18th Century Counterpoint

by James Greeson

Chapter Links

1. Melodic Considerations
2. First Species Counterpoint
3. Second Species Counterpoint
4. Chromaticism
5. Third Species Counterpoint
6. Fourth Species Counterpoint
7. Free Counterpoint
8. Canons & Invertible Counterpoint
9. Fugue Subjects and Answers
10. Fugues
11. Binary Form Dance Movements

 This book is intended as a concise manual on the subject of 18th century counterpoint. Counterpoint is the oldest and most venerable topic in the domain of music theory and for most of the “great masters” such as Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven it was virtually the only theory instruction they had. The word counterpoint is derived from the Latin phrase punctus contra punctum, meaning “point against point.” The points referred to are the dots that medieval composers made on staves that we now call noteheads. Fundamentally counterpoint is the study of melodies and how to combine two or more melodies at the same time. Over the centuries counterpoint has coalesced around the common practice of composers within a certain time frame and today there are three branches of the subject: 16th century counterpoint, which is primarily concerned with the music of Palestrina; 18th century counterpoint, which is focused on the music of J.S. Bach; and 20th century counterpoint.

Of these three forms of counterpoint instruction 18th century counterpoint, also referred to as tonal counterpoint, is the most widely included in college music curricula. This study focuses on the music of Bach and other Baroque era composers like Handel and Corelli, but in more general ways it forms the basis for all of the music of the so-called common practice era, which refers to all classical music from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic style periods, up to the late 19th century. Furthermore, the basic principles of 18th century counterpoint are also important in most popular music and even jazz improvisation.

This first section of this manual will adopt what is called a species approach. This scientific sounding term means that the introductory exercises will step through a sequence of strictly limited rhythmic relationships until the fifth step at which point the limitations fall away. Species counterpoint was first employed in one of the first music theory textbooks from 1725, Gradus ad Parnassum by the 18th century composer J.J. Fux. These were the lessons that were studied by Mozart and others in their youth. After the initial chapters on species counterpoint the text will then investigate other topics such as canon, double counterpoint and fugue.

For additional reading:

Fux, Johann Joseph, The Study of Counterpoint (Gradus ad Parnassum). Tr. Alfred Mann. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1965. MT40 .F83 1943

Kennan, Kent, Counterpoint: Based on 18th Century Practice, Prentice-Hall 1999 (1959). MT55.K53 1987

Piston, Walter, Counterpoint, W.W. Norton 1947. MT55 .P67 1947

Worthwhile counterpoint related websites

© 2006 by James Greeson