I'm diving into counterpoint because I want to have a better understanding of diatonic/ tonal harmony. I figured that counterpoint would be a good place to start and so far it does seem promising. My only issue is that everywhere I read just lists the rules involved without giving any conceptual context. I understand that the specific rules create the broader concepts and ideas, but It's hard for me to place any value in the rules without understanding why they're in place to begin with. I don't want to just memorize the rules without understanding why they're in place. Does that make sense??? Anyway, does anyone have a good explanation/summary of what the implications behind the rules are that they would be willing to share?
This is an important question, and I have two main responses to it:
1. Counterpoint is less about "rules" and more about matching an earlier compositional style
Many students are overwhelmed by the various "rules" of counterpoint. In many instances, these same students feel as if their own creativity is being inhibited because these rules tend to go against what they naturally want to do.
So it's important to remember that these rules are not to stop the students from being creative, but to rather write music in the style of centuries past (exactly how many centuries depends on the style of counterpoint). Students feel that these rules are inhibiting because they tend to write music in a 20th or 21st-century style, because that's the music that they hear everyday. But instead, we're mimicking 16th- or 18th- century practice, and these rules help us understand that style since we aren't necessarily singing it or playing it everyday.
2. So much of counterpoint is learning how to treat dissonances
Since tonal music is a gradual evolution from the 16th- and 18th-century styles, the handling of dissonances—especially fourths—is an outgrowth of how they were treated in the 16th century. As such, learning how to handle these dissonances correctly will lead to us using then in a idiomatic tonal context, as well. Without this understanding, we may well use non-stylistic non-chord tones, chordal inversions, odd chordal resolutions, etc.
The main point of first species counterpoint is to develop a feel for creating two-voice music with independent voices. That is, to have to melodies, which are decent melodies in themselves and which combine nicely.
There is a good description of Medieval Counterpoint by Margo Schulter but I can't find it at the moment; I'll try to see if it's bookmarked on another computer later. It's about an earlier era but these principles are still in use. Just found it:
The points about parallels are that parallel (or any non-contrary motion) into a perfect interval (fifth or octave or unison and perhaps the fourth) sounds like one voice dropped out. (This is even important in popular music between bass and melody.) Likewise, cadences were mostly made from the expansion of a major sixth to an octave (by contrary motion) with both half-step and whole-step motion. (Adding the movement of a fifth down or fourth up gives the tonal perfect cadence). That's a couple of the main points.
My experience is that each period has created its own rules and the best way to study the different practices is to analyze the style different of composers of different periods, to find out similarities and differences - and not learning the rules of the species of a composing style that never existed. Mind the history of music is a history of change and revolution.
There is not one counterpoint. Each period has its own counterpoint and its own rules. Mind that the theory has been derived from the practice!
My advice is to study counterpoint according to the history of music and the development of polyphony, (e.g. beginning with Perotin, Dufay and Josquin Desprez.) Continue with Bach, Fux, etc. analyzing their styles.
Read the foreword of Diether de la Mottes “counterpoint”.
I understand that the specific rules create the broader concepts and ideas, but It's hard for me to place any value in the rules without understanding why they're in place to begin with. I don't want to just memorize the rules without understanding why they're in place. Does that make sense???
I bet this link will answer your question:
To give an answer to your question:
How to best understand first species counterpoint/counterpoint in general?
I give you an example: Try to notate a chord progression (4 voices) above a bass line walking stepwise as in minor vi-V or in major IV7-iii7. You’ll discover yourself some problems of parallels and why you may need to drop the fifth and double the third. And by this problem solving and developing sone rules you will understand what you have to learn by abstract rules of c.p. (where the cart is set in front of the horse!)