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I really suck at chord harmony, so whenever I compose, I tend to use counterpoint a lot.

Counterpoint is somewhat easy when you just have two voices. Because I just compose for fun, I generally do something like cheat by having just two voices for a large amount of instruments, and then extremely basic harmony.

My problem is that, I tend to compose counterpoint incrementally. I first write one voice, disregarding the fact that I am going to add a second voice. Then I write my second voice, being careful to avoid dissonance, octaves, perfect fifths, and other bad sounds.

It feels like solving a system of equations really. When I go to write my third voice, the only "feasible solutions", i.e., the only solutions what don't result in dissonance, are very unconnected and can't form a melody. Even if I manage to snug in this third voice, it would be a terrible contrived melody with occasional huge jumps to "get out of the way" of the other voices. Things like incorporating a theme are totally impossible.

Adding a fourth voice is 100% impossible for me; no matter where I put my notes, it's going to clash with some other voice.

How to fix this problem? I am far from an experienced composer, but is my approach on counterpoint completely off the mark? Should I be writing the voices all at once? My measly training in composing was all simple accompaniment based on chords, which I honestly don't intuitively get. I can on the other hand easily sit down at a piano and improvise some two-voice counterpoint.

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you can let two voices go to one sometimes –  user7315 Oct 21 '13 at 1:03
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Yes, but that is clearly a cheat. Does Bach let "two voices go to one" in any of his fugues? Anyways, that is a trivial thing. –  user54609 Oct 21 '13 at 1:15
    
I don't know, but I've seen it in lots of other passages. –  user7315 Oct 21 '13 at 1:28
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This is a rather broad question, so the best advice I could give you is to get a good book on counterpoint or harmony. For example, Walter Piston's Harmony or Counterpoint. –  American Luke Oct 21 '13 at 2:01
    
@AmericanLuke - reading Walter Piston is great, but it is a lot like going to the dentist: it's good for you, but you really don't want to do it more than twice a year. :) –  jjmusicnotes Oct 28 '13 at 2:25
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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I'll give some general tips but really I think you can't beat the books I'll mention below as a guide on how to write euphonious counterpoint.

As far as the order of composing voices, Schoenberg's advice was that you have to be able to hear the full harmony as you write it. I believe he set a good value at 4 voices at once. That's one way to look at it. I believe it's completely possible to write one voice at a time. The whole Idea of having a Cantus Firmus(base melody) which you build the rest from is structured around that idea.

The 4th voice is not impossible, but it does take a bit of time to understand the problems. Once you get a sense of counterpoint it becomes much easier to spot common pitfalls

  • Don't be afraid to modify what you've already written.

    If writing part 3 is becoming unmanagable, consider altering parts 1 and 2 to compensate.

  • Remember that you can repeat notes across Voices

    The first thing said on 4 part counterpoint by Johan Joseph Fux is that

  • Remember that you don't have to change notes on every bar/beat etc.

    Holding one note at the same pitch while you move another is called oblique motion, and adds a lot of flexibility because repeating the same note is very euphonious. The Tchaikovsky book I mentioned is great for dealing with this. think of how great simply playing a perfect 5th, then diminished, then perfect again can sound.

  • Try to have a smooth melody line in each part.

    When the Melody line moves up and down predictably, it's easier for the ear to hang onto, and generally considered to be more euphonious. Depending on your intent a smooth line is generally more comfortable on the ear than an unpredictable one. When I'm playing with counterpoint I like to try and see if I can create an overall rule, like having the upper line move in symmetry to the lower line, or to have the same line, but delayed by a bar. It gives you an extra tool to help in deciding notes, and it's great fun to hear the results!

  • When there's an unavoidable conflict in rules, choose which one to break

    Skips above a minor 6th are generally undesirable, but if the only alternative is a diminished 5th, then consider choosing one to break.

  • In Large Leaps, use passing notes If you must do a large leap that you consider too big, consider having some passing notes beforehand. You'd be amazed how much smoother you can make a leap simply by dividing it in 2. Consider the difference between one high step to walk up, or 2 smaller ones. You could even have an arpeggio or run of some kind :)


In Depth Books(that are far better teachers than me)

Right, a book that takes you through the entire process of basic counterpoint from 2 to 4 voices wonderfully is Johan Joseph Fux's 'The Study of counterpoint' As far as writing in counterpoint you only need to complete up to 2 and 3 part writing before the rest becomes breezy. This is a treatise on music that beethoven hailed, and became a standard book on counterpoint(and composition) at the time.

It is more strict in harmony than modern day methods, but knowing that allows you to examine the rules and know when to flex them. the basic theory underlying though is highly valuable.

It's such a good book that I spent a good while reviewing them and giving the basic rules of each species on my blog. Unfortunately that's down right now, but as soon as it's back I'll get a link in here for you :)

As far as other books go I'd reccommend Tchaikovsky's Guide to the Practical Study of Harmony. I'm going through that book now and it's another fantastic guide to writing harmonious counterpoint and composing in general.

I've read other books and articles on-line, but personally, these 2 books have been the go-to guide for me.

Hope that helps!

Alex

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Thanks! This is really what I needed. –  user54609 Oct 25 '13 at 16:43
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If you're aim is the add a third voice between the two written voices, make sure that you take that into account when you write the second voice. If your second voice is going to force the third voice into taking a certain note then make sure to put that in at that point. If a few measures later you again will be forcing the third voice into a certain note, then switch to the third voice and make sure that you can compose a solution that goes from the first forced note to the second forced note. If you can't write that then you'll need to revise the second voice.

My philosophy is not to let any of the voices get so far behind the others. So I might write eight measures of the second voice (perhaps up until an octave) and then make sure I can write at least four measures of the third voice against it. That way if it turns out the second voice needs to be rewritten (as will happen until you get really fluent), there's less to erase and rewrite. Eventually you'll be able to predict whether you can write a third voice against the other two (and then a fourth and a fifth) without needing to stop every few measures and fill the other voices in, but until then it's best to take things slowly.

If you know that voices will need to cross at a certain point, be sure to compose out the crossing before going too far. These can be the hardest moments in composition in strict counterpoint.

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Yes, writing the lines in parallel is critical in my experience. Don't write one whole part and then try to fit the next one in around it and then try to add the one after that; that way lies a world of hurt. –  Monica Cellio Oct 27 '13 at 1:51
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Find some figured bass exercises. If you don't know what the bass note is and how it functions you're going to have a hard time writing harmony. Here are some...

http://imslp.org/wiki/Exercises_in_Figured_Bass_and_Melody_Harmonisation_(Lyon,_James)

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My problem is less with not knowing how to do harmony, as that is easily learnable by picking up a music theory book, but how to do counterpoint without quickly running out of room to add voices. –  user54609 Oct 21 '13 at 0:53
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