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monophonic texture, homophonic texture, musical texture, musical textures, monumental architecture

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Counterpoint, the simultaneous combination of two or more melodies. The word counterpoint is derived from the Latin punctus contra punctum—literally, “point against point,” or note against note, but meaning melody against melody. Although counterpoint is nearly synonymous with polyphony; a musical texture containing two or more melodies simultaneously, the two words differ slightly in common usage. Polyphony refers to textures in general (polyphonic versus homophonic) and to early music (medieval polyphony), whereas counterpoint commonly refers to texture in later music (Johann Sebastian Bach's counterpoint) or to the techniques of composing polyphony (16th-century counterpoint).

One familiar instance of counterpoint is the round, a simple kind of canon. In a round each part (or voice) has the same melody, but the second and succeeding parts begin one after another, as in “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (example 1). In a monophonic texture, which has only one voice, or in a homophonic texture, which has a melody with chordal accompaniment, the listener focuses on the melody in the highest voice; in a round, the listener follows the melodic activity from one voice to another.

To some extent, all music with more than one part sounding at a time contains counterpoint. Even in a homophonic texture, counterpoint occurs between the melody and the accompanying parts. But the true spirit of counterpoint arises when the different parts are equally interesting melodies and are independent of one another, both in melodic direction (rising or falling in pitch, or remaining on the same pitch) and in rhythmic activity.

Counterpoint enlivens musical textures as varied as the rhythmically repetitious medieval polyphony of the French composer Perotin; the perfect balance of melody and harmony in the golden-age polyphony of the Italian Giovanni da Palestrina, the Flemish Orlando di Lasso, and other 16th-century composers; the monumental architecture in sound created by J. S. Bach in the early 18th century; the vigorous contrapuntal textures during transitional and developmental passages in music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig van Beethoven in the classical period (late 18th and early 19th century); the dissonant clashes between melodies in the music of 20th-century composers such as the Hungarian Bela Bartok and the Russian-born Igor Stravinsky; and the free flow of a jazz improvisation over a bass.


Lester, Joel, Ph.D.

Professor and Director, DMA Program, City College of the City University of New York. Violinist, Da Capo Chamber Players. Author of "Harmony in Tonal Music", "Overlapping Models and Keys", and "Approaches to Twentieth-Century Music".

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