Harry Partch Ratio Representation Project

by Brian Harlan and Arun Chidambaram

III. Partch's theory of "Monophony"

Partch’s use of the term monophony to describe his aesthetic stance has often resulted in confusion and misunderstanding on the part of students. Partch’s Theory of Monophony, and his monophonic resources (namely his forty-three tones), are related to the standard definition of monophony, but must be distinguished with qualifications.  When Partch wrote of monophony, he had in mind the Renaissance and Baroque monodies by composers such as Caccini and Monteverdi, which developed in part form ideas that came from a 16th-centuyCamerata .  Cameratas were small gatherings of scholars in Italy.  A well known camerata led by Giovanni Bardi in Florence that included musicians such as Giulio Caccini, Jacopo Peri, and Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo) encouraged a new style of music in reaction to the preponderance of polyphonic music at the time.  The style they helped create was intended to be in emulation of ancient Greek drama, and relied heavily on solo voice with accompaniment.

                There have been many moments in Western history that reveal to a return of interest in Classical thought.  So much so that one might metaphorically portray ancient Greece as the 1/1 of Western culture.  Yet, there were very significant civilizations prior to ancient Greece as well.  Partch was not only interested in returning to the ideas of ancient Greece, he was also interested in returning to the ideas of ancient Egypt and China.  He was equally influenced by contemporaneous non-Western musics, which he felt were more visceral and “alive.” In his essays, Partch depicts Western concert music as abstract and disconnected from nature—and specifically, in a state of denial regarding the human body.  In other words, ancient and non-Western musics, according to Partch, resonated more with the body, they were more dramatic, and more individualistic expressions that spoke directly to humanity.  The formalistic music of the Western concert halls, in contrast, which did not refer to anything outside itself (literally art for the sake of art), resonated only in the mind, and had therefore lost the “magic” potential that is the basis of these other musics.

                 In his manifest Genesis of a Music: An Account of a Creative Work, its Roots and Its Fulfillment, Partch explains his “Monophony” as an organization of pitches based on the overtone series, and the human capability to perceive this series in relationship to its source.  All the pitches that grow out of the1/1 (2/1, 3/2, 4/3, and so on) are inherently related back to the 1/1.  All that music, furthermore, is a play of these perceived relationships. Partch used his concept of “Monophony” to create what he deemed “Corporeal” music that taped our “ancestral spirit” and renewed the ritual power of Western music.


Introduction  2 3 4  | Ratio Notation  |  Partch’s Theory of" Monophony”  |  Implementation  | Examples