Counterpoint: Term and Technique, 10th-18th Century



Musica Enchiriadis (ca. 900)

This is that sweet song (diaphonam cantilenam), or what we more usually call organum.  It is called diaphony, however, because it does not unvaryingly agree with the melody, but in [its] different harmony it is more concordant.  And, even though it is common to all symphonies, the name [diaphony] is accepted only in the cases of the diatessaron [fourth] and the diapente [fifth].


Hucbald, Melodic Instruction (ca. 900)

Consonance is the calculated and concordant blending of two sounds, which will come about only when two simultaneous sounds from different sources combine into a single musical whole, as happens when a man’s and a boy’s voices sound at once, and indeed in what is usually called “making organum” [organizatio].


Guido, Micrologus (ca. 1025)

Diaphony sounds as a separateness of [simultaneous] sounds, which we also call organum, in which notes distinct from each other make dissonance harmoniously and harmonize in their dissonance.


John, De Musica (ca. 1100)

Diaphony is the sounding of different but harmonious notes, which is carried on by at least two singers, so that while one holds to the original melody, another may range aptly among other tones, and at each breathing point both may come together on the same note or at the octave.  This method of singing is popularly called “organum,” because the human voice sounding tones different but compatible shows a resemblance to the instrument that is called the organ.  Diaphony means “twofold sound” or “difference in sound.”


John of Garlandia, Concerning Measured Music (ca. 1250)

Discant is the simultaneous sounding of different melodies according to mode and according to equivalence of one to another through concord.


Franco of Cologne, Ars cantus mensurabilis (ca. 1260)

Discant is written either with words or with and without words.  It is written with several texts in motets.  It is written with and without words in the conductus and in the ecclesiastical discant improperly called organum.  The word “discant” is used in two senses:  first, as meaning something sung by several persons; second as meaning something based on a cantus.


Prosdocimus de Beldemandis, Contrapunctus (1412)

Because it can be found that the phrase “melody against melody” is construed in two ways—when many notes are employed against a single note and are to be written or sung above or below it, and when a single note is employed against another single note and is to be written or sung above or below it—it must be known that counterpoint can also be construed in two ways, in the ordinary or loose sense, and in the proper or strict sense.  Counterpoint construed in the ordinary or loose sense is the placement of many notes against one single note in a melody, and this sort I do not intend to treat here; nor is this sort truly to be called counterpoint.  Counterpoint construed in the proper or strict sense is the placement of one single note against some other single note in a melody, and this sort I do intent to treat here, since this sort is truly to be called counterpoint, because in it there is a true counterplacement, the counterplacement of note against note.  This counterplacement is the true meaning of the term counterpoint, since counterpoint is defined as the counterplacement of note against note. […] Counterpoint construed in the proper sense is the foundation of the other, construed in the ordinary sense, because with understanding of the one, one can straightaway have understanding of the other, or the practice of florid song.


Johannes Tinctoris, Liber de arte contrapuncti (1477)

Counterpoint is a moderate and reasonable concord made by placement of one pitch against another, and it is called counterpoint from “contra” and “punctus,” for the reason that it is composed of one note placed against another, thus, one point against another.  Hence, all counterpoint is made from a mixture of pitches.  This mixture may sound either sweetly to the ears, and this is a concord, or it may sound dissonantly, and this is a discord.  But since concords are the principal elements employed in counterpoint, with discords permitted from time to time, we have decided to treat of the former first and the latter afterward.


Counterpoint is duple, that is, either simple or diminished.  Simple counterpoint is called that which is made simply by the placing of one note against another of the same value.  And this counterpoint has been called simple for the reason that it has been made simply through a proportion of equality only, without any ornament or diversity.  Diminished counterpoint, however, is that which is made by the placing of two or more notes against one, now by a proportion of equality, now by one of inequality.  And counterpoint of this kind is called diminished, since, in it a certain division of the basic notes into different minute parts is made; hence it is also called “florid” by many, through metaphor, for, just as a diversity of flowers makes the fields most pleasing, so the variety of proportions produces a most agreeable counterpoint.


Gioseffe Zarlino, Le istitutionie harmoniche (1558)

I consider counterpoint to be that concordance or agreement which is born of a body with diverse parts, its various melodic lines accommodated to the total composition, arranged so that voices are separated by commensurable, harmonious intervals.  This is what I called “proper harmony” [harmonia propria; Proper harmony is a composition or mixture of high and low sounds, mediated or not (by other sounds), that strikes the hearing smoothly.  It arises not only from consonances but also from dissonances, for good musicians in their harmonies exert every effort to make dissonances accord and to be consonant with marvelous effect.]  It might also be said that counterpoint … is an artful union of diverse sounds reduced to concordance.  From these definitions we may gather that the art of counterpoint is a discipline which teaches one to recognize the various elements in a composition and to arrange the sounds with proportional ratios and temporal measure.


Musicians once composed with dots or points.  Hence they called this counterpoint.  They placed one [dot or point] against another as we now place one note against another.  Perhaps it would have been more reasonable to name this countersound rather than counterpoint, since one sound was placed against the other.


There are two kinds of counterpoint:  simple and diminished.  The simple is composed solely of consonances and equal note values placed against one another.  Diminished counterpoint has dissonances as well as consonances, and may employ every kind of note value, as the composer wishes.  It is in the nature of counterpoint that its various sounds or steps ascend and descend simultaneously in contrary motion, using intervals whose proportions are suited to consonance; for harmony has its origin in the joining together of a diversity of opposed elements.


[In diminished counterpoint] there is no need to restrict oneself to notes of equal values, as in simple counterpoint.  Although [simple counterpoint] admits only consonances, dissonances are permitted in diminished counterpoint when used incidentally. […] They may not be employed at random and without rule, but thoughtfully, purposefully, and reasonably.  Otherwise, confusion will ensue, and that is something to avoid in everything.


Christoph Bernhard, Tractatus compositionis augmentatus (ca. 1660)

Composition is a science of creating a harmonic counterpoint from consonances and dissonances combined properly with one another.  If, then, the aim of composition is harmony or the concordance of various and distinct voices—which musicians calls a counterpoint—the now common notes remain from ages ago, before the invention of counterpoint, when instead of notes only dots were used.  Thus, it was called counterpoint because of the two or more voices being indicated by such dots.  According to popular opinion, it could better be called countersounding.  The materials of such a counterpoint are consonances and dissonances.


The highest rank of counterpoint is equal or unequal, called by some simple and diminished or florid.  Equal counterpoint is when each and every note of two or more voices sung together are all of the same duration.  Such counterpoint consists only in consonances, without any addition of dissonance.  Unequal, or florid or diminished, or however one wishes to call it, is when one voice moves slower, the other faster.  This kind consists as much in dissonances as in consonances, which are artfully blended together and afford the ear a more pleasant harmony than does equal counterpoint.


Johann Joseph Fux, Gradus ad Parnassum (1725)

Some people will perhaps wonder why I have undertaken to write about music, there being so many works by outstanding men who have treated the subject most thoroughly and learnedly; and more especially, why I should be doing so just at this time, when music has become almost arbitrary and composers refuse to be bound by any rules and principles, detesting the very name of school and law like death itself.  I shall not be deterred by the most ardent haters of school, nor by the corruptness of the times.  I do not believe that I can call back composers from the unrestrained insanity of their writing to normal standards.  Let each follow his own counsel.  My object is to help young persons who want to learn.


It is necessary for you to know that in earlier times, instead of our modern notes, dots or points were used. Thus one used to call a composition in which point was set against, or counter to, point “counterpoint.”  This usage is still followed today, even though the form of the notes has been changed.  By the term counterpoint, therefore, is understood a composition which is written according to technical rules.


With this training, later on, when restraints of the cantus firmus are removed, and he is, so to speak, released form his fetters, he will find to his joy that he can write free composition almost as if it were play.


Do not allow yourself to be seduced into proceeding too early to your own free compositions.  In your pleasure over them you would spend your time roving here and there, but never achieving real mastery.


Johann Philip Kirnberger,  Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik, vol. 1 (1771)

Long ago, pitches were designated by simple points that were placed on parallel lines….Each note was indicated by a point on the appropriate line.  Later, when compositions for two and more voices were written, the points indicating the pitches of the other voices had to be placed against the points of the existing voice.  This resulted in the expression “to set point against point,” which means to add one or more voices to a given voice.  Thus we have retained the word counterpoint, which refers to the art of composing one or more voices to a given monophonic melody according the rules of good harmony.


If one is concerned only with pure harmony and the good progression of voices as they are written, this is called simple counterpoint….Simple counterpoint is called plain or equal when each note of the given melody, which is called the cantus firmus, is accompanied by only one note of the same duration in another voice.  It is called unequal or florid when several notes are set against one note of the cantus firmus.  If strict counterpoint is well understood, the florid causes little difficulty.  We advise prospective composers not to concern themselves with composing florid pieces until they have acquired such dexterity in this counterpoint that its composition is thoroughly strict.


Since complete harmony is in four parts, the harmony in two and three-part compositions must always be incomplete.  Therefore it is impossible to judge with certainty what must be omitted from the harmony in various situations that arise until one has a thorough knowledge of four-part composition.


Consequently, this counterpoint should be considered as a succession of complete chords.  If the writing is to be correct and strict:


  1. the chords must follow one another coherently according to the rules of harmony;
  2. each voice must have a flowing melody and a strict progression; and
  3. several of the voices together must sound strict and have nothing disagreeable in their progression.


Above all, each voice must have its individual and flowing line.  One must not fancy having written four parts when several voices are doubled at the octave.  In the entire science of composition there is perhaps nothing more difficult than for each of the four voices to have its own flowing line as well as for a single character to be retained in them all, so that a single perfect totality results from their union.  In this respect the late Capellmeister Bach of Leipzig has perhaps surpassed all composers in the world.  For that reason his chorales as well as his larger works are to be recommended most highly to all composers as the best models for diligent study.


Johann Adolf Scheibe, The Critical Musician (May 14, 1737)

This great man [Bach] would be the admiration of whole nations if he had more amenity, if he did not take away the natural element in his pieces by giving them a turgid and confused style, and if he did not darken their beauty by an excess of art….Every ornament, every little grace, and everything that one thinks of as belonging to the method of playing, he expressed completely in notes, and this not only takes away from his pieces the beauty of harmony but completely covers the melody throughout.  All the voices must work with each other and be of equal difficulty, and none of them can be recognized as the principal voice.  Turgidity had led him from the natural to the artificial, and from the lofty to the somber; and in him one admires the onerous labor and uncommon effort—which, however, are vainly employed since they conflict with Nature.