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Counterpoint in the Baroque Period: Definition, Harmony & Examples

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  • 0:05 Counterpoint Definition
  • 1:25 Harmony
  • 2:11 Species Counterpoint
  • 3:21 Counterpoint Examples
  • 6:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

The use of counterpoint is a significant characteristic of Baroque period music. In this lesson, learn how to define counterpoint, how it was used during the Baroque period, and hear popular examples.

Counterpoint Definition

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.

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.

Species Counterpoint

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.

Counterpoint Examples

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.

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