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Anecca

On practicing counterpoint

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Hello fellow composers. Before I introduce the nature of this topic I must give a few of the details which explain some part of my musical "formation"; to begin with, I've never been or ever will be a true composer, and have never claimed to be (a good) one at any rate. I merely claim to tinker around with music, because it is pleasant and elevating.

Such things considered, I have had private lessons and all that yazz. So anyway, to do the good stuff:

A few months ago I studied meticulously a book on composition (Composing Music: A New Approach) and one of the chapters dealt with Counterpoint - some theory on it, basic interval relationships and how to limit yourself such that you can compose contrapuntal passages.

The questions I want to ask are these:

1. When someone composes a contrapuntal phrase, do they begin with one melody, or compose both at the same time?

2. Does a composer have the polyphonic idea already in their heads or fingers, or are they forced to first deal with one melody at a time - to focus on one melody first, and then see how the second melody that they wish to combine interacts with the first?

If you feel comfortable answering these questions please feel free to answer them; however, there is more to be said.

These questions are in a context of a practical approach, of course. The reason why I decided to focus my efforts on counterpoint is because I was studying interval relationships in the following way. Simply for the matters of dexterity, I chose to play scales and arpeggios (major and aeolian minor scales) but then it occured to me that I could play different modes in parallel motion (C major with F lydian, for example), or a sort of organum (transposing the C major scale, for example, and playing the E flat major scale simultaneously).

Thus, not only was I practicing mechanically but also was beginning to introduce myself into the study of parallel-motion counterpoint, which is far simpler than similar and contrary motion counterpoint. In this way I was killing two birds with one stone: practice listening to consonant ant dissonant intervals, practice basic dexterity, and practice many different combinations of scales.

Once again, all of this is gearing itself towards a highly practical approach, meaning that at least the roughest basis of theory (counterpoint theory, that is) is assumed.

But then it dawned on me that I know very little and all my efforts might be one big mistake and that this might amount to be a quite ridiculous practice. With this considered, I turn to your advice for the above questions, and also the ones that will shortly follow. I think one of the best guidelines from that book I mentioned above was that you must trust your ear, and that if what you compose has plenty of the Good and Beautiful, then you must trust that it is indeed Good and Beautiful; and so you are practicing correctly when you are capable of producing works that are Good and Beautiful. But when it is clearly evident that you are making mistakes and that those mistakes generate questions, such that these questions exist and beg to be solved, you can ask all the right questions but ultimately if you aren't capable of answering them it'll be akin to walking around in circles, i.e. going nowhere.

And so, in addition to the previous two questions,

3. How does one go about understanding how to make music with counterpoint? Is it something that is practical, dealing chiefly with the movements of fingers, as I assume it to be? Or is it something that resides in mental strength, that is, that true composers are just as likely to come up with counterpoint passages in their heads as easily as they are able to conjure harmony, or rhythm, or melody?

Finally, I hope this thread isn't too presumptuous in that it expects to have all these inquiries satisfied; sometimes I piss myself off too with how many questions I ask :D But were it not to be that way then I'm afraid I would be forever bound to stagnation.

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there is a dude here called SimenE i think which actually able to improvise with counterpoint, as much as jazz musician can improvise harmony and melody, he told me that by learning to play alot of counterpoint pieces and figuring out for yourself what the composer did to make it work, makes you a better counterpoint writer-or improviser.

there are certain rules for counter point derived from the classical harmony, such as forbidden parallel fifth's and the restriction of jumps(i think?) probably more stuff, but it heavily relies on the chord notes and the harmonic pulse-which is to play those chord notes-1,3,5 or 7 either on the 1 or the 3 of the beat(for 4/4 bar), the rest can be chromatic. of course there are many exceptions where composers actually break those rules and still sound "beautiful and good" as you've said, but i think its a good starting point than anything else i know.

if you are able to follow those rules and still remain musical and "free" i think you'll be able to sound counter-point'ed alot.

however, i'm jazz trained so i'm sure i babbled here alot so my friends here can correct me :P

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there is a dude here called SimenE i think which actually able to improvise with counterpoint, as much as jazz musician can improvise harmony and melody, he told me that by learning to play alot of counterpoint pieces and figuring out for yourself what the composer did to make it work, makes you a better counterpoint writer-or improviser.

That makes a lot of sense actually. It's kind of weird now that I realize, that in much of the music I listen to there's not much of counterpoint but rather more of a consonant harmony, so it makes sense to study counterpoint pieces, like Bach maybe. And obviously to listen and perform pieces with counterpoint :)

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Well, i know this post is getting to be a month old, but counterpoint is one of those misunderstood things that's kinda easy to fake, but trained musicians can hear and see through it instantly.

First off, there are 2 main schools of thought on counterpoint. The kind of counterpoint in Palestrina's time, 16th century counterpoint, was focused entirely on independently developing melodies. All of the harmonies created were the result of moving melodies, there is not a "harmonic structure" of any sort.

The other school is the 18th century, Bach era counterpoint. This is independent melodies that move through chords, basically. one of the biggest differences between this and the other is that by the 18th century they were writing for instruments, while back in the 16th century most of the music, and nearly all of the counterpoint was written for church services.

Also keep in mind that all of the "rules" of counterpoint were compiled a few hundred years after the music was written. Joseph Fux, a very important figure in counterpoint and music history, wrote Dr. Gradus ad Parnossum around 1725, and the rules in that book were about how Palestrina approached counterpoint. The most important thing about this book is that it broke counterpoint down pedagogically. It used to be that composers would learn first species counterpoint, and then were expected to write florid counterpoint right away. What Fux did is break down counterpoint concepts into smaller, easier to learn and master techniques.

Anyway, that's the super brief history if you want to really study counterpoint. If you want to learn it the right way, you've got to know the history of it too.

There are 5 species of counterpoint

1. whole note against whole note

2. half note against whole note

3. quarter note against whole note

4. syncopated half notes against whole notes

5. florid (free) counterpoint.

also, you'll need this terminology

fusa - eighth note

semiminim - quarter note

minim - half note

semibreve - whole note

breve - double whole note

another thing, they didn't write bar lines or time signatures (this is all 16th century that i'm telling you now).

all the time signatures were 2/1, or 4/2 to make it a little simpler. whole note is about 60-80 bpm.

If you want I can give you a rundown on the different species and the different hard and soft rules for each, but if this isn't quite what you're looking for than I'll just leave it there :)

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I understand for simplification but not all time signatures were 2/1 or 4/2. Rather time signatures were based on either 2 or 3 beats per measure. Often they were mixed or sections of duple time was followed by triple time (check Victoria's music). The main difference between 18th and 16th century counterpoint was one was strongly vocal based while the other was instrumental and influenced greatly by figured bass. Figured bass arose from the birth of Opera (check out Peri's music and of course Monteverdi's operas).

Fux's treatise on counterpoint was pedagogically revolutionary but musically the counterpoint was 18th century interpretation of 16th century polyphony.

Note: both 18th and 16th century counterpoint were used in many church services. The difference again is church music was getting more influenced by opera so that by the time you have Zelenka's Mass which is structured like an opera, where portions of the text are broken up in ways that may make impractical for church service - more a concert spiritual it would be used for. Nevertheless, composers continue all the way till today to write music for the mass, though the first peak was in 15th - 17th century. I'd say with Messaien there is a new resurgence in writing music for functional use in the church. Ok, pardon the tangent.

Finally, one of the best ways to understand counterpoint is to study it from various periods. Get Oxford Anthology of Medieval Music just to see how Renaissance counterpoint arose.

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I appreciate both of your responses; only recently did I look at this thread again to see that it had good replies in it :)

By the way, I did take a bit better approach to studying counterpoint and am going over the Study on Counterpoint by Fux. It relates to your post quite a bit Maddrummer; many of the things you mention are mentioned in it too.

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