Counterpoint - An Overview

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Correlli, Nov 26, 2005.

  1. Correlli


    Apr 2, 2004
    Wellington, NZ

    Counterpoint is the simultaneous combination of two or more melodies. It is derived from Latin word meaning “point against point” or “note against note” or “melody against melody”. Counterpoint is not the same as polyphony, although they are similar. Polyphony, a musical texture containing two or more melodies simultaneously, refers to texture. For example, polyphonic versus homophonic. Counterpoint refers to the technique in composing polyphony. One instance of Counterpoint is Round (simple canon).
    Example of a Round:
    - Each part (voice) has the same melody.
    - Second and succeeding parts beginning after equal amount of time.
    - Row Row Row Your Boat is a simple example of counterpoint.
    - The listener follows activity from one voice to another.

    Row Row Row Your Boat

    True spirit of counterpoint is when different parts are equally interesting melodies, but are independent of one another. Both in melodic direction (rise and fall of pitch, or remaining the same) and rhythmic activity.
    - The parts, all have melodies of equal interest.
    - Oblique Motion - When one part has a sustained or repeated note, often another part has an ascending or descending motion.
    - Contrary Motion - When one part ascends or descends, other part moves in the opposite direction.
    - Similar Motion - Only rarely do two parts ascend and descend together.
    - The rhythm of each part remains distinct at all times.

    Imitative and Non-imitative Counterpoint

    Counterpoint can be imitative (mimetic) or non-imitative. In imitative counterpoint, the various voices share the same melodic patterns (or motives), imitating one another as in a simple canon (Row Row Row Your Boat). Occurs mostly in Canon and Fugue and in Western Music from 16th to 18th century.

    In non-imitative counterpoint, each voice has it own motives. There several techniques to produce variety:
    - The second and successive parts can enter on the same pitch as first, or enter on higher or lower pitch.
    - The second and successive parts can imitate the first voice exactly or can vary its motives.
    - Sometimes the answering voice is much slower than the first (augmentation, that is, use of longer notes) or much faster (diminution, or use of shorter notes).
    - The second voice does not wait for the first to complete its motives, but enters early; such overlapping is called stretto.
    - The answering voice can also turn the motives upside down, imitating every ascending interval by a descending interval, and imitating every descending interval by an ascending interval; this practice is called inversion.

    Non-Imitatve Counterpoint


    Medieval period, composers took a pre-existing melody, called a cantus firmus (Latin, "fixed melody"), and added one or more parts against it. Contrapuntal techniques were perfected in the 16th-century, golden age of polyphony. The style of this era, has remained a basis for instruction in counterpoint. 18th century composers used counterpoint in conjunction with Major and Minor keys. In 20th-century music the individual parts in contrapuntal textures are freer to pursue their own melodic tendencies.

    Teaching of Counterpoint

    The contrapuntal style of the 16th century has remained one pedagogical model from that time to the present day. The model for this style includes:
    - All voices remain within a maximum compass of an octave and a fifth.
    - The compass of each voice lies a fourth or fifth lower or higher than that of its neighbors.
    - Within these voices the melodies may move:
    - Stepwise – wholetone of semitones
    - Certain skips - those of a third, perfect forth or fifth, ascending minor sixth, and an octave with larger skips used sparingly.

    Voices form only consonant (stable, non-clashing) intervals with one another, except in specific melodic-harmonic patterns (classified as passing tones, neighbors, anticipations, suspensions, and so forth). Patterns of dissonance (unstable, clashing intervals) are allowed only in certain clearly defined instances. Except for suspensions, such dissonance’s generally occur in short rhythmic values and on unaccented beats or divisions of beats. Motion among consonance’s is regulated in this music, with perfect fifths and octaves arising only when two voices move by oblique or contrary motion. The rhythmic flow within individual voices is smooth, with no abrupt starts or stops, and with no short syncopation’s (offbeat rhythms).

    Counterpoint is taught using species:
    - Cantus firmus: note are of equal duration, is basis of Counterpoint.
    - First species: has one note for each note in the cantus.
    - Second species - each note of the cantus is set against two equal-length notes.
    - Third species: each note of the cantus is set against four equal-length notes.
    - Forth species: notes of cantus and counterpoint are the same length, but they begin on different beats.
    - Fifth species: notes of unequal value are used in the counterpoint.

    source: MSN Encarta
    Gio Orfitinho and dtsand like this.
  2. d8g3jdh

    d8g3jdh Guest

    Aug 9, 2005

    you know, i always though that dogs...laid eggs. So, i learned something today.

  3. I'll remember this next time I'm playing a contrapuntal bassline... whenever that might be.
  4. RiddimKing


    Dec 29, 2004

    Thanks for that. I've heard the term, and thought I had an idea of what it was--now I really have an idea of what it is. I'd eventually like to learn to be a good enough song writer to incorporate counterpoint.

  5. Tash


    Feb 13, 2005
    Bel Air Maryland
    All good bass lines are countrapunal to a degree. The essence of counterpoint is writing something that sounds good on its own while also working well and supporting the other parts of the song.

    I make extensive use of various counterpoint techniques in my original compositions, especially to emphasize seperate between bass and guitar.
  6. That's true. I just thought it seemed very odd to throw out a definiton of counterpoint into a bassists' forum without warning. Especially without making the statement you just made. Suggestions as to how we might apply that information would have been more to my liking than the original post was.
  7. Tash


    Feb 13, 2005
    Bel Air Maryland
    I agree, but that's a little like asking someone to give you suggestions on how to apply calculus...its kinda hard to suggest uses for either to someone who doesn't really know how they work yet.

    Here's a simple counterpoint excercise for you:

    Take a simple melody in the key of C major: C-D-C-B-C. Now write a conterpunal bassline that defines the following chord progression: I-ii-IV-V-i.

    What would the countermelody be? Obviously there are a couple answers. C-A-A-G-G would work. So would C-A-F-G-C. So would C-F-A-G-C.

    Which is the "best" choice? Why? What makes the other's insuitable?


    The last choice is the best according to traditional thinking, because it is the most independent of the first line. The first choice has only 3 notes, it lacks a real melodic structure of its own. The second has a melody, but violates several important rules for voice leading, namely the paralell 5th that occur on the 2nd and 3rd notes. Parallell 5ths and 8ths mask independent motion, and should be avoided. The last example has two weaknesses, but neither is that serious. First it has two rather large skips: C-F and G-C, but depending on direction they may not be too bad. Assume that the first pair are ascending and the last descending. This would still sound fine as a bass line, but probably not so much as a soprano or alto part. Large skips tend to be less noticeable and jarring in the bass part. The second problem is that the IV chord doesn't have its root defined, but that's not a big deal either. First the IV chord isn't extremely important to this melody, so not hearing its root isn't devastating to the piece. Secondly we DO hear its root, in the bass line on the previous beat. This sharing of a chord tone adds a degree of stability and smoothness to the ii-IV transition even if we don't play the F in the same beat as the IV chord.

    Why is this information helpful to a bass player? Well, this is how you create a good bass line. What we did was look at a simple monophonic melody and use another monophonic melody to create a stable sounding chord progression. Imagine that melody was a trumpet, or flute, or voice and you were asked to provide accompaniment on the bass. You've managed to define the chord proegression for the song without benefit of any other instruments, and your bass line still sounds cool and melodic all by itself.

    Counterpoint is cool.
    Gio Orfitinho likes this.
  8. montrell


    Mar 11, 2004
    wow, great post Tash. I'd really like to learn more about counterpoint theory. Can you point me to any *basic* books? I have access to the music school's library at my university. I've seen some very thick books on the subject, but I think they'd be overkill for now.
  9. Tash


    Feb 13, 2005
    Bel Air Maryland
    The counterpoint theory I know is all from two sources: my composition teacher and Kent Kennan's Counterpoint textbook. This is considered one of the best texts on the subject available and is frequently used in college level counterpoint classes, if your school doesn't have it they can probably get it on ILL. It does require you to have a strong background in traditional theory however, but it starts at level 1 in terms of counterpoint (simple melodies arranged for two voices over traqditional chord sgtructures). It all the way up to writing fuges arranged for 4 or more voices.

    I also recomend studying under a dedicated composition teacher, someone who has a firm understanding of how to use counterpoint in a practical sense and can guide you through the to process of turning excercises into music. Since you are at a university already there is probably at least one professor of theory there who teaches composition, you may even be able to take comp lessons for credit depending on your program.
  10. Wrong Robot

    Wrong Robot Guest

    Apr 8, 2002
    Ha! this takes me back to 11th grade theory.

    I would note that the concepts of counterpoint apply beyond notes and rhythm. Verily, just about any aspect of music is built off of dynamic interplay between 2 or more elements, and keeping the ideas of traditional and untraditional counterpoint in mind while playing is worth while. That said, this is western tonal counterpoint kiwi is talking about. Don't get caught up thinking this is the be all and end all of contrapuntal exploration.
  11. Ukiah Bass

    Ukiah Bass Supporting Member

    May 10, 2006
    I'm interested in exploring this further but am hampered by being "unschooled" in advanced music theory. It would be very helpful to listen to different examples of melody/bass interplay (I learn more from hearing than reading). Can anyone point to aural resources on this topic?
  12. Biggbass

    Biggbass Supporting Member

    Dec 14, 2011
    Planet Earth
    Eleanor Rigby
    She's Leaving Home
    I've got a Feeling

    Great examples of counterpoint vocal parts from Lennon-McCartney
  13. Ukiah Bass

    Ukiah Bass Supporting Member

    May 10, 2006
    So how could a guy who wasn't trained in music theory and couldn't read standard notation know how to do that? :)
  14. Biggbass

    Biggbass Supporting Member

    Dec 14, 2011
    Planet Earth
    How could Mozart write a symphony at age 7?