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Composing : Theory Thursdays Blog - Counterpoint by Christopher Weatherwax

Christopher Weatherwax

Theory Thursdays Blog - Counterpoint

Going to start doing these blogs after I talked to Brandi and she said it would be a good idea. Sam does his plugin Fridays and I teach Piano performance and Music theory at my College so figured it would help people out here. The term "Counterpoint" comes from the Latin "Punctus Contra" which means "Point against Point'. It was first made popular by J.S Bach in the Baroque times and I've studied and performed many of his pieces on piano and acoustic guitar and they have influenced many modern Composers like Beethoven and you can find some part of Vivaldi and Bach's influence in every one of my own pieces. Counterpoint is about having 2 voices that are INTERDEPENDENT harmonically which means they are different but also DEPEND on each other. You can have a basic chord of C major that is interdependent on a counterpoint arpeggio of G major because those 2 chords are INTERDEPENDENT of each other both harmonically and contrapuntally. You can't have a counterpoint really of a C major and B minor because they aren't interdependent chords harmonically. You could do it but it wouldn't sound too great. For example take a basic chord of C major and it's really easy to counterpoint it. Just play a C major with your left hand and a C major Alberti bass with your right which is c, e, g, e, c naturals and then a c major scale up to g and back down to c again. There you have the most basic version of counterpoint because the chords are interdependent on each other both harmonically and contrapuntally. Take Bach's Prelude and Fuge #17 in a flat major which is a very basic version of counterpoint. You can see that the song is in A flat major which means its basic counterpoint which it is interdependent on harmonically and contrapuntally in this example is A flat major's harmonic fifth chord of E flat major. In this piece Bach takes a basic counterpoint in the scale from A flat to E flat and back again and then inverts them keeping the rhythm of the counterpoint the same but changes the chords back to G flat major and back to A flat major and the scale goes from the bass to the treble clef and back again. Anyway I could go on for another 10 pages but going to try to keep these short. The link to Bach's prelude is below to listen to and if you come up with any counterpoints of your own post them. If you have any questions post them as well. -Chris Weatherwax https://youtu.be/J5zqq_g32cU

Joel Irwin

So let's 'bring it to film music' in particular. How would you think counterpoint can be used effectively in a film score. Well of course, that could depend on the number of 'voices' in the ensemble. And by number, that does not necessarily mean 'instruments', since there could be many instruments playing the same note (even if they 'octave double'). Take for example a two guitar piece - you can have one picking out a melody and another strumming chords. That is not counter-melody. Counter for me means the other voice has to be doing something different. So playing 'harmony' where one guitar plays a melody and the other plays the melody but using different notes is also not counterpoint. The beauty of using counterpoint in a film score is about 'making it interesting'. If all you have is one melodic line played by one or more instruments and every other instrument plays either chord notes (typically long notes) or harmony (where the notes are in the same rhythmic pattern as the melody or close to it). you have one main thought with 'support'. Now for many film cues - that is exactly what you want. You don't want the music to stand out and counterpoint can be distracting or deemed 'overkill' - why put something into your music if no one can hear it or appreciate it if they do (remember the music supports and is often not 'heard'). One 'train of thought' could be - you put what you need into the cue and move on. Any additional 'flair' can be considered 'diminishing returns' - again just one 'opinion' of how to score. For me, counter-melody comes in as an additional 'tool' to support or highlight certain action in the film - just like say a percussive hit. I put in countermelody to make the music stand out - say in a 'mushy love scene' or at a 'hit point'. Always consider it for places in the scene without dialog, voice overs/adr, and/or foley - counterpoint for me is a tool to make the music stand out. I often don't use counter-melody with dialog since the music is mixed low and generally it will not be heard. For those of you who are 'classically' oriented and love the masters, one of the most used segments of a classical piece in film music could be perhaps the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. It has a very distinctive and well known melody which gets repeated many times. After the first statement of the melody, he begins to use wonderful countermelody by having one violin section play the melody and another playing countermelody. Without countermelody, the repetition could not be effective.

Amanda Toney

This is fantastic Chris. Thank you for sharing!

Ian Hudson

Thank you for sharing this, Chris! While I did take counterpoint in college, I never mastered the art and it's very difficult for me to develop two distinct melodies independent of each other, without breaking some "rule". I also find it becomes increasingly difficult for the listener to focus on the primary melody with so much going on around it. Bach was the master of counterpoint. He did it so perfectly and effortlessly, that I feel there must be some trick to it; some hidden mathematical formula no one has yet discovered. Are there any good books on the subject you'd recommend?

Christopher Weatherwax

@Brandi and Shannon: You are welcome. Glad to hear it was helpful. @Ian: It's a very complex mathematical formula called, the circle of fifths. I will do that for my blog next Thursday. If you love Bach as I do you will definitely enjoy the Books "Bach: Chorale Harmonization and Instrumental Counterpoint" by Malcolm Boyd and "Counterpoint in the Style of J.S. Bach"by Thomas Benjamin. Boyd's book definitely investigates what you are talking about with the "trick" that Bach and others used which involves the circle of fifths, chord progressions, et cetera.

Arhynn Descy

Thanks for the post, Christopher I'd like to add that as a modern composer there are no rules. The rules you learn at college are simply to understand what the masters did historically. Those masters themselves broke old rules to create their own new ones and that's why music moves into new forms and has changed over the centuries. If you're asked to write something specifically to sound like Bach, then fair enough, follow rules, but if you're writing using your own modern voice then throw the rules out and let your ear tell you if it sounds good. Counterpoint lessons are wonderful for teaching 'how'....after that it's up to you. And counterpoint is everywhere. Good orchestral writing always has counterpoint in it. I agree with Joel that in film music you need to choose when to use it.

Christopher Weatherwax

@Arhynn: This is true. It is really up to Ian and everyone else how many rules to follow and how many to break. In my own songs recently I will hint at a counterpoint in the first 30 seconds that totally follows the contrapuntal interdependence rules and then break into something totally unexpected and non-contrapuntal just to surprise people. Be careful though about breaking too many rules delving into atonality or you will end up losing the emotion of the piece. A great point. -Chris

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