Applied Counterpoint - Introduction

Counterpoint as a method to learning melody and harmony, in stages with progressive difficulty.

It’s astonishing that many people consider creativity as something unnurtured, divine, something out of this world.

Instead of seeking knowledge and acquiring skills as the building blocks of one’s musical ability, there are people who wish to believe in uncontrolled inspiration from unrelated stimuli. Perhaps to prove that they are one of the musical geniuses, who receives direct injection of insight from unknown spiritual forces, like those child prodigies constantly being aggrandized by the media since Mozart’s time.

Make sense, how else can you make a living within any artistic discipline unless you are a child prodigy?

Though we often forget, or perhaps neglecting by choice, the traumatizing trainings Mozart had to go through in his childhood, which might be the most straightforward path to supremacy.

The least exciting one unfortunately.

I’m not a genius, nor do I have the budget to maintain the persona of a prodigy, I can’t afford to amuse myself with artificially manipulated information. So I place my bet on the ordinary path of systematic training.

I don’t mean scales and arpeggios. Those are important for gaining playing techniques as instrumentalists, and they certainly help with creating beautiful sounding melodic fragments, but in order to have absolute command over the composition as a whole, we need something else. What we really need is the ability to envision and to design how music happens, so it can take the audience on a roller-coaster ride, capturing their full attention with rises and falls, maintaining interest through out the whole duration of the composition.

Of course, that’s a hefty ambition. Let’s start somewhere modest and concrete.

How about the basis of all polyphonic music? Counterpoint.

What is Counterpoint

In essence, counterpoint is thinking music in lines rather than blocks.

It’s about writing multiple melodies that function as a whole when layered on top of each other, by governing the relationship between each note vertically and horizontally, to create musical motion. For each set of notes, we measure the degree of tension between each pair, estimate the tolerance of dissonance at the time of occurrence, then making an artistic choice of where each note should move to, and thus creating a new set to evaluate.

Oops, did I just describe the art of voice leading in the jazz world?

Yes, in the modern sense, voice leading does fall under the categories of counterpoint.

We are way past the age of learning counterpoint only as a mean to write contrapuntal chorales of the Baroque era. It’s a great pedagogical method to learning melody and musical harmony. After all, counterpoint IS the predecessor of harmony, historically.

The mindset behind counterpoint is to give meanings to notes. Notes are no longer isolated and static like the blurred background sets in a film, but intertwined and dynamic with each mind of their own as the characters of music, some leading, some supportive. By doing this, we create a sense of direction where each note of a chord moves to a note from the next. And with direction comes origin, destination, and thus purpose, then with purpose comes expectation, and expectation, well, it’s what composition is all about.

What Is the Pre-Requisite for Learning Counterpoint

You need to have the rudiments of music theory learnt and well-memorized, including pitch names, accidentals, intervals, the major scale formula, and note values (length). Each concept takes less than a day to learn, with a good teacher and a good material.

However learning them only as a concept is not sufficient, we need the reaction speed gained from familiarity. Thus we have to spend as much time practicing as possible, to drill it into our brain as second nature like addition and subtraction in math.

Think about it, we will be doing A LOT of exercises to learn counterpoint. Each exercise has a length of 10 or more notes, and may requires multiple iterations to complete successfully, to put it lightly. If we spend a minute counting semitones for each note, it will take 10 minutes just to do one pass, and likely hours just to finish one exercise, and that speed is not going to get us anywhere.

To gain efficiency in learning counterpoint and its derivatives, we have to reduce the reaction time of rudiments down to less than three seconds, and if possible, one second. It’s not difficult, and it doesn’t take years of training to do so. I have seen educated adults with no prior musical trainings achieve said level within a month.

Read more about it here: How to Practice Music Theory Rudiments

I Am Prepared, How Do I Start Learning Counterpoint

We will be using a variation of species counterpoint. Species counterpoint is just a fancy name for learning counterpoint with progressive difficulty. Like a game campaign, starting with strict restrictions, unlocking new contents with each passing level, until we get to the final one with all skills learnt, and all units available for deployment.

So let’s prepare our battle field. Grab a pen and pieces of staff paper - Gasp WHAT IS THAT? Sign or a notation software… You know I used to use notation software when learning counterpoint initially, but because it does everything for you, accidentals, interval checking, ease of editing, you are not doing the work yourself, which means you are not progressing as much as you should be. I aced my exams, but had to relearn everything after graduation.

So grab a pen and some staff paper.

A keyboard instrument as well if possible, to provide immediate feedback, both aurally and visually, which is one of the required conditions for deliberate practice.

Actually, I would suggesting doing all exercises on piano/keyboard, writing everything down only after you finish each exercise to record and verify. By playing everything on piano, it forces ourselves to think through much of the exercise before committing to it, to gain the ability to plan, to plot, to structure our musical ideas.

Try to adopt mental imaging as much as possible. Mental imaging is the technique of simulating the execution before you carry it out. By doing so and correcting your expectation with the actual result, you can improve the accuracy of your prediction, which gives you a fine-tuned perception of visual and aural connection in musical context.

If that already sounds intimidating, don’t worry, we only need to play one note per hand, and we are not even required to use two hands at the beginning.

We start with one note.

So when you are ready, let’s begin.