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Chapter 8 Contents

Micropolyphony or Sound Mass

Micropolyphony in music is also referred to as sound mass, sound complex, tone shower, sound crowd clusters or cloud.  Simply put, it is a compositional technique that utilizes several notes in closed intervals–clusters–performed simultaneously creating unidentifiable individual lines resulting in complex sonically dense textures.


This compositional process was developed by György Ligeti in the second half of the 20th century.  He coined it micropolyphony and described it as follows:


Technically speaking I have always approached musical texture through part-writing.  Both Atmosphères and Lontano have a dense canonic structure.  But you cannot actually hear the polyphony, the canon.  You hear a kind of impenetrable texture, something like a very densely woven cobweb.  I have retained melodic lines in the process of composition, they are governed by rules as strict as Palestrina's or those of the Flemish school, but the rules of this polyphony are worked out by me.  The polyphonic structure does not come through, you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic, underwater world, to us inaudible.  I call it micropolyphony.  (Ligeti, quoted in Bernard 1994, 238).


Furthermore, Edwards described it as when “the importance of individual pitches is minimized in preference for texture and timbre and dynamics as primary shapers of gesture and impact. . ."the boundary between sound and noise” (Edwards 2001, pp. 326–27).


7.1.  Atmosphère Composed by György Ligeti


By way of further introduction to sound mass, the following audio and score offer insights to the polyphonic nature of the work and the unfolding of textures creating as felling of illusion.  This is Ligeti’s most famous work and it has been used in a number of films.

Techniques for Sound Mass

• Polyphonic by design (although may not be strict) is the writing of different material for different sections of the orchestra.

• Canonic technique is the repetition of a motive passing through different parts or sections and being displaced time wise and creating a layering effect.

• Not chordal in concept but rather a series of shifting textures creating a complex fabric of sound evolving over time.

• Use of different sound clusters or cells ranging from two-note to dozens of pitches.

• Use of extended techniques on instruments such as muted brass or strings, flutter tonguing, wide vibrato, extreme ranges, and glissandos.

• Simultaneous use of different lines, colors and rhythms.

• Long duration of notes which change slowly over time.

• The use of step wise voice leading.


The technique of micropolyphony can be applied to any instrument, acoustic or electronic.



In keeping with the micropolyphony’s exploratory textures and sonic landscapes, sonorism or sonoristics, is a compositional technique that has been associated with several Polish composers of the 1960’s such as Karol Szymanowski, Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Górecki.  It is the extension of acoustic sound mass to electronic music in which composers explore timbral effects and combinations using electronic technologies.  


Music that emphasizes sonorism as a compositional approach tends to focus on specific characteristics and qualities of timbre, texture, articulation, dynamics, and motion in an attempt to create freer form. The style is primarily associated with an experimental musical movement which arose in Poland in the mid-1950s and flourished through the 1960s in a response to use serialism more freely.  (Wikipedia)


Sonorism emphasizes discovering new types of sounds from traditional instruments, as well as the creation of textures by combining different, often unconventional instrumental sounds in unusual and unique ways. The term sonoristics is used to describe this novel approach, which went beyond merely injecting individual color, quirks, and experimentation. It aimed to establish new structural functions in a composition, such as employing non-functional chords for sonorous effects, and emphasizing the sonic aspect of texts in vocal music.  (Granat 2008).


7.2-4  Example Micropolyphonic Scores


The following additional video cues illustrate sonically and visually the complexity and possibilities of sound mass composition:

György Ligeti: Lux Aeterna (animated)

György Ligeti: Lux Aeterna (animated)

Krzysztof Penderecki - Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (animated score)

Sound Mass Techniques

To begin the study of composing micropolyphony using technology and following examples of cluster as pedal points are provided.  They can be very useful for creating tension by themselves or in combination with other types of music.  They are composed for string patches.



7.5-12 Notated Examples of Clusters.

Illustrations 7.1-8  Sound Mass Cluster

Ex. 7.5  High Cluster

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7.2 high cluster.jpg

Ex. 7.6 Low Cluster

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low cluster.png

Ex. 7.7  Midrange Cluster

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midrange cluster.png

Ex. 7.8  Combined Cluster

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7.6 combined cluster.jpg

Ex. 7.9  Expanded Cluster

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7.7 expanded cluster.png

Ex. 7.10  Glissandi Cluster

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7.8 gliss cluster.jpg

Ex. 7.11  Combined Glissandi Cluster

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7.9 combined gliss cluster.jpg

Ex. 7.12  Combined Glissandi Cluster

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7.10 combined gliss cluster.jpg

Techniques such as above which can be created using MIDI include:


• High, low and mid-range clusters.

• Augmentation and diminution of clusters.

• Use of glissando or portamento.

• Overlapping of clusters.

• Addition of DSP.

• They can be assigned an instrument and can create an orchestral texture containing a complex array of clusters.

• They can also be assigned organic (Omnisphere) or electronically generated sounds (synth pads) to add additional variety to    the event(s).

• Traditional instruments can be merged with electronic instruments.

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