The word counterpoint comes from the Latin punctus
contra punctum, which means "note against note". That's
actually a pretty nice short definition of counterpoint; a longer
way of saying it is that it is the combination of individual
melodic voices with each other to form a harmonious whole. In other
words, counterpoint is the art of putting together different lines
of music in a way that sounds good.
"Hey wait a minute," you say. "That sounds a lot like the
definition of harmony." Well, yes, that's true. Let's try to
explain the difference between counterpoint and harmony. The study
of counterpoint emphasizes the independence of individual lines of
music. It deals with ways to combine these individual lines
together to form a pleasant- sounding whole. The study of harmony,
on the other hand, is geared more towards forming and joining
together chords to create a piece of music. Speaking in abstract
terms, you could say that counterpoint is more "horizontal" and
harmony is more "vertical".
Counterpoint and harmony are, in fact, very closely related. Any
contrapuntal piece of music will have some sort of harmony between
the simultaneously moving lines. On the other hand, it would be
difficult (and very undesirable) to write a piece of music that had
only harmony with no counterpoint at all. One cannot cannot exist
without the other; however, there have been historical periods and
composers that have leaned more towards one or the other. For
example, music of the Baroque Period
tended to be more contrapuntal (the adjective of counterpoint),
while the Classical Period was marked
by more harmonic writing.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate counterpoint is to give an
example of it... and who could possibly give a better example of
counterpoint than Bach? In this
example, we have the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg
Concerto #5. From the opening notes, you can hear how Bach
carefully constructed several different lines of music and put them
together so that they would form a harmonious stream. There is
constant motion in each of the lines, and the music seems to
"spool" outward all the way until it hits the end.
(MIDI): Brandenburg Concerto #5 in D by J.S.
Bach... a fine example of counterpoint
To give a contrasting example, we have here the last movement of the Cello
Concerto in C by Joseph
Haydn. Like the Bach example, the music is very forward-moving
and is written for multiple parts, but there is a key difference
here; in this case, the different instrumental parts are not all
given their own seperate lines of melody. Instead, their purpose is
to give harmonic support to the main melody.
(MIDI): Cello Concerto in C by Joseph Haydn... a
fine example of harmony