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TL;DR underneath.

When I first learned things about harmony and voice leading, I learned to avoid parallel and direct fifths and octaves, to avoid dissonances, and things like that, because they're against the rules. I reasoned that the rules weren't arbitrary, so they had to be there for a reason; people want their music to be likeable, things that sound bad aren't likeable, therefore, invent rules to keep music from straying into the boundary of bad.

But, as everyone knows, one of the first responses to that is, 'But that doesn't sound bad!', and the reply, 'It diminishes the independence of voices'.

When I first learned this, I simply thought there was something wrong with my ears, because I often couldn't spot errors except by sight; however, when I recently began studying counterpoint, I listened to my exercises on Finale and/or played them on the piano, and my rate of mistake-spotting went much higher, along with my finding some things that I particularly disliked. This, obviously wasn't anything to do with hearing them, 'cause I'd been doing that all along with pieces; but I took it to be simplification of texture (I hate octaves or any interval but an imperfect one in two voices, on the beat - three, not so much - four, impossible to avoid in a standard chorale setting). And there were numerous 'exceptions' to the 'rules' (e.g., direct fifths okay between inner voices &c.). Often, these were just things that couldn't be avoided, but I figured that, if they were allowable just because they were unavoidable (Mozart fifths, for example), and some people don't notice them from just hearing the piece, but may spot them by sight, then they can't be that bad!

In that spirit, I've posted six short phrases, all in common time and ending with a whole note, that increase gradually in complexity, in a couple of tempos and with a few renderings. I'd like people to listen to them, listen out for mistakes, and post any you spot, here, in a spoiler. You can range from saying what the mistake is and between what voices, or simply stating where it occurs without knowing exactly what it is. Of particular interest is if people can only spot the error in a certain rendering (which I doubt) or a different tempo (which I don't). Please do not use any theoretical skills to work out where they are: this isn't a test or somewhere to show off your aural abilities, and you'll just ruin it for me and everyone else involved. This essentially amounts to listening and pointing out things and/or parts you didn't like. I'll post the score as a spoiler when a tolerable amount of people respond.

TL;DR

As an experiment in observing the practicality of abstract counterpoint; listen to these six phrases and point out what sounds technically crap.

110 BPM

Piano VST

Harpsichord VST

Piano MIDI

55 BPM

Piano VST

Harpsichord VST

Piano MIDI

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The problem in the first section was very obvious to me, even at full tempo. There seems to be some general awkwardness throughout the rest of it, but I can't quite pinpoint where at full tempo. I'm not listening to the slower version in detail to figure out where, because you said not to analyze it (which I will at the slower tempo).

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  • 3 weeks later...

Heh, I'm just posting here because you PM'd me, because I have to tell you I am terrible at this kind of things and I keep forgetting all sorts of rules of counterpoint because I frankly cannot care enough about it. I listen to stuff and if I like it I like it. Nothing more.

If you still want me to say something about them, then the voices all sound great to me.

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The mistakes in the first phrase are the most noticeable, given that there are only two voices which engage too often in parallel motion or octaves, as well as exceedingly wide intervals without middle voices. The subsequent phrases are better at hiding the (still present) errors, as the inner voice(s) tend to distract the ear from the persisting parallels and octaves in the outer voices, thus making them less jarring. The more voices involved, the better hidden the mistakes were.

BTW, I was able to spot most of them at the faster tempo without difficult. But it's way easier to do so in the slower tempo, since the resulting chords last longer.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Let's be clear !

first of all the harmonic and counterpoint rules you describe concern a little part of music history ( let's say the baroque and classical periods). Unfortunately school & conservatory classes are based on tonal harmonic and counterpoint methods that apply rules extracted from the music of 17th and 18th century !

Did you know J.S Bach never wrote a "scholastic fugue" ? No ! however all the fugues he wrote were fantastic !

at the end of the 19th century, do you think Claude Debussy took care about paralell octaves and fifths ? no !

Do you think modal music from antic period to renaissance respected the rules you are talking about for many centuries ? No !

Guys, the great composers always used the "exception" that makes a composition unique !

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" While one must observe the classic disciplines, one must also create new ones. " -Kriztoval Luzius Amadat Krizzagrim

But, what you are trying to acquire is what I call " The Perfect Musical Formula." Unless you acquire it either through discovering it for yourself, in a musical college, or even from someone generous enough to give you such an equation handed down from someone as old as Bach, there will be flaws in your counterpoint. If not flaws, then uncohesive & inconsistent proportions [ideas]. I myself do not know this, but, seriously, magicians pass down secret data from one magician to another worthy enough to receive it. If you don't think this makes sense, just take how many composers truly produce masterpieces that make most people say " WOW MAN!", and not just the popular, but yet not entirely honest nice attitude which is good to carry a civilized socialism with other composers, but the truth is obvious. There are so many factors in a composition even as simple as a minuet that few people are aware of; for true art is art concealed even in the simplest compositions. One may use the formulas of scores from great composer's masterpieces but even then you are likely to at least expose your musical incompetence on keen viewers. "

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" While one must observe the classic disciplines, one must also create new ones. " -Kriztoval Luzius Amadat Krizzagrim

But, what you are trying to aquire ix what i call " The Perfect Musical Formula ", unless you aquire it either through discovering it for your self mainly or musical college or even someone generous enough to give thiz equation to you say handed down from as old as Bach, there will be flaws in your counterpoint, if not flaws, then uncohesive & inconsistent proportions. I myself do not know thiz but seriously magicians pass down secret data from one magician to another worthy enough to receive it. If you don't think thiz makes sense, just take how many kompozers trully produce masterpieces that most people say " WOW MAN!", & not just the popular but yet not entirely honest nice attitude which ix good to carry a civilized socialism with other kompozers but the truth ix obvious. There are so many factors in a composition even as simple as a minuet that few people are aware of for since true art ix art concealed even in the simplest compositions. One may use the formulas of scores from great kompozer masterpieces but even then you are likely to at least expose your musical incompetence on keen viewers. "

What are you on?

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" Ian, did you pay attention to the point of my message instead of the grammatical anomalies? Language ix very flexable, therefore like in a fugato, the stricyct laws can be relaxed or even altered like the ancient linguists literally had absolute power to set the standards as they wished, why shoudln't we? I'm even in the procis of developing my own language based on french,spanish,german,latin,& english. Ex: Kompozer ix deus = composer is god. or Kompozer est in nocta melacolica = the composer is in nocturnal melancholy. There ix no crazy or M.A.S. about it, just the sophistication of my thought processes. "

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  • 3 weeks later...

Marzique, I'm sure that you see yourself as being an innovator of some sort. But: your use of the langage is camp and profoundly ugly. T. S. Eliot pulls it off. James Joyce, to some people at least, pulls it off. That's because they think about what they're doing. I do not think that you think about what you are doing. Your spelling and grammar are just bad -- you are not flouting them for aesthetic effect; you are being lame. I say this as a person who has had the good fortune to study literature for 6 years, and is quite familiar with Jabberwocky-time linguistic innovation. (I have an odd feeling that you are making excuses, too, but that's only an odd feeling, and I assume you have the capacity to write properly.)

That, incidentally, is why we have rules governing musical language as much as we do for speech and writing. Because they mean something, and following them gives you, inter alia, stuff like Johnbucket's fugues, or the Well-Tempered Klavier. That is very good stuff. Breaking these rules thoughtfully (it is in fact to be doubted if such examples are in fact "breaking" any rule, as many of these pieces were never intended to be contrapuntal in the first place) as with Debussy, Scriabin, et al also gives you wonderful effects, but only if you know what you are aiming for. You do not seem to know what you are aiming for, apart from spouting a smattering of quasi-profound / meaningless words and phrases at random intervals. It is that sense of you trying to pull a fast one, I think, that inadvertently pisses people off.

So if you want people to take you seriously, then you need to respect some rules. Also, quoting yourself seems egotistical bordering on the self-obssessed, no? (Also, make sure, if you quote yourself, that the quotes are good.) Not being nasty, trying to help you out here.

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Let's be clear !

first of all the harmonic and counterpoint rules you describe concern a little part of music history ( let's say the baroque and classical periods). Unfortunately school & conservatory classes are based on tonal harmonic and counterpoint methods that apply rules extracted from the music of 17th and 18th century !

Did you know J.S Bach never wrote a "scholastic fugue" ? No ! however all the fugues he wrote were fantastic !

at the end of the 19th century, do you think Claude Debussy took care about paralell octaves and fifths ? no !

Do you think modal music from antic period to renaissance respected the rules you are talking about for many centuries ? No !

Guys, the great composers always used the "exception" that makes a composition unique !

I think you used too much exclamation marks. You aren't right because you yell. And you seem to press the argument that since the exception on the rule makes things better/unique/whatever, the exception becomes the rule. Which is just absurd

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I think what is important to remember is that: firstly; the 'rules' of counterpoint are a classical example of theory following practice. Nobody just decided one day that parallel fifths and unprepared dissonances would henceforth be 'wrong' for all eternity; they simply codified what was generally happening already in vocal writing. There is a practical reason for observing these guidelines, as independent intervals are physically easier to sing than parallel ones (massive generalisation I know, but it was probably true to the 16th century ear). Secondly, as a student one learns these 'rules' precisely because they have been so well codified and so present a starting-point to develop a more individual voice later. Most choral music will observe the principles of this style if it is well-written, even though specific rules may be disregarded.

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I heard a few people saying that about independent intervals - parallel fifths in particular; but I think I'm missing something: parallel 8ves or unisons are, obviously, easy to sing, and, as far as I know, singing in parallel perfect intervals was basically the deal back in ye olden days. From personal experience, when I started to do solfa singing, I inexplicably found it difficult to not pitch my starting note a perfect fourth above the one that was played (and I'd even sing the correct intervals, afterwards). Apparently, that's a thing: lots of people automatically sing along with a line in parallel fourths or fifths without even knowing it, initially.

Basically, my original intent for the thread was to see whether all departures from standard voice-leading were heard as problems, and not merely seen as them. I later read about some stuff written by Brahms and Bruckner that basically answered this question in the negative.

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  • 5 years later...

There is something to be said on both sides. The way I think of it is that nobody before Bach wrote a Bachian Fugue (modulation was a poor affair before equal temperament), so what you have is an ever-growing "bag of tricks". These are best thought of as a series of guidelines rather than as an absolute. Most modern music would be "forbidden" by the early rules of dissonance. Moro Lasso was considered an abomination by many, with its odd harmonies and discords.
But then there is the educational aspect - learning how historically it was done, and also, its hard to teach any topic without "rules". One can teach what a sonnet is, but its harder to teach prose. So schools love the rules, and this love/hate relationship is passed to the pupils who graduate from it, like army vets love to teach their kids discipline, order and how to shine shoes. "I had to learn it, so you can too!"
Then there is the aspect that confining yourself to rules, no matter how arbitrary, enriches the result. Just because you are successfully making good music DESPITE the rules.  Its far easier to write a Haiku if you dont care how many syllables you use. But the fact that you have limited yourself in this way makes the Haiku nicer to those who are Haiku aficionados. I think this is where many fugue nazis sit.
I think the real challenge is for you to work out which "rules" provide better music for you. For instance, discords can propel music forwards by demanding resolution.

Ultimately, Mozart made pretty tunes by abandoning most of the counterpoint and focusing on simplistic harmony. Was he wrong to abandon the old tight rules and games? Modern pop music is plain to my ear, but many seem to like it.

So look at it as a series of tips and tricks, and I think you wont go far wrong.  Look at it as a bible or a straightjacket and its probably not useful.  Ultimately, its your choice.

What is chromatic music, but a complete rejection of the rules of diatonic music?

Here is an interesting question: How would Bach have rated a work by Hindemith?  How would Ockeghem rate the final 5 minutes of the Art of Fugue by Bach? The last 5 minutes of Beethoven's 9th (the acapella just before the tutti return)? Would they all have felt the rules were being "followed"?

Edited by Fugalicious
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@Fugalicious Regarding Mozart, I have to reject your claim. First, it is well known that the galant style of the middle to late 18th century favoured homophonic compositions, but analyse the voices and you will find good counterpoint regardless. Also, Mozart’s study of Bach and Händel is well documented (van Swieten played an essential role here). However, polyphony was simply not en vogue during his lifetime. His polyphonic works were mainly written for church where it was still in demand. Nonetheless, e.g. his long fugato in the Symphony No 41 ("Jupiter") is a wonderful example of combining the then-modern style with lavish polyphony which impressed his contemporaries. He showed his skill also in the opening of the famous "Dissonances" quartet, which opens with a series of dissonances that are all perfectly explainable according to the rules of 18th century counterpoint.

The rules of counterpoint codify practices that result in pleasant music with interesting voices. However, they were never intended as hard rules; but if you do not want to follow them, you should know what you are doing and why you are doing it. Not only Mozart used counterpoint (who could write a good string quartet without it?), but it is still in use, often in Jazz, sometimes even for pop music.

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