Polytonality (also polyharmony (Cole & Schwartz)) is the musical use of more than one key simultaneously. Bitonality is the use of only two different keys at the same time. Polyvalence is the use of more than one harmonic function, from the same key, at the same time (Leeuw 2006, 87).

Some examples of bitonality superimpose fully harmonized sections of music in different keys.


In traditional music

Lithuanian traditional singing style sutartines is based on polytonality. A typical sutartines song is based on a six-bar melody, where the first three bars contains melody based on the notes of the triad of a major key (for example, in G major), and the next three bars is based on another key, always a major second higher or lower (for example, in A major). This six bar melody is performed as a canon, and repetition starts from the fourth bar. As a result, parts are constantly singing in different tonality (key) simultaneously (in G and in A) (Jordania 2006, 119–20; Račiūnaitė-Vyčinienė 2002,[page needed]). As a traditional style, sutartines disappeared in Lithuanian villages by the first decades of the 20th century, but later became a national musical symbol of Lithuanian music (Račiūnaitė-Vyčinienė 2002,[page needed]).

Tribes throughout India—including the Kuravan of Kerala, the Jaunsari of Uttar Pradesh, the Gond, the Santal, and the Munda—also use bitonality, in responsorial song (Babiracki 1991, 76).

In classical music

An early use of polytonality occurs in the classical period in the finale of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's composition A Musical Joke, which he deliberately ends with the violins, violas and horns playing in four discordant keys simultaneously. However, it was not featured prominently in non-programmatic contexts until the twentieth century, particularly in the work of Charles Ives (Psalm 67, ca. 1898–1902), Béla Bartók (Fourteen Bagatelles, op. 6, 1908), and Stravinsky (Petrushka, 1911) (Whittall 2001). Ives claimed that he learned the technique of polytonality from his father, who taught him to sing popular songs in one key while harmonizing them in another (Crawford 2001, 503).

Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is widely credited with popularizing bitonality, and contemporary writers such as Casella (1924) describe him as progenitor of the technique: "the first work presenting polytonality in typical completeness—not merely in the guise of a more or less happy 'experiment,' but responding throughout to the demands of expression—is beyond all question the grandiose Le Sacre du Printemps of Stravinsky (1913) " (Casella 1924, 164).

Bartók's "Playsong" demonstrates easily perceivable bitonality through "the harmonic motion of each key...[being] relatively uncomplicated and very diatonic" (Kostka & Payne 1995, 495). Here, the "duality of key" featured is A minor and C minor:

Other polytonal composers influenced by Stravinsky include those in the French group, Les Six, particularly Darius Milhaud, as well as Americans such as Aaron Copland (Marquis 1964,[page needed]).

Benjamin Britten used bi and polytonality in his operas, as well as enharmonic relationships, for example to signify the conflict between Claggart (F minor) and Billy (E major) in Billy Budd (note the shared enharmonically equivalent G/A) (Seymour 2007, 141-142) or to express the main character's "maladjustment" in Peter Grimes (White 1970, 119).

Polytonality and polychords

Polytonality requires the presentation of simultaneous key-centers. The term "polychord" describes chords that can be constructed by superimposing multiple familiar tonal sonorities. For example, familiar ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords can be built from or decomposed into separate chords:

Thus polychords do not necessarily suggest polytonality, as they may be heard as belonging to a single key. This is the norm in jazz, for example, which makes frequent use of "extended" and polychordal harmonies without any intended suggestion of "multiple keys."

The following passage, taken from Beethoven's Piano Sonata in E, Op. 81a (Les Adieux), suggests clashes between tonic and dominant harmonies in the same key (Marquis 1964,[page needed]).

Leeuw points to Beethoven's use of the clash between tonic and dominant, such as in his Third Symphony, as polyvalency rather than bitonality, with polyvalency being, "the telescoping of diverse functions that should really occur in succession to one another" (Leeuw 2006, 87).


Passages of music, such as Poulenc's Mouvements Perpetuels, I., may be misinterpreted as polytonal rather than polymodal. In the example given the two scales are recognizable but are assimilated through the common tonic (B) (Vincent 1951, 272).


Polyscalarity is defined as "the simultaneous use of musical objects which clearly suggest different source-collections (Tymoczko 2002, 83). "Specifically in reference to Stravinsky's music, Tymoczko uses the term polyscalarity out of deference to terminological sensibilities (Tymoczko 2002, 85). In other words, the term is meant to avoid any implication that the listener can perceive two keys at once. Though Tymoczko believed that polytonality is perceivable, he believed polyscalarity is better suited to describe Stravinsky's music. This term is also used as a response to Van den Toorn's analysis against polytonality. Van den Toorn, in an attempt to dismiss polytonal analysis used a monoscalar approach to analyze the music with the octatonic scale. However, Tymoczko states that this was problematic in that it does not resolve all instances of multiple interactions between scales and chords. Moreover, Tymoczko quotes Stravinsky's claim that the music of Petrouchka's second tableau was conceived "in two keys" (Tymoczko 2002, 85). Polyscalarity is then a term encompassing multiscalar superimpositions and cases which give a different explanation than the octatonic scale.


Some music theorists, including Milton Babbitt and Paul Hindemith have questioned whether polytonality is a useful or meaningful notion or "viable auditory possibility" (Baker 1983, 163). Babbitt called polytonality a "self-contradictory expression which, if it is to possess any meaning at all, can only be used as a label to designate a certain degree of expansion of the individual elements of a well-defined harmonic or voice-leading unit" (Babbitt 1949, 380). Other theorists to question or reject polytonality include Allen Forte and Benjamin Boretz, who hold that the notion involves logical incoherence (Tymoczko 2002, 84).

Other theorists, such as Dmitri Tymoczko, respond that the notion of "tonality" is a psychological, not a logical notion (Tymoczko 2002, 84). Furthermore, Tymoczko argues that two separate key-areas can, at least at a rudimentary level, be heard at one and the same time: for example, when listening to two different pieces played by two different instruments in two areas of a room (Tymoczko 2002, 84).


Some critics of the notion of polytonality, such as Pieter van den Toorn, argue that the octatonic scale accounts in concrete pitch-relational terms for the qualities of "clashing," "opposition," "stasis," "polarity," and "superimposition" found in Stravinsky's music and, far from negating them, explains these qualities on a deeper level (Van den Toorn and Tymoczko 2003, 179). For example, the passage from Petrushka, cited above, uses only notes drawn from the C octatonic collection C-C-D-E-F-G-A-A.

See also


  • Babiracki, Carol M. (1991). "Tribal Music in the Study of Great and Little Traditions of Indian Music". In Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music: Essays on the History of Ethnomusicology, edited by Bruno Nettl and Philip V. Bohlman, 69–90. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-57409-1.
  • Babbitt, Milton (1949). "The String Quartets of Bartók". Musical Quarterly 35, no. 3 (July): 377–85.
  • Baker, James (1983). "Schenkerian Analysis and Post-Tonal Music", In Aspects of Schenkerian Theory, edited by David Beach, 153–86. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-02800-8 (cloth); ISBN 0-300-02803-2 (pbk).
  • Casella, Alfred (1924). "Tone Problems of Today". Musical Quarterly 10:159–71.
  • Crawford, Richard (2001). America's Musical Life: a History. New York: Norton.
  • Hindemith, Paul (1941–42). The Craft of Musical Composition, vols. 1 and 2, translated by Arthur Mendel and Otto Ortmann. New York: Associated Music Publishers; London: Schott & Co. Original German edition as Unterweisung im Tonsatz. 3 vols. Mainz, B. Schott's Söhne, 1937–70.
  • Jordania, Joseph (2006). Who Asked the First Question?, Logos.
  • Kostka, Stefan, and Dorothy Payne (1995). Tonal Harmony, with an Introduction to Twentieth-Century Music, third edition. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-035874-5.
  • Leeuw, Ton de (2005). Music of the Twentieth Century: A Study of Its Elements and Structure. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. ISBN 90-5356-765-8.
  • Marquis, G. Welton (1964). Twentieth Century Music Idioms. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  • Račiūnaitė-Vyčinienė, Daiva (2002). Sutartinės: Lithuanian Polyphonic Songs, translated from the Lithuanian by Vijolė Arbas. Vilnius: VAGA Publishers. ISBN 9785415016303.
  • Seymour, Claire (2007). The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion. ISBN 9781843833147.
  • Tymoczko, Dmitri. 2002. "Stravinsky and the Octatonic: A Reconsideration". Music Theory Spectrum 24, no. 1:68–102.
  • Van den Toorn, Pieter C., and Dmitri Tymoczko (2003) "Colloquy: Stravinsky and the Octatonic: The Sounds of Stravinsky". Music Theory Spectrum 25, no. 1 (Spring): 167–202.
  • Vincent, John (1951). The Diatonic Modes in Modern Music. University of California Publications in Music 4. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • White, Eric Walter (1970). Benjamin Britten: His Life and Operas. ISBN 9780520016798.
  • Whittall, Arnold (2001). "Bitonality". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Wilson, Paul (1992). The Music of Béla Bartók. Composers of the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-05111-5.

Further reading

  • Reti, Rudolph (1958). Tonality, Atonality, Pantonality: A Study of Some Trends in Twentieth Century Music. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-20478-0.

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