5 tips for practising polyphony

By Melanie Spanswick


Contrapuntal or polyphonic music usually consists of several musical lines sounding altogether, or at the same time. This style of music can be complicated to learn as well as demanding to practise, and it can also be tricky to sight-read, rendering a quick read-through before learning, challenging. Here are a few practice ideas to consider the next time you need to tackle a fugue or similar polyphonic piece.


1 Begin by adding all necessary fingering to the score; this will prove crucial in contrapuntal writing. Work through the piece noting harmonic changes or patterns; for example, note where the tonic, dominant, or sub-dominant chord, appears (if it does). If you’re learning a fugue – which is a popular contrapuntal composition – identify the ‘subject’ (or the theme) and ‘countersubject’ (secondary theme), annotating them in the score; the more you can break down your piece, the easier it will be to assimilate and learn.


2 Work hands separately for a considerable amount of time. Note patterns in contrapuntal music must be studied assiduously to play them almost sub-consciously, because the difficulty lies in coping with several musical lines, often two in each hand, with different articulation, simultaneously.


3 As you learn the thematic material, decide on your preferred articulation, which is very important when playing fugues, particularly those from the Baroque period. Once you have found and are happy with specific phrasing, and particularly a specific non-legato touch for example, aim to keep the same articulation every time the subject or countersubject appears. This creates unity within your interpretation.


4 When practising, work at each musical line separately, using the fingering you would use when playing them altogether. Combine two lines at a time; try the two lower lines (left hand), followed by the two upper lines (right hand), depending on how many parts are featured in your piece. When combining them all, you will probably need to adopt a very slow tempo at first, to control each part; aim for a quarter of the intended speed.


5 Once you can play the piece hands together under tempo, now is the time to focus on highlighting each ‘musical line’. You can do this by varying the dynamics, featuring the top line with a more powerful sonority, followed by the middle, and finally, the lowest musical line – if there are three in the piece, for example. You can also do this by varying the touch; try practising the top line, staccato, middle line, non-legato, and the lowest line, legato. Then reverse, so that each line has been played with a different touch. This will focus your concentration and offer note security and confidence.


If you can harness these practice techniques during slow practice, you’ll eventually be able to raise the tempo whilst still feeling in control of each musical line.


Melanie Spanswick

© Sarah Barnes