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General Music Theory and Tutorials => Basic Harmony and Counterpoint => Topic started by: perpetuo studens on July 06, 2013, 11:40:09 AM

Title: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: perpetuo studens on July 06, 2013, 11:40:09 AM
In my limited experience, traditional methods of teaching (and thus learning) counterpoint derive historically from a time when there was much less emphasis on awareness, analysis and categorization of vertical sonorities. Rather the focus is on the behavior of the collections of intervals between voices as individual melodic lines express themselves.

This is problematic for me, because the only instrument I ever "mastered" was the guitar, and we guitarists tend to think in terms of single lines or named chords (you put down either one finger at a time or multiples thereof :)), and this has been reinforced by my jazz training where one learns to spontaneously craft melodies over a pre-existing harmonic progression.

So when I read figured bass, for example, it is easiest for me to "translate" the figures into named vertical structures: ie. I think of V6 in D as an A triad in first inversion rather than a collection of intervals above the bass.

And yet counterpoint texts I've encountered want me to focus on the intervals between the voices and more or less ignore naming and categorization of the resulting vertical structures - hard!

So, a question for all, but especially the members of the group with more formal musical education: are there more modern counterpoint texts or other materials that will support the way I already think about vertical structures and help me learn to create independent contrapuntal lines while being more aware of the chordal implications, or do I simply need to bite the melodic bullet and learn to think in what is for me a new way?
Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: Michel.R.E on July 06, 2013, 12:09:02 PM
absolutely not.

counterpoint is a horizontal thought process.

if you want to learn how to do part writing based in harmony, then simply learn 4-part choral harmonizations.

counterpoint breaks from that.

even learning "contemporary" counterpoint requires this.

the entire point of doing counterpoint is to think linearly.

The rules of counterpoint are there to help keep that vertical element in check.
properly-written counterpoint won't have any uncomfortable harmonies.

remember you can't simply jump right into florid 4-part counterpoint. that's completely pointless.
without learning from the very beginning (ie: 2-voice, whole note against C.F.) you aren't actually LEARNING those rules.
first you learn how they apply in the "simplest" of contexts (whole contra whole).
Gradually, you break the counterpoint down: halves against whole, syncopated whole against whole, then quarters against whole, then florid... all in 2-parts.

Then you start from scratch in 3-part counterpoint. And I mean you quite literally start from zero. It's like learning an entirely new discipline. You do the same thing in 3-parts, all the species.

And then, 4-parts, again - from scratch.

When writing counterpoint, you WILL have a sense of harmony, but you cannot base your counterpoint on a harmonic plan. The harmony in your counterpoint must come from the interactions of the voices.
Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: perpetuo studens on July 06, 2013, 05:11:00 PM
Michel: Thanks for your excellent response. This question has been on my mind for some years now and I always thought that the fundamental answer was that I needed to embrace an approach that differed sgnificantly from my previous background, but couldn't quite wrap my head around why. Your explanation frames the problem space perfectly:  "counterpoint is a horizontal thought process".

I'm an "everything flows naturally from a set of basic concepts" kind of person and frankly don't see he point in simply memorizing information in the absence of the guiding principles that describe the system that produces the information (thus the lengthy quote in my sig...well that plus my tendency towards verbosity  ;D ).

Of course in retrospect the answer seems obvious and I feel a little foolish, but this experience emphasizes another statement you made in the thread on education: "...the craft, the technique, the "science" behind it, the mechanics - require, in my opinion, a solidly grounded academic platform from which to learn." As a former teacher and one with a background in both the arts and the sciences I know this to be true in all fields of study.

Unfortunately I am limited to self-instruction at this point (and possibly forever...while I'm working I simply do not have the time or energy to pursue more formal musical studies in an academic setting and subsequent to my retirement I probably won't have he money) and I know that this means that my compositions will suffer from a lack of professional guidance, but the inability to achieve perfection has never hindered me in any artistic or intellectual pursuits in the past, and my obsession with composition will not allow it to do so now!

So on to more practical matters...I have read through Robert Gauldin's "A Practical Approach To Eighteenth Century Counterpoint (the text from a course in Baroque counterpoint that I took as an option during my BEd years), and learned a great deal from this even though I have yet to spend much time on the exercises (the focus of he course was analysis more than composition), and I know I need to follow the path you outlined, beginning with two part counterpoint based on a cantus firmus.

Are you familiar with this text? Are there others you would recommend instead?

Thanks again for your words of wisdom. I know I should probably find them discouraging and daunting, but instead I am inspired and excited. This is a great forum. I love this place!

Jamie

P.S. Lest you be tempted to think that my effusive thanks are nothing more than offensive toadying, let me assure you that I truly am that grateful for your input and guidance.
Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: tbmartin on July 07, 2013, 08:23:59 AM
I, too, and very much in the same place as Jamie, both regarding time and money for formal training, and regarding the desire to understand the "why" behind the "how." Based on Ron's recommendation, I just bought Piston's books on harmony and counterpoint. Those books plus Michel's frame of reference I think will get me off to a good start. Many thanks.
Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: Michel.R.E on July 07, 2013, 08:56:33 AM
please feel free to post examples/exercises you're working on and with which you require any feedback or help.
Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: tbmartin on July 07, 2013, 12:26:50 PM
Will do!
Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: Jamie Kowalski on July 08, 2013, 07:16:40 AM
Blame the guitar.

No, seriously that's what skews your perspective (I am also a guitarist). The guitar is ill-suited for counterpoint -- it's just the nature of the instrument. A well-written piece of two-part counterpoint is typically very challenging to play on guitar. Bring it up to just three-part, and it's unplayable.

For that reason, guitar tradition has mostly skipped the idea all together. It's simply not idiomatic. That doesn't take anything away from the beauty of the instrument, it's just the way it worked out. A violin fails at counterpoint even harder.

Other Jamie
Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: Ron on July 08, 2013, 10:55:13 AM
All theory aside, the ear should be the final arbitrator. When listening to four-part counterpoint, the ear does not perk up and say, "Oh, there's a C minor 7th followed by a Bb dim chord." Instead, it says, "Oh, that voice is going there, while that other one is going elsewhere."

As for the violin and counterpoint, some of JSB's violin inventions are wonderful examples of counterpoint that can be done in a "one-voice" instrument.
Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: Jamie Kowalski on July 08, 2013, 11:26:45 AM
As for the violin and counterpoint, some of JSB's violin inventions are wonderful examples of counterpoint that can be done in a "one-voice" instrument.

Well yes, but he's Bach.
Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: perpetuo studens on July 08, 2013, 10:34:54 PM
Blame the guitar.

Too true! When I was studying jazz in college we used to use a right hand finger to hammer roots of extended chords on an unused string so that we could hear them in context (the drop-2 fingering for a B half diminished is the same as a G9 with no root, for example, making it easy to get lost in a progression with largely altered and extended harmony). And then when I was doing first year chorale exercises in university I would try to write them on the guitar and use the same technique to play the bass lines. I finally gave up and sang the lowest part while playing the rest.  :)

When listening to four-part counterpoint, the ear does not perk up and say, "Oh, there's a C minor 7th followed by a Bb dim chord."

Actually mine does, which is the problem that started this thread  :) , but I get your point.

All theory aside, the ear should be the final arbitrator.

Yes, yes and yes! And I find that an interesting recursive sort of thing happens where following the "rules" trains the ear, and then the ear informs the reasoning part of the brain about why the "rules" are important from a purely musical point of view. And around and around...

I'm away on vacation and have been spending some time hanging out on my in-laws' patio making first species exercises out of the CFs that Winknotes (I think) posted on another thread using Symphony Pro on my iPad, and since I'm supposed to be relaxing and having fun, I 'm taking a somewhat relaxed approach at this point and favouring musicality and contour of the line over some of the fiddlier "rules" like where the climax should occur in the counterpoint line.

For instance, for some as yet unknown reason I've been having problems getting a nice melodic line and having the highest note occur on a strong beat about halfway through the exercise. But that's probably a topic for another thread...
Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: sandalwood on July 09, 2013, 08:16:09 AM
how'bout presenting 3-5 bar (or whatever) snippets from own works (score&audio) and demonstrating what sort of strict or free counterpoint is at work there :)
Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: Michel.R.E on July 09, 2013, 08:48:15 AM
when I write a contrapuntal passage, I tend to think in terms of "tonal zones".

I might start in a diatonic, white note "zone", and move toward a zone that has more accidentals, either sharp, or flat.

But as the line advances I will control the inclusion of accidentals, and just how far this is leading away from my original tonal zone and how well it is leading toward my destination zone.

Chromatic tendency tones help in setting a direction.
But if you start off with something extremely chromatic, the direction is difficult to establish, because heavily chromatic music is itself rather unstable.

Successful counterpoint tends to have relatively slow harmonic movement. Chord changes on every beat are unusual, and more often than not, counterproductive.

Use the natural tendency of chromatic  non-chord tones (notes outside of your immediate harmonic zone) as a means of emphasizing the tones that ARE part of your harmonic zone.  For example, let's say you're in a perfectly diatonic, white note (C major-ish) zone for a passage. Including an F# is a chromatic tendency tone that pulls toward the G. A Bb would pull down to A natural. etc...

including too many chromatic tones would create confusion as to which harmonic zone you are actually in.

Now, in standard, classic counterpoint, parallel 5ths are verboten. However, in my own music, they are part of the language. But parallel octaves, a major error in standard counterpoint, are ALSO an error in my own musical language.

The proscription against parallel 5ths only stands for standard tonal counterpoint and harmony. However, that against parallel 8ves remains in effect REGARDLESS of which harmonic language you are using. It even applies to serial/12-tone music.

Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: altasilvapuer on July 09, 2013, 03:59:36 PM
Now, in standard, classic counterpoint, parallel 5ths are verboten. However, in my own music, they are part of the language. But parallel octaves, a major error in standard counterpoint, are ALSO an error in my own musical language.

The proscription against parallel 5ths only stands for standard tonal counterpoint and harmony. However, that against parallel 8ves remains in effect REGARDLESS of which harmonic language you are using. It even applies to serial/12-tone music.

This caught my eye as being exactly opposite what I would have expected you to say, which I find immensely intriguing.  Do you include octave doublings in this, or do you strictly mean in two distinct parts (say a melody and a simple counter-melody as a simple example) you avoid parallel octaves?

-Matthew
Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: Michel.R.E on July 09, 2013, 04:19:54 PM
a doubling does not count as parallel motion.
it is a single voice.

In counterpoint, and in effect even when talking about harmony in general, reference to parallel octaves refers to the most stripped down version of the material. In other words, taking any doublings out of the equation.

for example, the opening movement of my 1st symphony has a lot of extended counterpoint, for full orchestra. however, the overall texture is really 2 and 3 part counterpoint. so when examining for // 8ves you have to take all of the octave (and more) doubling completely out of the picture.
Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: Michel.R.E on January 02, 2014, 09:04:27 AM
Here is a Bach fugue for lute.

Recording (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uApiRD7GB8)

and I'm attaching the score, turn to page 22 for the fugue.

[old attachments deleted by admin]
Title: Re: Counterpoint: Melody, Harmony and Mental Models
Post by: perpetuo studens on January 03, 2014, 03:40:58 PM
A wonderful piece. Quelle surprise. :)

I couldn't quite see how many courses the lute had, and was curious about tuning (from my guitar experience I know that tuning could make the piece lay nicely on the instrument or unplayable), so I googled a bit and the number of courses and tuning for the lute appear to have varied widely over the years.

Does anyone know how the lute was constructed and tuned in Bach's time? He must have known how a player's instrument would be tuned so that he could ensure that what he wrote would be playable (I've been handed many a chart, mostly written by piano players, that contained chords that would require extra fingers :)).

Jamie