Music Theory and Practice – Introduction to Counterpoint

Bringing the Baroque into the 21st Century

Counterpoint Dates Back to Renaissance But Is Still Used by Composers Today
Counterpoint Dates Back to Renaissance But Is Still Used by Composers Today

What is Counterpoint?


Counterpoint refers to an argument, idea, or theme used to create a contrast with the main idea. It can be in language, visual art, or in music. For our purposes, we are focusing on musical counterpoint, which is the two or more voices (instrumental or vocal) that are harmonically dependent upon one another while being independent in their rhythm and melodic contour. The term "counterpoint" comes from Latin phrase punctus contra punctum, meaning point against point, which in musical terms is note against note.


Counterpoint originated in the music of the Renaissance (1300s to 1600s) era where composers began to discover that they prefer the way that certain intervals sounded together and began developing the concept of Western harmony. Two Renaissance composers who helped standardize counterpuntcal practice include Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 – Feb.. 2, 1594) and Orlando di Lasso (c. 1530 – June, 14, 1594). Listen to the example of fully embellished or "florid counterpoint" composed by di Lasso in the video below.



Counterpoint continued to be an important musical idea and practice throughout the common practice era (1650 to 1900). Counterpunctal composition characterized much of the music of the Baroque (1600 to 1750), and one of the greatest composers of counterpoint of all time was German Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach (March 31, 1685 – July 28, 1750). Bach's two-part works called inventions and his three-part works called sinfonias (not to be confused with symphonies) as well as his fugues remain some of the prime examples of well-executed counterpoint. Listen to Bach's Two-Part Invention No. 8 in F major, BWV 779 and follow along with the animation that depicts how the two lines (played by the pianists right and left hands) work together and against one another, point against point, note against note.



Counterpoint may date back to Renaissance, but it is still an important skill for today's composers to have in their musician's toolkit. Composers who lack an understanding of counterpoint often have issues writing polyphonic (music with many voices) that listeners can comprehend. Being able to clearly compose lines that function well indepdently as well as together is essential for your listeners to follow your music, understand what you are saying or what feelings you wish to share with it, and most importantly, appreciate it—and even enjoy it! Understanding counterpoint is not just important for composers, but it is important that singers and instrumentalists against how it works to perform counterpunctal pieces most effectively. Understanding how the music you are performing was constructed helps you as a singer and player better express the meaning behind the work and communicate in the musical language.


Consonance and Dissonance


Western art music is often described as the tension between consonance and dissonance. Consonance from Latin consonantia "sounding together," meaning that two or more sounds resonate well together. Dissonance from Latin dissonantia "disagreeing in sound" meaning that two or more sounds do not resonate together well. To put it dramatically, if two sounds are consonant, they are in peacetime, and there is no fight or tension between them that needs to be resolved. And, sounds that are dissonant are battling it our sonically and need to find their way to resolution...or else!


Consonances in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4
Consonances in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4
Dissonance in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4
Dissonance in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4

Consonant Intervals are further divided in perfect and imperfect consonances. A perfect consonance is an unison (the same pitch), a fourth, a fifth or an octave and an imperfect is a third or sixth.


Perfect Intervals in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4
Perfect Intervals in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4

Imperfect Intervals in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4
Imperfect Intervals in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4

Harmonies that are constructed of only consonant intervals considered to be “stable" chords. They do not feel like they “need to go somewhere;” they do not contain tension that requires resolution. While harmonies that contain dissonant intervals may sound unpleasant to Western ears, and we may feel that they are “guiding us somewhere sonically,” that they need to be resolved. Traditionally, music that does not contain dissonance may sound uninteresting or even boring to Western ears. Also, music that is full of dissonances may sound ugly or angry to us. However, as the the 20th century, these ideas began to changes and some composers began to create music that did not follow this pattern of tension and release. However, for our purposes, we are referring to music from the common practice period where tension and release was the basis of Western melodic and harmonic language.

In popular music language, this is why dominant seven or V7 resolves to tonic or I traditionally. In C major, G7 (g dominant seven) resolves to C major. In typical voice leading, the F or seventh in the G7 chord sounds as if it wants to resolve down by step to E which is the third in C major.

V7 to I in C major
V7 to I in C major

The Origin of Species...of Counterpoint


The counterpoint of Renaissance composers such as Palestrina and Dufay was referred to as the ancient style or Stile antico in Italian. Listen to a beautiful example of this style in the video above, Palestrina's "Kyrie" from the Missa Papae Marcelli [Pope Marcellus Mass]. As counterpoint continued to develop in the early Baroque period after the style of these Renaissance composers, it became known as the Prima pratica, Italian for "'first practice."This style of counterpoint was codified by Italian composer and music theorist, Gioseffo Zarlino (1517 – Feb. 4, 1590). Zarlino was the first to theorize the primacy of triadic harmony or chords over simple intervals. As counterpoint continued to evolve, Claudio Monteverdi (baptized May 15, 1567 – Nov. 29. 1643), a composer who bridged the Renaissance into the Baroque, began to refer to the style of music he composed as the Seconda pratica, Italian for "second practice&quo