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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. Jun 9 '11 at 23:02
  • @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. 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 Jun 10 '11 at 4:20
  • Right, not all rennaisance polyphony is counterpoint, not by a long shot. I agree with the first sentence of your first comment -- counterpoint is a type of polyphony. May 21 '13 at 16:13
  • "The word counterpoint is frequently used interchangeably with polyphony. This is not properly correct, since polyphony refers generally to music consisting of two or more distinct melodic lines while counterpoint refers to the compositional technique involved in the handling of these melodic lines" (Britannica). Counterpoint = the technique, polyphony = the result, "Bach's tonal counterpoint is surely no less polyphonic than Palestrina's modal writing" (Carl Dahlhaus).
    – mins
    May 2 at 17:26
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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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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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