John R. Taylor’s book, Linguistic Categorization: Prototypes in Linguistic Theory, is currently in its third edition. At some point I’ll get a copy of this edition just to see the new content but it has been some years since I’ve read the first edition. It is a wonderfully concise introduction to cognitive linguistics and especially Linguistic Prototypes.
Prototype theory is another of those fields in psychology that discusses how we categorize things and how we tend to privilege members of a category over more marginal members of the category. First developed by Eleanor Rosch when she formulated the theory in the early 70s, this description from wikipedia gives a good enough description that illustrates the privileging:
As formulated in the 1970s by Eleanor Rosch and others, prototype theory was a radical departure from traditional necessary and sufficient conditions as in Aristotelian logic, which led to set-theoretic approaches of extensional or intensional semantics. Thus instead of a definition based model – e.g. a bird may be defined as elements with the features [+feathers], [+beak] and [+ability to fly], prototype theory would consider a category like bird as consisting of different elements which have unequal status – e.g. a robin is more prototypical of a bird than, say a penguin.
The bird example is one that Taylor uses in his book to illustrate the point. And he places it within a cross-cultural context as well when he discusses how we might use a mental model of a robin as one that exemplifies a bird, while an African bushman might use an ostrich, or an inuit might think of a penguin. The ultimate idea is that we usually have implicit set of elements we use to assign phenomenon as members of a category and that very often that implicit set of elements may very well exclude perfectly good and closely related phenomenon in that category. In many cases it can be an instance of certain connotative meanings being privileged over denotative meanings. Why certain members of categories tend to be privileged over others can be incredibly complex and falls outside the scope of this blog post.
polyphony, in music, strictly speaking, any music in which two or more tones sound simultaneously (the term derives from the Greek word for “many sounds”); thus, even a single interval made up of two simultaneous tones or a chord of three simultaneous tones is rudimentarily polyphonic.
The entry then discusses different connotative meanings as well as subclasses of the denotative meaning.
Usually, however, polyphony is associated with counterpoint, the combination of distinct melodic lines. In polyphonic music, two or more simultaneous melodic lines are perceived as independent even though they are related. In Western music polyphony typically includes a contrapuntal separation of melody and bass. A texture is more purely polyphonic, and thus more contrapuntal, when the musical lines are rhythmically differentiated. A subcategory of polyphony, called homophony, exists in its purest form when all the voices or parts move together in the same rhythm, as in a texture of block chords. These terms are by no means mutually exclusive, and composers from the 16th through the 21st centuries have commonly varied textures from complex polyphony to rhythmically uniform homophony, even within the same piece.
Polyphony, the opposite of monophony (one voice, such as chant), is the outstanding characteristic that differentiates Western art music from the music of all other cultures. The special polyphony of ensembles in Asian music includes a type of melodic variation, better described as heterophony, that is not truly contrapuntal in the Western sense.
The connotation that allows us in the West to implicitly substitute one privileged meaning (e.g. counterpoint) for the whole of the denotative meaning is no different than the more familiar usage of metonymy or rather, a subclass of metonymy known as synechdote, where a part is substituted for the whole. In this case certain members of the class (i.e. a subclass) of objects that fall within the denotative definition of polyphony (i.e. counterpoint) is being substituted for the whole class of members that falls within the denotative definition of polyphony (i.e. any music in which two or more tones sound simultaneously).
Some cognitive linguists (e.g. George Lakoff) believe that metaphoric and metonymic usage is fundamental to thought processes and permeate how we construct ideas and even language. The substitution I described above is a common enough phenomenon that fallacies have long described the behavior (Fallacy of Composition which is a subclass of Fallacies of Ambiguity) and a whole class of related cognitive biases that we humans are prone to.
Now, Britannica entry above spends considerable time describing counterpoint as the author understands the association of counterpoint and polyphony. But counterpoint is just one part of the whole of polyphony. Homphony, another part of polyphony is defined as a subcategory, and the article is also a bit ambiguous with regards to the statement in the last paragraph.
Given the acknowledgement in the definition that there are many types of polyphony, and given that there are several cultures that have various types of polyphony, why exactly is is it the “outstanding characteristic that differentiates Western art music from the music of all other cultures?” And the comment regarding Asian music and heterophony ending with the statement “that is not truly contrapuntal in the Western sense” demonstrates how much the association between one subclass of polyphony (i.e. counterpoint) becomes the synecdotal stand-in for polyphony itself.
Aka pygmy music isn’t counterpoint, or contrapuntal polyphony either. But it is a complex type of polyphony in ways analogous to the type of complexity found in many African polyrhythmic drumming traditions.