Back To CourseMusic 101: Help and Review
11 chapters | 355 lessons
As a member, you'll also get unlimited access to over 75,000 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed.Try it risk-free
Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.
I bet the Baroque composer J.S. Bach would have loved the game foosball. What? You don't see the connection there?
In foosball, you've got four different rows of little plastic people, each working to achieve the game's objective of scoring a goal. But the crazy thing about it is that each row of guys is controlled independently, so all four rows can do their own thing. And if working harmoniously together, they can weave the ball through the opposing team to score points. If the foosball table had only one row of people per team, the game would be boring, but because there are so many rows, the game is interesting and presents an intellectual challenge of strategy. The same can be said of counterpoint.
Much like foosball, counterpoint involves several rows of 'players,' this time as rows of music. Like the foosball guys, the rows are played at the same time and the parts are combined to make an effective piece. If we want to formally define this, we could say that counterpoint is when multiple independent melodic lines are woven together to create harmony.
The cool thing about counterpoint is that all of the lines are melodically interesting, so none of the players gets stuck with a boring part. The notes of each line are composed not only to be beautiful melodies, but also to compliment and interact with the other lines of music.
In counterpoint, harmony is achieved through careful planning of independent lines. The word counterpoint literally means 'point against point.' So the composer must choose notes carefully for each part, knowing that they will be played simultaneously. The result can either be notes woven into a beautifully complex fabric of sound or notes tangled into a mass web of clashing notes.
So with all of the combined harmonies, how do you avoid clashing notes? One way to go about it is to follow the strict sets of rules called species counterpoint. Introduced in 1725 by Johann Joseph Fux, the Gradus ad Parnassum was something like a counterpoint for dummies manual.
It may seem strange to have a rulebook for something that's supposed to be emotional, but for the time, it was quite fitting. The rules were created during the Age of Reason, when everyone was gettin' down with science and math, so although composers of the time valued musical expression, it was only natural that they too would follow calculations and formulas. Or who knows? Maybe it was peer pressure.
Anyway, the species acted as a guide for creating the complex, interlocking melodies, giving instruction on everything from what pitches to start with to what rhythms are allowed in a given circumstance. A student would advance through the five levels of increasing difficulty, hopefully mastering the principles of counterpoint at the end of their studies.
Believe it or not, you've probably heard counterpoint before. One of the most recognizable examples of counterpoint is the round. In a round, person one presents a musical idea. As person one finishes the musical idea and begins another one, person two starts the original musical idea. This means that at any given moment in a round, each person is singing or playing something different. This is a simple example, but it is the basis of how a lot of counterpoint works.
You've probably also heard a canon, such as Pachelbel's Canon. Most people hear it at weddings, though it was not specifically written for this purpose. The canon is similar to the round, but does not require exact repetition. In each case, the musician is performing their own part, which contributes to a wholly integrated sound. This makes for a full musical texture called polyphony, where individual parts are heard, as opposed to the parts making up a singular sound. In this clip from Pachelbel's Canon, listen for four distinct melodies. If the music was not polyphonic, it may have sounded something like this. Granted, it still sounds okay, but it's not flourishing with beauty like the real thing. What makes counterpoint unique and identifiable is how each part sounds like it could be a stand-alone melody.
A typical Baroque Era example of counterpoint is the fugue. A fugue is a piece that is written with strict adherence to the rules of species counterpoint. Fugues took polyphony to a whole new level. J.S. Bach is probably the most well-known composer of fugues. Listen for the four interweaved voices in his Fugue in G Minor.
While the fugue may be the most common example of Baroque counterpoint, it certainly wasn't the only kind. Counterpoint was in many styles of music during the Baroque Era, including those that weren't so tightly wound to the rules. Many dance suites and preludes used a more free version of counterpoint, where the music was less calculated. Often, a basso continuo was used. The basso continuo is like the bass line of a song; it was generally played by a low-pitched instrument and a keyboard instrument, such as the harpsichord. Adding a repeated low part and some simple chords, it was used to add melodic texture while holding the song together and allowing the higher-pitched parts to shine. Surprisingly, this is not far off of what many bass players do today, minus the awesome wigs.
Counterpoint is practically the calling card of Baroque period music. The independent melodies were strong enough to be melodies on their own, but were set 'point against point' in a display of masterful composition. Much of the music from the Baroque era relied heavily on counterpoint, whether in the strict form of species counterpoint fugues or in the freer forms like dance suites and preludes. The interweaving melodies are characteristic of many genres from the period and can be considered one of the single most important characteristics of the period.
Upon completion of this video lesson, you should:
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Already a member? Log InBack
Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.
To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page
Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.
Back To CourseMusic 101: Help and Review
11 chapters | 355 lessons