Counterpoint is very simply the idea of designing music with multiple voices that all work together but regarding each voice in somewhat of a independent way. Counterpoint precedes Bach though Bach is considered the pinnacle of that era in music. In fact, the simple 2-part inventions that you played in your early days of piano are a very obvious example of counterpoint. There are two independent lines (one in each hand) that work well together.
Sometimes, the term polyphony is used as an alternate term to describe that approach to writing music. However, one thing that many people do not know is that polyphony sort of went out of vogue in some ways. It eventually gave way to homophony later on in the classical era and homophony is still the way we usually think about music today.
While polyphony refers to fitting together multiple lines of music together, homophony is the idea of taking a melody line and harmonizing it with chords. The lead sheet with its melody line and chords is a perfect picture of the concept of homophony. Also, if you pick up a hymnal, you see 99.9% homophony. There is a melody line and the other three parts support it with a chord. Granted, good part writing results in the other parts singing lines that are at least somewhat interesting, but no one would ever say that the other lines are really independent of the melody. They support the melody but they can’t stand on their own.
Counterpoint followed strict rules and some still believe those rules apply to “good” music today. I sometimes see that term used in music philosophy statements of churches or colleges. In general, I am somewhat skeptical because harmony has developed a long way from Bach’s day and today’s harmonic sophistication renders a lot of old school rules irrelevant. For example, parallel 5ths are probably a bad idea when you are working with triads but if you are using extended harmony, parallel 5ths are very often just fine. I certainly hope that is the case because I use them intentionally all the time.
Here is something interesting though. I think in general, the best writers and improvisers know counterpoint instinctively and intentionally write that way. That is especially true when writing choral but even in instrumental ensembles, it is a good thing. Even in a world where the melody is king, it is healthy and pleasant thing for the other lines to be as interesting as possible even while being subservient. In jazz for example, great bassists are known for the interesting bass lines they play underneath the melody.
And that brings me the question of the day: how do you write counterpoint if you want to just make your writing better or need a contrasting textural idea in your music?
One of the very easiest ways I know to write counterpoint is simply to connect dots. The dots are simply critical notes that you HAVE to hit at the right time. For example, in a baseline, you are defining the chords, so when the chord changes, there is a note (usually a root) that you have to play on critical beats. Let’s say that the chord is changing on beats 1 and 3 in a song. You basically are usually going to play roots on 1 and 3 but you can connect those roots with a series of notes that creates a line. In effect, you are sort of writing a melody by connecting dots.
Here is a very simple example:
This is a line from the Christmas carol “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly.” While the rest of the song is clearly homophonic, I chose to throw in a polyphonic line (the left hand line) simply for contrast and also to introduce some forward movement into the song.
I am connecting dots here but the dots are not usually roots. In fact, the dots are usually inversions (sort of a drop-3 voicing concept). However on the critical beats, I am making sure my polyphonic line is landing on a critical note of the underlying chord. For example, in bar 42, beats 1 and 2 are C7 and I am hitting the third of C7 on beat 1 and the root on beat 2. In beat 3, the chord switches to A7 and I am playing the 5th of that chord. The notes between those critical notes are basically just filling in gaps (drawing lines between the dots).
If you play that counterpoint line from bar 41-44, it will not win any melody contests but it does stand on its own independently.
When you think of counterpoint in this way it is not very intimidating. By the way, counterpoint is closely related to another concept I have talked about that I refer to inner voice movement such as you see on this next line from that arrangement (right hand).
I don’t think all your music needs to be written this way. In fact, in some ways, it is a bit old fashioned. However, counterpoint is still a good textural idea and there is much that we can glean from its use to help us when writing in a homophonic context.