Chapter 3

Chapter 3: Polyphony through the Thirteenth Century

Chapter Outline

Prelude. (CHWM 51–52)

The eleventh and twelfth centuries brought prosperity and cultural revival, in scholarship and the arts, to much of western Europe. One result was the growth of polyphony in church music, which heightened the grandeur of chant. Although monophony remained the principal medium of performance and composition, the rise of written polyphony introduced four concepts that have distinguished Western music ever since: counterpoint, harmony, the centrality of notation, and composition. Two main types of polyphony were organum and the motet.

I. Early Organum (CHWM 53–56, NAWM 14–16)

Polyphony was first described in the treatise Musica enchiriadis, which used the term organum for two distinct kinds of polyphony.

  1. Parallel organum
    In parallel organum, an added voice (organal voice) appears below a chant melody (principal voice), moving in parallel fifths or fourths and making adjustments to avoid the tritone. Either or both voices may be doubled at the octave. Music: NAWM 14a–b
  2. Contrary and oblique motion
    In the eleventh century, the organal voice usually sings above the chant (although the voices may cross), moving in contrary, oblique, parallel, and similar motion to the chant and forming consonant intervals with it (unison, fourth, fifth, and octave).
  3. Free and florid organum
    Instructions on how to improvise free organum are preserved in the treatise Ad organum faciendum (On Making Organum, ca. 1100). Only portions of the chant that were sung by soloists were set polyphonically, so that in performance sections of polyphony alternate with sections of monophonic chant sung by the choir. A new type of florid organum, called Aquitanian organum, appeared early in the twelfth century in Aquitaine, a region in southwestern France. In florid organum, the chant is sustained in long notes in the lower voice (called the tenor), while the upper voice sings decorative phrases of varying length. Music: NAWM 15
  4. Organum purum and discant
    The two main styles of polyphony in the twelfth century are organum purum or organum duplum (the upper voice sings many notes for each note in the lower voice) and discant (both voices move together at about the same rate). The two types of organum are used in Jubilemus, exultemus. Music: NAWM 16
  5. Notation of organum
    Manuscripts for organum use score notation (one part above the other, with notes that sound together aligned vertically), but do not indicate rhythm or duration.

II. Notre Dame Polyphony (CHWM 56–61, NAWM 17–19)

An even more elaborate style of composed polyphony was developed at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.

  1. Leoninus
    Leoninus compiled the Magnus liber organi ("great book of polyphony"), containing two-voice settings of the solo portions of the responsorial chants for major feasts of the church year. Leoninus’s organum (for soloists) is in two voices and alternates sections in organum style with sections in discant style. The sections for choir are plainchant and are sung in unison. The sections in discant style use the rhythmic modes in both voices and tend to appear where there are melismas in the original chant. Music: NAWM 17

    A Closer Look: Modal Rhythm
    A notation to indicate patterns of long and short notes was developed during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. These patterns were codified as the six rhythmic modes and were adapted from the principles of classical poetic meter.

  1. Clausula
    A section in discant is called a clausula (pl. clausulae). Clausulae are in modal rhythm, producing short phrases and lively pacing.
  2. Perotinus
    Perotinus, who was also associated with the Notre Dame Cathedral, and his contemporaries continued editing and updating Leoninus’s Magnus liber.
  3. Substitute clausulae
    Perotinus’s generation replaced older discant clausulae with new ones, which are sometimes called substitute clausulae. The tenors in these clausulae often repeat rhythmic patterns and segments of melody. Music: NAWM 18
  4. Triple and quadruple organum
    Perotinus and his colleagues also wrote works for three and four voices. Duplum, triplum, and quadruplum are the names of voices in ascending order above the tenor. Therefore, a three-voice organum was called an organum triplum, and a four-voice organum was called an organum quadruplum. Music from Notre Dame in the late twelfth through early thirteenth centuries was most likely improvised or orally composed and written down later. Music: NAWM 19

III. The Motet (CHWM 61–64, NAWM 21–22)


  1. Beginning in the early thirteenth century, a clausula could be taken from its original place in a larger polyphonic work and performed as an independent composition (a motet) with the upper voice (motetus) singing newly added Latin or French words.
  2. Cantus firmus
    The tenor of a motet, like that of a clausula, consisted of a borrowed chant melody, or cantus firmus. The top two voices use different but topically related texts (sometimes in the vernacular), and the tenor could be played or sung. Motets are known by compound titles consisting of the incipits (the first word or words) of each of their vocal parts.
  3. Early motets
    In many early motets, the text of the upper voices is a trope on the original chant text. Music: NAWM 21a
  4. Versatility of motet
    Because motets were sung for secular as well as sacred occasions, the tenor (chant) soon lost its exclusively liturgical function and became raw material for composition. Composers reworked existing motets in various ways: (1) by writing a new Latin or French text for the duplum; (2) by adding a third voice; (3) by giving new voices their own texts. They also wrote motets from scratch. In most motets for three or more voices, the upper voices rarely rest with one another or with the tenor. Music: NAWM 21b–c
  5. Franconian Motet
    In many motets from the second half of the thirteenth century, the upper voice moves more quickly and has a longer text than the middle voice while the tenor moves more slowly. These are called Franconian motets, after the composer and theorist Franco of Cologne (fl. ca. 1250–1280). Music: NAWM 22
  6. Role of motet
    The motet went through many changes in the thirteenth century, from an existing piece with new text to a highly complex and individual work.

    In Context: The Motet as Gothic Cathedral
    The voices in a thirteenth-century motet are rhythmically in dependent yet coordinated, the higher voices moving faster than the lower ones. This has parallels in the architecture of Gothic cathedrals.

IV. Polyphonic Conductus (CHWM 64–67, NAWM 20)

The polyphonic conductus is a two- to four-voice setting of a rhymed metrical Latin poem on a sacred or serious topic. The tenor is newly written, not based on chant. The voices move in similar rhythms and sing the text together, in what is known as conductus style. Music: NAWM 20

Print This Page
Bookmark and Share

The Norton Gradebook

Instructors and students now have an easy way to track online quiz scores with the Norton Gradebook.

Go to the Norton Gradebook

Special offer for Met Opera On Demand