Music Theory Opinion:
Texture and Polyphony: What They Don’t (and Should) Tell You on the First Day of Counterpoint (and Harmony) Class

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essentialdecibels.comI’ve taken counterpoint and harmony (twice) at the post-secondary level, and there is one essential concept which was never adequately explained in any of these courses. My second run at music school (after I took a few years off) benefited from a genuine interest in classical composition, and a substantial amount of experience with the jazz theory that I acquired in the first go-round. In this article, I will explain how I finally came to understand both the value and limitations of these fields of study.

The idea for this article occurred to me earlier this week when I was analyzing an (extra-curricular) composition that a peer had asked me to comment on. Being the type to procrastinate, I waited for my estimated “deadline” to pass, and gave it cursory look-through. I pointed out the spots where I felt that it sounded awkward and sent my comments off, promising to give it a more thorough analysis the next day. Two days later, I was reminded of this second missed commitment, and feeling somewhat guilty, I sat down with a coffee and did a complete harmonic analysis of the whole piece.

Once completed, I found that I had correctly identified the “awkward” sections of the piece on my initial listen, but I now felt obligated to justify my complaints. In the places where I was most bothered by the aesthetic effect of the writing, the “rules” that we had learned in these theory classes were solidly applied, but there was something lacking that I now needed to articulate. What follows is the “big picture,” which I now consider absolutely essential to a full understanding (and effective application) of these fields of study.

First, a little background: The theory underlying counterpoint historically preceded harmony, and it literally means “against a line.” Its codification emerged as a method to teach the compositional style that was used in the Roman Catholic Church’s choral music. Composers employed by the church would write counter-melodies to accompany (boring, old) traditional plainchant hymns in a new and interesting way. Through trial and error, they eventually discovered that certain musical relationships between each of these melodies behaved uniquely. In order to teach young composers the tricks of the trade, pedagogical rules were developed that would create the musical aesthetic that their employer required.

As this (brief) history might suggest, counterpoint is taught by writing one or more counter-melodies to compliment a cantus-firmus (“fixed song”) by exploiting the behaviour of the different intervals between each melody. The objective of this method is to teach the set of rules which governs how the counterpoint (“counter-line”) can approach and leave each interval, also considering the rhythmic prominence of each note relative to the pulse of the music.

These “rules” were developed to create what we now call a polyphonic (“multi-voice”) texture. Early liturgical music would actually set different words to each melodic line. In order to make the overlapping streams of words in these compositions as intelligible as possible, composers needed to create and maintain the perception that each melody was distinct from the other(s).  The formal study of counterpoint was thus born of practical necessity. Rules were established only as a means to teach student composers how to do exactly this: create and maintain a strong polyphonic texture.

The study of harmony is simply an extension of counterpoint. As the years rolled on, composers began to notice that they could conjure more dramatic effects using more complex relationships between several different independent melodies. In order to teach a new generation of composers how to exploit the tendencies exhibited by these new intervallic structures, a new terminology was adopted. A vocabulary describing “chords” was introduced, referring to a combination of several intervals. This gave composers a simpler way to describe these increasingly complex harmonic structures.

Harmony is traditionally taught by having the student write four-voice exercises, wherein the student (ideally) learns how to create effective chord progressions while, again, maintaining a polyphonic texture. This idiom is also a derivative of the Roman Catholic choral medium; in order to further improve upon the traditional medieval hymns, innovative composers adopted a new aesthetic to spice up these tired old songs. Like intervals in counterpoint, each harmonic structure, or chord, exhibits unique, predictable behaviours. Furthermore, the notes in each chord can be rearranged into different configurations called inversions. Each of these lends itself to different uses depending upon where it appears within a musical phrase. The study of linguistics provides a useful comparison: if we consider counterpoint to be a study of spelling and basic musical grammar, harmony would be analogous to the study of more advanced concepts such as clauses and metaphors.

I have always been at odds with blindly accepting these rules about how music “should” be written, largely because there is plenty of great music out there that does not conform to the textbook’s prescription. I have a soft spot in my heart for heavier music, which is almost entirely accompanied by power-chords (root, 5th, 8ve) played through distorted amplifiers. This aesthetic, however, is not attempting to establish a polyphonic texture; instead, the effect is a single, harmonically “beefed up” note that is well suited to ostinato figures, or “riffs.” In this case, and undoubtedly many others, polyphony is simply not an appropriate musical texture. In short, it would be absurd to suggest that the guidelines provided to aspiring composers of sacred chorales (four centuries ago) is a suitable method by which to assess this type of music.

These rules, however, are extremely valuable as a means to systematically understand and manipulate an aspect of music which is very difficult to describe. The concept that I found most difficult, both to grasp, and later, to articulate, is this: the “rules” taught in counterpoint and harmony simply create the perception of a consistent number of independent voices in a musical passage. Period. There is an appropriate context for each respective set of rules, and they often overlap, but both have the virtue of maintaining a consistent aesthetic. In my personal experience, the application of rules taught in counterpoint tend to befit sparser textures (fewer voices), emphasizing the individuality of each part, while those taught in harmony foster a consistent sense of “fullness” in a musical passage.

There are appropriate musical contexts for each of these textures, and certainly many good examples of their application in Western Art Music, but in almost all cases, the texture itself generally remains as consistent as possible within each passage. When you, perhaps deliberately, break these rules (I do…), it creates the perception that independent voices drop out of the texture. Often, this can be a desirable effect, because it creates a dramatic change in the aesthetic effect of the music. With respect to the previously mentioned analysis, a texture change occurred abruptly in the middle of a phrase. My complaint, which I found so difficult to express, was simply that the composition had abruptly switched from a four voice polyphonic texture to parallel motion (in 6ths) in two voices (with a third line doubling one of these at the octave). A previously “full” harmonic texture had jettisoned a few voices in favour of two, perceptually speaking, that were not contrapuntally independent. The brevity of these changes contributed to the prominence of this effect, because the harmonic texture returned after a few notes, basically leaving me wondering “where did the chords (harmonic texture) go?”

The study of music theory is kind of funny because there are so many subtle phenomena that our hearing apparatus and neurology (ears and brain ;-) are able to detect in auditory stimuli. Unfortunately, particularly for the music student, this is manifested as a glut of specific terms, all of which are extremely hard to define without a broad understanding of other, similarly problematic, terms. The centrality of counterpoint and harmony in music education is a testament to the importance of textural consistency. However, it seems silly that although both fields of study are entirely focused on constructing a textural aesthetic, this is seldom stated outright (or explained) to students. As one concept, among many others, that took too long for me to understand, I hope that this overview makes your studies a little bit more comprehensible. It wasn’t until I attempted to articulate these ideas that I realized what this empty vocabulary is actually meant to express.


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