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What is Monophony?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 August 2014
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The definition of monophony is sung or played notes of music that do not have a harmonic component. Instead they are a single melody or song section. Some experts suggest that monophony can also be sung melodies in different octaves, with multiple voices as long as the notes remain exactly the same. This is the case with some Gregorian Chants.

A second definition of monophony is that it is a part of a musical piece where a single note can be held alone. This can be either played or sung, and several different instruments can hold the same note. In this definition the note, whether played by one musician or many, must be the only sound at that moment in the piece of music. The long held note in an opera with no harmonic accompaniment is monophony.

In addition to Gregorian Chants, numerous forms of chants exhibit monophony. The Byzantine Chant and Ambrosian chant are monophonic. Plainchant or plainsong, where voices sing in unison, was developed early in areas of Italy, Ireland, France and Spain. Troubadour songs of the middle ages were also examples of monophony. As the middle ages ended, and with the introduction of many more forms of secular music, interest in providing harmony became more pronounced, and many forms of monophony died back.

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Western music does not hold the only examples of monophony. Indian music called ragas are chants that might be used during Kundalini Yoga to engage the chi or the body’s energy sources. This is actually a form of musical therapy, long predating the use of musical therapy in modern psychology. Like many of the Christian chants, ragas invoke the sacred.

Some forms of monophony are practiced regularly throughout the world. This is usually the way that young children in choirs are taught to sing. In fact, the first time a parent sings a baby a song a cappella, perhaps “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” the baby is introduced to monophony. Choirs for very young children frequently focus on all children singing in unison, since they are teaching children to sing in tune. Accompaniment to choirs of young children is often the same melody played on the piano with no harmonic elements; thus it is true monophony.

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