AskDefine | Define counterpoint

Dictionary Definition

counterpoint n : a musical form involving the simultaneous sound of two or more melodies


1 to show differences when compared; be different; "the students contrast considerably in their artistic abilities" [syn: contrast]
2 write in counterpoint; "Bach perfected the art of counterpointing"

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. a melody added to an existing one, especially one added to provide harmony whilst each retains its simultaneous identity; a composition consisting of such contrapuntal melodies
  2. any similar contrasting element in a work of art



(music) a melody added to an existing one
  • German: Kontrapunkt
  • Hungarian: ellenpont, kontrapunkt
  • Italian: contrappunto


  1. to compose or arrange such music


(transitive) to compose or arrange such music

Extensive Definition

In music, counterpoint is the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm, and interdependent in harmony. It has been most commonly identified in Western music, developing strongly in the Renaissance, and also dominant in much of the common practice period, especially in Baroque music. The term comes from the Latin punctus contra punctum ("note against note"). The adjectival form contrapuntal shows this Latin source more transparently.

General principles

In its most general aspect, counterpoint involves the writing of musical lines which sound very different from each other, but sound harmonious when played together. In each era, writing of music organized contrapuntally has been subject to rules, sometimes strict. By definition, chords occur when multiple notes sound simultaneously; however, chordal, harmonic, "vertical" features are considered secondary and almost incidental when counterpoint is the predominant textural element. Counterpoint focuses on melodic interaction, and only secondarily on the harmonies produced by that interaction. In the words of John Rahn: The separation of harmony and counterpoint is not absolute. It is impossible to write simultaneous lines without producing harmony, and impossible to write harmony without linear activity. The composer who chooses to ignore one aspect in favour of the other still must face the fact that the listener cannot simply turn off harmonic or linear hearing at will; thus the composer risks creating annoying distractions unintendedly. Bach's counterpoint—often considered the most profound synthesis of the two dimensions ever achieved—is extremely rich harmonically and always clearly directed tonally, while the individual lines remain fascinating.


Counterpoint was elaborated extensively in the Renaissance period, but composers of the Baroque period brought counterpoint to a kind of culmination, and it may be said that, broadly speaking, harmony then took over as the predominant organizing principle in musical composition. The Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach wrote most of his music incorporating counterpoint, and explicitly and systematically explored the full range of contrapuntal possibilities in such works as The Art of Fugue.
Given the way terminology in music history has evolved, such music created from the Baroque period on is described as contrapuntal, while music from before Baroque times is called polyphonic. Hence, the earlier composer Josquin des Prez is said to have written polyphonic music.
Homophony, by contrast with polyphony, features music in which chords or vertical intervals work with a single melody without much consideration of the melodic character of the added accompanying elements, or of their melodic interactions with the melody they accompany. As suggested above, most popular music written today is predominantly homophonic, its composition governed mainly by considerations of chord and harmony; but, while general tendencies can often be fairly strong one way or another, rather than describing a musical work in absolute terms as either polyphonic or homophonic, it is a question of degree.
The form or compositional genre known as fugue is perhaps the most complex contrapuntal convention. Other examples include the round (familiar in folk traditions) and the canon.
In musical composition, contrapuntal techniques are important for enabling composers to generate musical ironies that serve not only to intrigue listeners into listening more intently to the spinning out of complexities found within the texture of a polyphonic composition, but also to draw them all the more into hearing the working out of these figures and interactions of musical dialogue. A melodic fragment, heard alone, makes a particular impression; but when the fragment is heard simultaneously with other melodic ideas, or combined in unexpected ways with itself (as in a canon or fugue), greater depths of affective meaning are revealed. Through development of a musical idea, the fragments undergo a working out into something musically greater than sum of the parts, something conceptually more profound than a single pleasing melody.

Species counterpoint

Species counterpoint is a type of so-called strict counterpoint, developed as a pedagogical tool, in which a student progresses through several "species" of increasing complexity, always working a very plain given part in the cantus firmus (Latin for "fixed melody"). The student gradually attains the ability to write free counterpoint (that is, less rigorously constrained counterpoint, usually without a cantus firmus) according to the rules at the given time. The idea is at least as old as 1532, when Giovanni Maria Lanfranco described a similar concept in his Scintille di musica (Brescia, 1533). The late 16th century Venetian theorist Zarlino elaborated on the idea in his influential Le institutioni harmoniche, and it was first presented in a codified form in 1619 by Lodovico Zacconi in his Prattica di musica. Zacconi, unlike later theorists, included a few extra contrapuntal techniques as species, for example invertible counterpoint.
By far the most famous pedagogue to use the term, and the one who made it famous, was Johann Fux. In 1725 he published Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus), a work intended to help teach students how to compose, using counterpoint—specifically, the contrapuntal style as practised by Palestrina in the late 16th century—as the principal technique. As the basis for his simplified and often over-restrictive codification of Palestrina's practice (see General notes, below), Fux described five species:
  1. Note against note;
  2. Two notes against one;
  3. Four (extended by others to include three, or six, etc.) notes against one;
  4. Notes offset against each other (as suspensions);
  5. All the first four species together, as "florid" counterpoint.
A succession of later theorists imitated Fux's seminal work quite closely, but often with some small and idiosyncratic modifications in the rules. A good example is Luigi Cherubini.

Considerations for all species

Students of species counterpoint usually practice writing counterpoint in all the modes except Locrian (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian and Aeolian). The following rules apply to melodic writing in each species, for each part:
  1. The final must be approached by step. If the final is approached from below, the leading tone must be raised, except in the case of the Phrygian mode. Thus, in the Dorian mode on D, a C# is necessary at the cadence.
  2. Permitted melodic intervals are the perfect fourth, fifth, and octave, as well as the major and minor second, major and minor third, and ascending minor sixth. When the ascending minor sixth is used it must be immediately followed by motion downwards.
  3. If writing two skips in the same direction—something which must be done only rarely—the second must be smaller than the first, and the interval between the first and the third note may not be dissonant.
  4. If writing a skip in one direction, it is best to proceed after the skip with motion in the other direction.
  5. The interval of a tritone in three notes is to be avoided (for example, an ascending melodic motion F - A - B natural), as is the interval of a seventh in three notes.
And, in all species, the following rules apply concerning the combination of the parts:
  1. The counterpoint must begin and end on a perfect consonance.
  2. Contrary motion should predominate.
  3. Perfect consonances must be approached by oblique or contrary motion
  4. Imperfect consonances may be approached by any type of motion
  5. The interval of a tenth should not be exceeded between two adjacent parts, unless by necessity.
  6. Build from the bass, upward.
Finally, in species counterpoint it is important to remember that the interval of the perfect fourth is usually considered a dissonance.

First species

In first species counterpoint, each note in every added part (parts being also referred to as lines or voices) sounds against one note in the cantus firmus. Notes in all parts are sounded simultaneously, and move against each other simultaneously. The species is said to be expanded if any of the added notes are broken up (simply repeated).
In the present context, a "step" is a melodic interval of a half or whole step. A "skip" is an interval of a third or fourth. (See Steps and skips.) An interval of a fifth or larger is referred to as a "leap".
A few further rules given by Fux, by study of the Palestrina style, and usually given in the works of later counterpoint pedagogues, are as follows. Some are vague, and since good judgement and taste have been regarded by contrapuntists as more important than strict observance of mechanical rules, there are many more cautions than prohibitions. But some are closer to being mandatory, and are accepted by most authorities.
  1. Begin and end on either the unison, octave, or fifth, unless the added part is underneath, in which case begin and end only on unison or octave.
  2. Use no unisons except at the beginning or end.
  3. Avoid parallel fifths or octaves between any two parts; and avoid "hidden" parallel fifths or octaves: that is, movement by similar motion to a perfect fifth or octave, unless one part (sometimes restricted to the higher of the parts) moves by step.
  4. Avoid moving in parallel fourths. (In practice Palestrina and others frequently allowed themselves such progressions, especially if they do not involve the lowest of the parts.)
  5. Avoid moving in parallel thirds or sixths for very long.
  6. Attempt to keep any two adjacent parts within a tenth of each other, unless an exceptionally pleasing line can be written by moving outside of that range.
  7. Avoid having any two parts move in the same direction by skip.
  8. Attempt to have as much contrary motion as possible.
  9. Avoid dissonant intervals between any two parts: major or minor 2nd, major or minor 7th, any augmented or diminished interval, and perfect fourth (in many contexts).
In the following example in two parts, the cantus firmus is the lower part. (The same cantus firmus is used for later examples also. Each is in the Dorian mode.)

Second species

In second species counterpoint, two notes in each of the added parts work against each longer note in the given part. The species is said to be expanded if one of these two shorter notes differs in length from the other.
Additional considerations in second species counterpoint are as follows, and are in addition to the considerations for first species:
  1. It is permissible to begin on an upbeat, leaving a half-rest in the added voice.
  2. The accented beat must have only consonance (perfect or imperfect). The unaccented beat may have dissonance, but only as a passing tone, i.e. it must be approached and left by step in the same direction.
  3. Avoid the interval of the unison except at the beginning or end of the example, except that it may occur on the unaccented portion of the bar.
  4. Use caution with successive accented perfect fifths or octaves. They must not be used as part of a sequential pattern.

Third species

In third species counterpoint, four (or three, etc.) notes move against each longer note in the given part. As with second species, it is called expanded if the shorter notes vary in length among themselves.

Fourth species

In fourth species counterpoint, some notes are sustained or suspended in an added part while notes move against them in the given part, often creating a dissonance on the beat, followed by the suspended note then changing (and "catching up") to create a subsequent consonance with the note in the given part as it continues to sound. As before, fourth species counterpoint is said to be expanded when the added-part notes vary in length among themselves. The technique requires chains of notes sustained across the boundaries determined by beat, and so creates syncopation.

Fifth species (florid counterpoint)

In fifth species counterpoint, sometimes called florid counterpoint, the other four species of counterpoint are combined within the added parts. In the example, the first and second bars are second species, the third bar is third species, and the fourth and fifth bars are third and embellished fourth species.

General notes

It is a common and pedantic misconception that counterpoint is defined by these five species, and therefore anything that does not follow the strict rules of the five species is not "proper" counterpoint. This is not true; although much contrapuntal music of the common practice period adheres to the spirit of the rules, and often to the letter of them, the exceptions are many. Fux's book and its concept of "species" was purely a method of teaching counterpoint, not a definitive or rigidly prescriptive set of rules for it. He arrived at his method of teaching by examining the works of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, an important late 16th-century composer who in Fux's time was held in the highest esteem as a contrapuntist. Works in the contrapuntal style of the 16th century—the "prima pratica" or "stile antico," as it was called by later composers—were often said by Fux's contemporaries to be in "Palestrina style." Indeed, Fux's treatise is a compendium of Palestrina's actual techniques, simplified and regularised for pedagogical use (and so permitting fewer liberties than occurred in actual practice).

Contrapuntal derivations

Since the Renaissance period in European music, much music which is considered contrapuntal has been written in imitative counterpoint. In imitative counterpoint, two or more voices enter at different times, and (especially when entering) each voice repeats some version of the same melodic element. The fantasia, the ricercar, and later, the canon and fugue (the contrapuntal form par excellence) all feature imitative counterpoint, which also frequently appears in choral works such as motets and madrigals. Imitative counterpoint has spawned a number of devices that composers have turned to in order to give their works both mathematical rigor and expressive range. Some of these devices include:
  • Melodic inversion: The inverse of a given fragment of melody is the fragment turned upside down—so if the original fragment has a rising major third (see interval), the inverted fragment has a falling major (or perhaps minor) third, etc. (Compare, in twelve tone technique, the inversion of the tone row, which is the so-called prime series turned upside down.) (Note: in invertible counterpoint, including double and triple counterpoint, the term inversion is used in a different sense altogether. At least one pair of parts is switched, so that the one that was higher becomes lower. See Inversion in counterpoint; it is not a kind of imitation, but a rearrangement of the parts.)
  • Retrograde refers to the contrapuntal device whereby notes in an imitative voice sound backwards in relation to their order in the original.
  • Augmentation is when in one of the parts in imitative counterpoint the notes are extended in duration compared to the rate at which they were sounded when introduced.
  • Diminution is when in one of the parts in imitative counterpoint the notes are reduced in duration compared to the rate at which they were sounded when introduced.

Dissonant counterpoint

Dissonant counterpoint was first theorized by Charles Seeger as "at first purely a school-room discipline," consisting of species counterpoint but with all the traditional rules reversed. First species counterpoint is required to be all dissonances, establishing "dissonance, rather than consonance, as the rule," and consonances are "resolved" through a skip, not step. He wrote that "the effect of this discipline" was "one of purification." Other aspects of composition, such as rhythm, could be "dissonated" by applying the same principle (Charles Seeger, "On Dissonant Counterpoint," Modern Music 7, no. 4 (June-July 1930): 25-26).
Seeger was not the first to employ dissonant counterpoint, but was the first to theorize and promote it. Other composers who have used dissonant counterpoint, if not in the exact manner prescribed by Charles Seeger, include Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Carl Ruggles, Henry Cowell, Henry Brant, Dane Rudhyar, Lou Harrison, Fartein Valen, and Arnold Schoenberg.

Counterpoint in jazz

Excellent examples of counterpoint in jazz include Gerry Mulligan's Young Blood, Nina Simone's "Love Me or Leave Me", Bill Holman's Invention for Guitar and Trumpet and his Theme and Variations, as well as recordings by Stan Getz, Bob Brookmeyer, Johnny Richards, and Jimmy Giuffre.

Counterpoint in popular music

Counterpoint is common in musical theatre, especially in songs that try to compare or contrast two or more characters' views. Stephen Sondheim, for example, is famous for extensive use of counterpoint. In his dark operetta Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, many songs are written using contrapuntal techniques, most notably 'Kiss Me Quartet'. Other musical theatre composers use it as well: in Les Miserables, for example, the song One Day More features almost the entire main cast singing contrapuntal vocals at the same time. Irving Berlin also wrote counterpoint in American popular music, including on "You're Just in Love" and "Play a Simple Melody". There are also examples of counterpoint in the shows The Music Man (Pick-a-little, Talk-a-little and Goodnight Ladies) and La Cage Aux Folles (Cocktail Counterpoint), which has 7 parts sung first separately then together.
Counterpoint has appeared in rock and pop as well. Many Beach Boys songs employ, or partly employ, counterpoint. The vocal outro of the song God Only Knows is a famous example. During the progressive rock era of the 1970s the counterpoint usage increased as many musicians were classically-trained. Counterpoint did not become central to prog-rock, though Gentle Giant used it as a main composing technique.
Synth pop bands from the 1980s and onwards were especially prolific in use of counterpoint where heavy programming allowed for new textures using intertwining horizontal lines. Composers of this type of counterpoint included Yazoo, Depeche Mode, Erasure and Ultravox.

In literature

Palestinian-American post-colonial critical theorist Edward Said, himself a pianist and music critic, wrote extensively about how literature could be contrapuntal. One of Aldous Huxley's well known novels is Point Counter Point. "With the lives of the diverse characters starkly juxtaposed--in constant counterpoint--Huxley deftly creates a world that offers both biting criticism and profound sympathy."


External links

counterpoint in Catalan: Contrapunt
counterpoint in Czech: Kontrapunkt
counterpoint in German: Kontrapunkt
counterpoint in Estonian: Kontrapunkt
counterpoint in Spanish: Contrapunto
counterpoint in Esperanto: Kontrapunkto
counterpoint in French: Contrepoint rigoureux
counterpoint in Galician: Contrapunto
counterpoint in Korean: 대위법
counterpoint in Icelandic: Kontrapunktur
counterpoint in Italian: Contrappunto
counterpoint in Hebrew: קונטרפונקט
counterpoint in Hungarian: Ellenpont
counterpoint in Dutch: Contrapunt
counterpoint in Japanese: 対位法
counterpoint in Norwegian: Kontrapunkt
counterpoint in Polish: Kontrapunkt (muzyka)
counterpoint in Portuguese: Contraponto (música)
counterpoint in Romanian: Contrapunct (muzică)
counterpoint in Russian: Контрапункт
counterpoint in Simple English: Counterpoint
counterpoint in Slovak: Kontrapunkt
counterpoint in Slovenian: Kontrapunkt
counterpoint in Finnish: Kontrapunkti
counterpoint in Swedish: Kontrapunkt
counterpoint in Turkish: Karşıkonu
counterpoint in Ukrainian: Контрапункт
counterpoint in Chinese: 对位法

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Alexandrine, Ambrosian chant, accent, accentuation, amphibrach, amphimacer, anacrusis, anapest, antipode, antipodes, antipole, antispast, antithesis, antonym, arsis, bacchius, beat, cadence, caesura, catalexis, chloriamb, chloriambus, colon, contra, contrapunto, converse, counter, counterbalance, countercheck, counterpoise, counterpole, counterterm, cretic, dactyl, dactylic hexameter, diaeresis, dimeter, dipody, dochmiac, elegiac, elegiac couplet, elegiac pentameter, emphasis, epitrite, false music, faux-bourdon, feminine caesura, foil, foot, heptameter, heptapody, heroic couplet, hexameter, hexapody, iamb, iambic, iambic pentameter, ictus, inverse, ionic, jingle, lilt, masculine caesura, measure, meter, metrical accent, metrical foot, metrical group, metrical unit, metron, molossus, mora, movement, musica ficta, numbers, obverse, offset, opposite, opposite number, paeon, pentameter, pentapody, period, polyphonism, polyphony, proceleusmatic, pyrrhic, quantity, reverse, rhythm, setoff, spondee, sprung rhythm, stress, swing, syzygy, tetrameter, tetrapody, tetraseme, the contrary, the other side, thesis, tribrach, trimeter, tripody, triseme, trochee, vis-a-vis
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