What Is Counterpoint in Music: A Complete Guide

If you’ve ever listened to classical music or taken a music class, chances are you have come across the term counterpoint. It is a centuries-old style of composition that still has a large influence on music today. All of the great classical composers – Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven – studied counterpoint in depth and wrote it into their music. 

So, exactly what is counterpoint in music? Let’s find out!

What is Counterpoint?

Counterpoint is the relationship between two or more melody lines that are played at the same time.

These melodies are dependent on each other to create good-sounding harmonies, but also are independent in rhythm and contour.

These melody lines are called voices, and a piece of music can have counterpoint between two, three, four, or more voices.

Examples of counterpoint music

An example of counterpoint in two voices is Bach’s “Invention 8 in F Major”, one of his most famous piano pieces.

Bach’s “Invention 8 in F Major”

Bach also wrote pieces that have counterpoint in three voices, like his “Three Part Invention 1 in C Major”: 

“Three Part Invention 1 in C Major”

Or in four voices, like his ‘Great’ Fugue in G Minor: 

Bach – ‘Great’ Fugue in G Minor

In each of these examples the most important thing to note is that each voice has to be its own melody first and foremost.

In four-part counterpoint you can’t have three melodies and then one extra harmonic line, or it would be considered an extended three-part counterpoint. 

The main melody you hear first is called the cantus firmus, or fixed voice.

This voice forms the basis of the contrapuntal composition, meaning a composition made with counterpoint.

The cantus firmus is then often repeated throughout the piece, sometimes in different voices or with a slightly different rhythm or melody, and the other voices are formed in relation to that first, fixed melody.

Musical Rules of Counterpoint 

There are a lot of rules to follow in order to create contrapuntal music.

For example, in the previous section we mentioned that melody comes first when writing a piece of counterpoint, and that each individual voice has to work independently as a melody and not just as a harmony to a different voice. 

Multiple other rules in counterpoint deal with the intervals between simultaneous notes in different melodies. If you don’t know intervals or want a refresher, check out our post about them here.

Basically an interval is the difference in pitch between two notes, and we measure them in how many letters apart they are.

For example an interval of a C – F is four letter notes apart in the scale, C-D-E-F, so it would be called a 4th.


In counterpoint, the intervals you most want between notes in different melody lines are 3rds and 6ths.

These are nice sounding intervals, and you can have many of these intervals in a row.

The second most popular intervals, especially at the beginning and end of a piece, are 5ths and octaves.

These are more stable intervals, so they also sound nice, but they’re a bit boring so using them too much is usually frowned upon.

The intervals used the least in counterpoint are 4ths, 2nds, and 7ths.

These intervals are usually used to create crunchy or bad sounding harmonies that can then lead, or resolve, into better sounding harmonies like 3rds or 6ths.

Motion

Motion is the term used to describe how a melody changes notes.

In counterpoint there can be parallel, similar, contrary, or oblique motion between two melodic lines.

There are a few counterpoint rules that relate to motion, and especially to parallel motion.

There should not be multiple 5ths played in a row, what is called parallel 5ths, or consecutive 5ths.

That means if you have an interval of a 5th (C to G, for example) between the two melodies, then the next notes can’t also make an interval of a 5th. 

The same rule applies to both octaves and 4ths.

There can’t be two octaves or 4ths in a row. A jump from a 5th to an octave or a 5th to a 4th is okay, because they’re not the same.

Basically, if you have an octave, 5th, or 4th, you can’t use parallel motion from those intervals. Parallel 3rds and 6ths are very often seen, however, and even encouraged.

Species Counterpoint

Species Counterpoint is a specific tool used to help teach music students composition techniques.

It is different from regular counterpoint because it has a lot more rules and structure.

It is only used as a learning tool, and you would not see it used in major compositional works. But, once you learn the strict species counterpoint, you can then use those techniques and style in the more “free” manner found in most contrapuntal music.

There are five species of counterpoint:

  • First species
  • Second species
  • Third species
  • Fourth species
  • Fifth species

First species counterpoint being the simplest and fifth species counterpoint the most complicated.

Each species has a cantus firmus that is very simple – it is usually a single semibreve (whole note) per bar and played in a simple key, like C Major or A Minor.

Below are the main techniques of each species:

  1. First Species – one note against one note (meaning for one note of the cantus firmus, you have only one note in the counterpoint melody)
  2. Second Species – two notes against one note (for one note of the cantus firmus, you have two notes in the counterpoint melody)
  3. Third Species – four notes against one note
  4. Fourth Species – Counterpoint notes are “offset” against the cantus firmus notes, using ties and suspension over the bar lines
  5. Fifth Species – a combination of the first four species

There are rules that apply to each specific species, and some that apply to all.

For example, the final note of all melody lines (the cantus firmus and the counterpoint melody) must be approached by a step (either a major or minor second interval).

Also, if there is a skip (any interval greater than a step) in one direction – either ascending or descending – it should be followed by a step in the other direction.

Another rule is that there must be a high point in the counterpoint melody (the one that’s not the cantus firmus), approximately in the middle of the melody. 

These rules listed above are just to give you an idea of how some of you might be taught in a music class about counterpoint.

That’s it for Counterpoint

So that’s a quick picture of how Counterpoint in music works and we hope it helps give you an overview to help when looking at music.

Counterpoint is a fun and interesting way to learn how to write melodies, and especially how to write more than one melody at a time.

It’s a bit tricky at first, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be on your way to writing music like Bach and Mozart.

Samuel Chase

Samuel Chase

Samuel Chase has been playing music since he was 5 years old, and teaching music since he was 13. He has a PhD in Music from the University of Surrey, and he has composed music that has been played in three different countries. He is currently working as a film composer and writing a book on film music.

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