I’ve often taken a survey of my own compositional capabilities, and come to the conclusion I have one truly great weakness. That weakness: Counterpoint.
I Can Do Some Counterpoint
I am like many other composers. I have the ability to write a melody, a chord progression, a counterline; I can orchestrate the elements, and even do a pretty convincing mockup to make it sound like a real orchestra is playing it (somewhat, this is much harder than you think).
This is a short mockup of one of my favorite moment’s in Mahler’s 5th Symphony.
But those abilities are not developed to the extent that they could be, or should be. In particular, melody, and counterline. Time and again, melody and counterline are the markers of compositional greatness. You name me a great composer, and I will show you evidence of great counterpoint skills.
[bctt tweet=”Time and again, melody and counterline are the markers of compositional greatness.”]
Success Does Not Equal Greatness
Let me be clear on this as well. I am not necessarily talking about having a successful career as a composer. In media, concert, or anywhere else. Certainly there are other skills that come into play in those fields, that have nothing to do with compositional abilities. Most important would be interpersonal, and the ability to sell yourself (not sell out, but sell your concept to whoever is buying).
But greatness and success are not necessarily connected.
So why learn counterpoint? Because counterpoint.
I know, I know… that is a terrible answer, but it has some truth. Counterpoint is a technique, a genre, a style, a way of thinking, a way of life… and it also sounds beautiful in it’s own right. But I know you want more, so I will elaborate.
Putting Your Fingerprint on the World
One of my teachers was talking about counterpoint recently, and made the point that it is through line that composers show their unique identity. He said, “It is through line and counterpoint that you can place your fingerprint on your music.” When he said this, it was like a siren going off in my brain. It was true. So true it hurt.
In today’s world, when everyone from Los Angeles, California to New Delhi, India is composing “Epic” music using the same set of sample libraries, and then posting it on soundcloud to be discovered, how is it that you actually differentiate yourself? The answer is through line. What do I mean by line?
What is Line?
Line to me is more than just melody. It is the summary of the care and effort you place in every single instrument in your piece. Line could be the primary element – the main melody. But line also is in the chord progressions you write. The inversion, the voice leading, which instruments play which chord member. It is the way each voice weaves in and out. It is in the counter-melodies, melodic fills, and even the percussive parts.
Every single person on this planet that has ever lived and will ever live – is unique. There is not another person exactly like me. There may be someone in the 6 billion people that looks like me. They may even talk like me, or have similar mannerisms. But they are not me. And what is the main differentiator we use to identify all these people? Their fingerprint.
Now here is the best part. When you zoom into a fingerprint, what is it that makes it unique?
Hint: it’s the way lines interact. It is the peaks and valleys, the ups and downs, ins and outs that the lines take moving around your finger tip that identify you. Your actual identity can be determined, literally with lines.
That same is true with your compositional identity. Many composers from the past have used the same chord progressions over and over. They use the same sequences, the same instrumentation – heck they even put them in the same order on the score. But you can tell Bach from Buxtehude. Beethoven from Paganini. Chopin from Mendelssohn. Mahler from Brahms.
What made them different? Orchestration? Yeah, sure. Melody? You betcha. Harmony? Kind of. The amount of coffee beans in their morning brew? I guess, at least for Beethoven. But what is it that makes those things actually different? It is the way they individual lines of the orchestra, the group, the parts interact.
It is the counterpoint.
For this to fully make sense, you have to expand your definition of counterpoint.
Counterpoint is not just this:
It’s also this (Mahler is a master of counterpoint):
Counterpoint is in every piece of music. So why study traditional counterpoint – a la Bach? Because Bach is the master. With Bach we have the benefit of stripping away the superfluous details, and getting to the point. Bach has the ability to compose a simple two part invention, and still make it powerful and beautiful. He doesn’t use “chords” but the functional harmony is clear. He’s not smearing the background with a cool pad. He’s not using cool orchestration techniques, or the latest sample libraries. He is putting himself out there. That takes guts. And no one is better at it than Bach.