Basic Counterpoint for Guitar Players | Hub Guitar

Basic Counterpoint for Guitar Players

Note: this lesson deals with a traditional branch of musical study known as counterpoint.

Long ago, before the rise of the modern rock band and popular music, composers tried to enrich their music by writing polyphonicMusic written by stitching together two or more contrasting melodies. parts—different melodies that interact with each other. Counterpoint is still relevant today, but it is important to understand that studying counterpoint can feel very restrictive and rule-based. In actual musical composition, there are no rules. However, learning strict counterpoint can be a very valuable exercise. As an example, some people study “rules of debate” or “rules of logic”, but they are not required to use these rules whenever they happen to be speaking or thinking.

Just as it is clear even to most beginning musicians that the notes C–C♯–D, when played together, do not seem to form a pleasing chord, it was also clear to most people writing polyphonic music that following certain rules would make the music more coherent, and breaking them can contradict the intention of creating several independent melodies working together.

In this lesson, we’re going to describe a few general principles of counterpoint, and look at how they would work on the guitar. We’re going to risk offending some people with advanced knowledge of counterpoint in favor of creating a simple and easy-to-understand introduction geared towards guitar players.

About the examples:

In this lesson, we’ll use Bach’s Bourree in E Minor, one of the most famous pieces of guitar repertoire which is written in a contrapuntalThe adjectival form of the word “counterpoint”. style.

The Basic Tenets of Counterpoint

Melodies should sound independent.

If the melodies don’t sound independent, but just as a group of chords passing by, then what you have is not polyphonicMusic written by stitching together two or more contrasting melodies. but actually just monophonicMusic tending to be heard as a single, coherent melody, with underlying elements playing a harmonic or rhythmic role. .

Polyphonic melodies have rhythmic contrast.

In beats 1 and 2, the melody is more active, but on beats 3 and 4, attention shifts to the bass.

In the case of a two-note polyphonic composition, the two melodies will have some rhythmic overlap but also some independence. This allows the listener to hear independent motion in each of the melodies.

Strong beats will tend to outline a clear harmony.

The strong beats outline the E minor chord progression: G, Amin, B7.

The downbeats will tend to clearly pronounce a chord. The most common intervals used on the downbeats are major third, minor third, major sixth and minor sixth. All of these intervals produce a clear harmony. Sevenths and seconds will produce a lot of dissonanceRefers to the quality of two or more notes which do not have strong harmonization. This is because the notes vibrate at frequencies which have some conflict, and this conflict is audible to the human ear. that would make it difficult to hear a chord. And fourths, fifths and octaves will be too consonantA note that is consonant with another will seem to agree and fit well when played together with the first. to preserve the sound of polyphony; if you use these consonant intervals, the melodies lose their independence. 3rds and 6ths are used often, and 2nds, 7ths, 4ths, 5ths and octaves are treated with care, but not forbidden.

Leaps will tend to be both to and from notes of the chord.

In the first beat, the melody leaps from B to G, another note in the G chord. The last beat is the same chord, with the melody leaping from G to D.

The leap draws special musical attention to itself, so in the interest of keeping the counterpoint coherent, leaps will tend to both start and end on a chord tone. Non-chord tones will usually be approached and left by step.

Strong beats will tend not to repeat the same interval.

6ths and 3rds are favored. The interval type rarely is repeated, especially more than twice.

Repeating the same type of interval, such as a series of thirds, or a series of sixths, sounds a lot less like two melodies than it sounds like one melody with a harmony spaced above.

Contrary and oblique motion are emphasized, parallel motion is avoided.

There are four types of musical motion that two separate melodies can use: contrary, oblique, similar and parallel.

  • Contrary motion is when two melodies move in separate directions. One moves up, and the other moves down. This creates the strongest sense of melodic independence, a goal of counterpoint.
  • Oblique motion is when one melody note moves up or down, but the other stays the same. Since it does not follow the other, it still sounds somewhat independent.
  • Similar motion is when two melodies move in the same direction, but by different intervals. For instance, one note leaps up a fifth while the other note moves up by one step. Since the melodies move in the same direction, they have less independence.

  • Parallel motion is avoided but not strictly forbidden. It happens when two melody notes go in the same direction, either up or down, and move by the same interval. Excessive parallel motion can create the sense that there is no independence, but just one melody that is being harmonized.

Note: If you look at any of the previous examples, you can see for yourself the prevalence of contrary motion.

Further Reading

Further study of counterpoint may take the musician into the realm of the pen-and-paper composer. The teaching of counterpoint is insufficiently profitable to be given more attention here, but the interested guitar player is encouraged to buy some books. The player can then perform his or her own written counterpoints on guitar.

  • Fux, Gradus Ad Parnassum – The unfortunately named Johann Joseph Fux has been an authority on counterpoint for hundreds of years.

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