When composing in any form of counterpoint, there are many, many rules to follow. But why? What is the ultimate goal of following the(se) formula(s)?

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    One point that the (very good) answers haven't mentioned: for analog instruments (singers, string players, trombones, etc.), lines moving in parallel fifths and octaves are quite tricky for the performers to tune. Dec 5, 2019 at 7:02
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    Good question: we should need more critical asking like this in music theory! Dec 5, 2019 at 11:12
  • To make it sound like counterpoint rather than harmony, just as the rules of harmony are to make it sound like harmony rather than organum.
    – user207421
    Dec 6, 2019 at 7:44
  • Here's how I think about it. There's a difference between 'rules' and 'laws'. You can break the rules, but then you have to handle the consequences. (e.g. you can use a scale with only 9 notes in, but then harmonies won't work the way they would with a standard 7-note scale). The flip side is that if you follow the rules, the result will sound like something which follows the rules. So the rules of counterpoint are a set of guidelines which will make your piece sound like (standard) counterpoint. -- Laws, such as gravity, can't be so easily broken ;)
    – AJFaraday
    Dec 6, 2019 at 15:31

6 Answers 6


There are a few different reasons that might be given to follow counterpoint "rules."

  1. Stylistic emulation. While this tends to be less valued today by some, for the past few centuries, beginning composers (and teachers of composition) often valued the study of imitating classical composers that they admire. If you want to learn to compose like Palestrina or Bach or Mozart or whomever, you need to follow the kinds of principles they followed. It's not unlike learning to become a better public speaker by imitating the oratorical style of a famed orator. There are certain principles of organization, certain sentence construction patterns, etc. that will help someone sound like a skilled speaker even if they feel a bit artificial if you point them out. Similarly, books and classes that teach counterpoint in the style of Palestrina or Bach, etc. have lots of "rules" to try to distill some of the practices that made those styles sound good and coherent.
  2. To learn by doing. Related to the previous point, there's nothing like trying to actually do something if you really want to understand how it's put together. I could have analyzed Bach fugues for years and never learned as much as when I first had to actually write inventions and later fugues in that style. Even if you don't want to write music like Bach for actual performance, if you want to really understand how Bach's music works (for whatever reason -- whether you're a performer or a composer or just an admirer), there's no substitute for trying to "speak the language."
  3. The exercise of "strict" composition. Anyone who knows anything about actual counterpoint composed in real music knows that every rule has exceptions and reasons to break it. But many composers (and other types of artists, for that matter) have often used exercises that have a lot of artificial constraints to learn how to focus on other aspects of music. When Haydn taught Beethoven, he required Beethoven to do a lot of exercises in old-style species counterpoint. The goal wasn't to write real music that way, but rather to teach a kind of discipline while also requiring good musicality to be produced even within a hugely constrained system. A comparison I might make here is to a poet writing a sonnet -- with all of its requirements of meter and rhyme scheme, it may seem quite constrictive. But it also breeds creativity in that the poet is forced to develop ways to fill in that structure with all of its rules.
  4. Becoming sensitive to musical parameters. Furthermore, by learning the strict composition "rules" this way and how to write within them, one can become sensitive to when they matter and when they don't. For example, parallel fifths are irrelevant to most popular styles of music today, but they are very relevant if one wants to create a sense of independent polyphonic lines. If you never bother to try to write music without them, you might never become sensitive in hearing them in the same way, which means you don't learn how to appropriately deploy them in composition and when they might be working against your goals.
  5. Practical composition skills. This one is perhaps obvious, but some counterpoint principles learned will be ones that produce better results that one might use in future composition. Whether or not the reason behind these principles is understood fully, some of them can just seem to "work" in producing desirable results for a particular composer. And some principles of counterpoint are just useful for making certain kinds of music -- for example, writing in double or triple counterpoint can immediately give a composer many options for reusing a particular section of music by permuting voices. If you know how to write a fugue subject and two countersubjects in triple counterpoint, as well as a few counterpoint patterns for sequences, modulations, and cadences, you can put together a decent fugue with very little work. How did Vivaldi write over 500 concertos? It wasn't by inventing every single measure from scratch. He obviously had a huge repository of standard counterpoint patterns often based on various basic contrapuntal principles in his head (as did most composers of that time), which he deployed again and again to make hundreds of pieces. (This latter point gets to the area between advanced counterpoint and actual music composition, but that borderline is fluid.)

Those are perhaps reasons to follow the rules, but I sense the question is also asking -- why those particular rules? And that's a really hard question to answer in general, because the justification for each rule in counterpoint may be different. Some are based on broad principles of music cognition and grounded in psychoacoustics, so if you want to produce sounds that are processed easily and efficiently by the brain, you may want to follow them. Others are completely arbitrary and idiomatic to a particular style, and you only need to use them if you want to write music that sounds like that style. And there is a lot of middleground in-between those two extremes. Almost all rules presume some underlying assumptions about the parameters of the type of music you're trying to write.

For example, David Huron has written extensively about how many of the basic rules of classical voice-leading are related to basic perceptual elements of the human auditory processing system (from our ears to our brains). There is a (somewhat arbitrary) goal behind many of the rules he explores in that linked article -- namely that many composers beginning in the renaissance highly valued independent voice parts, particularly in vocal polyphony. A large number of part-writing rules can be related back to that one main goal of producing distinct and independent parts that can be clearly understood and parsed by listeners. The parallel fifths rule mentioned above is one of these: if one compositional goal is to produce independent-sounding parts, avoiding parallel fifths is a good counterpoint principle. If that's not a goal of yours, maybe that principle isn't as relevant.

Other principles are more style-dependent. For example, a lot of the rules of dissonance treatment in classical style developed gradually in the late renaissance, as cadential progressions and harmonic successions began to become a greater focus of counterpoint. Leaping to and from random dissonant notes tends to accent them and make them feel like they are "important notes," which tends to undermine the harmonic structure. Knud Jeppesen once traced the gradual development and codification of these constraints on dissonance in his landmark book The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance. Palestrina's emphasis on regulating dissonance was picked up by historical theorists of the time like Zarlino, and these "Palestrina-style" rules eventually became a focus of counterpoint exercises for students up until the 20th century (and beyond).

Are these necessary to write "good music"? It depends on your goals. The Palestrina style was a kind of maximization of a particular kind of polyphonic regulation that produced music that was usually easily singable, as well as a very consistent "smooth" sense of melody and texture free of most chromaticism other than leading tones at cadences (another well-regulated feature of counterpoint, derived from acoustical principles of closeness that led to satisfying resolutions).

As music became more "chordal" and chromaticism and modulation more rampant by the time of Bach, more principles were added to counterpoint involving the resolution of specific types of dissonances produced by new types of chords. But other principles of the "strict style" of Palestrina were downplayed, particularly where they were less relevant. For example, when writing for organ, Bach didn't need to care about whether a particular line could be sung easily, so you'll often see more extreme chromaticism and leaps that you wouldn't see as often in vocal music (and definitely not in Palestrina).

In the end, it's about the kind of music you want to write. Some counterpoint "rules" may be useful to you; others less so. The very use of the term counterpoint (as opposed to "harmony" or "chord progressions") implies an emphasis on independent polyphonic lines, however. So, if someone wants to write true counterpoint, it would likely do them well to pay attention to some of these principles. As noted in the Huron paper above, a lot of them are there for legitimate cognitive reasons to make music easier to parse by listeners, if creating comprehensible counterpoint is a goal.

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    Regarding your Haydn-Beethoven reference, maybe this is why Beethoven quit taking lessons with Haydn after a few months...?
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 5, 2019 at 12:33
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    @Dekkadeci - I don't know that Beethoven ever made reference to those particular counterpoint lessons one way or the other. (Though I don't claim to know much about the interaction between these two figures.) My understanding is that the most common historical theory is Beethoven was offended by Haydn's criticism of his early published works. Instruction in Fuxian-style counterpoint lessons was pretty standard at that time, so it's hard to imagine Beethoven would have been surprised by that type of exercise.
    – Athanasius
    Dec 5, 2019 at 13:36

There are two basic paths leading to the goal of writing "music that works". And they are the same basic parts that lead to being able to cook food that other people can eat without complaining too much about it.

The easy way is to learn a set of "tricks" that work pretty well, and practice them until you can use them successfully without much thought. That is was a traditional counterpoint course teaches you.

The other way is to be a natural genius. That is just as effective, but unfortunately the number of people who think they are a natural genius, at both composing and cooking, is somewhat greater than the number who really are what they think they are.

Don't forget that in most western music there is no rigid dividing line between "counterpoint" and "harmony". For example learning how to write invertible counterpoint that doesn't sound terrible is not very different from learning how to voice chords in different ways that don't sound terrible, if you stop to think about what you are really doing in each situation.


When you say "counterpoint rules" I immediately think "Fux" and species counterpoint.

Species counterpoint is a teaching method. One of the goals is for the student to demonstrate an understanding of the musical elements and the discipline to follow the rules. If you have the understanding and control, writing in the species shouldn't be a problem. After the species studies, in the real world of composition, your choices are deliberate, because you know how to control a complex musical setting.

That's my rationale for why someone would go through species study.

But there is also an aesthetic side to it. The goal is to write independent lines that harmonize. From that perspective counterpoint "rules" are meant to teach you those aesthetics:

  • what is consonant
  • what is dissonant and proper handling of dissonance
  • valuing musical variety
  • harmonic stability/instability

So, for example, variety and independent lines are prized. Motion in parallel fifths has less variety than motion in thirds (both in harmonic interval quality and linear contour.) Parallel fifths are forbidden (even though fifths are consonant) because the two parallel parts are too similar. Parallel thirds are OK, because of the harmonic and linear variety (major and minor thirds are varied interval sizes) ...but not too many parallel thirds. For variety's sake we want other interval types mixed in with the thirds.

You could probably condense the goal to something like: maximize intervallic and melodic variety while balancing harmonic consonance and dissonance.


Like all rules, from the 'rule of thirds' in pictorial composition to the Ten Commandments, they lay down a framework for reliable results in an environment where there are SO many ways to mess up!

Then you start finding the exceptions... :-)


I’ve already several times cited D. De la Motte’s foreword to his Harmonielehre. Now I’ve found the English translation and I will poste some longer passages and then write a summary. First a link:


... the later chapters focus on the innovations of specific composers and their personal harmonic styles. The historical treatment of this topic avoids many of the anonymous and artless rules which are regularly associated with \"strict\" part-writing approaches to the study of harmony (stronger Satz). The Study of Harmony :A historical Perspective is offered as an alternative to the many texts which present \"rules\" of harmony without reference to actual music. All of the rules and principles found in this book were derived from an examination of numerous musical examples, and each under Instead example was choosen be representative of the specific period composer study.

It speaks for itself and is giving an answer to your question.

More quotations will follow here:

This text is primarily analysis-centered. Nevertheless, musical exercises are included to provide extra drill and practice for those who wish to thoroughly techniques presented in each chapter. This book is not limited only to compositions that employ functional harmony, although the exercises are included to assimilate the materials and do the musical examples in order to benefit from this text, however. Many readers will find this book to be an excellent source for review of harmonic materials or a tool for building a better understanding of the roles harmony has played in Western music over the past four centuries.

Which pitch of a first-inversion triad should be doubled? If we seek an answer in ten different harmony texts, we are likely to find ten different answers, which lie somewhere between the extreme positions of Bumke (“the third should never be doubled"),' and Moser ("all three doubling possibilities are possible").2 We face the same problem if our question is about hidden parallel perfect intervals. According to Bölsche, hidden parallels are incorrect if they occur between the lower voices or between the two upper voices. Lemacher-Schroeder forbids them only, "ifthe upper voices leap, for example, when all the voices move in the same direction."4 Dachs-Söhner prohibits only one special case of hidden parallels, and Riemann holds that all hidden parallels are forbidden. In specific cases, any of these individual positions could be correct. The problem is, that the authors developed their rules and prohibitions from different musical examples. Furthermore, they made systematic generalizations based these examples without always sharing the examples with the reader. The so-called "strict" part-writing style (strenger Satz) presented in many harmony books was never employed as the basis for actual musical compositions. Nevertheless, nearly all musicianship examinations require the student to write exercises in the "strict" style (where, for example, writing more than three parallel fifths is judged to be unsatisfactory). Even Hugo Distler [whose own compositions are full of contradictions to the "strict" style] taught his students by this method, nobly calling it "exercises for the study ofharmony"(Harmonielehresatz). In one of his part-writing assignments, to name only a single example, Distler requires the student to include a dominant-ninth chord. Although this sonority was only first considered a discrete chord in the time of Schumann, the assignment is otherwise to be written in a strict pre- Bach chorale style. Nowhere in Distler's textis there any mention of the reasons for this stylistic mixture, however. Such pedagogical exercises do not aid, but hinder a good music-history education (it is a wonder that music historians have not protested!). Furthermore, limiting the study of harmony to the "strict" style also tends to lock-out the study of music written before and after the periods dominated by tonal harmony. The "strict" style also ensnares composers, who shoulder the main responsibility of teaching composition, into a conformity with arbitrary rules that often effectively entombs their individuality. Instrumental exams take place on the stage, whereas harmony exams are held in the theory lab: “modulate from ... to ... as quickly and convincingly as possible,” the junior faculty member [or teaching assistant] barks!

The past four-hundred years has been the most important time in history for the development and change of musical style. Furthermore, the study of these changes is so fascinating, that it is difficult to understand why the teaching of harmony has favored a "strict" approach. The employment of “strict-style" methods is particularly problematic, when we consider the major role that harmony has played as an agent of these stylistic changes. The "strict" style, though easy to present and correct, is not usually even modeled after the music of the greatest composers, such as Haßler, Praetorius and Osiander, but rather, on composers of somewhat lesser historical importance. It is an outrage that “strict" chorale-style exercises, which frequently contain chordal sonorities from the Romantic era, continue to be presented as aiter med of harmome the mentalists and opera singers. The joylessness with which students face such exercises is often the silent comment on the pedagogical effectiveness of these methods.

From the very beginning, the great composers are the only master teachers. I have not invented any of the rules or prohibitions; instead,I have derived each actual musical practice and have checked the validity ...

As we can see this critic of De la Motte is not only concerning the teaching methods of the rules of counterpoint but the rules of harmony in general. The main point is an anachronistic, unhistorical and never practiced rules for composing.

In his preface de la Motte criticizes the approach of theory minus music that he represents so many German manuals of harmony Regrets the usual doctrine of partwriting with arbitrary and capricious rules that have little to do with harmonic processes in actual music, and encourages the reader to consider the different approaches between different composers, genres, and time periods; promotional material for this harmony text; Carl Dahlhaus wrote: "The harmony of Diether de la Motte fulfills the desirous need for a harmony text that contains historically correct style models in place of abstract scheme ..." 5 De la motte's harmony seeks to study the harmony on a solid histori analytical and analytical basis, with the hope of making the study of harmony more relevant for the music student, the professional musician or the interested amateur.

  • I'm all for some 'light reading' (haha) but, the document you reference is locked after the first few pages... can you paraphrase or otherwise reference the part of the text that details an answer about the rules of counterpoint composition? Dec 5, 2019 at 8:13
  • I could download it this morning by dlscrib.com Dec 5, 2019 at 9:49

I believe it was Beethoven who said that the rules of counterpoint can be reduced to a single principle: avoid parallel motion into perfect consonance.

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