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Encyclopedia > Polytonality

The musical use of more than one key simultaneously is polytonality. Bitonality is the use of only two different keys at the same time. Image File history File links Mergefrom. ... Béla Bartók Mikrokosmos Volume 5 number 125: The opening (mm. ... Shortcut: WP:TP A talk page is a special Wikipedia page containing discussion about the contents of its associated subject page. ... For other uses, see Music (disambiguation). ... In music theory, the key identifies the tonic triad, the chord, major or minor, which represents the final point of rest for a piece, or the focal point of a section. ... Simultaneity is the property of two events happening at the same time in at least ONE Reference frame. ...

A well-known, controversial example is the fanfare at the beginning of the second tableau of Igor Stravinsky's ballet, Petrushka. The first clarinet plays a melody that uses the notes of the C major chord, while the second clarinet plays a variant of the same melody using the notes of the F sharp major chord: For other uses, see Fanfare (disambiguation). ... Igor Stravinsky. ... For other uses, see Ballet (disambiguation). ... Pétrouchka (English: Petrushka; Russian: петрушка) is a ballet with music by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. ... Two soprano clarinets: a B♭ clarinet (left, with capped mouthpiece) and an A clarinet (right, with no mouthpiece). ... Look up melody in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ...

Example of C and F♯ major chords together in Stravinsky's Petrushka
Mozart used polytonality in his A Musical Joke for comic effect.

Some examples of bitonality superimpose fully harmonized sections of music in different keys. Examples can be found in the music of Charles Ives, in particular Variations on "America" (orig. 1891, revised in 1909-1910 to include polytonal passages). Image File history File links Fanfare from Igor Stravinskys ballet Petrushka. ... Image File history File links Fanfare from Igor Stravinskys ballet Petrushka. ... Image File history File links K522_multitonality. ... Image File history File links K522_multitonality. ... Harmony is the use and study of pitch simultaneity, and therefore chords, actual or implied, in music. ... This photo from around 1913 shows Ives in his day job. He was the director of a successful insurance agency. ...



Pre-twentieth-century instances of polytonality, such as Biber's "Battaglia" (1673) and Mozart's Ein musikalischer Spass (1787), tend to use the technique for programmatic or comic effect. The earliest uses of polytonality in non-programmatic contexts are found in the twentieth century, particularly in the work of Bartók (Fourteen Bagatelles, op. 6 [1908]), Ives (Variations on "America"), Stravinsky (Petrushka [1911]), and Debussy (Preludes, Book 2 [1913]). Ives claimed that he learned the technique of polytonality from his father, who taught him to sing popular songs in one key while harmonizing them in another. Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (August 12, 1644 – May 3, 1704) was a Bohemian-Austrian composer and violinist. ... “Mozart” redirects here. ... Divertimento for two horns and strings, A Musical Joke, (Ein Musikalischer Spaß,) K. 522 was published on June 14, 1787 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. ... Bartok redirects here. ... Claude Debussy, photo by Félix Nadar, 1908. ...

Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is widely credited with popularizing bitonality, and contemporary writers such as Casella (1924) describe him as progenitor of the technique: "the first work presenting polytonality in typical completeness--not merely in the guise of a more or less happy 'experiment,' but responding throughout to the demands of expression--is beyond all question the grandiose Le Sacre du Printemps of Stravinsky (1913)." Béla Bartók's experiments with bitonality become notably more radical in his The Miraculous Mandarin (written 1918-1919), composed after he had obtained a score of the Rite of Spring. Other polytonal composers influenced by Stravinsky include those in the French group, Les Six, particularly Darius Milhaud, as well as Americans such as Aaron Copland (Marquis 1964). The Rite of Spring, commonly referred to by its original French title, Le Sacre du printemps (Russian: Весна священная, Vesna svjaščennaja) is a ballet with music by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, which was first performed in 1913. ... Alfredo Casella (Turin, July 25, 1883, Rome, March 5, 1947) was an Italian composer. ... The Miraculous Mandarin Op. ... Le Groupe des Six, 1922, by Jacques-Emile Blanche. ... Darius Milhaud Darius Milhaud (IPA: ) (September 4, 1892 – June 22, 1974) was a French composer and teacher. ... Aaron Copland Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900 – December 2, 1990) was an American composer of concert and film music, as well as an accomplished pianist. ...

Image File history File links Download high resolution version (862x246, 12 KB)Polytonality in Aaron Coplands Sextet for Straing Quartet, Clarinet, and Piano (p. ...

Many contemporary composers are interested in bitonality. Philip Glass uses the technique in his Symphony No. 2, and John Adams's Chamber Symphony suggests polytonality. Philip Glass (born January 31, 1937) is a three-times Academy Award-nominated American composer. ... For the Alaska-based postminimalist composer, see John Luther Adams. ...

Bitonality is also found in folk music: for example, tribes throughout India use bitonality in responsorial song and sometimes sing in parallel harmonies (Babiracki 1991, p.76). In music, a call and response is a succession of two distinct phrases usually played by different musicians, where the second phrase is heard as a direct commentary on or response to the first. ... In music harmonic parallelism, also known as harmonic planing or parallel voice leading, is the parallel movement of two or more lines or chords (harmonies). ...

Challenges to polytonality

Many music theorists, including Milton Babbitt and Paul Hindemith have questioned or rejected whether polytonality is a useful or meaningful notion or "viable auditory possibility". Hindemith called polytonality a, "self-contradictory expression which, if it is to possess any meaning at all, can be used only to designate a certain degree of expansion of the individual elements of a well-defined harmonic or voice-leading unit". (Beach 1983) Other theorists to question or reject polytonality include Allen Forte, Benjamin Boretz, and Pieter van den Toorn. Milton Byron Babbitt (born May 10, 1916) is an American composer. ... Paul Hindemith aged 28. ... In music, voice leading is the continuity between pitches or notes played successively in time. ... Allen Forte (born December 23, 1926) is a music theorist and musicologist. ... Benjamin Boretz is a twentieth- and twenty-first-century music theorist and composer. ...

There are two main challenges to polytonality, one logical, the other psychological. The logical challenge, as articulated by Hindemith, is that the very meaning of the term "tonality" requires that a single tone be heard (and conceived) as "tonic." The psychological challenge holds that it is impossible for human beings to simultaneously perceive two separate key-centers at once.

Proponents of polytonality, such as Daniel Harrison, Dmitri Tymoczko, Peter Kaminsky, and José Oliveira Martins respond that the notion of "tonality" is a psychological, not a logical notion. Whether two different key centers can be heard simultaneously is a matter for empirical investigation, and cannot be determined by examining the meaning of the term "tonality." Furthermore, proponents of polytonality argue that we can, in fact, hear two separate key-areas at one and the same time: for example, when listening to two different pieces, one through each ear in a pair of headphones. Finally, they note that regardless of perceptual issues, a substantial body of music is composed by superimposing musical fragments that, if heard separately, would suggest different keys. The term "polytonality" can therefore be used in a purely descriptive sense, to identify music that is constructed in this way.

Polytonality vs. octatonicism

Some opponents of polytonality, such as Pieter van den Toorn, argue that purportedly polytonal music often derives from the octatonic scale. For example, the passage from Petrushka, cited above, uses only notes drawn from the C octatonic collection C-C♯-D♯-E-F♯-G-A-A♯. (The notes can also be derived from the F♯ acoustic scale F♯-G♯-A♯-B♯(C)-C♯-D♯-E.) In a similar vein, Paul Wilson argues against analyzing Bartók's "Diminished Fifth" (no.101, vol. 4, Mikrokosmos) and "Harvest Song" (no.33 of the Forty-Four Duos for two violins) as bitonal since "the larger octatonic collection embraces and supports both supposed tonalities" (ibid, p.27). In music, a diminished scale (set 8-28) is a scale in which the notes of the scale ascend in alternating intervals of a whole step and a half step. ... In music the acoustic scale is a seven note scale, starting on C: C D E F# G A Bb which is formed from a major triad (C E G) with an added minor seventh and raised fourth (Bb and F#, drawn from the overtone series) and major second and... Bartok redirects here. ... Béla Bartóks composition for piano Mikrokosmos (Sz. ...

The matter is currently a subject of lively debate among music theorists.

Polytonality and polychords

Polytonality requires the presentation of simultaneous key-centers. The term "polychord" describes chords that can be constructed by superimposing multiple familiar tonal sonorities. For example, familiar ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords can be built from or decomposed into separate chords: In music and music theory a polychord consists of two or more chords, one on top of the other, multiple chords. ...

Image File history File links Download high resolution version (850x99, 3 KB)Seperate chords within an extended chord. ...

Thus polychords do not necessarily suggest polytonality, as they may be heard as belonging to a single key. This is the norm in jazz, for example, which makes frequent use of "extended" and polychordal harmonies without any intended suggestion of "multiple keys."

The following passage, taken from Beethoven's Piano Sonata in E♭ Op.81a (Les Adieux), suggests clashes between tonic and dominant harmonies in the same key (Marquis 1964). Though slightly discordant, the music is not bitonal. Indeed, it is not even clear that the passage involves two separate chords: a traditional tonal analysis might suggest an underlying harmony of E♭ major, with the F acting as an accented passing tone. “Beethoven” redirects here. ... First two bars of the piece, indicating the syllables Le - be wohl over the three-note theme Ludwig van Beethovens Piano Sonata No. ...

Image File history File links Download high resolution version (861x168, 7 KB)Suggestion of bitonality in Beethovens Sonata in Eb for Piano, Op. ...


Passages of music, such as Poulenc's Mouvements Perpetuels, I., may be misinterpreted as polytonal rather than polymodal. In the example given the two scales are recognizable but are assimilated through the common tonic (Bb). (Vincent 1951, p.272) Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc (January 7, 1899 - January 30, 1963) was a French composer. ...

See also

Béla Bartók Mikrokosmos Volume 5 number 125: The opening (mm. ... Bimodality is the simultaneous use of two distinct pitch collections. ... Polymodal chromaticism is a musical term coined by composer, ethnomusicologist and pianist Béla Bartók. ...


  • Babiracki, Carol M. (1991) in Nettl, Bruno and Philip V. Bohlman (Eds.). Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music: Essays on the History of Ethnomusicology. ISBN 0-226-57409-1.
  • Beach, David, ed. (1983). "Schenkerian Analysis and Post-Tonal Music", Aspects of Schenkerian Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Casella, Alfred. (1924). "Tone Problems of Today." Musical Quarterly 10: 159-171.
  • Marquis, G. Welton (1964). Twentieth Century Music Idioms. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  • Vincent, John (1951). The Diatonic Modes in Modern Music. University of California Press.
  • Wilson, Paul (1992). The Music of Béla Bartók. ISBN 0-300-05111-5.

Further reading

  • Babbitt, Milton (1949). "Quartets of Bartok", Musical Quarterly 35, p.380.
  • Hindemith, Paul (1942). The Craft of Musical Composition, vol. 1, p.156. New York: Associated Music Publishers.
  • Reti, Rudolph (1958). Tonality, Atonality, Pantonality: A study of some trends in twentieth century music. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-20478-0.

  Results from FactBites:
Polytonality - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (472 words)
The use of more than one key simultaneously is known in music as polytonality.
Many composers today who are interested in using tonality are also interested in bitonality, such as Philip Glass in his Symphony No. 2 which exploits polytonality for ambiguity of key.
Although the word bitonality is most often used when talking about relatively modern classical music (written in the last one hundred years or so), it is quite a common technique in folk music, especially in eastern Europe.
PBS: Rediscovering Dave Brubeck | With Hedrick Smith (559 words)
The music is not anchored to the sound of one key center, especially if care is taken in the "voicing" of the notes (how the notes of the chords are spread across the keyboard).
The way Dave uses polytonality, it is more than simply a harmonic device, it is how he can put an innovative twist on old jazz traditions.
Polyrhythms and polytonality are just two of many new musical ideas that Dave brought into the modern jazz vocabulary.
  More results at FactBites »



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