On Teaching

November 2, 2018

Further thoughts on counterpoint

Recently, a student asked me during a lesson to remind him about voices: what they were and how to approach them while working on a piece. This surprised me, since we had already dealt with this fundamental aspect of music. This student was a beginner at the time, and I assumed that a basic understanding of what a “voice” is in a keyboard piece was something that I had covered in lessons early on—and thoroughly.

Perhaps I had not done so adequately, but it turned out that there was something else going on here. The student had been using a computer music notation program and had bumped into some oddities about the way that program treated the concept of voices. He was trying to type out a piece that was inconsistently contrapuntal. The program conceived of notes only as belonging to one voice or another and (I gather) kept complaining about his attempts to add notes in the ways that he thought were correct.

I believe that he did figure out how to make the process work, possibly by finding something to click on that enabled chords. But through this experience and aided by the discussion that we then had, he developed a firmer grasp of the notion that a given note might specifically follow another specific note in a voice, not just be the next note in an overall texture. This helped him figure out certain things about rhythm that had previously eluded him. It was also interesting and useful that this experience triggered my quick and unplanned review of the whole matter of voices and counterpoint in keyboard music. Since that time I have been musing about the subject, and this column discusses some thoughts loosely bound together by their connection to the idea of playing in voices and the idea of playing counterpoint. 

I wrote a series of four columns about counterpoint ten years ago. (See the September through December 2008 issues of The Diapason.) Having reread these essays, I see nothing that I would now dissent. But I have ten years’ worth of further experience and reflection, some of which you may find compelling.

First, it is a common conception that counterpoint is a form of conversation: in any contrapuntal context there is a series of dialogues going on. One of the goals for many of us is to play contrapuntal lines with a naturalness that makes this conversational aspect seem real and unforced. I tend to view conversation as something that is intrinsically about pairs—conversation is best exemplified by two people talking to one another. In larger groups, the overall conversation is constructed out of simultaneously overlapping and alternating two-part conversations, enhanced by listening. I tend to conceptualize the conversation of counterpoint that way—that what is going on in a texture of more than two voices is several simultaneous two-way conversations. This informs my process of working on and teaching contrapuntal music. As I wrote in those columns from ten years ago, I strongly favor practicing pairs of voices. But in contrapuntal music of four voices, I do not see any point in practicing all of the possible groups of three voices, let alone the five possible groups of four voices in a five-voice texture, and so on. I believe that going straight from pairs to the full texture is efficient, revealing, and informative. The concept of contrapuntal conversation is well established and amply demonstrated to be fruitful.

Over the last several years I have also come to see a different, parallel way of looking at counterpoint, one that does not conflict with the conversation model, but coexists with it. A contrapuntal texture is an analogue for the world or even the universe—anything and everything that exists simultaneously. That is, for the much bigger real-life contrapuntal texture consisting of billions of people, countless trillions of other creatures, an indescribable number of inanimate but active objects (clouds, waves, or celestial bodies) and so on. A piece of music with three or four voices is a vastly simplified but powerful representation of that bigger, infinite tapestry. Each piece of counterpoint is a representation of a different part of that tapestry or a different way of symbolically representing the whole of it.

This manner of looking at counterpoint came to me as a consequence of my experience attending certain kinds of immersive theater and dance—performances of narrative in which audience members are not all engaged in watching the same narrative unfold in front of them. Rather, they walk around experiencing different aspects of a narrative that is unfolding simultaneously in parts in different spaces. It is a structure that is also in a sense a direct analogue to the structure of all of existence. Most of the theater work in this form that I have experienced has been largely or entirely non-verbal, and therefore the analogy between it and the non-verbal narrative of (instrumental) music is direct and powerful.

It is debatable whether or not this concept holds deeper meaning pertaining to the details of performance, for any particular performer, or for a student. I believe that it has sharpened my focus on the importance of lines that do not happen to be playing primary material (that is, recurring subjects or motifs). In life, after all, everyone is the protagonist of their own story! I suspect that this way of looking at it has tended to help me play contrapuntal lines more vividly and with more rhythmic freedom. Playing individual contrapuntal lines with freedom involves something that can be thought of as a paradox or just a practical problem, since they all have to come out at the same place at the same time. I suspect that conceiving those lines as not just things that the characters are saying but as the characters themselves has allowed me to intuit and explore ways of dealing with that paradox. However, I am in the early stages of exploring this as far as my own playing is concerned. The point is that this is an idea that a particular student or other player might happen to find interesting, thought provoking, or inspiring.

I recently encountered the following quote in a memoir published in 2015 by the actor and director, Alvin Epstein. I offer it as another thought or image that can apply nicely to musical counterpoint as well as to both its ostensible subject of human conversation and to the writing of drama:


In real life, conversations between people don’t stick to one subject or one train of thought and follow straight through-to-the-end, period, and then introduce another idea all neat and orderly. In real life we speak in interruptions, new ideas being introduced before old ones have been finished, old ones coming back again. There are many threads to the way we actually speak to one another, it’s a tapestry.


I take this as a sort of challenge when it comes to playing counterpoint, since the thrust of a lot of our analysis of contrapuntal music is to try to find order and logic. But neither conversation nor the panoply of human and universal experience presents itself as orderly all of the time.

There are two pieces that have odd relationships to the concept of counterpoint that I have always found intriguing. I am speaking in particular of the first prelude from J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and the Toccata from Symphony No. 5 by Charles-Marie Widor. What does it mean to say that these two pieces involve counterpoint? Is that accurate or meaningful? 

The Bach prelude, which is a succession of arpeggios, can be analyzed as three-voice counterpoint. The first note of each half-measure is one voice, the second note another, and the remaining six notes the third. You could generate all of the notes of the piece by writing those “voices” out each on a separate staff, as we might more meaningfully do with a three-voice fugue. It is probably correct to say that this notation actually means, “play the notes of these chords in this order and overlap almost everything.” This ostensibly contrapuntal notation is interesting perhaps mainly as a commentary on the composer’s habits or ways of organizing his conception of music. But what contrapuntal impulse or feeling is there in this piece, if any? I hear the bass line—the first note of each half measure—as a melody, a line, or voice. I then tend to hear the highest note of each half measure—which is played twice per gesture, once on a beat and once off the beat—as a kind of half-heard counter melody. The force or presence of that counter melody shifts in and out from one part of the piece to another in ways that I think reflect the ebb and flow of harmonic tension more than anything else. It feels to me like a kind of half-hidden, impressionistic counterpoint served on a bed of harmony.

As a final tip of the hat to my summer London trip and its relevance to music making and teaching, I recall an experience of me playing this prelude at a public open-air piano at Tottenham Court Road Underground station in London. This is one of those pianos set up for passers-by to use. As far as I know, this is the only time that I have played piano in public, and probably also the only time that I have played from memory in public. 

In the Widor, I hear counterpoint in rhythm, or in rhythm as texture. The two components that are present for most of the piece—the outlined sixteenth-note chords and the actual chords—are made up of essentially the same notes as one another. They cannot be in counterpoint with each other in the usual melodic motivic sense. Yet, I think they cohere into a texture—maybe the quick notes sort of emanate from the chords. But what I find interesting is that when the pedal comes in, I hear it as its own melody or motif. It is also tracking the same notes much of the time. But the different sonority and the longer rhythmic arc make it seem like a response rather than a redundancy.

All of the above is, in a sense, a set of attempts to broaden the concept of counterpoint or of the range of reactions that one might have to it. I close by discussing basic rhythm in relation to voice notation that my student mentioned above was grappling with. If you are unaware of, or confused by, the voice leading in a contrapuntal piece, it can be unclear which notes are placed where rhythmically. For example, if we see something written like Example 1 and understand the voice situation, it is clear that the F is on the third beat of the measure and the B is on the fourth beat. That B follows the middle C in the lower voice. It is also clear that the F is held through the B, plus or minus any subtleties arising out of articulation. 

However, if the voice-leading situation is unclear to someone looking at this bit of music, it could appear that the notes stack up like Example 2 with the B on a (non-existent) fifth beat—that is, following the entire half-note’s worth of the F—and the middle C sort of left hanging.

This can be characterized as a fairly basic mistake, one that even a beginner who had learned to read music would not make. In the case of my student, his temporary confusion about the voices—which did indeed cause him to misinterpret certain rhythms in this sort of manner—was caused by that notation program. However, that is not the only time that I have seen straightforward rhythms appear unnecessarily complicated, or just plain wrong, because the voice-leading is unclear or being misunderstood. Untangling voices can be an efficient way of clarifying and simplifying rhythm.

Next month, I will describe some ways that thinking about rhythm has made me rethink some of what I have said in the past about counting and basic techniques for rendering rhythms correctly. I will also write about music that is partially or inconsistently contrapuntal, and some evolving ways in which I discuss that concept with students.

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