Harmony and Counterpoint: a complicated relationship?
Let’s face it: there are lots of people that get confused when it comes to understand the difference between harmony and counterpoint, and the deep foundations of their relationship within the borders of Western music theory.
When did counterpoint and harmony come into existence? What did these terms actually mean? Is there a relationship between the two? How do they differ one from the other? Do they share some similarities?
These are only some of the questions I get asked frequently during my Composition and Music Theory classes and I can assure you that the vast majority of these questions coincide with those written, here and there, on the Internet by music students and enthusiasts.
In this simple guide you’re going to discover the technical and semantic differences between harmony and counterpoint as well as their similarities.
In addition, I’ve included a number of examples that will help you better understand the practical application of harmonic and contrapuntal writings.
Are you ready?
Let’s dive into it!
Origin and literal meaning of the words harmony and counterpoint
I think it is important to start out this guide by reflecting on the origin of the words harmony and counterpoint.
The term “harmony” is by far more ancient than the word “counterpoint”.
In fact, it was already used by the Greek music theorists and philosophers to indicate an ordered sequence of tones within an octave.
As you probably already know, the Greek musical system consisted of seven scales, called harmonies, which means that the first musical application of the word harmony arose from the need to denote a precise group of notes that proceed in a linear manner.
But let’s move now to examine the origins of the word counterpoint.
The expression “counterpoint” was unknown to the Greek musical culture and dates back to the Middle Ages.
It originates from the Latin “punctus contra punctum”, literally “point against point“.
Given that the word “punctus” was employed by the medieval music theorists to indicate a note, we can easily translate the expression “punctus contra punctus” as “note against note”.
Another noteworthy difference in meaning between harmony and counterpoint lies in the fact that the word harmony is more generic and possesses a wider potential of aesthetic and ethic implications than the term counterpoint, which is more technical in nature.
Think of the following phrases:
these two voices are singing in harmony
music helps people live in harmony
In the first sentence, harmony is used in an aesthetic sense to indicate a combination of voices that has the power to create a state of undefinable pleasantness in the listener; the other sentence is equally intriguing, because it highlights the ethical side of the word harmony, that becomes a synonym of peaceful cooperation and mutual agreement among a group of individuals, not necessarily singers or musicians.
Ok, but how are the words harmony and counterpoint actually used in contemporary Western music theory?
What kind of musical phenomena and composing techniques do they refer to?
Let’s find out!
Difference between harmony and counterpoint
In today’s music theory, the words harmony and counterpoint refer to two different ways of setting a piece of music.
When you study the subject of harmony, you’ll be dealing with the process of creating a sequence of chords to combine with a predetermined melodic line; the discipline called counterpoint, for its part, concentrates on the study of the combination of several melodies, all of equal importance.
As a result, we can say that one of the differences between harmony and counterpoint is that harmony focuses our attention on the vertical dimension of a composition, whereas counterpoint is primarily concerned with the horizontal dimension of a piece of music.
However, bear in mind that the theory of functional harmony has also linear implications, because when you select one chord then the choice of the next one is not completely free and can take place only among a limited number of chords that “go well” with the previous one.
Another way in which harmony differs from counterpoint is that, as I mentioned earlier, the word harmony is more generic and can have a broader application, whereas the term counterpoint has a narrower area of application, because it refers to a specific set of composition techniques.
That means that in a contrapuntal piece you have harmony -in the broader sense of the word- every time you hear the combination of two or more melodic lines; but the opposite is not true, in the sense that you can compose a work following the rules of functional harmony without including any kind of counterpoint.
In fact, let me repeat that because I want you to get it, if counterpoint can be conceived as the organized movement of equally important parts, or melodic lines, harmony is to be understood, primarily, as a progression of chords designed to accompany the main melody.
Ok fine, but can you differentiate harmony from counterpoint by ear?
Well, one way to insure that a given piece is contrapuntal is by looking for imitative sections, that is, parts of the composition where one melody, or motif, is presented by one voice and then repeated by the other ones.
Obviously, the voice that has completed the exposition of the main melody does not remain silent but gets involved in the execution of other melodic material, known as counter-melody. This technique can be found in the fugue, a genre of polyphonic music mastered by the sublime Bach.
Another significant difference between harmony and counterpoint is that contrapuntal writing encourages the combination of melodies that follow different directions and present various rhythms, whereas a harmonic mindset tends to adapt the rhythms and directions of the secondary voices to the rhythmic shape of the main melody.
Harmony and counterpoint have also similarities, not only differences.
The first similarity lies in the fact that both have to employ, at least, two parts performing at the same time.
As a result, we can also say that harmony is similar to counterpoint in the sense that both have to deal with the overlapping of musical notes and the aesthetic quality of their multiple combinations.
Another similarity, worthy of being mentioned, regards the geographical and socio cultural origin of these concepts.
In fact, counterpoint and harmony were born within the aesthetics and values of the Western world.
Ultimately, we also need to consider that harmony and counterpoint have another important element of similarity: both follow a precise system of rules and conventions.
They are not the result of random overlaps but derive from the conscious balancing of these two factors: forces of tension and movements of resolution.
This does not mean that casual combinations of sounds do not have the power of creating a sense of harmony – or dis-harmony- when they are heared by a human ear.
We must always bear in mind, though, that these concepts are not universal and their recognition, use and appreciation do depend on the aesthetics and music system followed by a given society or group of individuals.
Some examples of counterpoint
Now it’s time to listen to some concrete examples of counterpoint in order to better understand how various melodic lines can be combined one another by following specific set of rules.
Before jumping into this topic, let me tell you that Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque composers, especially those who composed sacred music, relied massively on counterpoint, which was considered for centuries as the only legitimate logic to follow when you had to craft a high-quality piece of music.
Palestrina’s polyphonic works can be considered as the quintessence of contrapuntal writing and his principles have inspired the creation of a teaching method called Species Counterpoint, consisting of five possible approaches to the construction of a contrapuntal structure above a preexisting melody, usually known as cantus firmus.
Medieval and Renaissance counterpoint was completely based on the combination of melodies, whereas Baroque counterpoint integrates the principle of overlapping autonomous parts with the criteria of harmony.
As a result, Baroque composers started to conceive a piece of music also in terms of chords, even though they continued to use independent melodic lines as the main focus of their composing method.
According to music historians, the first examples of contrapuntal writing can be found in the Christian polyphonic vocal music, to be more precise, in a genre of sacred chant called parallel organum.
The type of contrapuntal writing used in the parallel organum is very simple and works like this:
each note of the main melody (vox principalis) is coupled with another note, placed a fourth or a fifth below the preexisting note.
Here’s where the expression “counterpoint”, that is, “note against note” comes from!
By applying this mathematical principle, the Christian monks were able to derive a new melodic line (called vox organalis) from the vox principalis.
In this video you can hear a male choir performing “Confirma hoc Deus”, an Offertory for Pentecost sung in proportional rhythm and arranged in polyphonic style, with parallel organum at the fourth below:
Another genre of vocal music completely grounded in the art of counterpoint is definitely the madrigal, a type of profane chant involving the simultaneous presence of four or five melodic parts.
As you listen to this beautiful and highly inspired madrigal by Gesualdo da Venosa, called “Se la mia morte brami“, pay attention to how all the five melodic lines have the same importance within the score, in the sense that each of them has been written to maintain its autonomy and yet, it always obeys to that principle of interdependency that characterizes a good contrapuntal structure.
Notice also how Gesualdo creates a sense of continuous change and intense dialogue by distributing the same rhythmic patterns over the five different vocal registers:
What I consider to be the most famous example of contrapuntal writing is the Fugue, a particular genre of instrumental music that had its greatest fortune in the seventeenth century, thanks to the genious of Bach.
The piece I chose for you is the Fugue No. 1 in C major, contained in the Book n°1 of a collection called the Well-Tempered Clavier.
Here the main melody (subject) appears in all the four voices but at different times, creating a sort of ever-changing dance, where each of the four parts gets its chance to shine and act as the main protagonist:
All the harmonic combinations you hear are not accidental but the result of the well-designed overlap of the four melodic parts, written in accordance with the main rules of counterpoint.
There is no background as there is no foreground: every note is part of a linear melodic movement that constantly interacts with the other linear movements, without losing its musical independence and giving life to an almost magical network of interdependent lines.
Some examples of harmony
The best way to highlight the difference between counterpoint and harmony is by comparing the previous examples with the ones included in this section of the article.
However, don’t make the mistake to think that Classical composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven refused the contrapuntal system and restrained from using it in their works: they just integrated it within the broader concept of harmony and adopted the contrapuntal techniques to characterize specific sections of their pieces.
The first piece of music I would like to share with you is “Nocturne n°9” by Chopin, a composition for piano solo dating back to 1834 and written in full compliance with the rules of harmony.
As you listen to this nocturne, focus on the notes included in the lower score and notice how they’ve been combined by the author to accompany the main melody through a series of chords and arpeggios:
Among the undisputed masters of functional harmony we find Robert Schuman.
This piano piece, titled “Traumarei“, is built following the same harmonic approach as Chopin:
As you can easily see, there is only one melodic line, assigned to the right hand and composed using the higher notes; the other notes you hear, placed in the lower and medium registers, have the important harmonic function of creating the background atmosphere, resulting from a progression of chords designed to bring out, and enhance, the beauty and musical meaning of the melodic material.
Most of modern pop-rock music is based on harmony.
In the vast majority of the songs you usually hear on the radio, you have one melodic line, acting as the sole protagonist, supported by a progression of chords which aim to provide a context, a background, a harmonic framework, to the main part which is generally assigned to a singer or a solo instrument.
“She’s electric” by Oasis is a perfect example of pop song with one melodic line, intoned by the singer. All the other musical parts are nothing but chords that follow the main melody and create the background harmony:
However, this song by The Cure, titled “To wish impossible things” is the proof that certain artists continue to feel the fascination of contrapuntal writing.
In fact, here you can notice the simultaneous combination of four different melodic lines, performed by the 2 guitars, the bass guitar and the singer respectively. Each of these melodic parts is essential for the harmonic functioning of the piece and maintains its own autonomy in terms of rhythm and melody: