The Frustration of Learning Counterpoint
This article talks about:
- My frustrations with learning counterpoint on my own from books
- Some facts and assumptions about learning counterpoint
- My first counterpoint lesson (hint: it involves your input to make it work)
Music theory books can be a frustrating thing. Sometimes you come across a gem, that explains things well and is easy to read. For instance, when I first started reading William Caplin’s Classical Form, it was like a lightbulb going off in my head. Everything was clear and concise. After each chapter, I felt as if I walked away knowing more than the previous chapter.
Ah, if they could all be that way.
But now I am trying to teach myself counterpoint and unfortunately, things have not been so clear and concise. Trying to teach yourself counterpoint can cause you to run into several issues.
- Counterpoint is, at first glance, a technique that hasn’t been actively developed since around Bach’s time. Now, it has been used, and learned, but in terms of the pedagogy involved, many people still recommend using Johann Fux’s book. I get it! Bach learned from it, and so did Beethoven and Mozart and blah blah blah… I am sure with the combined brain power of the world, we can come up with some newer techniques.
- Newer books are written for people who are clearly studying at a university or with an experienced teacher. I can’t blame the authors for this. Most, if not all, are professors at major universities. This doesn’t help the man on the street.
- There are two different styles of counterpoint: Modal and Tonal. This causes problems as well, because the modal guys don’t really say how this is applicable to anything other than writing in the style of Palestrina. My gut feeling is that is not true, and I can think of one moment in Mahler’s 6th Symphony in which he is clearly using modal counterpoint to great beauty and effect. The tonal guys seem to be a bit more applicable to the kind of music I want to write, but there is not an integrated approach.
So where to begin?
Assumptions and Facts
In the army, we have a specific way of approaching planning. I won’t get into all the nitty gritty details, it can be extremely boring. One of the key features is we would list out our assumptions about an operation and the facts as we knew them, so lets do that.
- Counterpoint has been used by many composers, if not all of the greats, since Bach’s time. This will, I believe, continue to be true.
- Modal counterpoint is about the melody.
- Tonal counterpoint is about… the melody. If melody is not king, then you might as well just write block chords, right?
- Counterpoint is hard. Seems pretty obvious, but I am not too sure how factual it is. I am assuming it is hard because that is what I have been brought up to believe. But like most things, I think it will just involve practice and clear principles.
- The early stages won’t be very fun. I think this is usually true of most things that are worthwhile.
- The books will only take me about 10% of the way towards understanding. Most of the gains in knowledge will be from actually composing.
- Good skills in voice leading and harmony are key.
- The two leading figures in Counterpoint are Bach and Palestrina. I say this as an assumption, because there are about a million composers that I have not actually listened too, and I may enjoy someone else’s counterpoint.
Glancing back over the list, there are a few things I wrote, that I think can guide me on my plan.
The Books Will Only Take Me About 10% of the Way
As stated earlier, the books I have been reading are missing a key ingredient… a teacher. I could go out and find a teacher, but that defeats the purpose of this site, which is to help people along the way of teaching themselves to compose.
I think others reading about my struggle and hopefully finding the right path will help in their own struggles.
It’s About the Melody
For both modal and tonal counterpoint, it is really about the melodies. Their shape, figures, and overall sound make the piece. For modal counterpoint, it seems pretty obvious, as harmony as we know it didn’t really exist when modal counterpoint was being developed. Tonal counterpoint though is a tougher case, because the harmony is clearly very important. Still, the melody is what ties it all together, not the harmony.
Knowledge of Harmony and Voice Leading
To get by, knowledge of harmony and voice leading will be crucial, but I cannot assume that everyone has been through a year’s worth of undergraduate harmony and voice leading courses. Anyways, I am so rusty with realizing my figured bass, that it will be as if I never took the courses anyway.
The Early Stages Won’t Be Fun
If you have read any literature on becoming an expert, you will have heard about the 10,000 rule. This basically states that to become an expert, you will have to practice your chosen field for about 10,000 hours. The key ingredient in this is deliberate practice of difficult tasks that create specific improvement. That means that what you have to do should improve something specifically, or else you won’t really improve.
For instance, an amateur golfer goes to the driving range to improve his swing and hits 1oo balls. A professional golfer goes to the driving range to improve the way his left hand turns during his backswing, and hits 1000 balls.
I am trying to approach improving my composition skills in the same way.
This means the exercises probably won’t be particularly fun. They will also be repeatable and will have clear guidelines for improvement.
With that last line being out there, my first lesson for myself and you will actually be kind of fun. I am going to track down more great counterpoint composers beyond just Palestrina and Bach.
One of the key’s to great composing, is becoming a great listener. If you never hear the possibilities, you’ll be stuck.
I will start off the list, but you, my loyal readers out there should help me expand it.
I am creating a playlist on youtube. If you leave a link in the comments section, i’ll add it to the playlist.