Punctum contra punctum… point against point… note against note.
This section explores the wonderful world of counterpoint. Basically counterpoint is about the combination of notes in general, though the term is sometimes used as a categorical complement to “harmony,” with counterpoint concerning the “horizontal” or “melodic” aspect, and harmony addressing the “vertical.” In practice, the two are not so easily separated as that division implies, but there is perhaps something to the increased attention to linear elements that distinguishes the study of counterpoint.
Apart from the subject matter, this section is also characterized by the prominent emphasis on “try it yourself” exercises spanning Species Counterpoint, and pastiche composition in 16th and 18th-century styles.
This second part of Open Music Theory assumes knowledge of Fundamentals, but nothing from the later parts.
This section covers some of the main kinds of repertoires and techniques historically used in the teaching of counterpoint:
- We begin with probably the best-known, so-called “species counterpoint” approach (after Fux).
- Species counterpoint is sometimes conflated with the imitative polyphonic style of the 16th century, so after our chapters on species, we move on to a closer look at that repertoire in particular.
- Polyphony of the 16th century can be viewed as a precursor to another imitative style: the fugue. Here, we take a look at the opening section of fugues in the early 18th century specifically.
- Finally, we stay in the 18th century, taking a step away from strict imitation to look at some other kinds of approaches relevant to the contrapuntal thinking, particularly the practice of “Galant schemas”: short pre-existing templates for combining voices that can be elaborated into “real” music (compositions or improvisation).
Before we embark on any of that, let’s take a moment to consider the psychology of counterpoint in more general terms.
Introduction to the Psychology of Counterpoint
The first few chapters of this section on “Species” counterpoint will not be in a specific style (classical, baroque, romantic, pop/rock, etc.). Instead, these exercises will eliminate important musical elements like orchestration, melodic motives, formal structure, and even many elements of harmony and rhythm, in order to focus very specifically on a small set of “fundamental” musical problems. These “fundamental problems” are closely related to how some basic principles of auditory perception and cognition (i.e., how the brain perceives and conceptualizes sound) play out in Western musical structure.
For example, our brains tend to assume that sounds similar in pitch or timbre come from the same source. Our brains also listen for patterns, and when a new sound continues or completes a previously heard pattern, we typically assume that the new sound belongs together with those others. This is related to some of the most deep-seated, fundamental parts of our human experience, and even evolution. Hearing a regular pattern typically indicates a predictable (and safe) environment. Any change can signal danger and will tend to heighten our attention to the source. This system for directing attention (and adrenaline) where it is most likely to be needed has been essential to the survival of the human species. While listening to music in the 21st century does not (usually!) require us to listen out for animal predators, some part of that evolutionary experience is “hard-wired” into the psychology of human listening, and it has a role in what gives music its emotional effect—even in a safe environment.
Music that simply makes it easy for the brain to parse and process sound is boring—it calls for no heightened attention; it doesn’t increase our heart rate, make the hair on the back of our neck stand up, or give us a little jolt of dopamine. On the other hand, music that constantly activates our innate sense of danger is hardly pleasant for most listeners. That being the case, fundamental to most of the music we will study is a balance between tension and relaxation, motion and rest.
The study of counterpoint helps us to engage several important musical “problems” in a strictly limited context, so that we can develop composition and analytical skills that can then be applied widely. Those problems arise as we seek to bring the following traits together:
- smooth, independent melodic lines
- tonal fusion (the preference for simultaneous notes to form a consonant unity)
- motion (towards a goal)
These traits are based in human perception and cognition, but they are often in conflict in specific musical moments and need to be balanced over the course of larger passages and complete works. Counterpoint will help us begin to practice working with that balance.
Finally, despite abstractions, it’s still best to treat counterpoint exercises as miniature compositions and to perform them—vocally and instrumentally, and with a partner where possible—so that the ear, the fingers, the throat, and ultimately the mind can internalize the sound, sight, and feel of how musical lines work and combine.