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Counterpoint in Music: Theory, Examples, & the Five Species

Aya Katz, Chris Chouiniere
  • Author
    Aya Katz

    Aya Katz has a BA in foreign languages from the University of Texas at Arlington, a Juris Doctor from Baylor Law School and a PhD in linguistics from Rice University. She has taught linguistics on the college level.

  • Instructor
    Chris Chouiniere

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

Learn all about counterpoint in music. Understand the counterpoint definition, learn the counterpoint rules and five species, and see multiple examples. Updated: 05/03/2022

Table of Contents


What is Counterpoint?

Counterpoint is a musical style of composition that employs more than one voice; however, rather than having a melody line and a harmony line, each voice is equally important in the composition and carries part of the melody. Counterpoint is a form of polyphony that creates a dialogue between the treble clef and the bass clef, and each contributes something meaningful to a joint conversation instead of one serving a supporting role to the other. Counterpoint is also used in vocal ensembles. Instead of providing harmony, each voice contributes to an elaborate, overlapping melody line.

Counterpoint: Etymological Meaning

The term "counterpoint" and its adjective form "contrapuntal" originated from the Latin expression punctus contra punctum, which literally means "point against point" or "point for point." The points refer to notes. A composer of contrapuntal pieces compares measures note for note in the treble and bass clefs to see how they complement each other, both in harmonic terms and in time units. In contrapuntal music, the composer sets up a melody for a melody to create a dialogue of equals between the right hand and the left hand of the pianist or in a multi-vocal or multi-instrumental performance by an ensemble.

Counterpoint Examples

A precursor to more complex forms of counterpoint is the round. The well-known children's song Row, Row, Row Your Boat is a prime example of a round. When sung by a single voice, this is a simple melody. With accompaniment, the song could include chords for harmony. However, the round introduces another voice singing the same melody at different time points. This way, the melody plays against itself, with each part of the round having equal significance.

Example of a Round

Example of a round: Row, Row, Row Your Boat in two-voice polyphony

One of the most iconic musical forms of composition in counterpoint is the fugue, pioneered by Johann Sebastian Bach. In a fugue, which is an imitative form of counterpoint, competing melodies play off each other in a duel of imitation.

A Fragment from Bach Fugue No. 17

A single bar from Fugue No.17 in A flat, BWV 862 part of J. S. Bach Das Wohltemperierte Clavier Part I

In the extract above from Fugue no. 17 in A-flat major, BWV 862, from book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach, the bass clef contains an imitation of the melody in treble clef, but there is no exact parallelism of note per note.

Ludwig van Beethoven was said to have been influenced by Bach, and even in a sonata form, he incorporated counterpoint.

An example of counterpoint in Beethoven

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  • 0:04 Definition of Counterpoint
  • 0:42 The Theory & the Rules
  • 2:12 Five Species of Counterpoint
  • 2:46 Contrapuntal Composers…
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Counterpoint in Music Theory

In music theory, counterpoint is seen as a way to build interest in a composition while avoiding voices singing in unison. There has to be a high degree of contrast between the different parts of counterpoint.

A melody in counterpoint cannot merely run parallel to the original melody in a different key. If two voices sing the same melody, each in a different key, but at the same time, there will be no contrast. The true nature of counterpoint involves independent melodies that fit within the same harmonic space but vary in both direction and rhythmic activity.

Counterpoint can be imitative or non-imitative. The second and following voices can be on the same pitch or a lower or higher one. They can enter with a delay, and they can be much faster or slower than the first voice. Sometimes the second voice waits for the first voice to complete its melody, and sometimes it enters in the middle. In imitative counterpoint, the second voice will sometimes invert the motif of the first voice, ascending where the first descended and vice versa.

There are several constraints on what competing melodies in counterpoint can do. Parallel octaves and parallel fifths are not allowed. Voice crossing, which occurs if the higher voice descends below the lower or vice versa, is avoided. Although counterpoint and harmonizing are distinguished from one another as polar opposites in compositional method, counterpoint is considered the theoretical background of all harmonic theory.

Five Species of Counterpoint

The method of teaching counterpoint that is still used today was perfected by the German composer Johann Joseph Fux with his book Gradus ad Parnassum. The title of the book means "ascent to Mount Parnassus." Mount Parnassus is the highest mountain in a range of mountains in Greece, and it became a general reference to the gradual mastery of a difficult topic with many levels of understanding. Fux divided counterpoint into five species, each with a higher level of complexity.

The Five Species of Counterpoint

The five species of counterpoint displayed as five voices building on top of a cantus firmus

In the figure above, we start with a cantus firmus, or basic melody, to which we add the five species of counterpoint, each with its own set of rules. The goal of counterpoint is to keep the different voices distinct and contrasting without causing disharmony to the composition as a whole. The basic rule that applies to all five species of counterpoint is to avoid perfect intervals moving in unison. The counterpoint rules first formulated by Fux are outlined in detail below.

First Species

In the first species of counterpoint, there is one note in the counterpoint melody for each note found in the cantus firmus. The notes must be at different intervals from the original notes so that the melody is not merely transposed. This is the first step and the most basic form of counterpoint. Because of harmonic considerations, the placement of the counterpoint notes is actually fairly constrained. The voices must stay within a maximum compass of an octave and a fifth, and the intervals chosen must be non-clashing to avoid dissonance.

Second Species

In the second species, each note in the cantus firmus is set against two equal-length notes in the counterpoint melody. All the other general constraints of counterpoint still apply. The notes must be at different intervals from the cantus firmus, but dissonance must be avoided.

Third Species

Like the previous species, the third species involves subdivisions of the beat. In the third species, each note of the cantus firmus is set against four equal-length notes. All previous counterpoint rules and constraints still apply.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of counterpoint in music?

An example of a musical form that employs counterpoint is the fugue. It was the first form to use the counterpoint method to full effect. In a fugue, the treble and bass clef take turns carrying the melody and the harmony, switching from one to the other. Bach is famous for perfecting the fugue.

What does counterpoint mean?

Counterpoint refers to a method of composing polyphonic music with each voice carrying an equally important melodic contribution to the work as a whole. In counterpoint, what is important is the relationship between note intervals and their movement types. Counterpoint is concerned with the relationship of independent melodic lines rather than a specific harmony.

What is the difference between harmony and counterpoint?

Both harmony and counterpoint involve polyphony (more than one voice), but with counterpoint, each voice carries an independent melody. With harmony, one voice is dominant, and other voices support that voice by harmonizing.

What is the purpose of counterpoint?

The purpose of counterpoint is to create an interesting relationship between independent melodies in a musical composition. Each voice in counterpoint is equally important, rather than having one serve a supporting role to harmonize with the other.

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