Linguistic Prototypes and Musical Polyphony

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 Saan (Bushman) might consider an ostrich, or an Indigenous First Nations individual in the Southern Hemisphere might think of a penguin.  In other words, we usually have implicit set of elements that we use to assign phenomenon as members of a category and very often that implicit set of elements may 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.

But this takes me to an interesting discussion at Bryan Townsend’s blog here and the idea of musical polyphony.  The denotation of polyphony is simply, as the Britannica Online defines it:

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).

Panayiotis A. Kokoras perpetuates the conflation of a contrapuntal with a polyphonic texture in this figure from his "Towards a Holophonic Musical Texture"
Panayiotis A. Kokoras perpetuates the conflation of a contrapuntal texture with a polyphonic texture in this figure from his “Towards a Holophonic Musical Texture.” The title of the figure is, “The evolution of musical texture from Middle Ages to the present.”

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 (e.g. Fallacy of Composition, a subclass of Fallacies of Ambiguity) and a whole class of related cognitive biases that we humans are prone to.

Now, the 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. 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, which ends with the statement “that is not truly contrapuntal in the Western sense,” demonstrates how much the association of one subclass of polyphony (i.e. counterpoint) becomes the synecdotal stand-in for polyphony itself.

Aka pygmy music isn’t counterpoint; neither is it contrapuntal polyphony.  But it is a type of polyphony that is in ways analogous to the type of complexity found in many African polyrhythmic drumming traditions.


I decided to change the title of this post to more accurately reflect how prototype theory can be used to understand musical categorizations. Also edited slightly for style and clarity – Jon 10/6/2016


  1. At the risk of lowering the musical tone, this is a wonderful description of the problem that the Barbershop Harmony Society has historically had in defining the style for contest purposes. The earliest judging guidelines (1941) are a page long, and start with the statement that the writer knows barbershop music well, but finds it hard to say how it is he knows. (And today’s judges still use the phrase ‘does it quack?’ as a shorthand for this intuitive but hard to defend response.)

    Later definitions have gone into greater and greater technical detail, and have effectively created a genre that is clearly related to the tradition it aims to encapsulate, but which both excludes things that would have been recognised by its original proponents and includes things that would not have been. In recent years, there has been a very small step towards a prototypical rather than prescriptive understanding of the style with the inclusion of a clause that states that weaknesses in one musical element can be to an extent mitigated by strengths in another.


    • Not at all–I’m sure we can all come up with examples like this. And that’s very interesting to see it in a different musical field. So much of that just shows the nature of changing meanings through the history of a genre and what connotations lose prominence to different (or newer) connotations–which can also happen even with denotations to an extent though those tend to be a bit more stable if only because we can at least trace the actual word itself back to some “original” denotative meaning.


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