Counterpoint in Music: Definition, Music Theory & Examples

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Counterpoint is the basis of classical music theory, growing out of the early sacred music traditions of the Catholic Church into the common practice for composers of the 15th through 18th centuries, and can be still heard in the music of today.

Definition of Counterpoint

Counterpoint comes from the Latin term punctu contra punctum, which means point against point. Early counterpoint began with homorythmic perfect intervals, specifically the octave and the fifth. The rules that developed into counterpoint, as described by Joseph Fux in Gradus ad Parnassum (1725), were meant to preserve the melodic independence of the various lines, as well as control vocal ranges and harmonic tendencies. Originally, they served as a theoretical basis for vocal compositions. Without getting too deep into the theory of harmony, certain harmonies were preferred over other harmonies, either as dissonances or consonances, though our modern ear may beg to differ.

Theory and the Rules

Counterpoint begins with the cantus firmus or the fixed melody. The counterpoint is then composed against, note for note (point against point), the cantus firmus. In its simplest form, first species counterpoint is a single note against a single note. Each interval, or the distance between two notes, is measured and the dissonance/consonance of the interval is determined.

Next, notes are compared horizontally to determine the type of motion between subsequent notes. If the first interval is the same as the second interval, they're parallel. If both intervals move in the same direction, but are of two different interval values (4th-7th), then they're considered similar. If the intervals are moving in opposite directions and are of different values, they're contrary. Oblique motion occurs if one of the notes stays the same while the other one changes.

Gradus ad Parnassum
Gradus ad Parnassum

Let's compare the types of motions with the intervals that are involved to determine if certain types of motions are allowed, which means that they preserve the independence of the voices. For example, parallel octaves are not allowed because they'd result in both voices moving in the same direction, from the same note to the same note (each on a C moving to a D, for example). Parallel fifths aren't allowed for the same reason (low voice C and high voice G moving to low voice D and high voice A). Furthermore, composers try to avoid parallel thirds and sixths for too long, as this can create the same effect. Other major rules include avoidance of voice crossing, whereby the high voice goes below the low voice, and the use of unisons, unless they're at the beginning or end. Did you get all that? Good, because that's just the first species!

Five Species of Counterpoint

There's five species of counterpoint. Species two and three involve subdivisions of the beat: second is two beats against one, third species is four beats against one. Fourth species involves the use of tied notes, or notes held across the measure. Fifth species takes all the previous species and combines them; it's also called florid counterpoint. The rules for each species are effectively the same, though there are types of dissonances to consider with the second and third species and types of suspensions to consider with the fourth species. For further study, consider Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum.

Contrapuntal Composers and Examples

Counterpoint developed out of the monophonic style of music from before 1200CE. Polyphony, or multiple different pitches sounding at a time, developed in the late Medieval and early Renaissance eras. Notational styles were different during the latter, with composers using their own independent notational typography, which made analysis difficult. Of the early composers, Guillaume de Machaut may have been the most prolific. Further development of the style continued with Philippe de Vitry and peaked with Guillaume du Fay, who wrote polyphonic, contrapuntal music for multiple voices, such as 20 or more. That means applying the rules of counterpoint to each note interaction.

Johann Sebastian Bach
J.S. Bach

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