“Songbirds sing. That is fact, not metaphor. They sing, and in the forest every morning, when a dozen or a hundred or a thousand individuals of six or ten or twenty different species sing at once, that is polyphonic music.”

Everywhere Being is DancingWhen I first read these words in Robert Bringhurst’s book, Everywhere Being is Dancing, it reminded me to pay more attention to sound. Not just the intentional listening one does in conversation or to a piece of music, but to the sounds of everyday life. I am finding that the best way to experience the polyphony of everyday life requires switching the senses away from intentionality and expanding awareness to what is present.

During this exercise, thoughts continue to distinguish, characterize and define the sounds. I suppose this is a response based on cumulative memory and habit. For as mortal beings with a sensitivity to all that threatens our peace and wellbeing, by necessity, we live in a stream of continued response to our senses.

“Music, dancing, storytelling, poetry are means by which we can and do embrace and participate in being, not tricks by which we prove our independence from or our superiority to it.”

So, if we can listen to polyphonic music, whether the source is human or not, can we also listen to image and symbol in our speech for their inherent multiple meanings?  Is there then a polyphony of mind, heart or soul? Perhaps we can see too that a culture’s musical expression might also be a reflection of the heart and soul of a people. Bringhurst notes some of the differences in expression according to the voicing and texture of the music:

“In homophonic music, lovely though some of it is, and written by geniuses, as some of it certainly is, only the leader has any substantial freedom of action. Melodies may follow one another, but they cannot coexist. Where the leader’s voice leads, the accompanist’s must follow. The laws of harmony demand that every tone or note or thought or body have its own space or its own time or both. If two notes want the same space at the same time, the two must fuse and lose their independence, or one must move harmonically aside.”

Does not this form of music parallel the modern tendency towards authoritarianism, and the single-mindedness that goes along with it? Maybe with some practice, one can hear more than one thing at a time. Admittedly, an openness to listening may suffer in a world that does not cultivate a sense of beauty in everyday things. Although technology increasingly contributes to a loss of community, it’s understandable that some of us prefer to filter our public experience with the aid of i-pods and cell phones.

“We have, in fact, a lot of practice hearing polyphonic speech. It surrounds us in the woods, and it surrounds us in the street and the cafe. It’s what we hear wherever we can listen to the world. It’s also what we hear where people speak with neither fealty nor fear, and where their speech is not drowned out by their machines.”

“With neither fealty nor fear,” and I would add, with all that comes from both inside and outside. Finding one’s voice, of course, is not only finding what one can say, but also what one can think, write, draw, sing or express in whatever fashion one is inclined to. These practices that find us, while at first may take us beyond the mainstream of both the culture and the drudgery of day-to-day, after some time become incorporated as habits of body, mind and soul. It is then that the edges between “work” and “play” blur, or soften, as does one’s identity with its demand of pondering and working on one’s self or others. Not that You or I disappear, but the youthful question of “who am I” loses its claim on us.

We are capable of polyphonic thought and polyphonic speech, as polyphonic music proves. We are capable, that is, of multiplicity of mind in a healthy form. Why is it that the only multiplicity of mind in fashion now is a crippling disease? ease? Polyphony made audible is music. Schizophrenia made audible is noise.

Schizophrenia, as noise, because we haven’t listened hard, or deep enough. Or, perhaps because we believe too much in language and forget that, while beautiful and necessary, it sometimes charms us into mistaking it for a world which, in spite of all that is said, sung or done, will always remain bigger, truer and beyond the reach of language.

I’ll close with Bringhurst’s lovely quoting of the poet Don McKay:

“Poetry is language used with an awareness of the poverty of language…. gauge…. Poetry remembers that language is shaped air; it remembers ashes to ashes, dust to dust, wind to wind; it knows we don’t own what we know. It knows the world is, after all, unnameable, so it listens hard before it speaks, and wraps that listening into the linguistic act.’ “

Robert Bringhurst. Everywhere Being Is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (Kindle Locations 322-324). Kindle Edition.

Finally, an explanation, along with some examples, of polyphonic singing:

All quotes from Robert Bringhurst except otherwise noted. Everywhere Being Is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (Kindle Locations 275-276). Kindle Edition.

31 thoughts on “Polyphony

  1. Pingback: The Image of the Black Dot | outlawpsych

    1. Hi 1weaver,
      So glad you enjoyed the post. The videos are short, but very informative, I thought. Thank you for visiting here and for leaving a note.


  2. Love this post Debra, and we are all of us part of the vibration.. And find the fact that the Earth itself holds its own frequency remarkable in that it holds its own tune in tact..
    I remember some years ago laying in my bed and hearing a deep hum… I knew not what it was, but I felt paralysed only able to move my head at the time.. Years later read others experienced this sound… The closest I can get to recreating is the deep tone of an aboriginal didgeridoo like the deep hum of a bee… later I read the Barefoot Dr’s words about how when he was a child he heard the deep hum.. and he said it was the the sound of Earth’s vibration..

    Song and dance are keeping the vibration going I am sure.. All is in harmony.. .. I was once told by a guide that the Whale Song and Dolphin helped keep the vibration of the Earth. Which puts another perspective into Song and Language… ( In the beginning was the Word which to me is Sound ) 🙂 Interesting as I recently also read our Earths Vibrational frequency is now altering and we too are raising our frequency as we make our own personal shifts 🙂

    Nature is a wonderful symphony Thank you for sharing your notes Debra… And I hope you do not mind me sharing my thoughts out loud 🙂
    Love and Blessings
    Sue ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sue,
      Very cool about the hum! I am inspired by the idea that life forms lift some primary vibrational energy up to higher levels through their very expression. It seems so, yes? It also amazed me that harmony is universal. Even though different cultures favor variations in tonal relationships, as their musical scales show us, dissonance in tonal relationships is amazingly universal.
      I am always grateful for your sharing, here and on your wonderful blog.
      Love and blessings to you too!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Bostjan K.

    really cool post. So in sync with what i’ve just published here in Slovenia – dance, spirit and human culture. As Capra, or taoists, or shivaists or native americans (or…) have already noted – all world is truly a figure of dance, by that i mean that the flux is a constant, if nothing else is. We may be changing each and every sec. yet dance and vibration is the constant of all this process. This is the touchstone of reality on all levels. As for noise, Entropy is part of the system, yet there where living thrives syntropy is the key process of the system…


    1. Hi Bostjan,
      Following along with what you say about dance and vibration, poesis, when understood as “making,” is an underlying movement, or vibration, or touchstone of all life, yes? Maybe the noise functions as the “prima materia” forus to reform into shapes and movements of beauty?
      Thank you for your inspiring words!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Debra,

    I wrote a comment that WP promptly ate, and was subsequently lost.
    It was filled with appreciation for this post, and listed 2 things that I particularly celebrated in the reading of it.

    1). “These practices that find us, while at first may take us beyond the mainstream of both the culture and the drudgery of day-to-day, after some time become incorporated as habits of body, mind and soul. It is then that the edges between “work” and “play” blur, or soften, as does one’s identity with its demand of pondering and working on one’s self or others. Not that You or I disappear, but the youthful question of “who am I” loses its claim on us.” – Debra

    2). “Poetry is language used with an awareness of the poverty of language…. gauge…. Poetry remembers that language is shaped air; it remembers ashes to ashes, dust to dust, wind to wind; it knows we don’t own what we know. It knows the world is, after all, unnameable, so it listens hard before it speaks, and wraps that listening into the linguistic act.’ ” -Don McKay

    Thank you for such a great meditation,


    1. Hi Ka,
      Ugh, I’m so sorry that your first comment got eaten! Having had that happen a few times, I can appreciate the frustration.
      Thanks so much for posting another comment and for your kind words.
      It’s a great book that I have been savoring for a couple of months. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for your compassion. 🙂 I just had to try again, you know?! You’re Welcome. I’m looking for a way to read my own self-assigned reading list (just finishing “The Places That Scare You,” by Pema Chodron and “The Beginner’s Mind” by Suzuki Roshi), while being in school, and still keeping up with school reading – which is mostly dense and sometimes archaic text. I am grateful for the introduction to this author. More food for meditation…I seem to be drifting in and around your/Robert Bringhurst sound-processing-neighborhood 🙂 Much gratitude _/1\_ K Go Mets!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Wow! Sounds like you have a lot on your plate Ka! I am grateful that my reading is for pleasure only. Even with so much choice, it’s hard to balance work, home, baseball (!), with all of the other things that I love doing. Best wishes on your class work!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thank you, Debra. Your wishing me the best is taken to heart. I do very much enjoy your contemplations here; the themes are near to my own. Also, you introduce me to the authors you are reading, and this helps me keep rounding the edges of my own thought-processes! Per chance after Mercury retrograde, or even during it – as now – I can better manage by accepting any limitations that arise; and perceive them less judgmentally. Nevertheless, I find that sound/balance/harmony opens many avenues of perception all at once, and is quite beautiful to the over picture of my perceptive field. Much Love and gratitude for your contributions here, Ka


  5. An interesting and thought-provoking article Debra, for which many thanks. You almost take us into the territory of neuroscience here, and how the mind creates superimpositions, or meta-level representations, of phenomena. As you will know, some of this process introduces time-shifting, in which events occurring at temporally different phases are reconstructed and brought into an apparent ‘now’. I wonder, is aural polyphony perhaps something of an artificial distinction, a conceptual category rather than an actual one? The single note of the solo violin is a complex array of overlapping waveforms including harmonics of different pitches, and the same is true of the human voice or any naturally occurring sound. If we combine any two we still have no more than an increasingly complex array of waveforms. Meditators often will believe they need to reach a point of silence or stillness of mind in order to apprehend any non-duality, and yet that silence or stillness can often be merely concentrated thought. To extricate the mind from such constraints, and to experience the non-dual, the mind must be free to operate polyphonically (so to speak!), for once we exclude anything, we have created a dualistic state of affairs. So, there’s a little paradox there: to experience a unicity we must embrace a multiplicity. H ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Hariod,
      Wow, thanks for that inspiring comment.

      As for the categorization of music, I would say it’s arbitrary, but useful. Yes, on one level, every sound, bit by bit, is itself an experience of a polyphony of textures and tones. But polyphony, in the sense it is categorized in the west anyway, is specifically a style of blending two or more melodic or rhythmic structures that are distinct from each other. The effect is to take away any sense of hierarchy among the voices. In a way, this parallels the meditatve state where, as you wonderfully express, all is permitted and given equal reception.

      Both meditation and polyphony share then, in the experience of blending, or participating in the stream of senses. Of course, words can’t describe the experience, one must practice immersion, which is less about trying to get to a particular state of being, and more about relaxing into the as-it-isness of experience. Yes?
      Thank you again Hariod!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What a cool Mercury retrograde post. As both of us were born when it was retrograde, Debra, this should be a good time for us right now. Hearing is I think my most sensitive sense. Silence is my most perfect nourishment after a day of overexposure to sound, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Monika,
      That’s interesting that mercury retrograde can be so inspiring for some of us, especially for communication. I’ve heard people say that mercury retrograde can be a more difficult time for communication. I have often felt that I do better during its influence, but certainly can see correlations to communications gone awry.
      Yes, hearing can be quite overwhelming for me at times. On the other hand, when I like what I hear, I tend to overindulge. Also, I’ve never been able to function upon waking with any sound other than my thoughts and the sounds of the house, or wherever I am. I cannot have radio, music, tv, or anything like that on. It feels like a violation of the senses.
      Thanks for the note.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Glad to have you back Deb and like the new blog format. The sounds of nature are among my favorite sounds, especially birdsongs. They are unaffected, seemingly unique and manna for the soul. Thanks for another post that makes me ponder deeply. Hugs, Linda

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Linda,
      I love this time of year for the increased intensity and variety of birdsong and general outside activity.
      I had to change the blog template because WP stopped supporting the other one and some features were no longer editable. Oh well, not sure if I’ll stick with this one or not. I do love the background though.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks Debra for this interesting article and videos, ‘switching the senses away from intentionality and expanding awareness to what is present’ is what meditation means to me and I do notice something of the polyphony of everyday life, especially here in India where in the center of a small community with all windows open because of the heat, you hear a random arrangement of incidental sounds’; domestic clatter, pot go ‘ding’, dog barks, woman shouts, cockerel crows, child cries, car horn toots, etc., and when I try to listen more carefully in the evening when there is also birdsong, it seems clearer, I realize there is so much going on, near at hand and far away, the mind is required to select which sounds have prominence according to familiarity, sound frequency, all kinds of things. The sound is perceived, the ear mechanism is a musical instrument…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Tiramit,
      I was thinking a bit about your experience in the east when writing this post, I suppose because the way you describe it, it sounds delightfully exotic compared to most western cultures.

      “The ear mechanism is a musical instrument” Love this!
      Thank you,


Your comments welcome here:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.