In music, counterpoint is the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm and are harmonically interdependent. It has been most commonly identified in classical music, developing strongly during the Renaissance and in much of the common practice period, especially in Baroque music. The term originates from the Latin punctus contra punctum meaning "point against point".
In its most general aspect, counterpoint involves the writing of musical lines that sound very different and move independently from each other but sound harmonious when played simultaneously. In each era, contrapuntally organized music writing has been subject to rules, sometimes strict. By definition, chords occur when multiple notes sound simultaneously; however, harmonic, "vertical" features are considered secondary and almost incidental when counterpoint is the predominant textural element. Counterpoint focuses on melodic interaction—only secondarily on the harmonies produced by that interaction. In the words of John Rahn:
It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal structures that create each of the voices separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyphony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual voices. The way that is accomplished in detail is...'counterpoint'.
The separation of harmony and counterpoint is not absolute. It is impossible to write simultaneous lines without producing harmony, and impossible to write harmony without linear activity. The composer who chooses to ignore one aspect in favour of the other still must face the fact that the listener cannot simply turn off harmonic or linear hearing at will; thus the composer risks creating annoying distractions unintentionally. Bach's counterpoint—often considered the most profound synthesis of the two dimensions ever achieved—is extremely rich harmonically and always clearly directed tonally, while the individual lines remain fascinating.
Counterpoint was elaborated extensively in the Renaissance period, but composers of the Baroque period brought counterpoint to a culmination of sorts, and it may be said that, broadly speaking, harmony then took over as the predominant organizing principle in musical composition. The Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach wrote most of his music incorporating counterpoint, and explicitly and systematically explored the full range of contrapuntal possibilities in such works as The Art of Fugue.
Given the way terminology in music history has evolved, such music created from the Baroque period on is described as contrapuntal, while music from before Baroque times is called polyphonic. Hence, earlier composers such as Guillaume de Machaut and Josquin des Prez are said to have written polyphonic music.
Homophony, by contrast with polyphony, features music in which chords or vertical intervals work with a single melody without much consideration of the melodic character of the added accompanying elements, or of their melodic interactions with the melody they accompany. As suggested above, most popular music written today is predominantly homophonic, its composition governed mainly by considerations of chord and harmony; but, while general tendencies can often be fairly strong one way or another, rather than describing a musical work in absolute terms as either polyphonic or homophonic, it is a question of degree.
In musical composition, contrapuntal techniques are important for enabling composers to generate musical ironies that serve not only to intrigue listeners into listening more intently to the spinning out of complexities found within the texture of a polyphonic composition, but also to draw them all the more into hearing the working out of these figures and interactions of musical dialogue. A melodic fragment, heard alone, makes a particular impression; but when the fragment is heard simultaneously with other melodic ideas, or combined in unexpected ways with itself (as in a canon or fugue), greater depths of affective meaning are revealed. Through development of a musical idea, the fragments undergo a working out into something musically greater than the sum of the parts, something conceptually more profound than a single pleasing melody.
Species counterpoint is a type of so-called strict counterpoint, developed as a pedagogical tool, in which a student progresses through several "species" of increasing complexity, always working with a very plain given part in the cantus firmus (Latin for "fixed melody"). The student gradually attains the ability to write free counterpoint (that is, less rigorously constrained counterpoint, usually without a cantus firmus) according to the rules at the given time. The idea is at least as old as 1532, when Giovanni Maria Lanfranco described a similar concept in his Scintille di musica (Brescia, 1533). The late 16th century Venetian theorist Zarlino elaborated on the idea in his influential Le institutioni harmoniche, and it was first presented in a codified form in 1619 by Lodovico Zacconi in his Prattica di musica. Zacconi, unlike later theorists, included a few extra contrapuntal techniques as species, for example invertible counterpoint.
By far the most famous pedagogue to use the term, and the one who made it famous, was Johann Joseph Fux. In 1725 he published Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus), a work intended to help teach students how to compose, using counterpoint—specifically, the contrapuntal style as practised by Palestrina in the late 16th century—as the principal technique. As the basis for his simplified and often over-restrictive codification of Palestrina's practice (see General notes, below), Fux described five species:
Students of species counterpoint usually practice writing counterpoint in all the modes except Locrian (that is, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian and Aeolian). The following rules apply to melodic writing in each species, for each part:
And, in all species, the following rules apply concerning the combination of the parts:
Finally, in species counterpoint it is important to remember that the interval of the perfect fourth is usually considered a dissonance.
In first species counterpoint, each note in every added part (parts being also referred to as lines or voices) sounds against one note in the cantus firmus. Notes in all parts are sounded simultaneously, and move against each other simultaneously. The species is said to be expanded if any of the added notes are broken up (simply repeated).
In the present context, a "step" is a melodic interval of a half or whole step. A "skip" is an interval of a third or fourth. (See Steps and skips.) An interval of a fifth or larger is referred to as a "leap".
A few further rules given by Fux, by study of the Palestrina style, and usually given in the works of later counterpoint pedagogues, are as follows. Some are vague, and since good judgement and taste have been regarded by contrapuntists as more important than strict observance of mechanical rules, there are many more cautions than prohibitions. But some are closer to being mandatory, and are accepted by most authorities.
In the following example in two parts, the cantus firmus is the lower part. (The same cantus firmus is used for later examples also. Each is in the Dorian mode.)
In second species counterpoint, two notes in each of the added parts work against each longer note in the given part. The species is said to be expanded if one of these two shorter notes differs in length from the other.
Additional considerations in second species counterpoint are as follows, and are in addition to the considerations for first species:
In third species counterpoint, four (or three, etc.) notes move against each longer note in the given part. As with second species, it is called expanded if the shorter notes vary in length among themselves.
In fourth species counterpoint, some notes are sustained or suspended in an added part while notes move against them in the given part, often creating a dissonance on the beat, followed by the suspended note then changing (and "catching up") to create a subsequent consonance with the note in the given part as it continues to sound. As before, fourth species counterpoint is said to be expanded when the added-part notes vary in length among themselves. The technique requires chains of notes sustained across the boundaries determined by beat, and so creates syncopation.
In fifth species counterpoint, sometimes called florid counterpoint, the other four species of counterpoint are combined within the added parts. In the example, the first and second bars are second species, the third bar is third species, the fourth and fifth bars are third and embellished fourth species, and the final bar is first species.
It is a common and pedantic misconception that counterpoint is defined by these five species, and therefore anything that does not follow the strict rules of the five species is not "proper" counterpoint. This is not true; although much contrapuntal music of the common practice period adheres to the spirit of the rules, and often to the letter of them, the exceptions are many. Fux's book and its concept of "species" was purely a method of teaching counterpoint, not a definitive or rigidly prescriptive set of rules for it. He arrived at his method of teaching by examining the works of Palestrina, an important late 16th-century composer who in Fux's time was held in the highest esteem as a contrapuntist. Works in the contrapuntal style of the 16th century—the "prima pratica" or "stile antico", as it was called by later composers—were often said by Fux's contemporaries to be in "Palestrina style." Indeed, Fux's treatise is a compendium of Palestrina's actual techniques, simplified and regularised for pedagogical use (and so permitting fewer liberties than occurred in actual practice).
Since the Renaissance period in European music, much music which is considered contrapuntal has been written in imitative counterpoint. In imitative counterpoint, two or more voices enter at different times, and (especially when entering) each voice repeats some version of the same melodic element. The fantasia, the ricercar, and later, the canon and fugue (the contrapuntal form par excellence) all feature imitative counterpoint, which also frequently appears in choral works such as motets and madrigals. Imitative counterpoint has spawned a number of devices that composers have turned to in order to give their works both mathematical rigor and expressive range. Some of these devices include:
Linear counterpoint is "a purely horizontal technique in which the integrity of the individual melodic lines is not sacrificed to harmonic considerations. The voice parts move freely, irrespective of the effects their combined motions may create." In other words, either "the domination of the horizontal (linear) aspects over the vertical" is featured or the "harmonic control of lines is rejected" .
Associated with neoclassicism, the first work to use the technique is Stravinsky's Octet for Wind Instruments (1923), inspired by Bach and Palestrina. However, according to Knud Jeppesen: "Bach's and Palestrina's points of departure are antipodal. Palestrina starts out from lines and arrives at chords; Bach's music grows out of an ideally harmonic background, against which the voices develop with a bold independence that is often breath-taking."
According to Cunningham, linear harmony is "a frequent approach in the 20th-century...[in which lines] are combined with almost careless abandon in the hopes that new 'chords' and 'progressions,'...will result." It is possible with "any kind of line, diatonic or duodecuple." The ...
Dissonant counterpoint was first theorized by Charles Seeger as "at first purely a school-room discipline," consisting of species counterpoint but with all the traditional rules reversed. First species counterpoint is required to be all dissonances, establishing "dissonance, rather than consonance, as the rule," and consonances are "resolved" through a skip, not step. He wrote that "the effect of this discipline" was "one of purification." Other aspects of composition, such as rhythm, could be "dissonated" by applying the same principle (Charles Seeger, "On Dissonant Counterpoint," Modern Music 7, no. 4 (June–July 1930): 25-26).
Seeger was not the first to employ dissonant counterpoint, but was the first to theorize and promote it. Other composers who have used dissonant counterpoint, if not in the exact manner prescribed by Charles Seeger, include Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Carl Ruggles, Henry Cowell, Henry Brant, Dane Rudhyar, Lou Harrison, Fartein Valen, and Arnold Schoenberg.
Glenn Gould made innovative use of counterpoint in his three radio documentaries: The Idea of North, The Latecomers, and The Quiet in the Land (see The Solitude Trilogy). Gould called this method "contrapuntal radio." It involves the voices of two or more people simultaneously speaking (or playing against each other), entering and leaving the work as in a fugue.