The art of counterpoint developed gradually from the 9th cent. onwards and reached its highest point at the end of the 16th cent. and beginning of the 17th cent. When, at a later date, attempts were made to formulate rules for students of the art they were based on the practice of that period of culmination. The chief theorist responsible for the formulation of those rules was Fux whose Gradus ad Parnassum of 1725 is a book which still shows its influence in modern textbooks of strict counterpoint (or student's counterpoint), a form of training intended to be preparatory to the practice of free counterpoint (or composer's counterpoint).
In strict counterpoint the processes are studied under 5 heads, the result of an analysis which dissects the practice of the art into 5 species. Following the practice of early composers a cantus firmus (fixed song) is employed, i.e. a short melody, set by the master, against which another melody is to be written by the student— or, it may be, several such melodies. It is usually set out with one note to a measure (bar).
The species are as follows: I. The added v. proceeds at the same pace as the cantus firmus, i.e. with one note to a measure. II. The added v. proceeds at twice (or 3 times) the pace of the cantus firmus, i.e. with 2 or 3 notes to a measure. III. The added v. proceeds at 4 (or 6) times the pace of the cantus firmus, i.e. with 4 notes to a measure. IV. The added v. proceeds (as in Species II) at the rate of 2 notes to 1, i.e. 2 to a measure; but the second note is tied over to the first note of the following measure, i.e. syncopation is introduced. V. (Sometimes called florid counterpoint.) The added v. employs a mixture of the processes of the other 4 species and also introduces shorter notes (quavers).
The use of strict counterpoint as a method of study has tended to decline, its ‘rules’ being felt to be too rigid.
Combined counterpoint (strict or free) is that in which the added vv. are different species. Invertible counterpoint is such as permits of vv. changing places (the higher becoming the lower, and vice versa). Double counterpoint is invertible counterpoint as concerns 2 vv. Triple counterpoint is that in which 3 vv. are concerned, which are capable of changing places with one another, so making 6 positions of the v. parts possible. Quadruple and quintuple counterpoint are similarly explained, the first allowing of 24 positions and the second of 120.
Imitation is common in contrapuntal comp.—one v. entering with a phrase which is then more or less exactly copied by another v. When the imitation is strict it becomes canon.
In the 20th cent. there have been no new contrapuntal procedures but composers have made much freer and more daring use of traditional forms. In particular they have concentrated on what is known as linear counterpoint, i.e. on the individual strands of the texture and on thematic and rhythmic relationships rather than on harmonic implications. Linear harmony is the opposite of vertical harmony, i.e. confluences. With the blurring or virtual elimination of the boundaries between consonance and dissonance a much wider range of confluences is open to the composer.
counterpoint, in music, the art of combining melodies each of which is independent though forming part of a homogeneous texture. The term derives from the Latin for
"point against point,"
meaning note against note in referring to the notation of plainsong. The academic study of counterpoint was long based on Gradus ad Parnassum (1725, tr. 1943) by Johann Joseph Fux (1660–1741), an Austrian theorist and composer. This work formulates the study of counterpoint into five species—note against note, two notes against one, four notes against one, syncopation, and florid counterpoint, which combines the other species. Countless textbooks have followed this method, but since the early 20th cent. several theorists have based their courses in counterpoint on a direct study of 16th-century contrapuntal practice. The early master composers of contrapuntal music include Palestrina, Lasso, and Byrd. Polyphonic forms were later given a most brilliant and sophisticated expression during the baroque era in the works of J. S. Bach. See also polyphony; imitation.
See W. Piston, Counterpoint (1947); H. Searle, Twentieth Century Counterpoint (1954).
coun·ter·point / ˈkountərˌpoint/ • n. 1. Mus. the art or technique of setting, writing, or playing a melody or melodies in conjunction with another, according to fixed rules. ∎ a melody played in conjunction with another. 2. an argument, idea, or theme used to create a contrast with the main element. • v. [tr.] 1. Mus. add counterpoint to (a melody): the orchestra counterpoints the vocal part. 2. (often be counterpointed) emphasize by contrast: the cream walls and maple floors are counterpointed by black accents. ∎ compensate for.