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An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Counterpoint and Palestrina’s Musical Style.

What words capture that sound? Ethereal; yearning, yet at rest; heavenly, in the most sweetly solemn sense? Describing the quality of a piece of music in words is a wonderful entrance to musical listening because it presses us to listen closely, make associations, and clarify perceptions. 

However, music is its own language, and the more that we can engage it through its own terms, the more depths we will begin to hear in it. Let’s listen more closely to just two facets of Palestrina’s musical language: his polyphony and his careful harmony. 

To begin, how does the texture of this piece sound different from today’s church music that you know well? Do the words “blending” or “interweaving” come to mind? Those would be good approximations of the musical term polyphony. Here’s how that works. 

Most praise choruses are monophonic (think “one-sound”), meaning that everyone sings the melody together. Most older hymns are homophonic (think “same-sound”), meaning that, if a group of people sing all the parts written in the hymnal, some will be singing the melody while the rest fill in by singing notes of the chords that match the melody. But Palestrina’s Kyrie, like most Renaissance works, is polyphonic (think “many-sounds”), meaning that each person sings an independent but harmonizing melody. You can see this easily if you compare musical scores: