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Thread: What is the purpose of studying counterpoint?

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    What is the purpose of studying counterpoint?

    I am currently studying counterpoint right now with my composition teacher. My question is why study counterpoint? I don't understand the purpose of it. How does it help you in your music as a composer? I also did advanced harmony and I also don't understand what's the point of it. I observe that four - part harmony is only used in an ending of a piece. My other question is that how is counterpoint relevant in today's contemporary music. Because in my counterpoint studies, I have to study Bach's fugues and that's classical music. I heard the Beatles used counterpoint in their music. Don't get me wrong, I love studying counterpoint and I will be learning 4:1 counterpoint, strict counterpoint, and free counterpoint. In counterpoint and harmony, I have to learn a lot of rules such as avoiding parallel movement and direct movement. And is it also possible that you use an existing melody such as your favorite song and use that melody as a bass line and make a counter - melody out of it? But can someone explain to me what's the purpose of studying counterpoint.

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    Registered User Color of Music's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Blanche_Minim View Post
    I am currently studying counterpoint right now with my composition teacher. My question is why study counterpoint? I don't understand the purpose of it. How does it help you in your music as a composer? I also did advanced harmony and I also don't understand what's the point of it. I observe that four - part harmony is only used in an ending of a piece. My other question is that how is counterpoint relevant in today's contemporary music. Because in my counterpoint studies, I have to study Bach's fugues and that's classical music. I heard the Beatles used counterpoint in their music. Don't get me wrong, I love studying counterpoint and I will be learning 4:1 counterpoint, strict counterpoint, and free counterpoint. In counterpoint and harmony, I have to learn a lot of rules such as avoiding parallel movement and direct movement. And is it also possible that you use an existing melody such as your favorite song and use that melody as a bass line and make a counter - melody out of it? But can someone explain to me what's the purpose of studying counterpoint.
    Counterpoint is simply (there's much more to it, of course) all about contrast! Contrary motion is an obvious example of this. Despite popular belief, it is useful in contemporary music; however, alot of what is done in such doesn't adhere to the strict rules of to classical music (and I mean the big umbrella - not the subsets)

    Maybe Stevel can answer this better for you!

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    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Blanche_Minim View Post
    I am currently studying counterpoint right now with my composition teacher. My question is why study counterpoint? I don't understand the purpose of it. How does it help you in your music as a composer? I also did advanced harmony and I also don't understand what's the point of it. I observe that four - part harmony is only used in an ending of a piece. My other question is that how is counterpoint relevant in today's contemporary music. Because in my counterpoint studies, I have to study Bach's fugues and that's classical music. I heard the Beatles used counterpoint in their music.
    They did, in a fairly simple 2-part way, but without having studied it academically of course. They picked it up from the music they heard and played, by ear. Specifically, Paul (and George) did learn the odd Bach piece on guitar, and Paul has admitted that that influenced Blackbird and Yesterday in particular.

    But unless you want to write baroque-style music, I wouldn't say there's much point in studying counterpoint to any depth.
    Quote Originally Posted by Blanche_Minim View Post
    Don't get me wrong, I love studying counterpoint
    Well, in that case, what more reason do you need?
    Quote Originally Posted by Blanche_Minim View Post
    and I will be learning 4:1 counterpoint, strict counterpoint, and free counterpoint. In counterpoint and harmony, I have to learn a lot of rules such as avoiding parallel movement and direct movement.
    Yes, it's a pain, ain't it! I have studied it a little myself (from books with exercises, for my own pleasure), and what I've found is that - to begin with - it's hard to avoid those damn parallel 5ths, and also hard to hear why it matters. But when you do manage to avoid them, and get the other stuff right, it does sound better. And that's the point. For me, it's about ear training, refining your ear to hear those subtleties, to appreciate why those rules exist - and still apply. Ie, a sweet harmony then is still a sweet harmony today - even if lots of harmonies that were banned then also sound fine today. And if your ear improves, then it will better appreciate all kinds of music, not just Bach chorales (which don't appeal to me in the slightest).
    Quote Originally Posted by Blanche_Minim View Post
    And is it also possible that you use an existing melody such as your favorite song and use that melody as a bass line and make a counter - melody out of it?
    Sure, you can do that - just as you can keep your melody on top and add a bass line.

    Personally, I've never studied a Bach fugue, and barely even listened to one (didn't mean much to me when I did). But I would stick with your studies, at least as long as you're enjoying them. If it gets tough - when you ask yourself what it's all for? - don't let it worry you. If you don't love classical music, it's not important. You could fail your studies: who cares? Certainly nobody, if it's popular music you want to get involved in in the end. Even if it's jazz you're into, where deep classical theory has a little more impact, total success at counterpoint is not important. Give it your best shot for as long as you're enjoying it.
    The point about college or university study is not to close off any avenues, but to open up as many as you can. Study what turns you on, while keeping a curious, open mind about other stuff. But don't be weighed down by what you think you ought to be doing. Use the faculty for what you can get out of it, for yourself. Maybe classical counterpoint (in the end) is not for you. No biggie.
    Last edited by JonR; 12-12-2013 at 01:23 PM.

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    Here's an interesting article or some kind of a course description about counterpoint on Berklee:

    Counterpoint is the technique of writing independent melodic lines that work together to create effective music. This linear perspective has influenced some of the most popular songs and artists in the 20th century, including the music of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and many other contemporary artists—even in the sampling techniques of hip-hop and techno. The study of Counterpoint is essential knowledge for songwriters, composers, and musicians who want to strengthen their compositional skills.

    Berklee Online's Counterpoint course explores the mechanics of basic contrapuntal technique, focusing on the horizontal aspects of composition; in other words, how melodies interact with one another. The course begins with writing a simple melodic line that works with an existing melody. You will then learn to add complexity to your melodic lines using thicker textures and the concepts of consonance and dissonance. You will study motivic manipulations of sequence, inversion, retrograde, and other variations. The course also explores various canonic techniques, including simple, mirror, crab, and mensuration canons.

    This course uses musical examples from the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th century periods, in addition to relevant examples from contemporary popular artists and styles. You'll have access to a timeline from which you can see the chronological and geographical placement of musical examples as you listen to them. Throughout the course, you will strengthen your music listening, reading, and writing skills through hands-on writing activities. The goal of the course is to give you a broad overview of counterpoint and improve your compositional skills, regardless of stylistic preference.

    By the end of this course, you will be able to:

    identify and compose music using various contrapuntal techniques
    differentiate and apply counterpoint ratios, including 1:1, 2:1, 3:1, 4:1, suspensions, and consonant syncopations
    identify stylistic uses of consonance and dissonance in diverse style periods
    manipulate and apply motives, using sequence, inversion, retrograde, and other variations
    write canons, including simple, accompanied, at intervals other than the octave, crab, and mensuration canons

    I read the whole thing and that leads me to my next question, does counterpoint help to write beautiful composition? One thing I know about Music History is that all the great composers like Bach (obviously), Beethoven, Mozart, and many others studied counterpoint. So does counterpoint help to create beautiful composition? I'm taking composition lessons because I want to improve my melody writing. Nothing promising so far.

  5. #5
    Registered User Color of Music's Avatar
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    That's one aspect of it! Of course, the above names used it very well, but since you say your goal is a better composition, I think a better question would be what kind of composition,

    I say this because counterpoint isn't necessarily used as it is taught or had been done by composers of the Classical (Broad term) era. That isn't to say it is not used or that how it's used is different. Have you heard the term Counter-Melody? It's the same thing, but in a modernized sense as opposed to the traditional sense.

    So, again, I ask: what kind of composition do you wish to write? Is it really something classical oriented or something else. I am by no means discouraging, but though I like part-writing (and I do not), I will not necessarily write choral pieces. But any musical tool one picks up helps whether it's a little or alot. Therefore, experiment and see what happens. After all, that is the essence of composition. (in every sense of the word - ie: also outside of music)

    Also, don't try to "build Rome in a day!" Music certainly does not work like that!

  6. #6
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Blanche_Minim View Post
    Here's an interesting article or some kind of a course description about counterpoint on Berklee:

    Counterpoint is the technique of writing independent melodic lines that work together to create effective music. This linear perspective has influenced some of the most popular songs and artists in the 20th century, including the music of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and many other contemporary artists—even in the sampling techniques of hip-hop and techno. The study of Counterpoint is essential knowledge for songwriters, composers, and musicians who want to strengthen their compositional skills.
    Sounds a little like they're overselling it. .
    The proper study of counterpoint (as you know) is a whole lot more than "independent melodic lines that work together".
    Even when those pop/rock acts wrote music you could describe in that way, they wouldn't necessarily have stuck to the counterpoint rules you're studying - because (quite simply) they never studied it! They all worked by ear, copying recordings they liked, with maybe a few rudimentary guitar lessons to get them started. (Rap and hip-hop acts wouldn't even bother with that, of course.)

    So while I wouldn't disagree with the thrust of that paragraph, I disagree quite strongly about "essential". It's certainly one way of "strengthening your compositional skills" - but there are many other ways. Such as transcribing compositions you like.
    Quote Originally Posted by Blanche_Minim View Post
    Berklee Online's Counterpoint course explores the mechanics of basic contrapuntal technique, focusing on the horizontal aspects of composition; in other words, how melodies interact with one another. The course begins with writing a simple melodic line that works with an existing melody. You will then learn to add complexity to your melodic lines using thicker textures and the concepts of consonance and dissonance. You will study motivic manipulations of sequence, inversion, retrograde, and other variations. The course also explores various canonic techniques, including simple, mirror, crab, and mensuration canons.
    That's all fun, but gets less and less "essential" as the paragraph progresses.
    Quote Originally Posted by Blanche_Minim View Post
    This course uses musical examples from the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th century periods, in addition to relevant examples from contemporary popular artists and styles.
    Ah - now, speaking personally, I'd very much like to know what those latter examples are.
    Quote Originally Posted by Blanche_Minim View Post
    You'll have access to a timeline from which you can see the chronological and geographical placement of musical examples as you listen to them. Throughout the course, you will strengthen your music listening, reading, and writing skills through hands-on writing activities. The goal of the course is to give you a broad overview of counterpoint and improve your compositional skills, regardless of stylistic preference.
    All good stuff - especially the historical overview - but again I wouldn't worry about the more advanced aspects. Not unless you find yourself really drawn to baroque and classical music.
    Quote Originally Posted by Blanche_Minim View Post
    I read the whole thing and that leads me to my next question, does counterpoint help to write beautiful composition?
    Define "beautiful". With music, that's in "the ear of the beholder".
    Quote Originally Posted by Blanche_Minim View Post
    One thing I know about Music History is that all the great composers like Bach (obviously), Beethoven, Mozart, and many others studied counterpoint.
    Very true. Some of the great jazz musicians would also have studied it, at least to some degree. And probably some of the classic popular songwriters, at least from earlier last century.
    Quote Originally Posted by Blanche_Minim View Post
    So does counterpoint help to create beautiful composition? I'm taking composition lessons because I want to improve my melody writing. Nothing promising so far.
    Counterpoint won't help your melody writing, IMO. Melody is single lines; counterpoint is about harmonising a given line.
    IMO, good melody writing comes from singing, and from learning as many great melodies (by ear) as you can (singing and playing them).
    There is a craft to it, a way of analysing good melody and divining rules, but the great composers worked by ear and intuitively. You need to forget your theory, IMO, when composing melody. Theory comes in later, when you want to develop it and polish it, or harmonise it in a particular style.

  7. #7
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    Every technique you study will find it's way into your lexicon. It may not surface in an obvious way but the mere exposure will expand your ears, skills and craft. I found the study of counter-point fit well with my goals relative to arranging for horns and strings and for writing music with less obvious distributed harmony.

    As far as modern examples, anytime you hear two concurrent lines in some piece of music - how well those lines work together is a reflection of or in contrast to the rules of classic counter-point. The Sting piece "Ain True Love" plays with these techniques in it's contrast between the sometimes parallel - sometimes contrary movement between the voices while the instruments provide pedal-tone and contrary motion (as secondary lines). I think he did a great job using (and breaking) the rules of counter-point in this simple sounding but very sophisticated piece.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8z7xKfKySUY

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    Quote Originally Posted by Color of Music View Post
    what kind of composition do you wish to write? Is it really something classical oriented or something else.
    Well, actually I am thinking of writing almost everything except hip - hop and rap. Be it Rock, Pop, Classical - Concert Music (all periods), Jazz, Eurobeats, International Music, Black Gospel, Contemporary Christian, Christmas Songs, Romantic Songs for my girlfriend etc. Plus collaborations with today's artists or even legends like Lionel Ritchie and Paul McCartney. The whole gamut of it. I will be writing about 10+ albums a year.

    I didn't write Blues or Country, but maybe I will if I'm forced to. One more thing, I don't like to work with Justin Bieber.
    Last edited by Blanche_Minim; 12-14-2013 at 10:58 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JonR View Post
    Define "beautiful". With music, that's in "the ear of the beholder".
    Yeah, I know everyone is different. Such as my sister for example. I let her listen to "Three of a Perfect Pair" by King Crimson and I like the song very much but she only likes the beginning and doesn't like the rest. My 12 year old sister says "it sucks!" So I am aware that what is beautiful to me maybe terrible to others.

    But on the other hand, there was one time my sister was randomly listening to "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees and some random event where I played some "Dancing Queen" by Abba and she likes it.

    I am talking about melodies that have stood the test of time. Such as Handel's "Messiah" it's about 300 years old and it is still popular to this day. I really like David Gates (Bread) and the Carpenters. What about songs by Elvis Presley, they are about 50 years old and we still sing along with an Elvis look a like on an Elvis festival. The songs of the 50's 60's and 70's are mostly timeless and if they are released today, they would be top of the Billboard charts.

    Beautiful music that is uplifting, it hypes you up, and drives you passionately. Melodies and Lyrics that are addictive and catchy. At the end of listening you feel contemplative, knowing that you have serendipities and it's something you cherish.

    I guess that's one way of defining "beautiful music".
    Last edited by Blanche_Minim; 12-14-2013 at 10:46 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JonR View Post
    Maybe classical counterpoint (in the end) is not for you. No biggie.
    I am someone who is very good at Music Theory and Harmony because I have been taught by a very good Theory Professor, who is Doctor of Music, and he has taught me well. Unfortunately, I was planning to learn counterpoint with him but he already left my school two years ago. I am not confused by Music Theory like a lot of people for me it's easy and I just understand the whole thing inside out.

    But I am a dedicated student to counterpoint because counterpoint will be one of the tools that I will use once I become a serious composer. Hopefully, I'll be famous. My composition teacher told me that the best kind music that you listen to are music that follows the 'rules' and I am in the midst of learning them right now.

    My composition teacher today didn't come because it's a snowstorm here in Toronto. But I've been talking about counterpoint all week that I was excited for her to come and teach me.

    Well for that theory professor, I searched him on the internet and apparently he is teaching at another school. Maybe one of these days if my schedule changes, I'll have classes with him and I have to do a counterpoint exam.

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    Sorry for the late response, but I don't like to write during Friday the 13th. I typically avoid that number. I'm glad 2013 is almost ending, but this has been a good year for me. I didn't travel far but I saw a lot of beautiful girls and I talked to them. Hopefully I'll find my first girlfriend soon. When I listen to music, I can consistently recognize a ii - V - I progression, a I - V - vi - IV progression (I hear it a lot on the radio) and a I - vi - IV - V progression. Hopefully, my ears will continue to develop. I am already good at music theory so hopefully my hearing and playing techniques will continue to improve on the years to come.

  12. #12
    Latin Wedding Band Los Boleros's Avatar
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    I studied counterpoint for five years and in the beginning it seemed like a lot of rules. I did not understand at first because I wanted to be free to compose without rules. The more I learned and the more I began thinking about my music in a counterpoint sense the more I started to realize that they are not really rules but merely observations of what works and what doesn't. You learn a lot about cadences and how voice leadings work for the different cadences. it is a great thing to be able to recognize the cadences by ear for when you do then you can know a little more about what voice leadings will sound good in a chord by chord analysis.

    In counter point they have done all the research for you.
    For example: If you are in a full cadence and going from the V to the i then you are going to have an oblique movement because that is simply what happens.

    Take E-am
    the notes are
    B,E,G# to C,E,A

    The B goes up to the C
    The E stays the same
    The G# goes up to A

    This is a very basic example that shows that oblique motion is not really a rule but an observation.

    When you study counterpoint it does not meant that you will need to be writing a certain style of music, just that you are more aware of what is happening and that is a good thing.
    Last edited by Los Boleros; 12-16-2013 at 12:27 AM.
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    Isn't that what theory does (or is supposed to do) in general no matter what the area? I understand not letting it get in the ay and what can happen (or not happen) when it does, but is awareness or lack thereof, a good thing? A serious question if anyone cares to discuss it. (Note: this is not saying you must have it)

    Any takers?

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    Latin Wedding Band Los Boleros's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Color of Music View Post
    Isn't that what theory does (or is supposed to do) in general no matter what the area?
    You know very well that you cannot go too far in any direction of theory discipline without crossing paths with another.
    Counterpoint is theory but more from the point of view of multiple voices. Can it be used for single voice leading? Absolutely.

    Quote Originally Posted by Color of Music View Post
    I understand not letting it get in the ay and what can happen (or not happen) when it does, but is awareness or lack thereof, a good thing? A serious question if anyone cares to discuss it. (Note: this is not saying you must have it)

    Any takers?
    Well for me this one is a no-brainer. Yes we would all like to just make music in our sleep without having to think of anything and if can reach a point in our lives that we can just breathe music without any logical effort and be totally content with the results then hurray.
    For those of us that would still like to get better then awareness of what is happening and what our choices are is a good thing.

    Now... Just because someone studies a discipline does not mean they they are going to have awareness. Not everybody gets it so easily.
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