"…Counterpoint is a moderate and reasonable concord which
arises when one tone is placed opposite another, from which also the term contrapunctus,
that is 'note against note', can be derived. Counterpoint is therefore a combination
of tones. If this combination or mixture sounds sweetly to the ears, it is called
consonance; if, on the other hand, it sounds harsh and unpleasant,
it is called dissonance…"
Tinctoris, Liber de Arte Contrapuncti, 1477.
whole history of western tonal music could be seen, in a way, as the history
of the treatment of the vertical dissonance. What "chord" to arrive at, in which
manner, how to move to another sonority, and how to create tension or relaxation
would be the essential questions to ask, and they could all be reduced to the
notion of "proper voice-leading".
It would be tempting
to assume that this so-called "Journey of the Dissonance" progressed in a constant
and linear fashion together with music history, from highly consonant environments
in the past, all the way towards our modern twelve-tone world (including the
new members of the avant-garde tendencies: computer music, microtonal, mass-sound,
concrète, and others). To a large extent, that notion is true: a composer
of the twelfth-century would certainly not have had the musical training to
absorb or interpret a dodecaphonic row. The real picture is, however, far more
complex: the path from the first self-conscious contrapuntal experiments, transcribed
more than one thousand years ago in Musica Enchiriadis, towards our present
art music, has theoretical and artistic detours, which are all the more interesting
and enlightening from our perspective.
Many times, a
new development opened new roads for compositional discovery, but neglected
or extinguished other aesthetic possibilities. One example of this double-sided
aspect of "progress" in contrapuntal theory is the introduction of the rhythmic
modes by Pérotin in the XIII C. Whereas
a more precise rhythmic definition made possible the incorporation of more voices
to the texture, it also "quantized" musical composition and performance to strict
values related to a basic tactus. Despite its obvious efforts, not even
the art music of the twentieth-century has been able to completely eradicate
this notion of "universal", strict steady pulse for a given composition.
Below a glossary
of the main contrapuntal terms is included, together with a list containing
the titles and authors of just a few of the many treatises on counterpoint,
in approximate chronological order.
of contrapuntal terms
accented dissonance, usually a passing-tone or a neighbor-tone. Its name derives
from the word appoggiare = "to lean". Its most natural resolution is
by descending stepwise motion.
motivic elaboration that consists in keeping the internal rhythmic proportions
of a given melody, while multiplying the duration of the tones by a specific
factor. The procedure becomes more easily apparent when both versions of the
melodic material, original and augmented, are stated simultaneously. See diminution.
- basso continuo:
a notation method that summarizes the harmonic and contrapuntal features of
the musical texture, adding the intervals from a written bass up. See figured
- basso seguente:
an instrumental bass line that doubles (seguente = "follower") the
lowest-sounding vocal part.
exchanged tone. A specific compositional idiom in third species. It grows
out of the elaboration of a basic two-note figure.
"musical law", "norm", or "rule". Within the common-practice era, the strictest
kind of imitative polyphony. In such a canon, all the lines of the
texture are derived from a single melody, which is stated first and then followed
by the succesive entrances of the remaining voices. If, at some point, the
imitation process is terminated and the texture arrives at a cadence, the
canon is said to be finite. If, on the other hand, the original dux
(the melodic "model") and its comes (the imitating voices) can be brought
back to the beginning so that the polyphonic fabric can continue seamlessly,
the canon is said to be infinite.
- cantus collateralis:
"choirbook format". Counterpoint in which each of the voices is written as
an independent part, not aligned in a score.
- cantus firmus
(pl. cantus firmi): the fixed melody to which the other voices can
be added. By extension, it can be understood as the background content of
a motive, fugal subject, harmonic progression, or any larger musical organism.
Heinrich Schenker based his whole analytical approach on the notion that all
tonal music can be reduced to a few of those basic linear schemes. The term
cantus firmus derives from plainchant singing, for counterpoint grew
out of the combination of given -"firm"- liturgical melodies (i.e. cantus
firmi) and their respective made-to-fit discanti.
- cantus figuratus:
a melody consisting of notes of mixed rhythmic values.
- cantus prius
factus: "preexistant chant". Portion of the polyphonic fabric that was
"fixed" insofar as it was derived from an established chant. To some extent,
synonym of "cantus firmus".
the true basic ancestor of western tonal music. In a process that lasted several
centuries, the Roman Church absorbed and compiled liturgical melodies from
diverse European regions. Those different dialects -styles - included, among
others, Gallican, Beneventan, Visigothic or Mozarabic, and Ambrosian Chant.
The whole repertory was reorganized by Pope Gregory II (A.D. 715-31), after
whom the expression "Gregorian Chant" was coined.
in a piece in strict polyphonic imitation, the second entrance of the texture,
featuring the voice that follows the introduction of the subject. See dux.
a combination of sounds that is "stable". This impression depends largely
on context, meaning therefore different actual mixtures of sounds for each
musical style. In the common-practice era, perfect unisons, fifths and octaves
were considered perfect consonances, whereas thirds and sixths -either major
or minor- were considered imperfect consonances. The remaining intervals -fourths,
seconds and sevenths, plus all augmented and diminished- were considered dissonant.
diminutus (o floridus): counterpoint in which two or more notes of lesser
value are placed against a note of greater value. Also called contrapunto
simplex: simple counterpoint, note against note. Also called cantus
planus. No dissonances are permitted.
motivic elaboration that consists in keeping the internal rhythmic proportions
of a given melody, while dividing the duration of the tones by a specific
factor (usually not more than two, three, or four). The procedure becomes
more easily apparent when both versions of the melodic material, original
and diminuted, are stated simultaneously. See augmentation.
the direct ancestor of first species counterpoint. It developed in the early
XIII C., when the second voice started to move one-to-one with the voice carrying
the chant -cantus firmus-, for the most part in contrary motion. The resulting
vertical intervals were therefore varied, as opposed to the parallel organum.
a combination of sounds that is "unstable". See consonance.
sciolte: literally, "loose dissonances". Early Italian designation for
the unaccented passing-tone (XVI C).
replication of an interval, chord, melodic line, or any other musical material,
so that it enhances (in volume or timbrically) the sonority of the original.
In contrapuntal terms, doublings are to be used with caution, for they
destroy the individuality of the different intervening lines.
polyphonic subject. A melodic model after which a polyphonic composition in
strict imitation is brought about. See comes.
bass: the "opposite" of counterpoint. A compositional/pedagogical method
that focuses on the vertical intervals as expression of triadic structures
(and, therefore, harmonic progressions) rather than on the non per se
triadic intervalic relationships that arise due to the interaction of melodies.
a musical texture in which there is only one principal idea, carried out by
the main voice. This primary line is surrounded by elaborated decorative elements
in secondary voices.
the tonal distance between two notes.
- mode (Gregorian):
derived from the Greek modes, adopted by the early Christian liturgy. The
seven basic modes are Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian,
- mode (rhythmic):
Rhythmic formulae subordinated to a basic beat in ternary division. The six
basic rhythmic modes were set by the school of Notre Dame in the XIII C. For
the first time, it allowed for a precise synchronization between two, three
and four polyphonic voices within a given composition.
- motion (parallel,
oblique, contrary): relative motion between two voices. It can be parallel
(both voices moving up or down), oblique (one of the voices moving up or down,
the other remaining in its place), or contrary (one voice moving up, the other
moving down, or vice versa). From the contrapuntal point of view, oblique
and contrary motion are always preferred, for they reinforce the melodic independence
of each line.
"legal" dissonance. It occurs when a consonant tone moves to and returns from
another tone by step.
"legal" dissonance. It occurs when a dissonant tone connects, by stepwise
motion, two consonant tones.
a musical texture in which the main idea is uniformly distributed among all
the intervening voices. None of the voices is secondary.
(parallel): the earliest kind of counterpoint (IX through XI C). Secondary
voices were added in parallel motion at fixed intervals (perfect fourths,
fifths, and octaves) to the one singing the chant.
repetition of the same melodic gesture over a cantus firmus in notes of equal
value (XV C.)
- res facta:
written counterpoint, as opposed to sung (and therefore, improvised) counterpoint.
as we understand it today, a pedagogical categorization devised -or first
set to paper- by J. J. Fux, and widely used from then on. It groups the kinds
of contrapuntal exercises in five kinds, according to the rhythmic prototypes
to be used, forcing melodic creativity and intervallic control within the
given rhythmic frame. First species corresponds to 1:1 values for the cantus
firmus and the contrapuntal line (for instance whole-against-whole), second
species 1:2, third species 1:4, fourth species 1:2 with syncopation, and fifth
species corresponds to florid counterpoint (1:x). The idea of species,
or "types" of counterpoint is widely present in the theoretical literature
before Fuchs' Gradus ad Parnassum; however, the main pedagogical virtue
of Fuch's method was that it reduced the number of possibilities to a manageable
number, summarizing the most essential contrapuntal types.
- super librum
cantare: "sing over the book". It means that the contrapuntal voice is
improvised by the singer.
also called "syncope dissonance". First described in theoretical terms by
Guilelmus Monachus in De Praeceptis artis musice et practice compendiosus
libellus, possibly giving account of what had became common practice by
the XV C. To be such, and regardless of the musical style, a suspension must
have three stages: preparation (rhythmically weak), suspension (strong), and
resolution (weak) . The durational proportions corresponding to those stages
vary, depending on the historical period. In general, the durations corresponding
to the preparation and resolution of the suspension became progressively shorter
as the harmonic language evolved.
melodic range of each singing voice. The standard range for a SATB combination
(mixed vocal quartet or choir) is: soprano, c1 to a2; alto, g to e1; tenor,
c to g1; and bass, G to e1.
tritone. An augmented fourth or a diminished fifth.
on -or related to- Counterpoint
(very partial list, in approximate chronological order):
- Musica Enchiriadis,
- De institutione
musica, Hucbald, X C.
Guido D’Arezzo, X C.
- Ars cantus
mensurabilis, Franco of Cologne, ca. 1280).
- Ars nova,
Philippe de Vitry, ca. 1322.
Prosdocimo de’ Beldomandi, 1412.
- De preceptis
artis musicae, Guillelmus Monachus, late XV C.
- Liber de
Arte Contrapuncti, Johannes de Verwere (Tinctoris), 1477.
- Musica practica,
Bartolomeo Ramos de Pareja, 1482.
opusculum, N. Burtius, 1487.
musicales regule, N. Guerson, 1490.
musicae, Franchino Gaffurio, 1496.
- Opus aureum
musicae , N. Wollick, 1501.
de canto de órgano, contrapunto y composición, vocal y instrumental
prática y especulativa, , D. M. Durán, 1504.
J. Cochlaeus, 1505.
- Musica activa
micrologus, A. Ornithoparchus, 1517.
musicae mensuralis, G. Rhau, 1520.
in musica, Pietro Aron, 1524/1529.
di musica, G. M. Lanfranco, 1533.
de musica aurea, S. Vanneo, 1533.
musices, A. P. Coclico, 1552.
musica ridotta alla moderna prattica, Vicentino, 1555/57.
- Le institutioni
harmoniche, Gioseffo Zarlino, 1558.
- L'arte del
contraponto ridotta in tavole, G. M. Artusi, 1586.
intorno all'uso delle dissonanze, V. Galilei, 1588/91.
della musica, Oratio Tigrini, 1588.
di musica...ove si tratta de' passaggi...et del modo di far motetti, messe,
salmi et altre compositioni, P. Pontio, 1588.
- Il Transilvano,
Girolamo Diruta, 1597.
- A plaine
and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, Thomas Morley, 1597.
- El Melopeo
y maestro: tractado de musica theorica y practica; en que se pone por extenso,
lo que uno para hazerse perfecto musico ha manester saber, Pietro Cerone,
musicale, Adriano Banchieri, 1614.
- Rules how
to Compose, G. Coprario, 1617.
di musica, Zacconi, 1622.
danicum, Hans Mikkelsen Ravn (Corvinus), 1646.
musicale, Angelo Berardi, 1689.
- Gradus ad
Parnassum, Johann Joseph Fux, 1725.
über die verschiederen Lehrarten in der Komposition, Johann Philipp
- Saggio fondamentale
practico de contrappunto, Padre Martini, 1774.
- Der Kontrapunkt,
Heinrich Bellermann, 1862.
des einfachen und doppelten Kontrapunkts, Ernst Friedrich Richter, 1872.
des Kontrapunkts, S. Jadassohn, 1883.
des Kontrapunkts, Hugo Riemann, 1888.
Stephan Krehl, 1908.
des linearen Kontrapunkts, Ernst Kurth, 1917.
Heinrich Schenker, 1922.
der Stimmfürung, Herman Roth, 1926.
The Polyphonic Vocal Style of the Sixteenth Century, Knud Jeppesen, 1939.
- The Study
of Counterpoint, Alfred Mann, 1965.
de Contrapunto, José Torre Bertucci (date?).
- The Study
of Modal Counterpoint, Ernst Krenek (date?).
in Composition, Felix Saltzer & Carl Schachter, 1969.
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Last updated: August 15, 2000.