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I recently learned the five species of counterpoint, but feel like I am not grasping the significance of counterpoint in music.

I get the feeling these principles may be used to write a bass line for something like a metal song or J-pop song, but how do these rules fit in to modern-day music such as electronic dance music and pop music?

Also, is counterpoint with more than two voices used frequently in places outside of baroque and romantic music? I don't think I hear counterpoint with three or more voices very much in modern music, at least in the genres I listen to frequently.

I feel like I don't understand how counterpoint fits into the bigger picture of composition or modern-day music (although I can definitely hear these principles in Bach's compositions and in, for example, Pachelbel's Canon in D).

If I could understand how these principles fit into music better, I could also use them better in my own compositions. Right now when I compose music I am only thinking contrapuntally to write my melody and bass line. I am not sure if that is "good enough," or if I can do more with my knowledge, or if I should learn more about counterpoint.

Can someone help me see the bigger picture?


@user45266:

I want to know how to use counterpoint and how other people use counterpoint in their compositions.

For example, do pop song writers or film track composers ever think, "Ok, time to utilize some of the principles of counterpoint"?

And when is it appropriate to use the species of counterpoint (or elements of it, not necessarily using it literally)?

For example, when would you do a three-part counterpoint? When and how would you decide to compose a counterpoint in the middle of two lines? The only counterpoint I can think of right now for modern music would be a good bassline forming a perfect counterpoint with the melody.

**

@Michael Curtis:

Let me give you a few examples from some of the genres I have been exploring recently. Maybe take J-pop, jazz, and rock/metal music. How does counterpoint apply in those genres? Is the usage of counterpoint more or less the same throughout these genres?...etc. I just want to be able to apply these principles in my own music.

  • So, you want some uses of counterpoint knowledge in more modern music? Is that what you are asking? – user45266 Sep 19 '18 at 0:03
  • I will update my question to try to elaborate. Yes, I am mostly focusing on modern music, although the usages of counterpoint in classical and romantic music still interest me. – reincarnationofstackexchange Sep 19 '18 at 23:17
  • Modern is still vague. Modern like Stockhausen or Bruno Mars, or some many other styles. – Michael Curtis Sep 20 '18 at 19:26
  • I see your point. Let me edit my post to be more specific. – reincarnationofstackexchange Sep 21 '18 at 3:08
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You wouldn't put a headband on a bald man to keep his hair in place, but you might use it to stop the sweat from getting in his eyes. Similarly, it's fairly much a wasted effort trying to put baroque counterpoint into EDM (because stylistically it eschews harmonic progression), but you can still use some of the concepts.

The concept of texture in music is often misunderstood. It is not about 'smoothness' or 'roughness', rather it is about the layers of sound and what each layer is up to. Counterpoint (and polyphony) is where you have several layers simultaneously jockeying for the listener's attention without stepping on each other's toes with notes that clash. In EDM you have fewer toes to step on: you could have the notes C, C# and D played in separate layers simultaneously and not cause a stink. But more usefully, you can just employ the general principles, rather than worrying about clashing notes.

For example, play a subject in successive voices; invert it; reverse it; play it twice as fast or half as fast; vary the first half or the second or the whole subject: mix it with a new subject; keep the rhythm and change the intervals. Worry less about 'C has got to go with E, goes with G' and more about what you're doing with this 'parcel of sound' and that 'parcel of sound'. You can visually represent counterpoint with pebbles, sea shells and lego bricks, so you can do the same things with electronic sounds and loops.

As for the other genres you mentioned, it is certainly possible. Traditionally, the last chorus of a Dixieland jazz tune would feature collective, improvised counterpoint from all the melody instruments. You will hear some counterpoint in the music of Keith Jarrett, Bruce Hornsby and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Structurally, genres featuring four chords repeated are just as suitable for counterpoint as Pachelbel's Canon (even though it employs eight chords). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pachelbel%27s_Canon
In the 17th century, counterpoint itself was the 'point' of much of the music. That is not currently the case, but counterpoint remains a device to be used by the industrious and brave.

  • What are some examples of contemporary dance music? Are you talking about pop and EDM music? What do you mean when you say that "it eschews harmonic progression"? Are you referring to the cyclical nature of its chords, like repetitive cycles of vi IV I V? – reincarnationofstackexchange Sep 26 '18 at 15:55
  • I was addressing EDM. I've edited my answer to include other genres. Genres that feature repetitive cycles of chords are quite suitable for counterpoint, whereas EDM, which is not really about 'melody' per se, would be more problematic – Areel Xocha Sep 26 '18 at 21:20
  • Are songs that follow the traditional verse / chorus (and maybe prechorus) form included in the "genres that feature repetitive cycles of chords"? Also, what do you mean that EDM is not really about the melody? Is it more about the percussion or "beat"? – reincarnationofstackexchange Sep 27 '18 at 3:29
  • No, I wasn't including them, not because it's impossible but because much counterpoint is imitative with voices sequentially imitating the first voice, and the fewer chords you use the easier it will be to avoid note clashes.Yes, EDM is typically more about rhythm and tone colour than 'whistleable' melodies. – Areel Xocha Sep 28 '18 at 12:47
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A good use of counterpoint is to create good bass vs melody lines. Generally, the bass and melody should be based on sound 2-part counterpoint. I like to check that the "main" notes of each line (not the highest or lowest or longest necessarily) make good two-part counterpoint. It's easier if one starts with a chord progression; one writes the bass line for the chords in root position; then adjusts some chords to first (or second) position; the finally plays with the rhythm, inserting passing tones or neighbor tones, displacing the main note to create syncopation. All the time, making sure that there are not parallel fifths or octaves (if these occur between the bass and melody, the texture seems to thin out which is usually inappropriate between these two voices.)

Then adjust the melody or rewrite the parts that you don't like. Repeat the whole process again.

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First understand that species counterpoint is mostly a teaching method and is not the composition method of the various styles you mention. Things learned through species counterpoint can be applied to other composition styles and methods. Things like relative motion, melodic contour, independent rhythms, consonance & dissonance.

Makes sure to distinguish between true multi-voice counterpoint (polyphony) and counterpoint in homophonic style. In homophonic style parts function as bass, soprano, and inner-voices. It seems to me the difference is most noticeable in the bass. In polyphony the bass is a melody. In homophonic style the bass is playing a harmonic role that supports a melody.

Now consider something like a jazz combo. The bass is playing a walking bass pattern on the bottom, the piano is comping chords in the middle, and sax is improvising lines on top. All three are moving with difference melodic contours and different rhythms. Maybe in the "head" they all play a melody in parallel motion. We can describe all that with the same terms and concepts from species counterpoint, but the combo isn't literally playing species counterpoint.

I've heard some people get bogged down in defining counterpoint, counter-melody, counter-theme, counter-rhythm, etc. I would avoid trying to strictly define something as true counterpoint versus melody plus counter-melody and learn to apply the descriptive terms of relative motion, rhythmic relations, etc.

EDIT after OP update:

This example only hints at the many approaches you could take to applying counterpoint to your own music. It's pretty brief, but comes from a real person working in a pop style. I think it's good how he should the development of an idea with counterpoint inside his music editing software.

The other suggestion I thought of isn't about counterpoint per se, but how to combine two styles that seems do separate - counterpoint from past centuries and current music styles like EDM. One approach is to simple mash them together and find a new mood or expression. The following example isn't counterpoint - it's Gregorian chant - but it creates an awesome effect in an EDM setting! Why can't you take existing contrapuntal music (for example, Palestrina) and mash it up with EDM or metal?

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