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Music

Counterpoint in Music: How to Play Species Counterpoint

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jul 21, 2020 • 3 min read

Most music consists of more than one single melody or chord progression. In all styles of classical music and many styles of pop music, compositions involve a series of simultaneous musical lines. In music theory, we refer to these intersecting melodic lines as counterpoint.

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What Is Counterpoint in Music?

In the language of music theory, counterpoint is a compositional technique in which two or more melodic lines (or "voices") complement one another but act independently. The term comes from the Latin punctus contra punctum, which means "point against point." Composers use counterpoint to create polyphonic music.

3 Examples of Counterpoint in Music

Counterpoint commonly occurs between different instruments, but it can also describe independent melodies played on the same instrument. There are innumerable examples of counterpoint in music, but a few that stand out are:

  1. The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722): Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the seminal The Well-Tempered Clavier, a series of preludes and fugues for solo keyboard, wherein a single player performs two, three, and often four independent lines simultaneously.
  2. Jupiter Symphony No. 41 (1788): Five-voice counterpoint is extremely difficult to pull off, yet Mozart did so ably in his Jupiter Symphony No. 41, an eighteenth-century masterpiece.
  3. Star Wars main theme (1977): In John William's main title theme for Star Wars, brass instruments play the song's iconic melody, but if you listen to the cellos, basses, and percussion, they are playing something completely different. These interwoven voices serve as an example of a contrapuntal relationship between different instruments.
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What Is Parallel Motion in Music?

Music that foregoes counterpoint uses parallel motion, in which multiple voices move up and down in the same intervals. Vocal chants from the Middle Ages employ parallel motion. Many barre chords on guitar also serve as examples of parallel motion. When a guitarist plays barre chords, their fingers maintain the same shape but slide up and down the guitar neck. When one note goes up, they all go up. When one note lasts a certain duration, they all last that same duration.

What Is Species Counterpoint?

Species counterpoint is a teaching tool to assist in the study of counterpoint. The student starts with simple counterpoints and develops increasingly complex polyphony as they progress through five “species,” each of which involves two voices—an upper voice and a lower voice, or cantus firmus. An eighteenth-century text by Johann Joseph Fux, Gradus ad Parnassum, laid out the rules for each counterpoint species:

  • First species counterpoint: When composing first species counterpoint, your note durations can be the same, but you should avoid parallel motion. Space notes by a third or a sixth for a pleasing sound, use octaves and perfect fifths on occasion, and avoid perfect fourths. Stepwise motion is preferred, but some leaps can be appropriate, although never when resolving to the final chord. In most cases, limit yourself to diatonic notes and avoid dissonant intervals, particularly on strong beats.
  • Second species counterpoint: This species emphasizes independent note duration. If one voice is moving in whole notes, try to let the other voice move mostly in half notes. Your strong beats should use consonance (where the pitches are clear chord tones), but your weaker beats can be more harmonically adventurous.
  • Third species counterpoint: Third species counterpoint pushes for even greater rhythmic independence between your voices. You can also add more intentional dissonance through the use of double neighbor tones and double passing tones. Focus on contrary motion; if one voice is moving up, the other should be moving down.
  • Fourth species counterpoint: This species introduces suspensions—where notes sustain from one chord to another—to establish a pattern of tension and release. Use oblique motion, where one voice moves but the other voice stays the same. Use suspended notes to first create dissonance, then, when another contrapuntal voice changes, become part of a consonant chord.
  • Fifth species counterpoint: Also known as "florid counterpoint," this technique combines all the prior species into a single compositional technique. Use all types of motion—parallel, contrary, and oblique—and a mixture of consonance and dissonance.

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