In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Counterpoint

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Terminology
  • Non-Western Perspectives

Music Counterpoint
Denis Collins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0016


Counterpoint is the combination of simultaneously sounding musical lines, each of which is of significance in itself, according to a system of rules. It may also refer to a voice or part, and it has sometimes referred to an entire composition. Counterpoint has occupied a prominent position in the history of Western music for more than a thousand years. It has been accommodated to all major stylistic directions, although its manifestation in composition has been more prominent at certain periods than at others. The term polyphony is frequently used synonymously with counterpoint. Counterpoint embraces a variety of procedures, from the regulation of note-against-note writing to complex patterns involving manipulation of musical material through techniques such as imitation, inversion, rhythmic alteration, and invertible counterpoint. Contrapuntal technique may be employed in all or part of a composition, and it may form the principal basis of construction. The latter tendency gave rise to independent compositional forms known by various terms including fugue and canon. The scholarly literature on counterpoint has focused most especially on the periods before 1600, although with considerable attention also on the compositional style of J. S. Bach. This composer’s approach to counterpoint has also informed one of two influential and still prevalent pedagogical methodologies, the other being the music of Palestrina as mediated by the Austrian theorist Johann Joseph Fux. With the emergence of harmony as a major field of enquiry and stimulus to creative activity, especially functional harmony of the 18th and 19th centuries, counterpoint appears to have receded somewhat into a self-conscious and at times subsidiary role. The complicated relationship and productive tensions between these two disciplines are particularly evident when the contrapuntal underpinnings of tonally based thematic development are revealed. Counterpoint was reinvigorated in the 20th century and given a prominent role in post-tonal music. This article first presents sections on reference works and terminology followed by a large section on counterpoint pedagogy from the 18th century to the present day. The biggest section deals with studies of counterpoint in historical and theoretical contexts from the Carolingian era onward. A final section considers some concepts of counterpoint in non-Western contexts. To avoid an unwieldy number of entries, emphasis is given to major studies of counterpoint from the last ten to fifteen years, while also including earlier contributions that made significant impact on studies of the topic.

Reference Works

Coverage of the entire field of counterpoint is found only in major scholarly reference works. Some textbooks, however, cover large portions of the field and these are listed in Modern Textbooks. Sachs and Dahlhaus 2007–2012 and Kontrapunkt in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart provide systematic reviews of the different domains in which counterpoint has operated, although a larger proportion of the latter considers the earliest phases of counterpoint’s history.

  • Krützfeldt, Werner, and Claude Palisca. “Kontrapunkt.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Sachteil 5, Kas–Mein. 2d ed. Edited by Friedrich Blume, 595–628, Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1996.

    Detailed treatment of the field arranged chronologically with an introductory section discussing the concept and terms for counterpoint. The bibliography is international with particularly good coverage of the early history of counterpoint.

  • Sachs, Klaus-Jürgen, and Carl Dahlhaus. “Counterpoint.” In Grove Music Online. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007–2012.

    A comprehensive overview of the topic ordered in a loosely chronologically manner with detailed consideration of major issues affecting the meaning of counterpoint and its uses at different stages. Included in the bibliography are almost all of the major instruction books of the 19th and 20th centuries. Available online by subscription. For original print edition, see The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Vol. 6, pp. 551–571), edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (2d ed., London: Macmillan, 2001).

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