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An Overview of Contrapuntal Music and Counterpoint

Teresa Newman, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Teresa Newman

    Teresa Newman has taught K-12 music and musical theater for over 12 years. They have a Masters in Music Performance, Masters in Education, and Bachelors in Music from Stephen F. Austin State University. They also are the founder, director, instructor, and content creator for Newman Music Academy based in Houston, Texas.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

    Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Learn about contrapuntal music. Understand what characterizes a contrapuntal sound and examine the relationship between contrapuntal music and polyphony. Updated: 05/13/2022

What Is Contrapuntal Music?

For over five centuries, Western music has been composed under the guidelines and philosophies of counterpoint, and contrapuntal music has been the dominant form used among classical and popular musicians alike.

Contrapuntal music is any music that is created by using multiple independent melody lines that also sound harmonious when played together. Counterpoint is the technique that creates contrapuntal music. It acts as a blueprint rather than a specific set of style markers, since contrapuntal music can come in many forms and has been present in centuries of musical style periods. It is most associated with music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, especially the 17th and 18th centuries. The tenets of counterpoint, however, have remained a pillar of Western music tradition beyond its peak years of popularity.

In order for a composition to be considered contrapuntal, each musical line must sound good on its own, sound good when played together, and continue to maintain a quality of moving independently throughout the piece. According to the contrapuntal music definition, counterpoint must always involve at least two or more independently moving lines, regardless of their rhythm or pitch content.

Most compositions that are considered pinnacle examples of counterpoint focus on the horizontal movement and relationship of each musical line or voice, rather than the harmonic relationship between voices. This is often referred to as a horizontal or vertical relationship. The horizontal movement of the music is the melody, and the vertical relationship of each line is in reference to harmonies, chords, and key of the piece. This, however, does not invalidate the underlying harmonic relationship between each voice.


The excerpt from the Psalm motet Domine ne in furore by Josquin des Prez illustrates four-part counterpoint.

Music example illustrating counterpoint of Josquin des Prez


Contrapuntal Sounds

In contrapuntal music, each voice is given equal weight and importance, and it is therefore the sum of its parts and the intertwining of melodies that creates harmony between voices. Melody lines in contrapuntal music are often intricate in rhythm and melodic contour, and combine to create a sound that is even more complex. It is much easier to understand the function of counterpoint through comparison of other musical textures.

Polyphony, for example, is a musical texture that involves the use of multiple unique melodies performed simultaneously. Although both polyphonic and contrapuntal music share a similar definition, polyphony more refers to a general composition style and texture, rather than a formalized set of guidelines as outline by Renaissance era ''species counterpoint'', still seen as a blueprint for later, more complicated contrapuntal works. While polyphony is the actual texture created by using two or more independent melody lines, counterpoint is the set of compositional techniques used to handle the polyphonic texture. Contrapuntal music, therefore, is music that uses polyphonic textures within a stricter set of guidelines.

In contrast, homophony is a musical texture that involves placing a primary melody above a harmonic accompaniment, treating the accompaniment as background rather than a secondary melody of equal importance. Pop artists singing a song while strumming a guitar accompaniment would be performing homophonic music. Counterpoint can still be found within a variety of textures, including homophony. Songs such as ''God Only Knows'' by The Beach Boys highlight multiple vocalists each singing a unique melody line simultaneously, with a homophonic instrumental accompaniment underneath the vocals. This mixture of textures illustrates that although the song could not be considered entirely polyphonic because of the lower priority of the accompaniment instrumentals, it still utilizes the principles of counterpoint by combining independent melody lines in an extremely harmonious way.

Renaissance and Baroque composers of the 16th and 17th centuries would also incorporate various aspects of counterpoint and homophony, creating music that had a contrapuntal sound while also creating a richer, more cohesive harmonic experience for the listener. This can be heard in such pieces as ''If Ye Love Me'' by Thomas Tallis, or in J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.

Contrapuntal Music

There is a famous bit of folk wisdom which claims that opposites attract. This idea is meant to describe the attraction of diametrically different people in a relationship (which, by the way, almost never ends well), although it has been found that it applies pretty well in other arenas of life. One notable example is music. Many songs consist of a single melody, supported by harmonies that provide texture. However, some songs exchange the harmonies for additional melodies, overlapping and interrupting and supporting each other. Sometimes these melodies are very complimentary, and other times they are opposites but still work together. Music written this way is called contrapuntal, or counterpoint. Even with opposite melodies, it's an attractive sound.

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Development of Contrapuntal Music

Counterpoint dates back as far as the medieval era, with song forms like organum, where composers would write a main melody (vox principalis) combined with a second voice (vox organalis) singing the melody in parallel motion a fifth or octave below. Depending on the century or style period, composers would create contrapuntal music in different ways.

Texture

At its most basic, contrapuntal music is that which contains nearly independent melodies that are each given equal value. Rather than a single melody that is given more weight than the harmony, contrapuntal music introduces multiple melodies that are equally important. Thus, the texture of the piece is not created by supportive harmonies but by the interaction between the sometimes competing and sometimes complimentary melodies.

Another closely related idea to contrapuntal music is polyphony. Polyphony describes the use of overlapping melodies, as opposed to homophony, which is the dominance of a single melody over less obvious harmonic textures. One of the most common examples of polyphonic music is a round - a round is a melody repeated at different intervals, like 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat.' The texture of this song is created by the overlapping of this same melody at different points in the musical theme. Basically, the concepts of polyphony and contrapuntal music are both defined by the fact that multiple musical themes are given equal value, with no single part being more recognizable or notable than the others.

Contrapuntal Symphonic Music

In music theory, contrapuntal music appears in many forms. Traditional music of East Asia tends to utilize multiple melodies rather than balancing a single melody against harmonies. Traditional Islamic music shares a very similar approach, with many musical themes of equal weight appearing throughout a song. Examples of polyphonic and contrapuntal music can be found across the world. Counterpoint as a defined musical agenda really appears in Europe around the 17th and 18th centuries.

For a while, European composers had been writing for larger and larger symphonic orchestras. They used the size of these ensembles to create intricate layers of harmonies to provide a thick and rich texture in their compositions. Contrapuntal music as a defined style emerged as a reaction against this norm. Rather than using large ensembles to create a single melody supported by thick harmonies, some composers began using these ensembles to juxtapose multiple melodies at the same time.

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Video Transcript

Contrapuntal Music

There is a famous bit of folk wisdom which claims that opposites attract. This idea is meant to describe the attraction of diametrically different people in a relationship (which, by the way, almost never ends well), although it has been found that it applies pretty well in other arenas of life. One notable example is music. Many songs consist of a single melody, supported by harmonies that provide texture. However, some songs exchange the harmonies for additional melodies, overlapping and interrupting and supporting each other. Sometimes these melodies are very complimentary, and other times they are opposites but still work together. Music written this way is called contrapuntal, or counterpoint. Even with opposite melodies, it's an attractive sound.

Texture

At its most basic, contrapuntal music is that which contains nearly independent melodies that are each given equal value. Rather than a single melody that is given more weight than the harmony, contrapuntal music introduces multiple melodies that are equally important. Thus, the texture of the piece is not created by supportive harmonies but by the interaction between the sometimes competing and sometimes complimentary melodies.

Another closely related idea to contrapuntal music is polyphony. Polyphony describes the use of overlapping melodies, as opposed to homophony, which is the dominance of a single melody over less obvious harmonic textures. One of the most common examples of polyphonic music is a round - a round is a melody repeated at different intervals, like 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat.' The texture of this song is created by the overlapping of this same melody at different points in the musical theme. Basically, the concepts of polyphony and contrapuntal music are both defined by the fact that multiple musical themes are given equal value, with no single part being more recognizable or notable than the others.

Contrapuntal Symphonic Music

In music theory, contrapuntal music appears in many forms. Traditional music of East Asia tends to utilize multiple melodies rather than balancing a single melody against harmonies. Traditional Islamic music shares a very similar approach, with many musical themes of equal weight appearing throughout a song. Examples of polyphonic and contrapuntal music can be found across the world. Counterpoint as a defined musical agenda really appears in Europe around the 17th and 18th centuries.

For a while, European composers had been writing for larger and larger symphonic orchestras. They used the size of these ensembles to create intricate layers of harmonies to provide a thick and rich texture in their compositions. Contrapuntal music as a defined style emerged as a reaction against this norm. Rather than using large ensembles to create a single melody supported by thick harmonies, some composers began using these ensembles to juxtapose multiple melodies at the same time.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is contrapuntal rhythm?

Contrapuntal rhythm or rhythmic counterpoint is the process of contrasting two melodic lines with different rhythmic patterns. For example, voice one might be performing a fast note rhythm, while the second voice is performing a long note rhythm. This contrast would be considered contrapuntal, even if the notes within the melody were identical.

What is the difference between polyphonic and contrapuntal?

The term polyphonic refers specifically to a music texture that involves the performance of multiple melody lines performed simultaneously. Contrapuntal music also uses multiple melody lines performed simultaneously, but treats each voice with specific rules on how they interact. In general, contrapuntal music contains melodies that sound harmonious when performed together. Not all contrapuntal music is strictly polyphonic.

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