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What is Contrapuntal Music? - Definition & Texture

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  • 0:03 Contrapuntal Music
  • 0:54 Texture
  • 2:04 Contrapuntal Symphonic Music
  • 4:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

There are many ways to compose a song. Sometimes you focus on a single melody and other times multiple melodies share the stage. In this lesson, we'll look at contrapuntal music, and see what it looks like in terms of composition.

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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