I was practicing composing in an SATB setting. I had the chords voiced the way I wanted to, but there was not much rhythmic interest (everything in whole notes). So, I began subdividing the notes here and there, using neighboring tones, passing tones, repeated triad tones etc. I kept in mind some basic rules from counterpoint about the do's and donts of this practice. Before I knew it, however, I realized that (for moments here and there) the voicing of the chords I diligently chose are disregarded. "This triad doesn't have a root for half the measure!" "This triad just lost it's third!" "Oh no! Did I just double the fifth?" Things got out of hand very quickly. What is the relationship between voice leading and counterpoint? Are well-constructed (according to "the textbook") compositions expected to follow the rules of both frameworks simultaneously?


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    They aren't separate things. The rules of voice leading are designed to create effective counterpoint.
    – Aaron
    Jun 7 at 19:23

Voice leading and counterpoint are the same thing.

I think what you are trying to compare is harmonic structure and decorative movement. The structure is conceptual, a template, while the decorative movement is the concrete actual music.

Some basic things to manage when you fill out a harmonic structure are:

  • hit the important tones of the harmonic structure on the strong beats, the decorative tones are then smaller subdivisions of the beat, an older term for this is diminution, dividing a long note into shorter rhythmic values (that's the diminishing, the smaller durations)
  • mind the relative motion of the decorative lines, if you aren't careful you can introduce bad motion like parallel fifths.
  • don't overload the basic structure to too much decoration, with a basic harmonic rhythm of one chord per beat, and four part harmony, something like just one or two decorative voices is plenty. Using ratios for subdivisions of the beat, where 1:1:1:1 means all four voices moving in quarter notes, decorate at a levels like 1:1:1:2, 1:1:1:4, 1:1:2:2, 1:1:2:4, leave two voices undecorated.

Take a basic harmonic structure...

enter image description here

Decorate just one of the parts...

enter image description here

...I think this is your main concern, because it seems to throw off balanced voicing - all three triad tones present, tonal degrees doubled - but it should be OK if you make sure the initial harmony of the strong beats is balanced.

Avoid bad, unintended relative motion in the decorative movement...

enter image description here

  • A perfect answer. Thank you!
    – 286642
    Jun 8 at 16:19
  • @286642, thanks! You might like this urresearch.rochester.edu/…, it's a dissertation, but readable and practical, IMO. In a nutshell it discusses three structural level in composition, including this framework/decoration stuff, and it's all geared toward being able to exploit this knowledge for improvisation. Jun 8 at 18:33
  • Great--thank you very much for sharing!
    – 286642
    Jun 8 at 19:20
  • Have to disagree that voice leading and counterpoint are “the same thing”. Counterpoint is more general, you can write music that doesn't conform to standard voice leading at all and yet can be classified as species counterpoint. Jun 8 at 20:23
  • @leftaroundabout, can you give an example of what you mean? The sameness, to me, could just be called relative motion, which will apply to any group of voice when pitches change, regardless of stylistic things like "standard" voice leading or species counterpoint. Jun 8 at 20:59

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