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Polytonality (also polyharmony (Cole and Schwartz 2012)) is the musical use of more than one key simultaneously. Bitonality is the use of only two different keys at the same time. Polyvalence is the use of more than one harmonic function, from the same key, at the same time (Leeuw 2005, 87).

Example of C and F sharp major chords together in Stravinsky's Petrushka (see: Petrushka chord). About this sound Play 

Some examples of bitonality superimpose fully harmonized sections of music in different keys.


Mozart used polytonality in his A Musical Joke for comic effect. About this sound Play 

In traditional music[edit]

Lithuanian traditional singing style sutartines is based on polytonality. A typical sutartines song is based on a six-bar melody, where the first three bars contains melody based on the notes of the triad of a major key (for example, in G major), and the next three bars is based on another key, always a major second higher or lower (for example, in A major). This six-bar melody is performed as a canon, and repetition starts from the fourth bar. As a result, parts are constantly singing in different tonality (key) simultaneously (in G and in A) (Jordania 2006, 119–20; Račiūnaitė-Vyčinienė 2002,[page needed]). As a traditional style, sutartines disappeared in Lithuanian villages by the first decades of the 20th century, but later became a national musical symbol of Lithuanian music (Račiūnaitė-Vyčinienė 2002,[page needed]).

Tribes throughout India—including the Kuravan of Kerala, the Jaunsari of Uttar Pradesh, the Gond, the Santal, and the Munda—also use bitonality, in responsorial song (Babiracki 1991, 76).

In classical music[edit]

Duetto II from Clavier-Übung III by J.S.Bach

In J.S.Bach's Clavier-Übung III, there is a two-part passage where, according to Scholes (1970, 448–49): "It will be seen that this is a canon at the fourth below; as it is a strict canon, all the intervals of the leading ‘voice’ are exactly imitated by the following ‘voice’, and since the key of the leading part is D minor modulating to G minor, that of the following part is necessarily A minor modulating to D minor. Here, then, we have a case of polytonality, but Bach has so adjusted his progressions (by the choice at the critical moment of notes common to two keys) that while the right hand is doubtless quite under the impression that the piece is 1n D minor, etc., and the left hand that it is in A minor, etc., the listener feels that the whole thing is homogeneous in key, though rather fluctuating from moment to moment. In other words, Bach is trying to make the best of both worlds—the homotonal one of his own day and (prophetically) the polytonal one of a couple of centuries later."

Another early use of polytonality occurs in the classical period in the finale of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's composition A Musical Joke, which he deliberately ends with the violins, violas and horns playing in four discordant keys simultaneously. However, it was not featured prominently in non-programmatic contexts until the twentieth century, particularly in the work of Charles Ives (Psalm 67, ca. 1898–1902), Béla Bartók (Fourteen Bagatelles, op. 6, 1908), and Stravinsky (Petrushka, 1911) (Whittall 2001). Ives claimed that he learned the technique of polytonality from his father, who taught him to sing popular songs in one key while harmonizing them in another (Crawford 2001, 503).

Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is widely credited with popularizing bitonality, and contemporary writers such as Casella (1924) describe him as progenitor of the technique: "the first work presenting polytonality in typical completeness—not merely in the guise of a more or less happy 'experiment,' but responding throughout to the demands of expression—is beyond all question the grandiose Le Sacre du Printemps of Stravinsky (1913)" (Casella 1924, 164).

Bartók's "Playsong" demonstrates easily perceivable bitonality through "the harmonic motion of each key...[being] relatively uncomplicated and very diatonic" (Kostka and Payne 1995, 495). Here, the "duality of key" featured is A minor and C minor:

Example of polytonality or extended tonality from Milhaud's Saudades do Brasil (1920) About this sound Play , right hand in B major and left hand in G major, or both hands in extended G major (Leeuw 2005, 87).

Other polytonal composers influenced by Stravinsky include those in the French group, Les Six, particularly Darius Milhaud, as well as Americans such as Aaron Copland (Marquis 1964,[page needed]).

Benjamin Britten used bi and polytonality in his operas, as well as enharmonic relationships, for example to signify the conflict between Claggart (F minor) and Billy (E major) in Billy Budd (note the shared enharmonically equivalent G/A) (Seymour 2007, 141–42) or to express the main character's "maladjustment" in Peter Grimes (White 1970, 119).

In popular music[edit]

Harmonic outline of the bridge from "Wouldn't It Be Nice"

An example of bitonality in rock music can be found in in the Beach Boys' 1966 song "Wouldn't It Be Nice" from Pet Sounds. The song opens with an arpeggio figuration in A major. This idea returns during the bridge section while the singers and the rest of the band perform in D major.[citation needed][clarification needed] From the same album, "God Only Knows" was also written with a bass line in a separate key.[clarification needed] (Wilson 1997)

Polytonality and polychords[edit]

Polytonality requires the presentation of simultaneous key-centers. The term "polychord" describes chords that can be constructed by superimposing multiple familiar tonal sonorities. For example, familiar ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords can be built from or decomposed into separate chords:

Separate chords within an extended chord (Marquis 1964,[page needed]). About this sound Play 

Thus polychords do not necessarily suggest polytonality, but they may not be explained as a single tertian chord. The Petrushka chord is an example of a polychord (Ellenberger 2005, 20). This is the norm in jazz, for example, which makes frequent use of "extended" and polychordal harmonies without any intended suggestion of "multiple keys."[citation needed]


The following passage, taken from Beethoven's Piano Sonata in E, Op. 81a (Les Adieux), suggests clashes between tonic and dominant harmonies in the same key (Marquis 1964,[page needed]).

Bitonality suggested in Beethoven (Marquis 1964,[page needed]). About this sound Play 

Leeuw points to Beethoven's use of the clash between tonic and dominant, such as in his Third Symphony, as polyvalency rather than bitonality, with polyvalency being, "the telescoping of diverse functions that should really occur in succession to one another" (Leeuw 2006, 87).

Polyvalency in Beethoven About this sound Play  (Leeuw 2006, 88).
Polyvalency in Stravinsky's Mass About this sound Play  (Leeuw 2006, 88).


Passages of music, such as Poulenc's Mouvements Perpetuels, I., may be misinterpreted as polytonal rather than polymodal. In this case, two scales[clarification needed] are recognizable but are assimilated through the common tonic (B) (Vincent 1951, 272).


Polyscalarity is defined as "the simultaneous use of musical objects which clearly suggest different source-collections (Tymoczko 2002, 83). "Specifically in reference to Stravinsky's music, Tymoczko uses the term polyscalarity out of deference to terminological sensibilities (Tymoczko 2002, 85). In other words, the term is meant to avoid any implication that the listener can perceive two keys at once. Though Tymoczko believed that polytonality is perceivable, he believed polyscalarity is better suited to describe Stravinsky's music. This term is also used as a response to Van den Toorn's analysis against polytonality. Van den Toorn, in an attempt to dismiss polytonal analysis used a monoscalar approach to analyze the music with the octatonic scale. However, Tymoczko states that this was problematic in that it does not resolve all instances of multiple interactions between scales and chords. Moreover, Tymoczko quotes Stravinsky's claim that the music of Petrouchka's second tableau was conceived "in two keys" (Tymoczko 2002, 85). Polyscalarity is then a term encompassing multiscalar superimpositions and cases which give a different explanation than the octatonic scale.


Some music theorists, including Milton Babbitt and Paul Hindemith have questioned whether polytonality is a useful or meaningful notion or "viable auditory possibility" (Baker 1983, 163). Babbitt called polytonality a "self-contradictory expression which, if it is to possess any meaning at all, can only be used as a label to designate a certain degree of expansion of the individual elements of a well-defined harmonic or voice-leading unit" (Babbitt 1949, 380). Other theorists to question or reject polytonality include Allen Forte and Benjamin Boretz, who hold that the notion involves logical incoherence (Tymoczko 2002, 84).

Other theorists, such as Dmitri Tymoczko, respond that the notion of "tonality" is a psychological, not a logical notion (Tymoczko 2002, 84). Furthermore, Tymoczko argues that two separate key-areas can, at least at a rudimentary level, be heard at one and the same time: for example, when listening to two different pieces played by two different instruments in two areas of a room (Tymoczko 2002, 84).


Some critics of the notion of polytonality, such as Pieter van den Toorn, argue that the octatonic scale accounts in concrete pitch-relational terms for the qualities of "clashing," "opposition," "stasis," "polarity," and "superimposition" found in Stravinsky's music and, far from negating them, explains these qualities on a deeper level (Van den Toorn and Tymoczko 2003, 179). For example, the passage from Petrushka, cited above, uses only notes drawn from the C octatonic collection C-C-D-E-F-G-A-A.

See also[edit]


  • Babbitt, Milton (1949). "The String Quartets of Bartók". Musical Quarterly 35, no. 3 (July): 377–85.
  • Beach, David (1983). Aspects of Schenkerian Theory. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-02800-3. 
  • Casella, Alfred (1924). "Tone Problems of Today". Musical Quarterly 10:159–71.
  • Cole, Richard, and Ed Schwartz, eds. (2012). "Polyharmony". Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary. Virginia Tech. Retrieved 2007-08-04. 
  • Crawford, Richard (2001). America's Musical Life: A History. New York: W. W. Norton. [full citation needed].
  • Ellenberger, Kurt (2005). Materials and Concepts in Jazz Improvisation (fifth ed.). Grand Rapids: Keytone. ISBN 0-9709811-3-9. 
  • Hindemith, Paul (1941–42). The Craft of Musical Composition, vols. 1 and 2, translated by Arthur Mendel and Otto Ortmann. New York: Associated Music Publishers; London: Schott & Co. Original German edition as Unterweisung im Tonsatz. 3 vols. Mainz, B. Schott's Söhne, 1937–70.
  • Jordania, Joseph (2006). Who Asked the First Question?. Logos.[full citation needed].
  • Kostka, Stefan M., and Dorothy Payne (1995). Tonal Harmony, with an Introduction to Twentieth-Century Music, third edition, consulting editor in music, Allan W. Schindler. New York: McGraw-Hill Inc. ISBN 978-0-07-035874-4.
  • Leeuw, Ton de (2005). Music of the Twentieth Century: A Study of Its Elements and Structure, foreword by Rokus De Groot, translated by Stephen Taylor. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. ISBN 978-90-5356-765-4. Translated from Muziek van de twintigste eeuw: een onderzoek naar haar elementen en structuur, met 111 muziekvoorbeelden en 7 figuren. Utrecht: A. Oosthoek's Uitg. Mij., 1964 (third printing, Utrecht: Bohn, Scheltema & Holkema, 1977, ISBN 9789031302444).
  • Marquis, G. Welton (1964). Twentieth Century Music Idioms. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 
  • Nettl, Bruno (1991). Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music Essays on the History of Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-57409-7. 
  • Račiūnaitė-Vyčinienė, Daiva (2002). Sutartinės: Lithuanian Polyphonic Songs, translated by Vijole Arbas. Vilnius: Vaga Publishers. ISBN 978-5-415-01630-3.
  • Scholes, Percy A. (1970). "Harmony". The Oxford Companion to Music. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Seymour, Claire (2007). The Operas of Benjamin Britten Expression and Evasion. Boydell Press. ISBN 978-1-84383-314-7. 
  • Tymoczko, Dmitri (2002). "Stravinsky and the Octatonic: A Reconsideration". Music Theory Spectrum 24, no. 1:68–102.
  • Van den Toorn, Pieter C., and Dmitri Tymoczko (2003). "Colloquy: Stravinsky and the Octatonic: The Sounds of Stravinsky". Music Theory Spectrum 25, no. 1 (Spring): 167–202.
  • Vincent, John (1951). The Diatonic Modes in Modern Music. University of California Publications in Music 4. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  • White, Eric Walter (1970). Benjamin Britten His Life and Operas. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-01679-8. 
  • Whittall, Arnold (2001). "Bitonality". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Wilson, Carl (1997). "Comments by Carl Wilson". The Pet Sounds Sessions (Booklet). The Beach Boys. Capitol Records. 
  • Wilson, Paul (1992). The Music of Béla Bartók. ISBN 978-0-300-05111-7. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Reti, Rudolph (1978). Tonality, Atonality, Pantonality A Study of Some Trends in Twentieth Century Music. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-313-20478-4.