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What Is Counterpoint in Music: A Complete Guide

If you are just starting on your musical journey, you will be daunted by all the theory there is to grasp and implement. Some of it is easier to understand than others. Counterpoint is just one part of your theoretical discoveries and for good songwriting, but a vital one.

So let’s take a look at what musical counterpoint means as we go through my in-depth “What Is Counterpoint in Music: A Complete Guide.”


In The Beginning

When you write your first songs as a budding composer, you are just concerned about the melody. Quite right, it is a fundamental part of the song or piece of music. But, as you get more experienced and listen to other music, you will hear other things going on.

The first thing you will notice is that most songs have a separate harmony line. This is sung or played to compliment the melody. It isn’t there all the time. Perhaps just on the chorus. With other music, it might occur all the way through or in a variety of places to lift the music and add emotion.

More Than Melody and Harmony

Counterpoint is much more than just melody and harmony. Even when you combine those two music essentials. If you want to know how to write good music, then it is very likely counterpoint will play a part.

All the greatest composers used it to full effect. Bach and Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all wrote it into the greatest works. But it isn’t just a theme for classical music. It has its influences today.

For example, Paul Simon’s take on the old English Folk tune “Scarborough Fair.” Or The Beatles and “I’ve Got a Feeling” as well as “Babylon” by Don McLean. It wasn’t just a Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart thing. So, just what is Counterpoint in music? Let’s take a closer look.


Briefly stated, it is the relationship that exists between two lines of melody in a song or piece of music. And it doesn’t have to be just two melody lines. You can have more than two melodies all playing at the same time.

Whilst they are independent of each other in rhythm and design, they rely on each other. That is, they work side-by-side to create nice sounds and harmonies. Each melody line is known as a “voice.” And as we’ve already said, there can be two or more voices operating in counterpoint.

The Terminology Used in Counterpoint

The Terminology Used in Counterpoint

It might be useful to describe the names used for the parts of counterpoint in music.

  • Voice – we have already mentioned and is the name given to one single melody line.
  • Cantus Firmus – The first voice or main melody line. It is the first voice and basis of the composition and on which other lines are based.
  • Step – The distance or difference between two notes that are consecutive on a scale.
  • Skip – A pitch difference that is larger than a Step.

To clarify the difference between a Step and a Skip. On a scale, a step would be C to D, being consecutive notes. A Skip would be C to E, more than one step or note.

How Is It Constructed?

The principal melody of the piece, or Cantus Firmus if you prefer the Latin, is what you will hear first. This first voice is repeated at regular intervals throughout the song or piece of music.

It is important to note that even if the first voice is repeated, it can have changes in how it is played or sung. This is by either a very slight change in melody line or rhythm. It is nevertheless recognizable as the first voice. 

Each Voice Must Have Its Own Melody

All other voices that make up the counterpoint are made concerning and complementing that first voice. It is very important to remember that each voice must have its own melody.

If you have a four-part counterpoint, then you cannot have three voices, with the fourth being a harmony of one of the three. That would be called an extended three-part counterpoint.

A composition that is built based on counterpoint is known as a “Contrapuntal” composition. A composition using counterpoint.

It Can Get Very Complex

While the first voice or Cantus Firmus is usually a very basic and simple melody, it is only a basis. It needs to be simple and rudimentary. This will allow you the space and opportunity to create other voices or melodies.

Clearly, with every level of counterpoint written, it will become harder to find an alternative voice that is pleasing to the ear. By the time you get down to the fourth or fifth level of counterpoint, it will be very complex indeed.

The Rules of Counterpoint

Rules in music theory? Never heard of such a thing. And like all rules, there are plenty of exceptions. Furthermore, there are far too many to go into them all here. When you read that Mozart and Beethoven studied counterpoint, they aren’t joking.

I have already mentioned that each voice must have its own melody. It must not act purely as a harmony to an existing voice. That is an obvious rule and one of the most basic. Others deal with intervals.

I have also already spoken briefly about intervals, or the distance between notes as well. An interval is a difference in pitch between two notes, and we measure them in how many letters apart they are.

Some Intervals Work Well

Some intervals are going to work well in different melody lines. For example, thirds and sixths always create a good result. In the key of C, that would be an E and an A. They are pleasing and harmonic within the structure of the music and can be used over again.

Other common intervals are fifths and the octave. In C again, that would be G, and the Octave C. Experienced composers tend not to use this pairing too often. They are very stable but are seen as rather boring.

However, not seen in the structure of a melody in counterpoint so much are seconds and fourths. In C, the notes of D and F. If they are used, you are more likely to hear them as “leading” notes towards a nicer compatible sound. Maybe from a second to a third, or D to E in the key of C.

The Motion of Notes

The Motion of Notes

Another rule that needs to be applied when constructing counterpoint is the motion of notes. That is a description of how notes change inside the melody. Between two melodies, there can be four different motions. These are the following:

  • Parallel.
  • Contrary.
  • Oblique.
  • Similar.

There are rules to each area, which again, I do not have the space to deal with here. But perhaps I should look at one area, the rules that apply to Parallel motion.

Parallel Motion

The rule around parallel motion is that there must not be parallel, or multiple fifths played in a row. Let’s look at an example.

If you have an interval of a fifth, in the key of C, from a C to a G between two melodies. The notes that are used next cannot also make an interval fifth. This rule also applies to octaves and fourths.

So parallel motion cannot be used with fifths, fourths, or an octave. But in the case of thirds and sixths, it is positively encouraged and often seen. Isn’t music theory fun?

Species Counterpoint

Before I finish this article on “What Is Counterpoint in Music: A Complete Guide,” we ought to look at Species Counterpoint. This is a specific set of rules used to teach the technical aspects of composition. It differs from the basic counterpoint in that it has many more rules and is much more complex.

It is a tool to assist in learning, but you won’t find it in major compositions. Therefore, you may wonder what the point of it is. Well, it teaches you techniques that you can apply in the more standard forms of Counterpoint composition. Or contrapuntal music to give it its correct name.

There are five species of Counterpoint which are numbered one to five. First species, second species, etc. The first series is the most basic, the fifth the most complex. Of course, each has its own rules. Some rules apply to all species. However, some are specific to the level of species.

An Example of Some of the Rules

  • The last note of a melody line, first or the counterpoint melody, needs to be approached by a Step.
  • If there is a Skip in one direction, ascending or descending, it must be followed by a Step in the opposite direction.
  • The counterpoint must have a high point in its melody that sits roughly in the middle.

A Lot To Take In

This is one of those musical theories that takes a bit of understanding initially. Fortunately, there are enough resources to help you that are easily accessible. Here are some very good examples:

Looking to Learn More About Music Theory?

Then take a look at our handy articles on What Is Negative HarmonyRelative vs Parallel MinorDiatonic ScalesThe Scale Degree Names ExplainedWhat Is AABA Form In Music, and A Quick Guide To Species Counterpoint for more useful musical information.

Perhaps it’s also time for an instrument upgrade to boost your skills? If so, then check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Tenor Saxophones, the Best Alto Saxophones, the Best Yamaha Saxophones, the Best Cremona Violins, the Best Electric Cellos, the Best 88-Key Keyboards, and the Best Digital Pianos for Under $500 you can buy in 2023.

What Is Counterpoint in Music: A Complete Guide – Final Thoughts

There can be no doubt that your compositions and their sound will improve using this technique. If you want to hear some audible examples of how Counterpoint makes a piece, take a listen to J.S. Bach: Prelude (Fantasy) and Fugue in G Minor. It is recognized as one of the great examples of the use of counterpoint in music.

Until next, let your music play.

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About Corey Hoffman

Corey is a multi-instrumentalist who has played in numerous bands over the years, some good, some not so good. He has also written countless songs and recorded five albums in professional studios across America. Today he is a hobby musician but still loves the guitar after over 15 years of playing.

He considers his writing as a way to share what he has learned over the decades with younger generations ad always can't wait to get his hands on the latest gear.

He lives just outside New York with his wife Barbara and their two German Shepherds, Ziggy and Iggy.

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