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On the Use of Polychords in Music Composition

In the '80s the UC Davis University Chorus sang "Welcome Yule" by Edwin Fissinger (see examples below). In a certain passage the treble voices had 3 part harmony in triads moving over the men's part holding different triads. The effect was thrilling, and led me to investigate polychords further. They have since become a fixture in my own musical idiom.

There are many devices in music—rhythm, melody, harmony, instrumentation, dynamics, and amongst them, polychords. However, these sound new, as they have rarely been used in the past. There are exceptions, of course—Charles Ives being the first to come to mind with his brash setting of Psalm 67 (see example below). Also in pop music the IV/V is used as a dominant. There are many examples in jazz. See also S.M. Butterfield on extended tertian harmonies.

In this brief treatise I will give examples of polychords where they seem effective. By extension, I will also include examples where dissonances are the point of the passage. The reader or listener will of course need to judge what works best, appeals most, and is most appropriate.

Thank you for your interest!

The evolution of polychords encompasses whole-tone and pandiatonic idioms, washes of sound with multiple neighboring tones clashing, not organized into distinct chords. Composers from Claude Debussy to Eric Whitaker to Donald Fagen (Nightfly) have evoked this kind of dissonance. The use of polychords is not a black & white affair, since there is a large amount of overlap amongst styles: pop, jazz, gospel, and neo-classical pushing the envelope. Kirby Shaw uses the 7th in the bass part frequently, which evokes both the traditional 4-2 inversion of the 7th chord, as well as a common jazz flavor. William Mathias uses polychords somewhat randomly. I tend to use polychords related by 4th, 5th & 2nd.

Feel free to contribute your own examples. Email: stonemusique@gmail.com