Point and Counterpoint – and Being Contrary

"We're Baroque" - Pachelbel, Bach & Fux, Masters of Counterpoint

Before we attempt to apply counterpoint to the second ending of the “A” section of our example,  I’m going to go through a brief refresher course (or introduction, for you newbies) as to what counterpoint actually is. After all, “counterpoint” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in music, but few would-be arrangers and orchestrators really give it much thought.

Even if you haven’t had advanced music theory, chances are you have played or sung counterpoint at some time in your musical life . The simplest and most basic form of counterpoint is the round, the classic examples being Freré Jacques and Row, Row, Row Your Boat. A more complex (but still relatively simple) form of counterpoint is the canon which is usually two or more voices over a repeated bass pattern (ostinato). A well-known example is the often  (some might say over) performed Pachelbel’s Canon. (Check out this video to hear the piece as it was originally performed at the wedding of J.S. Bach’s older brother in 1694 – complete with authentic period instruments.)

The most sophisticated form of counterpoint is the fugue, of which composers such as J.S. Bach and Johann Fux were masters. There have been jazz fugues written. I myself composed such a piece for Big Band, entitled Toccata and Fugue in Jazz Minor. However, much of counterpoint in Big Band writing is more subtle.

Actually, musicologist Heinrich Schenker believed that most great music was on some level counterpoint. At its most basic level, counterpoint is nothing more than two melodic voices that have some harmonic relationship, yet move independently.  Contrary motion, which happens when two or more voices start moving in different directions (as when one voice ascends  and the other descends) is an important element of counterpoint. Baroque counterpoint comes in five different flavors, or “species.”

In first species counterpoint, these two voices move in rhythmic unison, i.e., quarter note against quarter note.  Here’s a simple example:

First Species Counterpoint

 Next is second species counterpoint, which is two notes against one:

Second Species Counterpoint

As you know (if you’ve had advanced theory) or may have guessed (if this is your first trip down this road), third species is four against one:

Third Species Counterpoint

 Fourth species is a different animal: in this case, we set up a series of suspensions that create dissonances and resolutions.

Fourth Species Counterpoint

Fifth species includes all of the above: this is also called “florid” counterpoint.

Fifth Species ("Florid") Counterpoint

In my next post, we’ll apply some of this to Big Band writing. In the meantime, go back and listen to  the Glenn Miller recording. Can you hear anything in there that sounds like counterpoint? (Hint: there is some really beautiful contrary motion  starting around 02:36.)

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About KJ at Guide Tone Lines

KJ McElrath earned his Masters degree in Music Theory and Composition from Central Washington University. Composer of several works for big band, wind ensemble and orchestra, which can be heard at BardicCircle.com. I perform a cabaret act with Athena McElrath as McElrath Cabaret, which you can find at http://mcelrathcabaret.com.
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