The Nuts and Bolts of Counterpoint in Musical Theory

The Nuts and Bolts of Counterpoint in Musical Theory

One of the most confusing concepts in music theory is called “counterpoint.”

The reason why it is problematic involves how each person describes it. Composers have used this idea to represent an entire number, a singular melodic voice, and virtually everything else you have ever found in music.

Its goal is to focus on the listener’s interaction with the melody and harmony. By creating internal structures that use separate voices that contribute to a larger whole.

Instead of focusing on parallel chords or other arrangements, the individualized tones balance each other without crossing over into the other’s idea.

If you’ve ever tried to play two song melodies at the same time, you’ve implemented the action that comes with counterpoint theory.

The Nuts and Bolts of Counterpoint

Counterpoint is the relationship that two or more musical voices or lines have within a composition. They are harmonically interdependent, yet still functioning independently of the melody’s contouring and overall rhythm. It is typically seen in European classical pieces.

We first saw counterpoint used at the beginning of the Middle Ages. It was a simple process at first, using chanting and choral ideas to create multiple melodies that could intertwine with one another.

What started as two voices moving with parallel motion would evolve into rhythms that used contrary activities. Composers began to incorporate false melodies, dissonance, and alternative tonality.

We’re all familiar with the concept of monophony, although we don’t usually refer to it by its official description.

If you sing a hymn’s primary melody with everyone else, that’s what occurs. You do the same thing when singing along to the radio.

Monophony can have an accompaniment. When reviewing this style’s traditional forms, it’s usually an organ, piano, or guitar.

Once you start thinking about adding harmonies and diverse voices to the song, you’re creating a counterpoint.

A natural balance can still be monophonic, but a composition that uses distinctive lines to create another melodic sequence uses this aspect of musical theory.

If only two specific voices happen simultaneously, that option is called “polyphonic.”

■ Is Ad-Libbing a Form of Counterpoint?

Although ad-libbing in recorded songs seems like it would be part of counterpoint theory, it is not – under most circumstances.

When artists ad-lib at the end of a song, what they’re doing is expanding the original melody.

If you see ad libitum as a notation in sheet music, that instruction gives the performer the freedom to make multiple changes to the melody. It could involve different notes, tempo changes, or rhythmic alterations.

When this instruction occurs in a jazz piece, it is typically to let the musician improvise without any boundaries.

In some genres, the idea of ad-libbing is to create a signature sound. Note that it is only one melodic expression!

You’d need to have someone else ad-libbing at the same time to create a counterpoint recording.

These sounds can be grunts, sound effects, variations of the lyrics, or DJ Khalid continually reminding you of his name.

When you create music, the introduction is where everything happens. It’s what generates attention for the listener for the first time.

You can either hook them in with a melody and counterpoint, use ad-libs, or a combination of both.

What you won’t see as a counterpoint is a catchphrase – no matter how many times DJ Khalid says, “Another one.”

What Is a Modern Example of Counterpoint?

Although numerous songs offer several ways to view counterpoint theory, one of the best to be released in the past 40 years is from a Christian artist named Geoff Moore.

Moore sings with another artist named Steven Curtis Chapman. While the band “The Distance” plays the melody and counterpoint, the two men sing a polyphonic chorus that serves almost as an echo.

Once the main expressionism in the first half of the chorus is over, the two men join back to finish it together as a duet.

When writing out the lyrics for this counterpoint composition, it would look like the following.

“So, listen to our hearts (Oh Lord, please listen)

Here our spirit sing (and hear us sing)

A song of praise that flows (a simple song of praise)

From those You have redeemed (from those You have redeemed).”

What makes it a counterpoint is the fact that both melodies can stand independent of each other while also working together simultaneously.

You could have Geoff Moore singing the primary phrases alone or use Chapman’s part to do the same.

Another example of polyphony structure comes from “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba. The song begins at the chorus, which also serves as the hook for the piece.

After the chorus, the first melody begins. The secondary melody starts soon after, and then the first melodic part finishes before the chorus restarts.

Once you get to the 2:20 point of the song, both melodies finish the piece by working together simultaneously as the chorus also comes into play.

Look at it this way: at least you’re not pissing the night away by studying musical theory with this song.

■ What about Using Heterophony in Music?

The final option for counterpoint in modern musical theory is called heterophony. It occurs when a composer uses more than two versions of the same melody concurrently.

Although pop music doesn’t use this structure very often, you can hear it near the song’s end when listening to “Come on Eileen.”

It only happens for a few seconds a little over three minutes into the piece, but it’s definitely there to deliver a firm counterpoint foundation.

Some might argue that heterophony is only another polyphony type, but it is different from the musical concept of unison.

Plato is the one who coined this term, and it translates into English (and other languages) as “different voices.”

The counterpoint variations can have different embellishments, style differences, tempo updates, or rhythmic alterations.

If you want to get away from modern music, one of the best versions of counterpoint ever developed comes from Mozart.

The Jupiter Symphony (officially Symphony No. 41) uses five distinctive voices to create an impressive listening experience. It’s in the finale of the piece.

What Is Species Counterpoint?

Although it is formally called “species” counterpoint, it is typically referred to as the “strict” version of this musical theory. It offers less freedom to composers because of the fixed melody constant it contains.

It is often used to teach students the musical theory behind counterpoint. Once they master these lessons, they proceed to free counterpoint, which doesn’t contain the fixed melody.

The first written instructions involving species counterpoint come from Giovanni Maria Lanfranco, who described the concept in 1532. It was first presented in codified form in 1619.

By 1725, Johann Fux published a refined process that describes the five overall species found in this theory.

  • Note against note.
  • Two notes against one.
  • Four notes against a single one.
  • Suspensions (notes that offset against one another).
  • Florid (all of the previous species together).

Most musical theorists after Fux attempted to replicate his work, although they’d often make minor modifications to the rules.

■ What Are the Species Counterpoint Rules?

That’s what would eventually lead to the species considerations for counterpoint theory in music. When performing melodic writing in each one, the following rules apply.

  1. When the final is approached from below the step, the leading tone must be put into a minor key. It cannot use Hypophrygian or Phrygian, and it must be present in the step approach at the cadence.
  2. Several permitted melodic intervals can provide bespoke options, such as the fourth, fifth, or perfect unions. Composers can also incorporate the major and minor second or third.
  3. When writing two skips in the same direction, the latter must be smaller than the former. The interval cannot be dissonant between the first and third, and they should be presented in a triad whenever possible.
  4. A high point or climax in the line must counter the fixed melody. It typically appears in the middle of the composition on a strong beat.
  5. Tritone intervals in three notes should be avoided whenever possible because of the tone conflicts that occur.
  6. When writing skips in one direction, it is not typically useful to proceed in the same order after.
  7. When a single line starts moving in the same direction, it is better to avoid outlining the seventh.

By incorporating these rules into species counterpoint, composers develop pieces with patterns.

Whenever you listen to the classical compositions from the 15th to the 18th centuries, you’ll hear counterpoints that start and finish with perfect symmetry.

You’ll also hear how contrary motion dominates the conversation. Although the perfect consonances must have contrary or oblique action in the approach, imperfect ones don’t have any restraints.

The final design point involves how the composer builds upward from the bass.

Options Other than Series Counterpoint to Consider

If you don’t like the idea of fixed melodies as the primary counterpart option, you’re not alone. Unless you delve into classical music theory, you won’t find many compositions using that approach today.

What you can find, at least since the Baroque period, are three counterpoint ideas that add more variation and style to the piece.

Here is an overview of the three options.

Free Counterpoint• This option is free from almost all rules. It lets the author incorporate the forbidden chords in other styles, including the second inversion.
• The only requirement is that the standardized harmonies must be part of the final composition.
Linear Counterpoint• With this style, the melodic lines use horizontal techniques to create fluid melodies.
• This approach is what you’ll see in modern pieces, almost daring the songs to develop different progressions and chords to hope that something intriguing will develop.
• It is possible to use this version with any line type.
Dissonant Counterpoint• When composers first started using this option, they reversed all of the rules outlined for species counterpoint.
• That would mean the first species would require a dissonance instance of consonance.
• The first composer to promote it was Charles Seeger, although many others have implemented similar styles in the following years.

A Final Thought on Counterpoint in Musical Theory

For me, the best way to think about counterpoint is to envision two or more melodies that play together simultaneously.

Depending on the composition, these two expressions could share some parts of the same melody while expressing themselves differently.

You can also go to the extreme of Symphony No. 41’s finale and have five voices speaking at the same time.

This style reached its popularity peak during the Renaissance era because Bach used it extensively.

All of the composers that we see as classical giants studied this concept, with many using the techniques significantly as they continued developing as composers.

If you want to use counterpoint in music today, consider experimenting by creating two separate melody lines on a DAW. Once you’ve recorded them both, see how they sound when playing together.

Does it feel like both parts create a better whole? If so, you’ve had a successful counterpoint experience.

If not, you still created a counterpoint!


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