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We see the concept of counterpoint in many contexts, from classical music composition to jazz improvisation.

What is the definition of counterpoint?

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Counterpoint in general is broad and there are many books solely devoted to the subject. There are many types, many ways to view this subject, and even different species of counterpoint. If you have a specific question about counterpoint it would better be to ask that instead. –  Dom Jan 15 at 15:47
    
@Dom Counterpoint can, and often is, defined in general. It is a complex subject, but the question is not "how can I master counterpoint?". Musically and semantically, counterpoint can be defined in a few lines or paragraphs. The question is not "teach me counterpoint". –  JCPedroza Jan 15 at 15:51
    
I'd agree with @JCPedroza. I assumed that this would be a duplicate, but looking round the site I couldn't find a question about what counterpoint actually is (though it is possible to piece together roughly) –  Alexander Troup Jan 15 at 15:54
    
@AlexanderTroup That's exactly why I asked this question. I think it's very important, and the page was missing it. –  JCPedroza Jan 15 at 15:55
    
Counterpoint, noun: two violists playing the same part. –  Carl Witthoft Jan 15 at 18:02

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Counterpoint comes from "punctus contra punctus" - point against point. This stems from the notion of having a given melody, the "cantus firmus" against one writes a counter melody. The most prominent place for this type of counterpoint is in courses on counterpoint.

More generally, counterpoint simply means the technique of writing multiple independent melodies that sound at the same time - i.e. polyphony.

While polyphony literally means: many sounds, this is different from melody with harmonic accompaniment. The difference is that in that case, there is one prominent melody (salient line) which is merely supported by a subordinate number of voices which are not really independent but simply provide a background. This may and often does consist of multiple different sounding notes (chords) but is still called homophony.

So to call something counterpoint, the voices have to be "independent". This is a subjective concept but in general the sense of independence is strengthened when the melodies have different rhythms (for example by syncopation), and also when the melodic movement display different motion (contrary motion, i.e ascending contours are placed against descending contours).

Those are just basic mechanisms of independence, in real counterpoint one will subjectively recognize the melodies as being separate entities, i.e. each melody has separatately recognizable themes and motives (and of course, this is achieved at some point by employing different rhythms and melodic curves).

That said, this does not mean that polyphony does not have harmony and that all homophony is entirely un-contrapunctual. The best kind of counterpoint is when the melodies are truly independent, and also agree in harmonic sense by articulating a clear progression of chords.

Education in counterpoint is often based on or at least refers to Fux' "Gradus ad Parnassum". There is an english translation available here: http://www.opus28.co.uk/Fux_Gradus.pdf

The title refers to Mount Parnassus, which symbolizes a summit of mastership, and the "gradus" are steps, as in a stairs. The idea of this book is to gradually guide a student trhough different "species" of counterpoint. The first part of the book is dedicated to 2-part counterpoint, where the student writes against a given melody (cantus firmus). In the first species, the student can only write one note for each note in the given melody, in the second species two notes against each given note, and so on and so forth.

In the second part of the book this technique is applied to 3 and eventually 4 part writing. However the weakness of Fux' approach is that it has no notion or regard for the harmonic facets of writing counterpoint (and in my opinion, this facet becomes more important as more and more voices enter the counterpoint).

The Fux' book is worthwhile since it is a historic text and it is referred to in so many contexts. If you decide to go for it, you should probably also look into this document which has useful hints for completing Fux' exercises:

http://www.tc.umn.edu/~ston0235/pdf/fux_workbook_0.1.pdf

There's one word of warning. That's that Fux' "gradus" does not teach you how to write counterpoint. It's mostly a series of excercises in avoiding things that do not sound well, not exercises that teach you to write what does sound well.

It's certainly useful, since it does helps to learn to appreciate all the different intervals, and it does help you to actively try and make melodies indpendent. It also helps you teach the basics of how to alternate consonances and dissonances and many of that theory still holds today, at least for tonal music. But it does not teach you about making effective themes, and it also does not teach you how about the harmonic implications of the counterpoint you write. (And often, you'll want to do that as well)

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I don't believe that in counterpoint voices are entirely independant. From Wikipedia: In music, counterpoint is the relationship between voices that are interdependent harmonically (polyphony) and yet are independent in rhythm and contour. The point of harmonic interdependance is an important one to counterpoint that I feel you have completely overlooked. –  Alexander Troup Jan 16 at 11:07
    
Even in just the name, it's how one point is held against another. All points in Counterpoint are based of an initial spot, so inherently they have a dependance on that! –  Alexander Troup Jan 16 at 11:09
    
@AlexanderTroup I pointed out that independence is to some extent a subjective matter, and I pointed out a couple of things which might be gainfully exploited to stress such (subjective) independence. The wikipedia entry drags harmony into the definition - I think this is a mistake, since one can have atonal counterpoint, without any obvious forces of harmony in effect. I'm not sure what you mean with "initial spot". Obviously one can keep stretching the definition; at some point one has to admit the parts are constituents of the same composition, hence still dependent in that sense. –  Roland Bouman Jan 16 at 20:02

From around the site

from the tag wiki:

Counterpoint is the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent, but independent in rhythm and contour. It is a widely used technique, mostly used in classical music, though.

http://music.stackexchange.com/tags/counterpoint/info

Also have a look at the search results:http://music.stackexchange.com/search?page=1&tab=relevance&q=counterpoint

the question What's "species counterpoint"? Are there any other types of counterpoint? is also relevant.

My take on Counterpoint

To my mind, Counterpoint is simply when you have multiple lines of music against each other at the same time. In the case of simply 2 lines of music played at the same time. A note on line 1 could be called a 'point', and a note played at the same time on line 2 could be considered the 'counterpoint'.

A simple case of all whole notes on both lines would be called Species 1 counterpoint, and a more complex example of whole notes on one line against half on the other would be called species 2.

External Resoures

For a great introduction to the topic of counterpoint I'd suggest:

The Study of Counterpoint by Johann Joseph Fux,

A series of posts on my blog about the book, and topic of counterpoint: Counterpoint on SheepishMusic

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I did search before asking, and there was no question or answer addressing this specific, important, question. Also, the wiki is not supposed to substitute the webpage. This site has an array of experienced musicologists, I'm sure we can do better than "look at the tag wiki". –  JCPedroza Jan 15 at 15:53
    
Fux's text on counterpoint is not just an introduction, it is the manual for counterpoint. –  jjmusicnotes Jan 15 at 16:46
    
@JCPedroza I agree, it's a worthy question. I mentioned the tag wiki and search results because I think they are good for getting a sense of what counterpoint is, and some of the applications. –  Alexander Troup Jan 15 at 16:51
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The tag wiki makes it sound like counterpoint isn't overly common outside Classical music. I disagree. Most music has contrapuntal aspects. Yes, Classical is the place you usually hear it referred to and taught as Counterpoint but the tag wiki is not definitively accurate. For example: Traditional Jazz usually has a walking bass line, a melody and sometimes a horn section or other accompaniment with linear tendencies. These are all separate 'points'. Lots of rock music, RnB, Funk/Fusion, etc., is very contrapuntal as well. A riff with a melody and distinct bass line is contrapuntal. –  Basstickler Jan 15 at 17:09
    
@jjmusicnotes I would say that Fux' book is more a manual of what to avoid. A useful manual, but it does not teach composition. –  Roland Bouman Jan 15 at 17:22

Counterpoint (from Lat. contrapunctus, from contra punctum: ‘against note’; Fr. contrepoint; Ger. Kontrapunkt; It. contrappunto).

A term, first used in the 14th century, to describe the combination of simultaneously sounding musical lines according to a system of rules. It has also been used to designate a voice or even an entire composition (e.g. Vincenzo Galilei's Contrapunti a due voci, 1584, or the contrapuncti of J.S. Bach's Art of Fugue) devised according to the principles of counterpoint.

Source: Klaus-Jürgen Sachs and Carl Dahlhaus. "Counterpoint." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 17 Jan. 2014. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/06690

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