poly·​phon·​ic ˌpä-lē-ˈfä-nik How to pronounce polyphonic (audio)
variants or polyphonous
: of, relating to, or marked by polyphony
: being a polyphone
polyphonically adverb
or polyphonously

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Since poly- means "many", polyphonic music has "many voices". In polyphony, each part has its own melody, and they weave together in a web that may become very dense; a famous piece by Thomas Tallis, composed around 1570, has 40 separate voice parts. Polyphony reached its height during the 16th century with Italian madrigals and the sacred music of such composers as Tallis, Palestrina, and Byrd. Usually when we speak of polyphony we're talking about music of Bach's time and earlier; but the principles remain the same today, and songwriters such as the Beatles have sometimes used polyphony as well.

Examples of polyphonic in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web According to Francisco, the composers represented no less than 30 print collections of solo songs, cantatas, motets, polyphonic works, settings for psalms and masses, a magnificat, a vespers service, a dozen sonatas, and scores for nine operas and other staged works. Michael Andor Brodeur, Washington Post, 27 Mar. 2024 The lists include carnivals, alphabets, and equestrian games; traditions of boatbuilding and polyphonic song; systems of irrigation, navigation, divination, and conflict remediation; and at least one constitution—the Manden Charter, proclaimed eight centuries ago in present-day Mali. Julian Lucas, The New Yorker, 2 Mar. 2024 Joined by triumphant bursts of strings and winds, John Thiessen’s bracing trumpet (celebrating the slaying of the enemies) brought the oratorio to an exuberant finish, the six singers aglow in a glorious polyphonic weave. Michael Andor Brodeur, Washington Post, 9 Feb. 2024 The relentlessly polyphonic interior monologue makes for a frenetic, hilarious 100 minutes. Thomas Chatterton Williams, The Atlantic, 9 Feb. 2024 Porter’s latest polyphonic novel, Shy (Strange Light), has this drunken variousness in spades—from its drumbeat momentum to its haunted inner (and outer) discourses. Hazlitt, 11 Oct. 2023 The walls of the shelter, like those of the Gothic cathedral before it, reverberated with polyphonic music from a world beyond pain: not sacred, not quite, but certainly exalted. Jason Farago, New York Times, 21 Mar. 2023 Most instruments are not even polyphonic. IEEE Spectrum, 14 Jan. 2023 The absence compels you to read the whole thing in sequence, to regard it as a polyphonic magnum opus tilting at the monoculture, born under Bush I and stretching into Clinton’s second term. Ed Park, The New York Review of Books, 14 Mar. 2023

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'polyphonic.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

First Known Use

1776, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of polyphonic was in 1776

Dictionary Entries Near polyphonic

Cite this Entry

“Polyphonic.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/polyphonic. Accessed 23 Apr. 2024.

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