[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

RE: Contrapunct; polyphony; Beatles etc

So -- any composition with at least two independent voices would be
considered polyphonic, and a composition with only two voices (each of which
is independent) would be considered contrapuntal, but a piece with 3 voices
(2 of which are independent and one of which is not) would be polyphonic but
not contrapuntal, and a piece with 3 voices, only one of which is
independent, would be monophonic? Or is there yet another category for
pieces which have only one voice, period? And what about "rounds," like Row
Row Row your Boat, which have 3 voices, all of which are repeating the same
melodic material, but at staggered intervals, in such a manner that they
interweave harmonically?  Is it considered contrapuntal, or even polyphonic?
Or is this the simplest form of canon? And how does fugue enter into all
this? Perhaps a fugue is a complex canon in which material is repeated at
different times in different voices, but the voices are always running
independently of each other so that there is polyphony and counterpoint as

P.S. It seems to me (from the vantage point of the serious but musically
untrained listener) that quite a bit of Mozart's  music  is monophonic.
Thus, at least when considered only from the standpoint of counterpoint, it
is less complex than most rock music. But of course that only begins to tell
the story -- there is far greater complexity in the other musical values
(harmony, rhythm, and overall structure, including sonata form). Maybe
Gouldians find it difficult to appreciate Mozart because it requires a
process of weaning one's ears off the expectation of counterpoint (although
it is certainly does characterize some portions of Mozart's output), and
attuning them to these other values. Also, even when Mozart's music is
contrapuntal (such as 4th mvt of Jupiter symphony, or 3rd mvmt of 19th piano
concerto), the counterpoint is  deftly sketched in to achieve the desired
effect in the overall structure, rather than being the defining
characteristic of the music. Mozart was a master of the economy of means. He
achieved complexity and lightness at the same time.

-----Original Message-----
From: Bradley Lehman [mailto:bpl@umich.edu]
Sent: Wednesday, November 24, 1999 12:42 PM
To: BONG; f_minor@email.rutgers.edu
Subject: Re: Contrapunct; polyphony; Beatles etc

>A short question: what is the difference between contrapunct and polyphony?

Unfortunately here is a not especially short answer!  :)

"Polyphony" is simply the general term for a musical texture having more
than one melody simultaneously.  It is the opposite of monophony.

"Counterpoint" is usually more specific than that: it refers to the
compositional "rules" that eighteenth-century theorists (most notably J J
Fux with his _Gradus ad parnassum_, 1725) derived from study of Renaissance
music.  These rules describe how to make two or more parts flow smoothly
together, retaining enough independence.  In short, the theorists invented
recipes for writing Renaissance music two hundred years after it was out of
popular style.  Music by those rules was still held to be an ideal, and
composers were expected to study how to construct polyphonic music in this
manner.  (If one learns counterpoint well, the practice from exercises
becomes a good basis for writing many kinds of music almost automatically.
Clumsy voice-leading ideas don't occur to the well-trained Germanic
composer.  The rules save one from a long process of trial and error, and
are broken only for deliberate expressive purposes.)

In a contrapuntal texture, all the voices have equal (or nearly equal)
importance as melodies.  If all the parts are well written, any pair of
voices can be selected at random for examination and will show adherence to
the rules of counterpoint.

Counterpoint is polyphonic, as there obviously must be more than one line

But polyphony is not necessarily contrapuntal; if some of the parts are not
really independent melodies in themselves, the texture is not entirely
contrapuntal.  In a huge quantity of music, the top line and the bass line
follow most of the "rules" of counterpoint, but everything else in the
texture is primarily harmonic filler rather than truly independent
additional lines.  For an example, choose almost any rock song.  The bass
player, if s/he has any imagination, is playing a bass line that moves
melodically at least some of the time, and not merely jumping around to
chord roots.  Simultaneously the lead singer has a melody that is (more or
less) in reasonable counterpoint with the bass line.  But everybody else has
relatively less important material that isn't primarily melodic; it's
generally harmonic and rhythmic in support of the vocal and the bass,
filling in the texture without being particularly melodic in itself.

If all these other "accompanying" parts weren't playing, a rock song could
be called contrapuntal (two-part: singer and bass).  With all the parts
playing, it's merely polyphony but not counterpoint.

(Yes, it's doubtful that many rock musicians have studied classic
counterpoint, but the typical elements of two-part counterpoint have been
inherited into the musical style anyway.  There are plenty of cliches and
formulas that are used automatically: melodic patterns, harmonic motion,
rhythmic structure, overall form.)

If one writes music that is ignorant of the contrapuntal "rules," it can be
clumsy, difficult to perform, and make unintended effects in unintended
places.  On the other hand, if one writes music that merely follows rules
and formulas, it can be boring.  The trick is finding the middle ground.


Here's what GG wrote as part of his 1967 "The Search for Petula Clark"
essay, bashing the Beatles for their lack of musical integrity: "(...)
Tonally, the Beatles have as little regard for the niceties of voice leading
as Erik Satie for the anguished cross-relation of the German postromantics.
Theirs is a happy, cocky, belligerently resourceless brand of harmonic
primitivism.  Their career has been one long send-up of the equation:
sophistication = chromatic extension.  The willful, dominant prolongations
and false tonic releases to which they subject us, 'Michelle'
notwithstanding, in the name of foreground elaboration, are merely
symptomatic of a cavalier disinclination to observe the psychological
properties of tonal background.  In the Liverpudlian repertoire, the
indulgent amateurishness of the musical material, though closely rivaled by
the indifference of the performing style, is actually surpassed only by the
ineptitude of the studio production method.  ('Strawberry Fields' suggests a
chance encounter at a mountain wedding between Claudio Monteverdi and a jug
band.) (...)"

Thirty years later I'd say that the Beatles are paragons of creativity
compared with most other rock groups since then....

It's funny, too, that GG cites Satie without pointing out Satie's own
disinclination to follow any rules of classical counterpoint.

Bradley Lehman