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  Heterophony (Greek ‘other voice’) is a style of music which uses no harmony or counterpoint: there is one line of melody only. This line is performed, sometimes on its own, sometimes with a rhythmic and/or drone accompaniment. The key element is that several voices or instruments all perform the line, not in absolute unison (as the sopranos in a choir or the viola section in a symphony orchestra might), but with all the possibilities of deliberate or chance variation: individual phrasing, spontaneous ornament, independent rhythmic variation. The line is thus subtly blurred and varied even as we hear it.

Heterophony occurs most frequently in orally-transmitted vocal traditions. For example, in some forms of African, Polynesian and black American Christian hymnody, each member of the congregation sings his or her own independent and highly embellished version of the hymn, producing a complex web of vocal strands. Heterophony is also a fundamental technique in many Asian and Oriental musics. In Indonesian gamelan, for example, several instruments of the ensemble play rhythmically and melodically divergent versions of the same basic melody, according to predetermined conventions for each instrument. In the last decade or so of the present century, heterophony has become an important element in electronic music (where computers modulate the sounds we hear, or the same line is played ‘live’ and enhanced at the same time). It is also a feature of minimalist music.

Heterophony is not so much a technique as an indication of the importance, in many musical cultures, of the expressive and aesthetic quality of each individual part, and of the personal, often improvised contribution to the musical whole as well as to the performance itself. (In a similar way, it has been suggested that the Christian heterophony described above arises more from religious than musical conviction, reflecting each worshipper\'s wish to bear witness, freely and individually, to a personal relationship to God.) Heterophony is relatively unfamiliar to Western ears, but is, nevertheless, the world\'s predominant musical style, and has so been since remote antiquity. KMcL



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