Musical example of monophony

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