A Short History of Liturgical Music – Polyphony

This post is part of our series on liturgical music. Also check out our part on Gregorian Chant!


Another type of music we love to sing with the choir is polyphony (If you have no clue what I’m talking about, these are the pieces we sing on special occasions during communion, the ones that sound particularly ‘Catholicy’). Polyphony was introduced in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance and contrasts from Gregorian Chant in that multiple voices build ontop of each other to create a really unique texture and complexity to the music. Some popular composers include Byrd (who wrote the Ave Verum Corpus we often sing), Palestrina (who wrote the Sicut Cervus and the Jesu Rex Admirabilis you will most likely hear this Sunday), and Tallis (who wrote a piece that’s in our duotangs for next semester, If Ye Love Me).


Did you know that polyphony was not always particularly welcomed within the Catholic liturgical tradition? This may be surprising the lyrics so clearly point to Scripture and liturgy. But it was precisely because the words are sometimes hard to hear in polyphony that it stirred up so much controversy. You will probably notice that it’s hard to make out (despite the language differences, as we sing mostly in Latin) exactly what the lyrics are because the multiple voices are overlapping each other. So when you hear polyphony, you might not quite understand the words, but many people note that the beauty of the music certainly lifts their soul! We hope that it helps you to lift your thoughts and pray!


Take a listen: Ave Verum Corpus –

Secut Cervus:

Jesu Rex Admirabilis:


Holly Ann Garnett, Director, Newman Centre Choir




By Newman Catholic Students' Society Executive

For more information about the Newman Catholic Students' Society executive, please consult the Executive Committee page under the About menu on this website.