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  • Writer's pictureAmit Weiner

What is Counterpoint In Music? And Why Does It Matter?


 

These are some questions that pop up in nearly every lesson I teach at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance:


·         What exactly is counterpoint?


·         Is counterpoint important for today’s music?


·         What do I need to know about counterpoint?


·         Do I really need to know “Palestrina counterpoint?” Isn’t that style merely a sudoku or math exercise?

 




 Answers to these questions are pretty long. So, if you're looking for a few quick answers, here they are:


·         Counterpoint is the art of constructing two or more melodies that play against each other. A piece or section of music that emphasizes counterpoint is called contrapuntal.


·         Counterpoint is nearly absent in commercial and popular music. Those styles of music are dominated by considerations of harmony, meaning the sound and function of chords, and don’t usually focus on simultaneous melodies.

 

Even in classical music since around 1700, counterpoint has taken a back seat to other styles. Composers usually held back on using counterpoint for creating climaxes of piece. By doing this, they reached the ultimate complexity of sound before finishing their works with resolution and relief. It is because of uses like this that counterpoint still has a lasting role in composing many styles of music!

 

However, for the most part, counterpoint has evolved into more of an intellectual art compared to homophony (I will explain this term) and is not significantly present in popular and light music, usually only emerging as a momentary gimmick or as humor.

 



So, Why Bother Learning It?


Before we can discuss counterpoint, it is important to understand the different types of musical textures. Once you know the difference between musical textures, you will be better able to understand the usefulness of counterpoint.

What is musical texture? Texture is the relationship between the various voices. In music, there are four main textures: monophony, polyphony, homophony, and heterophony.


Monophony - everyone sings the same melody. (Mono = one)


Polyphony - different melodies in each voice (this is what you learn in counterpoint).


Homophony - melody and accompaniment. Homos = the same thing, that is, all voices are equal in the same way, accompanying the main melody. In other words, a clear hierarchy between the most important voice in the melody and the other voices, which are the accompaniment.


Heterophony – This is a subject for a whole article, but on the tip of the fork, this is how singing sounds in the synagogue. Everyone sings the same melody, but with slight changes. In other words, it is like monophony, but with ornaments and slight rhythmic changes in each voice.


Now that we know the difference between musical textures, you might still ask: why learn counterpoint? The answer lies in a secret, known only to musicians who have stumbled upon it, a secret that will impact them throughout their lives, preventing them from reverting to the days when they only thought homophonically. This secret is something that can't be conveyed in a single line. describing the history of Palestrina-style counterpoint, or as it's also known, species counterpoint.

 

So, let's dive in, or rather, start the ascent to the summit of Mount Parnassus; soon, everything will become clear!


 

Mount Parnassus—the mountain of muses in ancient Greece!

 

Historical background:




Counterpoint: The term counterpoint originates from the Latin expression punctus contra punctum, or “point against point” in English. The “points” in this case are different sounds. So counterpoint can be thought of as “note against note.”


Here are some other important names and terms in the history of counterpoint:


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) - was the composer who, according to legend, saved polyphony.

 




That's Palestrina! 😊


 

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) — An attempt by the Catholic Church to counter the reforms proposed by Martin Luther as part of the Protestant Reformation. The council dealt, among other things, with the difficulty of understanding the words in polyphonic (contrapuntal) church music. This development disturbed the primary purpose of church music from the beginning: the service of prayer. Don’t be mistaken, the council wasn’t an hour-long Zoom meeting: it took more than eighteen(!) years to end!

 

Missa Papae Marcelli (1567) — A polyphonic mass written by Palestrina. There is a legend that the composer wrote the work to convince Pope Marcellus (who the work is named after) that it was possible to write polyphonic music where the words could still be understood. This meant that the music could still service its purpose as prayer music.

 

Cantus Firmus — cantus = melody, firmus = principal. Cantus firmus was usually a Gregorian chant monody, written in long notes (breves = two whole notes), and on it, they built polyphony in the other voices. In the Renaissance, the Cantus Firmus was usually found in the tenor voice. The cantus stands at the base of Fux's species counterpoint system.

 

Gradus ad Parnassum — A book on species counterpoint published by Johann Joseph Fux's  in1725. One of the most influential books in the history of music, Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, and many other famous composers throughout history learned counterpoint from this book. Clementi, Cherubini, and many others have a recurring cycle called Gradus ad Parnassum.

 


 

The Basics of Counterpoint


Building a Cantus Firmus


Creating a melody using only whole notes while ensuring that it is:


- Easy to sing,


- Balanced dramatically—neither too dull nor overly dramatic,


- Easy to remember,


- Calm and serene: The music should embody tranquility and calmness, the atmosphere expected in music for prayer. Remember, the Church was a refuge from the tough life outside.


In addition to these basics, there are also more specific rules that will help you to write a “correct” Cantus Firmus.


·         A Cantus Firmus should have a reasonable number of notes.

o   To aid in memorization, Cantus Firmus is usually 7 to 13 notes long.


·         Sevenths and tritones are forbidden as melodic interval.

o   Sometimes sixths are forbidden too, depending on how strict your rules are. Usually only a sixth leap is allowed, but this is a topic for a later post.


·         No melodic leaps that are larger than an octave.

o    This principle makes the melody easier to sing, and stops it being too dramatic.


·         Avoid immediately repeating a tone.

o   This prevents the melody from becoming too dull!


·         The melody should feature only one climax, which should not appear too close to the beginning or end. It is forbidden to repeat the climax.

o   As a result of this the contour, the line that outlines it, ends up being curved.


·         Avoid a "dissonant tritone "—emphasis on tritone.


·         The melody should mainly consist of steps. (Principle of ease of singing and not overly dramatic)


·         Leaps – do not leap twice in the same direction.

o   Palestrina actually allowed himself two leaps in an arpeggio, both ascending and descending.


·         After each downward leap, there should be compensation in ascent (a step or a leap).


·         Leaps in ascent—after any third, a perfect fourth, or a perfect fifth, you can continue stepwise in the same direction,  


·         After leap of a sixth or an octave, the melody must move stepwise in the opposite direction. After steps, it is allowed to leap only a 3rd in the same direction


·         Start and finish on the final tone (the tonic), and in the same octave (not an octave above). It is advisable not to deviate from the octave range.


·         End the melody with a step, not a leap.


Okay, these were rules that may seem very dry on the surface. That's true.


But...


Here's the moment when the coin starts to drop!


Here's an example of the famous song from the movie Titanic – My Heart Will Go On, for which I did a rhythmic reduction (simplification), meaning I wrote them using only whole notes. If you look closely, you can see that it works almost perfectly according to the rules of Cantus Firmus that we just learned!





Titanic – My Heart Will Go On, in a rhythmic reduction, that demonstrates how all the "rules" of Cantus Firmus are present in this song



This is the video of the song My Heart Will Go On


Are you starting to grasp the secret? Is it beginning to make sense to you?


The answer to the question we asked ourselves at the beginning—why are we actually learning counterpoint types?


What do we gain from it? The next time you write a piece, consider thinking about these rules. They may help you!


Here's a track I composed for Artlist, who I work for as a professional composer.




Are you looking for more specific music advice?:


I have spent many years advising musicians on many different career matters, and reflecting on my own journey in this field, direction.  I recently began offering an hour of free career consultation per week.


Feel free to consult about career choices such as where to study music, with whom to study, what to do after completing your studies, and any other questions you might have. I was once at the beginning of my journey in the music field and hope to give others the advice I wish I had received :) !



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About the Author:


Amit Weiner is an award-winning composer and music producer with extensive experience in music production and composition for diverse media. Winner of Israel Prime Minister Award for Composers.


Amit Weiner enjoys an international multi-faceted career as a composer and a pianist. His experience growing up in the enchanted and versatile Jerusalem shaped his approach to music of different styles and genres.

Signed with Universal Music Group Amit has licensed over 1,000 tracks, which were featured in more than 5000 TV shows around the world, among them Netflix, HBO, BBC and FOX.


Amit Weiner's music focuses on intermingling traditional Jewish melodies and contemporary compositional techniques. These compositions have had over two hundred performances worldwide, including New York's Carnegie Hall and across the USA, the UK, Austria, Germany, Russia, Canada, China, Japan, Ukraine, Italy, Ireland, Malaysia, Nepal, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, and Israel.


As a composer for films and TV he has composed three full length film scores, five theater plays, and many albums of Library Music (Production Music). Amit works as a composer with the biggest companies in the film industry such as Universal Production Music France, Warner/Chappell Music Group Production, Sonoton (Germany), Non Stop Music, Gothic Storm Music (UK), and more. His music and has been licensed and featured on films and TV in Japan the US, to Europe and China.


As a composer he is active in the fields of concert music, music for film, and popular music. His oeuvre includes over 40 chamber and orchestral works, among them three concertos for piano and orchestra, a number of orchestral works, chamber music, songs, and works for piano.


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