What Does Monophonic Mean?
Monophonic is a term used most frequently in regards to music. The word, “monophonic” is made from the two words, mono and phonic. Mono means single or one, while phonic means voice. When we put these together monophonic simply means “one voice”. One voice in music can be taken literally as one person singing. Monophonic sound can also be sung by multiple people or voices at the same time. So long as they are all singing the same note, at exactly the same pitch. In fact, the origin of monophonic music likely began with singular note chanting. For example, in the Middle Ages there was a style of Christian songs known as plainchant which can be described as monophonic.
Here are a few more examples of monophonic music to help explain the meaning. Playing one note at a time versus playing a chord would be considered monophonic. Another example would be a single instrument playing without any accompanying harmonies. A harmony is a combination of simultaneously played musical notes to produce chords or chord progressions. For a sound to be monophonic by this definition, it cannot have harmony or chords.
The word monophonic is also a term used in describing a synthesizer’s voice capabilities. A synthesizer that cannot play more than one note at a time (in other words no chords can be played) is called a monophonic synth. Conversely, a synthesizer with the ability to play more than one note at a time, or chords, is called a polyphonic synthesizer. Polyphonic meaning many (or more than one) voice. Polyphonic synthesizers will often list how many voices they have, for example a 4-voice polyphonic synthesizer is capable of playing 4 different notes at the same time.
Putting it all together, monophonic is best explained as one voice or note heard at a time. There are no harmonies or chords in monophonic sound. Only one note is ever heard at the same time.