Georgian Polyphonic Music

The Origins of Western Polyphony

Essay, 2011

6 Pages, Grade: 90.0


Georgian Polyphony Essay

Language and song are the most predominant markers that define cultural identity. Both allow an individual and a society to create not only a composite image of the world through word, but also interpret it and express it through an art as timeless as music. Cultures around the world have formulated individual music styles, instruments, and sounds to be able to express the mindset within their socio-cultural identities. From the Americas, to Africa and especially in Europe and Asia, the ethnic groups and peoples who populated the land formulated their own sense of self through the art and song they were able to produce. Nestled on the Eastern coast of the Black Sea, the country of Georgia can trace its civilization back into the stories out of Greek Antiquity. Made famous to the Western world of the past through the story of Jason and the Argonauts, the land became known as one plentiful in gold and wine. Although the lands were materially abundant in the stories of the Greek poets, the peoples of the Caucasuses found their wealth through the culture they cultivated over the decades.

Prior to Georgian Christianization, the peoples of the Black Sea territory were pagan worshippers who were dominated by "seven principle deities."[1] These Sun and Moon worshipping farmers honored their numerous gods through sacrifice, dance and song. Although the culture seemed primitive and relatively unimpressive, the features of their musical structure were extremely peculiar. Unique to the cultures and peoples of Georgia, "polyphony... distinguishe[d] Georgian folk music from that of all other peoples in the Near East."[2] Preceding any hint of European polyphonic development, this musical style flourished in every region of Georgia. Serving as a marker for their identity, the Georgian people incorporated polyphonic singing in sacred rituals and other particular, secular, genres including work and dinner songs. Despite the culture-wide connection through polyphony, different regions within Georgia fostered the music style in different fashions. In the Eastern regions of Georgia, songs were performed with "strong and full chest voice" in a "relatively slow, quiet and even"[3] tempo. In comparison, Western Georgian performances were "lively [with] riotously hastening movement" while simultaneously incorporating vocables that "function[ed] as rhythmic 'filler'" in order to "to maximize vocal resonance."[4] These vocables are "non-sense words" in songs that are rooted in the now dead ancient languages of the prehistoric Caucuses. Remarkably, it is believed that polyphonic music of the Western regions "preserved select lexical items that spoken language [had] purged over the course of millennia."[5] As a result, Georgians when singing vocables in a song connect themselves not only to ancient polyphonic tradition, but also to the origins of their culture and people.

Despite the different practices between the Eastern and Western regions, polyphony as an umbrella term still clearly defined the musical structure of the developing styles. When speaking about the makeup of their new album, Kavkasia, a professional vocal trio that embodies the agrarian background of Georgian polyphony through their dedication to studying and performing traditional Georgian music, commented on the cross-regional use of common intervals and tuning systems:

In general, in music with true three-part polyphonic independence and a small melodic range, fifths will be more important than octaves. The fifth will replace the octave as the unit of structural stability and pitch equivalence, and the scale will repeat at the fifth instead of the octave. We can usefully speak of such music as being built around the "quintave" rather than the octave. In a scale based on the quintave, furthermore, the tendency will be to subdivide the fifth not into whole and half steps but into four intervals more nearly equal in size, blurring or erasing the sense of major and minor. Those intervals produce a lowered second, a near-neutral third, and a raised fourth -- which, when projected by a fifth, results in a raised eighth degree, a wide octave. The effects of this tendency vary by region in proportion to the tradition of true three-part polyphony, but some form of quintave tuning is common to almost all Georgian music.[6]


[1] Allen, W. E. D.. "The Background."A History Of The Georgian People: From The Beginning Down To The Russian Conquest In The Nineteenth Century,. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1932. 38.

[2] Emsheimer, Ernst . "Georgian Folk Polyphony ."Journal of the International Folk Music Council 19 (1967): 55. JSTOR.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ninoshvili, Lauren. "The Poetics of Pop Polyphony: Translating Georgian Song for the World."Popular Music & Society 32.3 (2009): p409.

[5] Ibid.

[6] "Traditional Songs from Georgia."Kavkasia. N.p., n.d. <>

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Georgian Polyphonic Music
The Origins of Western Polyphony
University of San Francisco  (Saint Ignatius Institute)
Music and Art
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ISBN (Book)
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music, art, georgia, georgian, caucasian, caucasus, caucasus region, polyphony, polyphonic, western, west, europe, kartli, kakheti, history, origins, singing
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Nikolas Eristavi (Author), 2011, Georgian Polyphonic Music, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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