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A week or so ago, I put out a new free arrangement on the hymn “Hiding in Thee.” Today, let’s talk about it. There is something going on there that is a bit unique (at least for me).
Two quick terms that you learn as you study the history of music are polyphony and homophony. Polyphony is used to describe a style of music that most of us know as counterpoint. On the piano, you have these piece from the Bach era such as two-part and three-part inventions, preludes and fugues where two to four melodies played against each other.
You might be tempted to see those voices (melody lines) from a horizontal perspective as they move through the piece. In well-written counterpoint, those voices are all interesting on their own and could stand alone. However, if you see those voices only horizontally, you are missing out on something important, because when played concurrently, they create harmony. In other words, if you look at any critical point in the piece, you can read the voices vertically and see that they outline a chord.
This development in music was remarkable and signaled the introduction of the modern era of Western music. Remember that previous to this period, music was monophonic (only one melody line without any concept of harmony).
That being said, polyphony gave way after a few centuries to homophony, which is what we largely use to this day. Homophony could be described as adding harmony to a melody line. Think of lead sheets for example. You get a melody line with chords above it. You are responsible to play that melody line with chords.
Homophony became possible as music developed and perhaps more importantly, as instruments developed. Bach did not have the advantages we have today. For example, he could not get any significant dynamics out of a harpsichord. In his time, to get louder, he might have had to add a new voice or make a voice more busy. Today, a pianist can just play louder.
I will take today’s instruments over Bach’s any day and I will take today’s music over his too. I like homophony and the philosophy behind it. But there is a danger that musicians (especially pianists) need to watch out for and that danger especially goes for pianists.
The danger is that we start to get lazy with voice leading. In some cases, we don’t think about voice leading at all. I am ashamed to say that often includes me.
Typically, pianists tend to think very vertically. What happens is that we play a melody and then look for chords that will work under each melody note. Those that know functional harmony think horizontally but often only in the context of chord progressions (putting a string of chords together).
But here is the thing: those chords played underneath the melody line make up a lot of notes. And all of those notes start to form voices of a sort–not the kind of independent voice lines that you might see in polyphony but there are still voice lines.
This is an exaggerated example of that. I was intentionally trying to write voice lines in “Hiding in Thee” so they will be easy to spot.
Not hard to see them is it? Those voice lines are the key to this arrangement.
Writing this way is pretty important but not easy. I am preaching to myself here. You have to think horizontally (voices) as well as vertically (chords). Some instrumentalists such as violinists and woodwind players are used to playing a lot of lines like you see here and it helps them think horizontally better than pianists. But we pianists need to think horizontally too.
This “Hiding in Thee” arrangement is actually a return of sorts to polyphony albeit with much different harmony (really, the harmony is modern). I am going to go through four or five things that make it work but since this post is already pretty long, will save it for the next time. See you then.