Harmony and counterpoint can be confusing for music students to distinguish at first. This is because counterpoint is a form of harmony, however it is a compositional technique in its own right. While techniques forming two note chords and beyond can be classed as harmony, counterpoint is more specific.

Counterpoint is defined as ‘two or more musical lines that are both interdependent, yet are independent from each other in rhythm and melody’.

Palestrina made polyphonic music popular during the Renaissance, and inspired Species Counterpoint, which was a teaching method created in the 18th Century that stemmed from studying his works. Species Counterpoint breaks contrapuntal music into 5 easy to analyse parts, with the five species being as follows:

  1. First Species is note-against-note counterpoint.
  2. Second Species is two notes against one in the cantus firmus.
  3. Third Species is four notes against one in the cantus firmus.
  4. Fourth Species is the study of suspensions against a cantus firmus.
  5. Fifth Species is the combination of the four previous species together against a cantus firmus.

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Cantus Firmus translates as “fixed song” and is a pre-existing melody that forms the basis of a polyphonic composition. Some additional terms you may have covered when studying counterpoint include: Harmonic intervals and melodic intervals, consonance and dissonance, tritone, ligature and cambiata, similar motion, contrary motion and oblique motion.

While counterpoint has been in usage since the Middle Ages, Palestrina put it on the map in the Renaissance. The style gained even more popularity in the Baroque period, and is an era studied often when studying the technique. J.S. Bach’s fugues are intricate examples of counterpoint from the Baroque era, as well as Bach chorales still being a staple of music study in the present day. He worked in mathematical and melodic ways, and did not care for following the conventions of Species Counterpoint. Moreover, Bach’s style heavily influenced subsequent composers of the Classical era, who incorporated polyphonic counterpoint sections into parts of their music. Baroque and early Classical-style counterpoint is a period well-worth delving into in detail, and the following course in Practical Counterpoint teaches how to write in this style with the appropriate rules and conventions whilst approaching it from a modern mind-set.

Open Educational Resources also offer a great public domain course in harmony and counterpoint to work through, covering the basic harmonic concepts that underlie counterpoint. OER include examples from the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical periods, and include a broad range of useful learning materials.

Whatever approach you’re taking to improve your knowledge and compositional techniques of harmony and counterpoint, PlayScore 2 can help you get there. Using the latest Optical Music Recognition technology, the app enables you to interactively playback multiple lines of sheet music, visually and aurally follow your scores in real time, as well as giving you control over what you hear. You can use PlayScore 2 to analyse music and break down the elements you choose, helping you make the most of your study time.