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From what I understand, they both kind of refer to the same thing. Why the need for 2 terms?

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I believe counterpoint is a narrower term (all counterpoint is polyphonic but not all polyphony is contrapuntal). Contrapuntal polyphony emerged in the baroque era and so renaissance polyphony is not referred to as counterpoint. –  James Tauber Jun 9 '11 at 23:02
    
@James that should be an answer. –  Rein Henrichs Jun 9 '11 at 23:12
    
@Rein I considered that but as I can't characterize the difference, I don't think it's a good answer :-) I'll make it one anyway –  James Tauber Jun 9 '11 at 23:13
    
@James, actually, there is renaissance counterpoint (e.g. Palestrina) that is stylistically different from baroque counterpoint (e.g. JS Bach). I've studied 16th-C but not 18th-C, so I can't characterize the differences. –  Monica Cellio Jun 10 '11 at 2:08
    
@Monica, yes, I shouldn't have said it was a renaissance/baroque split as late renaissance had counterpoint, notable Palestrina as you mention. But while there's a distinction between Palestrina and Bach, I think there's also a distinction between (say) Ockeghem and Palestrina –  James Tauber Jun 10 '11 at 4:20
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2 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Counterpoint is a type of polyphony with certain restrictions on form. For instance, contrapuntally organized music focuses on melodic interaction between multiple independent voices rather than harmonic interaction. In other words, chords occur as a result of coincident notes in multiple melodic lines rather than as a primary textural element. Other forms of polyphony have different restrictions (or, in the case of polyphony in general, no restrictions beyond having more than one voice).

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+1 that's better –  James Tauber Jun 9 '11 at 23:24
    
@James Aww, you ruined my perfect 1000 ;) –  Rein Henrichs Jun 9 '11 at 23:25
    
it wasn't going to last long anyway :-) –  James Tauber Jun 9 '11 at 23:31
    
So when you study counterpoint you don't study harmony but melodies? –  Alejandro Iglesias May 30 '12 at 2:08
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I believe "counterpoint" is a narrower term (all counterpoint is polyphonic but not all polyphony is contrapuntal). Contrapuntal polyphony emerged in the late renaissance era and so medieval and early renaissance polyphony is not referred to as "counterpoint".

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