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Counterpoint is a musical technique involving the simultaneous sounding of separate musical lines. It is especially prominent in Western music. In all eras, writing of counterpoint has been subject to rules, sometimes strict. Counterpoint written before approximately 1600 is usually known as polyphony.

The term comes from the Latin punctus contra punctum ("note against note"). The adjectival form contrapuntal shows this Latin source more transparently.

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 rather than harmonic effects generated when melodic strands sound together:

  • "It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal stuctures that create each of the voices, separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyphony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the stuctures of the individual voices. The way that is accomplished in detail is...'counterpoint'."

It 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 organising principle in musical composition. The late 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 governed by considerations of chord and harmony. But these are only strong general tendencies, and there are many qualifications one could add.

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, counterpoint is an essential means for the generation of musical ironies; a melodic fragment, heard alone, may make a particular impression, but when it is heard simultaneously with other melodic ideas, or combined in unexpected ways with itself, as in a canon or fugue, surprising new facets of meaning are revealed. This is a means for bringing about development of a musical idea, revealing it to the listener as conceptually more profound than a merely pleasing melody.

Excellent examples of counterpoint in jazz include Gerry Mulligan's Young Blood and 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. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Click below for the best in free Counterpoint lessons available on the web.

Counterpoint (A Jazz Improvisation Primer)
Principles of Counterpoint (Alan Belkin)

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