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Counterpoint – Part 1

Perhaps you’ve heard of “counterpoint”. It’s a style of music in which you have multiple voices (or instruments) doing different things at the same time, and it all adds up to something bigger than its parts.

In this series, I’m going to explore that aspect of music. In some ways it’s highly technical; in other ways it’s not. It might seem like an academic exercise (which it is, kind of), but it’s also applicable to bands that want to do two things at once.

In this article we’ll just start with a few fundamentals:

The word “counterpoint” comes to us from the Latin “contra punctus”, or ‘against the point’. When music notation started, there weren’t notes of different lengths, like todays whole notes and quarter notes; there were only notes, marked as dots (or points) above the lyrics. The Latin word for point is “punctus”, and the inventors of counterpoint were medieval churchmen, who spoke, or at least wrote, in Latin.

So we’ve got this point in the music. And against it, we want to set some other point. Composers started doing this around the 9th or 10th century, and within about 500 years they’d developed a system of doing that which resulted in sounds that consistently made sense.

Medieval counterpoint bears little resemblance to today’s music. At the same time, all the elements of today’s music – our chord progressions, rhythms, and even how we cast lyrics against melodies – have their roots in counterpoint. So I’ll start with the basics and move on from there.

The model of medieval counterpoint is the masses of Giulanni Pierluigi de Palestrina. He wasn’t the only composer of his era; other important ones were Lassus (Orlande de Lassus), Victoria (Tomas de Luis de Victoria), and William Byrd.

What made Palestrina so memorable was the first widely used counterpoint manual, called “Gradus ad Parnussum” (Steps to Parnassus) published by Johann Joseph Fux (pronounced “Fooks”) in 1725. It’s still in print, and if you have a real interest in counterpoint I’d recommend it – it was used by Mozart, Beethoven, and countless others.

Fux distilled the masses of Palestrina down to basic rules, and taught them through a dialogue between a student (Josephus) and his teacher (Aloysius).

Like may theory works, Fux “dumbs down” some concepts. He’s reducing some of the things that Palestrina did to essential elements. Bear in mind that Palestrina didn’t follow Fux’ rules (how could he, since he’d been dead before Fux was born?), but applying them can produce at least a consistently adequate result.

There are a few things we need to cover before we dive in: intervals, consonance (or dissonance) and motion.

“Interval” in music theory refers to the distance between two notes. Interval names have two parts, the first describing quality, and the second describing distance. Distance is simpler, so we’ll look at that first.

The size of an interval depends solely on the distance between its letters. The lower letter is number one: A-F is a sixth, because A is 1, which makes B 2, C 3, D 4, E 5, and F is the sixth. It doesn’t matter at all what kind of A or what kind of F we’re looking at – Ab – F# is a sixth, as is A# to Fb or any other combination.

The other part of an interval name describes quality. To really get this idea requires a knowledge of scales; in this example I’ll use A major (A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A) and other scales as required.

Intervals are measured starting from the lower note. If the lower note is A, and the upper note is B, we have to also look at the major scale of the upper note, B major: B-C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A#-B. We find that B is in the key of A (the lower note), but A is not in the key of B. That makes the interval “major”. Since B is the second letter starting from A, A-B is a “major second”.

If we look at the interval A-D, we get a different situation. The D major scale is D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D; here A is in the key of D, and D is also in the key of A. When that situation occurs, we call the interval “perfect”; A-D is a “perfect fourth” (because D is the fourth letter starting from A).

With those two starting points, we can define other intervals. A major interval made smaller by a half step becomes a minor interval; A-C# is a major third, but A-C is a minor third.

If we make a perfect interval smaller by a half step, we get a “diminished” interval. A-Db is a diminished fourth. Notice that this sounds just like A-C#, but in counterpoint they are not the same – A-C# is a third (because C is the third letter starting from A); A-Db must be a fourth (because D is the fourth letter starting from A). What we call things matters a lot in counterpoint!

If we make either a major or a perfect interval bigger, we get an “augmented” interval; Ab-C# is an augmented third, because we’ve made the distance between the notes bigger by lowering A. And A-D# is an augmented fourth for the same reason – we’ve made the interval bigger.

Making a perfect or a minor interval smaller results in a “diminished” interval. A#-C (or A-Cb) would be a diminished third; A-Db (or A#-D) would be a diminished fourth.

Making a diminished interval smaller results in a doubly-diminished interval (like A#-Cb), and making an augmented interval larger (like Ab-D#) creates a doubly-augmented interval. Both are rare in practice.

To sum up intervals, here’s the hierarchy:

dd -> d -> m – M – A – AA
(doubly diminished -> diminished -> minor -> Major -> Augmented -> doubly Augmented


dd -> d -> P -> A -> AA
(doubly diminished -> diminished -> perfect -> augmented -> doubly augmented

Next we’ll take a quick look at the idea of consonance and dissonance.

Consonance means the sounds get along with each other. Dissonance means they don’t. But the way we hear sounds depends on what we’ve been exposed to; in Palestrina’s day, perfect fourths were considered dissonant, and today they aren’t.

I’m going to confine the ideas in this series to what Fux/Palestrina had to say (with my own observations at the end to make them more appropriate to today’s music), so I’ll sum up their categories:

Perfect consonances – the sounds that are always consonant:
Unisons (the same pitch in both voices/instruments)
Octaves (the same letter names, but not the same pitch)
Fifths (A-E, D-A, etc.; the fifth note of the major scale)

Imperfect consonances – the sounds that sounds really good together, and are almost always consonant:
Thirds (major or minor)
Sixths (major or minor)

Dissonances, for our purposes, are everything else. When I teach composition, I divide dissonances into two categories: always dissonant and sometimes dissonant, but you don’t need to break them out to grasp basic counterpoint.

The last piece before we can tackle counterpoint is motion: how sounds move against each other. Depending on which music theorist you follow, you end up with either three or four different types of motion. I prefer three, but I’ll outline the fourth possibility.

Contrary motion occur when the melodies move in the opposite direction – the higher line moves up while the lower line moves down, or the lower line moves up while he higher line moves down.

Oblique motion occurs when one melody remains stationary while the other moves; a change from A-D to A-E is oblique motion (as is a change from A-D to G-D).

Similar motion happens when both voices move in the same direction: A-C# moving to B-G is similar motion. Although A moves just a whole step to B, and C moves a diminished fourth to G, both are moving in the same direction.

The fourth type of motion is called “parallel” motion; it’s similar motion where both voices move by exactly the same amount. A-C# moving to B-D# is parallel motion, because both voices move in the same direction by a whole step; A-C# moving to B-D is similar, but not parallel, because both voices are moving in the same direction, but by different intervals (A-B is a whole step; C#-D is a half step).

Tom (“Noteboat”) Serb is a longtime Guitar Noise contributor and founder of the Midwest Music Academy in Plainfield, Illinois. This advice first appeared in Volume 4 # 25 of Guitar Noise News. Sign-up for our newsletter to receive more free tips like this by email.

More on Counterpoint

1 Comment

  1. Nuno
    May 5th, 2012 @ 6:29 am

    Very interesting. I had read it in the newsletter. I’ll be waiting for the next lesson. Thanks!