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Wikipedia defines counterpoint like this:

In music, counterpoint is the relationship between voices that are interdependent harmonically (polyphony) yet independent in rhythm and contour.

What does it mean to be interdependent harmonically yet independent in rhythm & countour? Is there a simpler explanation of counterpoint? (or a simpler way of saying this?)

  • I would like to clarify that if you define harmony as chords, that the above definition is misleading. Historically counterpoint has been based on the relationships between 2 or more voices and how to have them move to allow each line to operate independently but work together. As such, the resulting harmony (if defined as chords) is a consequence of the linear motion of each voice and the rules of voice leading. The chords are not the guiding force but are a result of functional counterpoint. Chord theory evolved out of counterpoint and led the way to homophony. – Basstickler Nov 21 '14 at 18:40
  • I found good examples about this on YouTube. For example this one: youtu.be/4O6lc_ym12U – coderworks Oct 13 '15 at 18:37
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Independent in rhythm & contour means that the voices may have different rhythms and contour, respectively.

For example, if a voice goes up and another goes down, the voices would be moving in opposing motion. Moreover, one voice may be going up, and then down while the other remains going down only. All this means that the voices are independent in contour.

Independent in rhythm is analogous; the rhythm of one voice doesn't affect the rhythm of the other voice.

On the other side is harmony. Unlike rhythm or contour, each note being played at a time has a role on the harmony. Then, the harmony is dependent on each voice.

Counterpoint, in simple terms, is a technique for creating "good" harmony with independent voices (independent on contour & rhythm). Another way of looking at it is: Counterpoint is a technique for composing various simultaneous independent voices without messing up the harmony.

  • 4
    Gotta love this: "Counterpoint is a technique for playing various independent voices without messing up the harmony." – inger Nov 21 '14 at 0:58
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Yes. It means you can distinguish 2 or more different melodies that sound pretty together.

This is not the same as melody and accompaniment; in that case there's one melody and one more voices that form a rather static backdrop.

That said Independence is to some extent subjective; a counter melody will be perceived as more independent if it has different rhythm, if the melodically movement seems not in any way connected to the other melody etc.

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All it means is that is that both voices add up to some kind of harmony (think of chords although they don't have to be), while the the musical lines themselves don't sound or feel alike. These voices can also typically each be perceived as a different melody.

There is a much simpler way to say what counterpoint is, which is "The study of how to make two voices independent within the context of harmony."

The reason why rhythm and contour are singled out is they play a very big role in determining whether two voices sound or feel alike. If two voices are moving in the opposite direction you can hear it and if two voices have different rhythms you can hear it. If the rhythm and the contour was the same the voices would sound very dependent, so making one different helps make the two voices independent.

If you want good examples of how counterpoint can be used, listen to some fugues and inventions.

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I believe it is easier to see it than to read about it, so here you have the maximum expression of counterpoint, a fugue. You can see how every melodic line has its own rithm and melody, they "don't care" about each other, yet it all sounds great, mostly because the composer is a freaking genius! :D

An Easy-to-see Bach fugue, click and in 3 minutes you will have understood it ;)

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"Creating the effect of harmony from multiple melodies". That's pretty much it! (Of course, it is quite complex...)

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