I understand that harmony and counterpoint are more tools than set of rules to follow, the first works vertically, enhancing a single melody line, while the other combines multiple melody lines in a way to convey a single musical idea. I'd say this is what I understand more or less. Hence, are both of them mutually exclusive techniques? Does one give a different feel than another? Should one be learnt before the other?

Edit: Thanks for everyone for the clarifications, I've just started studying theory so I couldn't really get all the technical terms, but I think I understand better the difference between harmony and counterpoint now.


Harmony is just multiple notes sounding at the same time. Counterpoint is the technique of creating harmony by interweaving multiple melody lines. So they are not at all mutually exclusive. One is a technique for creating the other. Harmony created by counterpoint could be said to give a more complex or layered sound than other means of harmony.

They could really be learned in either order. Historically, counterpoint was developed first, and then non-contrapuntal harmony was derived later, as a sort of shorthand simplification to that. Both are based on combining consonant and dissonant intervals, but counterpoint has additional complexities in that the voices will tend to be rhythmically independent.

  • As a follow-up question, would you apply the term counterpoint to only 2 melodies? For example, the famous 2nd movement from Beethoven's 7th symphony, where the violins play one melody and the violas & cellos play the other. – ktm5124 Nov 22 '14 at 21:52
  • No, counterpoint can apply to any number of voices. In fact, four is pretty typical number of voices, four example in a four-part fugue. – Caleb Hines Nov 22 '14 at 21:56
  • Oh, sorry, I meant to say... I know (already) that counterpoint is often applied to 3+ voices. For example, the 5 voices in some of Bach's cantatas. But if you have only two melodies, such as in Beethoven's 2nd movement (7th symphony), would you still use the word counterpoint to describe the two melodies playing in harmony? – ktm5124 Nov 22 '14 at 21:58
  • Yes. You still have independent melody lines. – Caleb Hines Nov 22 '14 at 22:00

I think of counterpoint and harmony as separate things but they are really both happening all of the time. In fact, the only situation where you do not have harmony, you cannot have counterpoint, which is to have a monophonic instrument playing solo. Harmony can be implied in such a setting but it is not actually there. I would argue that parallel motion of multiple voices is not necessarily counterpoint, such as Gregorian Chant when adding a fifth, which could be constituted as harmony, so harmony can exist without counterpoint's presence, however rare that may be.

Its seems that people tend to think of harmony of in two ways. Some tend to think of it as any combination of notes heard simultaneously, while others tend to think of it as chords. The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines it as, "The relationship of tones considered as they sound simultaneously. and the way such relationships are organized in time; also any particular collection of pitches sounded simultaneously, termed a chord." So it is basically both but I would argue that a chord is harmony but harmony does not necessarily have to be a chord; it could be two notes sounding together or a tone cluster that cannot be defined as a chord with conventional theory.

Similarly, there seems to be a common misunderstanding about counterpoint. It is most often thought of as a system of composing, exemplified by such music as the Baroque era. While this is entirely true, it does not encompass the entirety. Just about any time you have two or more voices, you are engaging in counterpoint. So the broadest of definitions will tell you that almost all music you hear that is not a solo monophonic instrument is counterpoint. When I hear modern music from the rock and pop spectrum or jazz, I cannot help but think of it as contrapuntal in nature. Let's take jazz: walking bass line, melody, sometimes horn lines; these things all act independent of each other. When we study counterpoint, we are taught that counterpoint is the system of composing, instead of this literal definition, so it is often thought of that way.

My distinction here would be that of a literal take on it and a practical take. Literally speaking, nearly everything is counterpoint. In a practical sense, counterpoint is the composition approach. The reason why jazz would not necessarily fit the practical definition is that it does not follow the rules of classical counterpoint. The system of composing that we refer to as counterpoint focuses on how to have 2 or more voices acting independent of each other and the voice leading rules are specific to how we can make sure the different voices are perceived as independent. Parallel fifths are not allowed basically because the two notes are so closely related, due to the fifth's low position in the overtone series, that when you have parallel fifths, it sounds like a voice is suddenly missing from the texture. In the practical definition, harmony in counterpoint is secondary and results from the rules of classical counterpoint.

Again, with harmony, a similar distinction of literal/practical. Literally harmony is any combination of two or more notes. Practically harmony is a description of the combination of voices and is described as chords. Chord theory was developed somewhat during the Baroque era and solidified in the Classical era. So with my practical definitions, counterpoint was well underway long before harmony was in the picture.

To throw a wrench in things a little, we could also argue that due to the natural occurrence of overtones, harmony exists at all times with anything other than perhaps a pure sine wave. But that's just food for thought.

  • A few thoughts: counterpoint can be evident in implied independent voices with a solo instrument, much in the same way harmony may be implied. Actually, voice against voice motion is quite literally First Species counterpoint, even if they are parallel. Chords are notes heard simultaneously, regardless of the quality or number. Your reasoning for chords / harmony is fuzzy and unsupported. Even without your practical definitions, it is well understood and researched that linear motion preceded vertical function. – jjmusicnotes Nov 22 '14 at 22:49
  • I think one could have counterpoint if one had two instruments which never played simultaneously, but I'm not sure that could be called harmony. If that could be called harmony, then the same could be said even if the two separate instruments were replaced with one instrument that played all the notes. – supercat Nov 22 '14 at 23:55

I like to think of harmony and counterpoint as more of a question of vertical versus horizontal slices of music. If you cut a piece of multi-voice writing into horizontal slices (i.e. the individual melodies of the parts) and look at how those parts fit together, you are approaching it contrapuntally. If you cut it into a sequence of vertical slices (i.e. chords) and look at how those proceed from one to the next, then you are approaching it harmonically.

Rather than mutually exclusive, I would say that the two are co-dependent. Layered melodies (counterpoint) give rise automatically to vertical sonorities, and a sequence of chords gives rise automatically to voice leading (which is, essentially, counterpoint).

Most music can be looked at both ways, with both approaches yielding helpful information.


I would say that contrapuntal writing developed into harmonic writing, and not only chronologically (from renaissance into Baroque period). Of course most composers didn't really realise this at the time. Melodic lines are naturally designed (as in a law of nature, like gravity) to have a harmonic accompaniment as opposed to a contrapuntal one. It has taken hundreds of years for music writers to realise this. In a sense, contrapuntal writing was just an experimentation phase as composers tried to find an appropriate way to accompany a melodic line. The result of the experiment was that the answer is harmony (as in chords, sometimes arpegiated and inverted) supports melody, not another independent melody) Finally, as funny as it may sound, pop music is now the pinnacle of music as it is a form that has come to realise (with many writers subconsciously) the importance of harmonising a melody as opposed to writing counterpoint for it.

  • This is not accurate... definitely opinionated/conjecture driven as well. There is no one way and you are essentially discrediting the music of other cultures that do not use harmonic progression. Counterpoint is readily taking place in modern pop music as well, though we do not refer to it this way frequently. If you wish to justify this thought process, please provide some academic examples/sources. I would be rather interested to see this thought process in such a setting. – Basstickler Jan 28 '15 at 19:21

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