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Lesson 157: Counterpoint/ Polyphony

Melody, Homophony, Polyphony, Counterpoint and Countermelody

A piece of music can esentially be homophonic or polyphonic.

  • In ( melody dominated) homophony one voice, often the highest, plays a distinct melody and the accompanying voices work together to articulate an underlying harmony.
  • Polyphony consists of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody. Counterpoint most generally involves very different, independent and harmonious musical lines.
A countermelody is a sequence of notes, perceived as a melody, written to be played simultaneously with a more prominent lead melody, a secondary melody played in counterpoint with the primary melody. A countermelody performs a subordinate role and is typically heard in a texture consisting of a melody plus accompaniment/ chords/ harmony, in the following manner:
  • melody
  • countermelody
  • harmony
or a better way to think about it is:
  • top line
  • middle line
  • bass line
since the melody does not have to be in the top line.

Writing Counterpoint/ Polyphony

Jazz/ pop/ rock musicians tend to think homophonically and write music that is esentially melody with harmony. Most classical music, on the other hand, is contrapuntal/ polyphonic and writing counterpoint/ polyphonic music is very different from writing just a melody with harmony.

The standard procedure when writing counterpoint/ polyphonic music:

  • Usually the melody is written first
  • Then the bass line, which has to be melodic as well
  • When writing the bass line, it is important to have a rough idea of the harmonic progression
  • The bass line has to be melodic, but it should start on the root of the tonic chord and at important cadences, it must do what a bass line normally does at a cadence
  • It is important that the lines at least sometimes have different rhythms
  • There can be parallel, similar, contrary or oblique motion between the parts - contrary motion and oblique motion are the most important, but there is nothing wrong with parallel or similar motion, either
  • When there is a long note in the melody, there can be more motion in another line
  • Every line has to be melodic and easily singable
  • The lines have to work together towards a common goal or several common goals - key points where you need some kind of resolution
  • The lines will interact and form harmony, but the voice-leading will be the result of the independent lines rather than determined only by a preconceived chord progression

Polyphonic Writing in Literature

It is also common to use polyphonic writing when writing a novel. Polyphony is a writing technique by which several, often two, contrasting perspectives tell the story:

  • two different persons
  • or
  • a "then" and a "now" perspective

Examples

Listen to the following tunes:

  • Birdland by Weather Report
  • Cat Boulevard by Pekka Pohjola
  • Electric Counterpoint I, II & III by Steve Reich
  • End of Vienna by Carla Bley
  • Ezz-Thetic by George Russell
  • Interplay by Bill Evans
  • Self Portrait In Three Colors by Charles Mingus
  • Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin
  • Theme and Variations by Bill Holman
  • Visa från Utanmyra by Jan Johansson and Georg Riedel
  • Young Blood by Gerry Mulligan
or generally:
  • New Orleans jazz
  • Charles Mingus's music, for example the album Mingus Ah Um
  • Maria Schneider's music
  • Johann Sebastian Bach's music
  • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina's music
  • classical music

If you want to study counterpoint seriously, you may want to check out the book Gradus ad Parnassum - The Study of Counterpoint by Johann Joseph Fux. This book is very old ( it was originally published in 1725) - it has actually been studied extensively by both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven...

An Example: My Composition Blue Tango

You can see the entire lead sheet of Blue Tango here.

The A section and the coda of Blue Tango feature very elementary three part counterpoint.

  • It has all the types of motion between the parts: parallel, similar, contrary and oblique motion.
  • It is not great three part counterpoint in the traditional sense though, because the middle line is not melodic or easily singable.
My main idea when I wrote Blue Tango was that I wanted it to be mysterious and spooky. That was much more important than having great counterpoint in it... :-)

Another Example: My Composition Zwölf Uhr

You can see the entire lead sheet of Zwölf Uhr ( co-written with Stäni Steinbock) here.

In Zwölf Uhr, the bass line is the melody. The bass line is a 12- tone row. I have written a whole lesson on this composition, you can check it out here.

I wrote Zwölf Uhr in the following way:

  • I used my 12-tone row as the source material for a bass line: first in its prime form, then retrograded and finally inverted and transposed a minor third down so that the first note is an a. I kept the rhythm the same throughout.
  • Then I wrote the top-line using block chord/ chord melody style. Writing in this style is called concerted writing and a concerted passage is one in which the melody and the harmony lines all play the same rhythm. In basic concerted writing the arranger hangs chord tones below a melody line.

The main features that make this counterpoint are:

  • the top-line and the bass line have different rhythms
  • there are all types of motion between the parts: parallel, similar, contrary and oblique motion
  • the two lines work together towards common goals - key points where we have resolution

Another Example: My Composition Sidekick

You can see the entire lead sheet of Sidekick here. Here is how I wrote Sidekick:

  • First I came up with the middle line. The arpeggiated notes g - b - d - f - a - e with a C in the bass happen to outline a complete C Major scale.
  • Then I added the bass notes. By using different bass notes, I made it into an 8 bar pattern in a miniature abac form.
  • Then I added a melody to the second A section.
  • Then I decided that it was time for a B section and wrote the melody of the B section.
  • Then I added the bass line to the B section. The bass line outlines the chords Fmaj7 and C/E. Or wait, what is the melody of the B section - suddenly it feels like the bass line is the melody...
  • Then I wrote the simple syncopated f - c - c - c - c x2 e - c - c - c - c x2 middle line for the B section.
Sidekick is a very simple composition. It illustrates very well, however, how different lines in a contrapuntal/ polyphonic composition can be perceived as the melody:
  • In the first A section, the middle line is perceived as the melody.
  • In the second A section, the top line is perceived as the melody.
  • In the B section, the bass line is perceived as the melody.

Disclaimer: Polyphonic Music Is Not Better Than Homophonic Music

The most extreme homophonic writing is the block chord or chord melody style. Writing in this style is called concerted writing and a concerted passage is one in which the melody and the harmony lines all play the same rhythm. The passage is then called homorhythmic. In basic concerted writing the arranger hangs chord tones below a melody line. This technique is used for example in big band shout choruses, where the whole band plays a harmonized melody accompanied by the rhythm section.

Listen to the concerted sections/ shout choruses of the following tunes:

  • Birdland by Weather Report
  • Don't Get around Much Anymore aka Never No Lament by Duke Ellington
  • Gimme a Break by Tom Forsman
  • Havona by Weather Report
  • The Pink Panther by Henry Mancini
  • Shiny Stockings by Frank Foster
  • Splanky by Neal Hefti
  • This Is for Albert by Wayne Shorter

Examples of Concerted Writing in My Compositions

A composition of mine that features a concerted passage is Blue Tango. The B section of Blue Tango is written in this style - all the lines move homorhythmically with the melody. When I wrote this passage, I heard and wrote ( I actually just played it on the guitar) all the lines, the whole chords, at the same time. The chords are first fourths/ quartal harmony, then triads/ tertial harmony and finally fourths/ quartal harmony again.

Another composition of mine that features a concerted passage is Slow Life. The B section of Slow Life is written in this style - all the lines move homorhythmically with the melody. When I wrote this passage, I heard and wrote ( I actually just played it on the guitar) all the lines, the whole chords, at the same time. The chords are seventh chords in drop-2 voicing and one seventh chord in close voicing.

My composition Summer Pursuits also features concerted writing. In Summer Pursuits, the melody in the last C section ( the D section) is harmonized in triads.

My composition Zwölf Uhr also features concerted writing. In Zwölf Uhr, the melody is harmonized in triads and the bass line is contrapuntal. The melody sounds very lush and open and the triads together with the bass line still yield four part harmony.

© 2016 Tomas Karlsson. All rights reserved.