If you’ve begun playing a digital piano, keyboard, or synth, you’ve probably heard the word “polyphony” before. Harnessing the power of polyphony can let you create memorable music. But what is polyphony? And how can you use it to improve your sound?
What is Polyphony & Its Importance?
1. How is Polyphony Defined?
Polyphony means the ability of an instrument to play multiple notes at once. Usually, you hear it used in reference to digital pianos, keyboards, or synthesizers.
But it’s important to note that polyphony doesn’t refer to the number of notes a player can make at once. Rather, it means the number of voices or pitches the instrument itself can produce at once.
For example, let’s look at an acoustic piano. You probably know that a hammer strikes strings inside of the instrument. Each string sounds like a note. Most acoustic pianos have 88 keys, with each key having its own string. So in theory, a piano could play 88 notes at once and has 88-note (or 88-voice) polyphony.
A six-string guitar works the same way. Six strings can sound at once, so a guitar has six-voice or six-note polyphony.
The polyphony becomes a bit murkier when it comes to the digital piano or keyboard. When you use a sustain pedal or otherwise extend the decay of your notes, you can create a rich, layered sound. Each note or pitch that you can hear in a given moment takes up one note or voice of the instrument’s available polyphony.
Whether you play classical music, rock, folk, or really any genre, understanding the polyphonic abilities of modern digital pianos can help you grow as a musician. If you’re curious about polyphony and other musical textures, this video offers a very thorough introduction.
2. Polyphony and Synthesizers
The idea of digital polyphony as we know it today evolved with the development of the synthesizer. In the beginning, there wasn’t really any focus on whether a synth could play more than one note at a time, as synthesizers were primarily experimental instruments. One of the earliest ancestors of the modern synthesizer was the theremin, an instrument played by moving the hand through an electrostatic field.
You really only need voltage sources to create sounds with a synthesizer, and the earliest models never had keyboards. Probably in an effort to make his instruments more approachable or more marketable, Bob Moog started selling his synthesizers with built-in keyboard controllers. Now, many people think that all synthesizers (or at least most) have a built-in keyboard controller.
It was this choice that led the industry to focus on polyphony. Pianists and composers tended to gravitate toward the newer synthesizer models thanks to the built-in keyboards. And unsurprisingly, they wanted something that played similarly to a piano as well.
It’s the polyphony of the piano that lets players develop such distinctive playing styles. On an acoustic piano, you can play chords and notes at the same time, vamp, etc. Polyphony was important to most people who played the early synthesizers.
So manufacturers worked to make their instruments polyphonic. Moog released the first completely polyphonic synthesizer, the Polymoog, in 1975. This video gives you a closer look at its evolution. Since the creation of the Polymoog, the world of polyphonic synthesizers has only expanded.
3. Polyphony, Paraphony, and Monophony
If you’re searching for a digital piano or similar instrument, you may notice different models advertised as being “polyphonic,” “paraphonic,” or “monophonic.” You already know what polyphonic means, but what about the other two?
A monophonic keyboard, piano, or synth can play one note at a time. That makes it function similarly to the human voice.
After all, we can’t sing more than one note at once (though it would be nice if we could!). Playing one note at a time might sound limited, but many of the most legendary synths of all time are monophonic. A great example of a monophonic synth that sounds great is the Minimoog, which you can see in this video.
So what about paraphony? A paraphonic synthesizer can play multiple voices or notes like a polyphonic one. However. These voices are not truly independent, as they usually move through the same filter. Unless you know your synths pretty well, it can be difficult to tell the difference between polyphony and paraphony.
Many synths capable of playing multiple notes at once have at least some level of paraphony. Making completely polyphonic synth results in an incredibly bulky instrument. And the truth is that not many players need an instrument that is totally polyphonic.
Of course, you don’t need to commit terminology like this to memory. But as you delve into digital pianos, synths, and keyboards, you might find yourself developing an interest in how they work.
4. Why Do You Need So Many Notes?
Some keyboards and synths have a polyphony limit of more notes than you could ever hope to play at once. But especially if you’re creating lush soundscapes, you may be playing more notes at once than you think. This can happen if you hold the sustain pedal down after many of the notes or chords you play.
You might wonder what happens if your synth or digital piano exceeds its polyphony limit. Gradually, the instrument starts layering note after note. But once the limit is exceeded, notes start to “chop off” at random. Usually, a given note will just drop out mid-decay. This can be especially jarring and can cause the sound to thin. So as you may have guessed, it’s better to have more voices than you need than to need more voices than you have.
5. When Should You Use Polyphony?
Some synth or digital piano models have a maximum polyphony of 128 notes or even more. And while you probably won’t need to play 128 individual notes at once, there are some instances where it’s wise to look for digital pianos with a good bit of polyphony:
If you play ambient music or create soundscapes. If you listen closely to background music in movies, you’ll likely notice that it’s surprisingly complex. And since there’s usually a good bit of sustain involved in expansive synth pads, choosing a polyphonic synth is wise.
If you want versatility. This is not always the case, but many polyphonic synths also have a monophonic mode that emulates the sound of a mono synth.
If you want to split the keyboard. This is another feature that many, but not all, polyphonic synths have. You can sometimes designate a point to “split” the keyboard, meaning you can play different sounds on each side. If you’re considering selecting a polyphonic analog synthesizer, this cool video offers some advice.
6. When is Monophony Better?
Some players like to look for maximum polyphony. But as you saw above if you checked out the video of the Minimoog, even monophonic synths can sound very impressive. If you’re playing digital piano and want to try a synthesizer, here are some of the instances in which you might want to consider playing a monophonic synth:
If you like the sound. The classic sound of a monosynth is unmistakable, and it fits into a wide range of musical genres. Monosynths or keyboards with low polyphony tend to have more onboard modulation effects than polyphonic synths, so a monosynth is a good choice if you like tinkering with sound design.
If you’re on a budget. Monophonic synths are often much less expensive than polyphonic instruments. And if you’re just branching out from a plain keyboard to dip your toe in the water of synthesizers, a monophonic synth is an economical choice that will still give you a chance to improve your musicianship.
If you mainly want to play single-note leads or bass. Monophonic synths usually have clear, powerful sound quality, & they excel when it comes to one-note lines. These synths also tend to be able to “glide” between notes, so you can play with a smooth or staccato effect. This video offers an introduction to playing a monosynth!
Hopefully, you now have a grasp of polyphony and what makes it important in the digital piano world. Whether you’re an acoustic pianist looking to jump into the world of digital keys or someone just learning their first instrument, we hope you’ll find yourself lost in the mesmerizing wash of polyphony sometime soon.