What is Counterpoint?

Counterpoint – (latin contrapunctus, Italian contrappunto, German Kontrapunkt, French contrepoint)

Counterpoint is the name given to the art of combining melodies, or more strictly, to the art of adding melody to melody.

The term is also often applied to the added melody itself, when a subject invented to accompany another subject is called its counterpoint. The latter meaning suggests more nearly the origin of the word.

It is said that when notes were indicated by points, a counterpoint signified a note set against another note, hence a part set against another part.

Such an origin is confirmed by the subsequent use of the like term nota contra notam, note against note.

Zarlino entered into a long discussion of the term: ‘It would perhaps have been more reasonable to call it countersound than counterpoint, because one sound is to be opposed to the other. But not to depart from the common use, I would call it counterpoint, as it were a point placed counter a point, or a note counter a note.’

Speaking broadly, the term counterpoint is employed in two distinct senses. In its ideal sense as the art of combining melodies it is applicable to music which shows marked melodic independence of parts, such as may be found in all fugal movements and in most choral works of any magnitude.

Men praise the great contrapuntal skill of Mozart, Brahms, or Wagner, as well as the flowing counterpoint of Palestrina and Bach was called the greatest of all contrapuntists.

The study of music counterpoint is the term applied to a particular and restricted part writing, in which attention is expressly directed to the melodiousness of every part and for this purpose the available harmonies are specially and rigorously limited.

Historically, the narrower use of the word is more significant; for the scholastic art of counterpoint, though taught in five conventional species, is the direct descendant of the pre-harmonic or first polyphonic schools of composition, which reached their perfection at the end of the 16th century.

The laws of counterpoint in this sense are analogous to the laws of composition before 1600, before Monteverde’s revolution and the consequent harmonic development.

There are a wonderful survival of an old code of rules, once comprehending the whole art of the composer, but since used for scholastic purposes.

Thus is came about that long after the death of the great author of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, Albrechtsberger and Haydn took pains to teach Beethoven to write like Palestrina; and the same restrictions, with various modifications in the hands of successive theorists, have been preserved.

This scholastic preservation of an old art resembles that of a dead language; in fact, strict counterpoint bears much the same historical and practical relationship to the language of modern music at Latin bears to English, and may almost as justly be called a dead language.

From this it will be seen that while in one sense counterpoint is vitally existent in all music and continually progressive, in another, narrower, scholastic sense it is the reverently preserved art of a past age, that of the golden age of choral art.

It may be readily imagined that for the purposes of tuition, counterpoint on this historic bases becomes gradually less adequate as music advances and the first polyphonic age grows more remote.

This fact has given rise to many modifications of the rules from time to time. It cannot be denied that these modifications have often caused much confusion.

But, while this may be deplored, it is clear that such a drawback could never justify a conservatism which would forbid the independent judgment of successive theorists. And in reality the old counterpoint has not only survived its ordeal, but its passage from hand to hand has sifted and strengthened it so effectively that the surviving principles would doubtless form a more crystallized basis of 16th century writings than any expounded at that time.

Its preservation may be attributed primarily to the sheer force, beauty, and maturity of those writings themselves; it is obvious that as the art of music widens, that which is lovely in the composers of the golden age is none the less its basis; in fact, though the old order becomes practically less adequate it does not become less important.

Much also must be attributed to the general faithfulness of theorist, and especially to the powerful work and influence of one man, Johann Fux, who stood midway between the first polyphonic age and our own.

With the slight modifications already referred to, it was handed down further through Haydn, Albrechtsberger, and Cherubini.

No man has done more for its preservation than that of W. S. Rockstro who took the strongest possible conservative position. He went so far as to urge the reservation of the term counterpoint for the first polyphony; and in spite of the many modifications for practical use advocated by his contemporaries, both here and abroad, he bravely asserted that no new rules have ever been or ever can be added to it. It must be taught, if taught at all, exactly as it was taught in the 16th century.

The preservation of historic counterpoint is due to the innate beauty of the old writings and the faithfulness of those who have transmitted it, but also to the following two significant facts:

  1. In the acquisition of the power of combining melodies, all authorities unanimously regard severe harmonic restrictions to be absolutely necessary; a student cannot acquire contrapuntal skill with the responsibilities of the whole harmonic system upon him
  2. In historic counterpoint these harmonic restrictions are determined with unequivocal clearness by the course of the evolution of the art itself.

The chords and methods allowed are seen to be such as formed the basis of all music; they are for ever clearly defined and divided from harmonic art by the greatest landmark in musical history.

Thus they not only posses dignity and authority which the most powerful individual teacher could never assume, but they serve to unify methods and instruct students a the same time in the history of their art, providing them with the comforting assurance that they are not subjected to the arbitrary restrictions of a kind of music gymnastic exercise, but that they are learning to acquire their art from its basis.

The rules of counterpoint on this historic basis are called strict counterpoint which includes the line of writers through whom it has been handed down.

Counterpoint and Harmony Contrasted

In attempting to trace the evolution of counterpoint, it is necessary to differentiate it between the art of counterpoint and the art of harmony.

The first polyphonic age is name pre-harmonic. But in truth harmony has not only existed as long as counterpoint, but in a crude form it necessarily came first.

The art of melody naturally preceded both, and for centuries the melodies of the Christian Church and doubtless those of the people must have been sung unisonally.

In this the art’s infancy, the introduction of a note or notes foreign to the actual melody by way of accompaniment must have been unmeaning and unallowable.

The momentous step towards both harmony and counterpoint which is recorded in Huchbald’s simple, crude, well quoted Diaphony may have been taken in the first instance quite casually.

As it has never been natural for tenors and basses to sing either in the same pitch or a whole octave apart, it seems likely that diaphony, which is practically the doubling of a tune at closer quarters than the octave, was invented by the monk who first dared to find and use an interval better suited to his voice, probably a fifth or fourth above or below the other singers.

That which seems barely more than a less perfect kind of unisonal singing ought hardly to be called harmony, still less counterpoint. Yet it marks the advent of both.

With the first deliberate sounding of a strange note together with a plain-song, harmony was born; and with the first progression from the newly found interval back to the usual octave or unison, independent movement of parts was discovered and counterpoint was born.

Both arts must have seemed utterly new on their first and apparently almost simultaneous arrival. Doubtless their latent possibilities were as unperceived as they were vast.

It is easy for us to discern their essential difference in this early stage; and when it is clearly seen, there can be little surprise that the two were destined to be developed as separately as the union of the natures would allow.

It may be said that this incipient harmony required the cultivation of a new sense – the sense to enjoy two simultaneous sounds; while counterpoint required as well a new intellectual power – the power to appreciate two independent parts. The latter has kept its more intellectual nature and reputation throughout.

The very name generally suggests erudition. It has even fallen at times into disrepute as the cold, heartless, mental side of music; and while melody has always been an easy first in popular esteem, harmony is as easily second, and counterpoint – exacting more effort – comes last.

Had Huchbald’s new art depended upon the people for its development, it is easy to imagine that harmony would have had first attention. But the more intellectual promise of counterpoint attracted church musicians, in whose hands the destiny of music then lay; and as history clearly shows, while harmony took good care of itself, counterpoint received almost sole attention for centuries until it attained its first perfection in Palestrina’s work upon a harmonic basis of great innocence and simplicity – as simple as composers in the process of adding melody to melody could even unconsciously have devised.

No just appreciation of the essential difference between these two arts can be formed which overlooks their permanent union and interdependence. Though they have each had periods of special attention, they could not but grow together; and each was developed in the development of its companion, even at the very time of its own greatest apparent neglect.

Their coexistence has been so complete as to cause much confusion between them. It is hardly surprising that Zarlino should describe counterpoint as the concordance of several different parts and ‘as they very same as that which he named proper harmony.’ It is still less so to note that Dr. Johnson defined it as ‘the art of composing harmony.’

It is strange that Reicha (1770-1836), the famous theorist and friend of Beethoven, boldly states that the terms harmony and counterpoint are synonymous. In criticism of this statement, Sir Frederick Ouseley suggested that clever and now popular distinction that they are respectively the vertical and horizontal aspect of music.

It is perhaps more comprehensive to say that in part music of every kind, simple or complex, ancient or modern, when two or more parts conspire to convey one idea, the result is harmony; when each part conveys its own idea, the result is counterpoint.

It is true that in the hands of great masters such a perfect union of the two is attainable, that the very parts which make the most brilliant counterpoint may together present imposing and elaborate harmonic invention.

Evolution of Early Counterpoint

History shows that as soon as such primitive harmonic material as that of Hucbald had made independent conception of parts possible, men were led to set totally different melodies against one another experimentally.

They could not long indulge in this premature contrapuntal art without attempts to frame laws for the choice and fitting together of their intervals.

It seems paradoxical that any attempt to combine melodies must at once center the attention upon questions of harmony.

As new serviceable intervals were discovered, classification would soon follow, the euphonius being preferred, the cacophonous rejected; and by degrees the harmonic basis for the new art of combing melodies would be become dogmatically determined.

The most interesting feature in this process was the treatment of the fourth. An almost pathetic interest attaches to its dethronement from its first place among perfect concords to the servile position of a discord.

It seems probably that as long as not more than two parts were sung simultaneously, no strong enough reason would occur to cause its banishment.

But, when three parts were tried, the superior adaptability of the interval of a third must soon have been apparent. It would combine with every other interval except the fourth, whereas the fourth itself was hopelessly at war as a concord with the fifth – the most satisfactory interval of all except the octave itself.

At (a) in the following example all the available concords are set down (only one third and one sixth being given for the sake of simplicity)


At (b) the combinations are shown which ultimately formed the foundation for a whole art of counterpoint.

At (c) the fourth displays reason for its rejection in its failure to do what the third succeeds so well in doing.

Thus the fourth fell to its inferior position, and became merely a serviceable suspension or a passing note, assuming exactly the same subordinate relationship to the very interval which usurped its place as the ninth naturally assumed to the octave or the seventh to the sixth, as may be seen in the following example:


When this slender basis had been evolved, musicians found that it supplied inexhaustible means for melodic combinations to which they turned their attention.

In Dowland’s translation (1609) of Ornithoparcus (1513):

‘A song in our times hath not one voice along but five, six, eight and sometimes more. For it is evident that Joannes Okeken did compose a Mot-tet of 26 voyces. Not that part of Musick which effecteth this is called of the Musitians of Counterpoint.

For a Counterpoint, generally is nothing else than the knowledge of finding out of a song of many parts. Or it is ithe mother of Modulation, or (as Franchinus writes) it is the art of bending sounds that may be sung, by propertionable dimension, and measure of time. For, as the clay is in the hands of the Potter, so is the making of a song in the hands of the Musitian.

Wherefore most men call this art not the Counterpoint, but Composition, assigning this difference of names, and saying that composition is the collection of divers parts of Harmony by divers concords. For to compose is to gather together the divers parts of harmony by divers concords. But the counterpoint is the sodaine, and unexpected ordering of a plain song by divers melodies by chance. Concent of voyces set one against another, examined by art.’

This careful distinction seems to indicate the tendency to identify composition with the vague, less restricted feelings after harmonic invention, and counterpoint with the laws which showed how to combine divers melodies in a ‘concordant concent.’ It also indicates how closely the two terms were allied, with just the bare suggestion that the former was superior to, and included, the latter.

A rather different account of the distinction between counterpoint and the rest of music is given by the later theorist, Zacconi, in his Prattica di music. It seems to have been usual from early times to use the canto fermo or fixed song for the cultivation of contrapuntal ingenuity.

Its origins can be traced in Guido’s Discantus, where a free part (organum) was added to the plain song.

The plan was generally adopted in various way up to Palestrina’s time, but as an educational necessity it seems first to have been dogmatically fixed by Zacconi.

In the two opening chapters of the second book of the Prattica he insists at length that counterpoint is composition framed upon one part, the integrity of which is to be continually kept; and he excludes other musical compositions (including masses, motets, madrigals, songs, etc.) where the parts ‘correspond with each other’ – by which phrase he probably meant, concede to each other’s needs. By the vigor of his insistence, and the public manner of ‘putting aside the various definitions given by Zarlino and by other former writers, this may be judged to be the formal inauguration of the canto fermo for scholastic purposes, and it has been adopted every since.

In the first species counterpoint and harmony are studied simultaneously, both being reduced to their simplest as well as to equal terms.

Many early examples can be found, called by various names – by Artuis contrapunti semplici; by Zacconi contrapunto di nota contra note; by Zarlino contrapunto piano.

Two instances can be quoted. The first is from Zarlino, found on p. 225 of his Instituioni:


It is in the Hypophrygian mode, which increases its vagueness; but though vague and monotonous, striking independence of parts is shown.

The second instance is a somewhat later example from Zacconi:


A very early example of this kind of writing is in the article polyphonia.

The following further examples from Zacconi showing early uses of the second, third, fourth, and fifth species and they indicate two other important styles of counterpoint which did not survive through history:


It seems a pity that the study of some of these, notably five crotchet example, should not be revived. Examples from Morely’s Plaine an deasie Introduction (1597):


Of these varieties, Morely tells his readers that the first called crotchet, minime and crotchet; the second minime and crotchet:

‘The third is a driving way in two crotchets and a minime but odded by a rest so that it never commeth even till the close. The fourth waie driveth the crotchet rest throughout a whole lesson all of minims, so that it never commeth even till the end. And in these waies you may make infinite variettie…the fift waie is called tripla, when for one note of the plainsong, they make three blacke minims, though this bee not the true tripla, yet have I set it downe unto you in this palce, that you might nknow not only that which is right, but also that which others esteemed right. And therefore likewise have I set downe the proportions flowing, not according as it out to bee in reason, but to content wranglers.’

Morely names examples 6 and 7 quadrupla and quintupla.

The examples 8 and 9 are respectively sesquialtera and sesquitertia.

Two more examples are from Zacconi. The first is a very speculative, crude attempt at a chromatic example:


The method of correctly the accidental in bars 1 and 7 is curious and interesting. The second is an extract from a set of short examples of the nature of variations, displaying not only a melodic freedom worthy of Handel, but an exceptional amount of that incipient feeling for key, which is so characteristic of the 16th century music, and which made the Revolution of Monterverde natural and inevitable.


It is noteworthy that this should have been published within two years of the death of Palestrina.

A comparison of Zacconi’s sequence above with the following example of three part florid counterpoint published by Morely a year later will actually show less perfect workmanship in the old style than in the new:


Incipient Harmony of the Polyphonic Age

It is specially characteristic of the 16th century that while counterpoint was being so well nurtured itself, it was in reality fostering its then weaker companion, harmony, incidentally affording strong proof of the inseparable nature of the two arts.

The incipient feeling for key has already been referred to as being displayed by the Zacconi sequence above.

A glance of some of the other examples may also serve to show how strong and general the instinct for tonality had become.

The constant use of B flat and F sharp, according to the acknowledged laws of the time often virtually transformed the Dorian mode into what we should now recognize as the key of D minor, the Lydian into F major, the Mixolydian into G major.

The habitual resort to these accidentals to rid music of the false tritone as well as to soften asperities in general, gradually induced the transformation of half the Modes into our major and the other half into our minor keys.

A still more important factor in the development of a system of harmony was the established practice of punctuating a composition of any length with true cadences, not only in the mode of the piece but in related modes on one of the so called regular or conceded modulations.

In the following extracts of Palestrina the four chords marked * afford fleeting instances of modern chords:


Post Harmonic Counterpoint

The debts which harmony had contracted towards counterpoint in the 16th century were destined to be paid in the 18th. When, in the time of Bach, counterpoint in its ideal sense came into its own again, intervening development enabled harmony to confer return benefits; and an altogether new vitality is characteristic of the more elaborate counterpoint acquired through the wider scope which a full grown harmonic system necessarily bestowed upon it.

It is here that we pass from counterpoint in its early restricted sense – that upon which the study of strict counterpoint is founded, and for which Rockstro desired to reserve the title – to that which in the ideal sense still bears the name.

They can be distinguished as the pre-harmonic and post-harmonic styles.

The second style is infinitely more complex in possibilities. As Palestrina marked the highest point of the one, so Bach is the hero of the other.

A comparison of any of Palestrina’s works with the first chorus of the ‘Matthew passion’ will give a striking idea of the contrast of styles. In the later art, to all the difficulties of setting good melodies to melodies are added the privileges and problems of harmony.

A suggestion of the manner of development involved can further be gathered from the following examples, chosen from the strict and free style alternately, to illustrate contrasts: 1 and 1a, in chord passages: 2 and 2a, in suspensions 3 and 3a: in the combination of various species:


The most complicated passages in the second style have grown out of the first. If it be remembered that the first polyphony involved a basis of two chords, it will be recognizes that even the addition of one new chord would have incalculably extended the possibilities.

Monteverde’s revolution opened the gates not only to his own unprepared seventh, but to every chord and chord progression conceivable.