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Re: Contrapunct; polyphony; Beatles etc

Daniel asked:

>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,

Yes; the classic technique in counterpoint classes is to take a pre-existing
single line melody (a "cantus firmus", meaning you're not allowed to change
its notes) and then to invent a new second line against it which follows the
contrapuntal rules.

An internet search for "species counterpoint" will give you some nice leads.

>but a piece with 3 voices
>(2 of which are independent and one of which is not) would be polyphonic
>not contrapuntal,

Well, sort of halfway contrapuntal because of the two independent voices....

>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?

Monophonic music is one unaccompanied line, most typically plainchant.  A
piece with one important part plus some essentially harmonic other parts is
homophony.  (If it's sung, all the singers have the same words at the same
time moving at the same speed.)

>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
>Or is this the simplest form of canon?

Yes, yes, and yes.  (Unless you're Glenn Gould, who claimed that in
elementary school he preferred to change the key and/or the speed to make
"Row, row, row your boat" more interesting...the piece does have only one
harmonic center, after all, and becomes rather dull....)

>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

Yep, you've got it.  Fugue is essentially a loosely constructed canon where
the voices don't all have to have the same material, though they share some
of it.  It also usually has quite a few sections called "episodes" where the
main subjects are absent for a while.  This is often to give space for
modulation to a new key, or perhaps just to change the mood briefly.

Contrapunctus 7 in the Art of Fugue is a remarkable case: it normally lasts
between four and five minutes, but there is only one episode (and then a
free coda at the end).  The subject is there *all the time* in some voice,
at some speed, except for those three measures of episode.  It's sort of
like an oasis.  And what does Bach put there?  He puts some rests into the
bass line to change the character and lighten the texture!  Very cool.

>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.

Er, homophonic if all the voices are of similar timbre (say, all strings, or
all voices, or all basset horns) and moving simultaneously in support of one
main melody.

Or a texture of melody plus accompaniment is sometimes called heterophony.
The voices are different from one another (different instruments, or perhaps
different patterns) yet they work together, and some are more important than
others.  As I tried to point out, but didn't describe very well, usually at
least the main melody and the bass still conform to basic rules of
counterpoint.  Contrary motion, motion at different speeds, avoidance of too
many parallels, etc.

Pick a Baroque sonata for a solo instrument: the composers generally notated
parts for only the soloist and the bass players, and then the continuo group
improvises any other filler parts which fit the needs of the specific
performance.  The two notated parts still stick to the contrapuntal rules.
Skillful continuo players then add third, fourth, or even fifth lines
occasionally against these two, in addition to playing a more
chordally-based accompaniment some of the time.  Variation of the texture is
interesting; too much of an unchanging texture gets dull.  It's a reaction
from moment to moment, adding what seems to be needed.  (In a sense this is
what rock band members are essentially doing, too, though there is less
emphasis on linear motion and they are less likely to have studied
Renaissance/Baroque counterpoint!)

My description of polyphony (with example of rock song) before was maybe a
little confusing, sorry; it usually refers to an ensemble of similar types
of voices or instruments, where all the voices have a similar sound except
for pitch.  That's automatically true on a keyboard, too, as long as the
texture really is separate lines rather than chord fillers.

>Thus, at least when considered only from the standpoint of counterpoint, it
>is less complex than most rock music.

Nah.  Mozart's music is more contrapuntally complex than rock music.  Well,
except when he's doing it deliberately badly, as in his "A Musical Joke"
also known as the "Village Musicians' Sextet."  There he does bad things to
mock the hack composers who never learned harmony, form, or counterpoint!
But pick any of Mozart's other chamber music.  He says more musically with
three or four lines, all contrapuntally solid, than any rock band I can
think of.

>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.

I'd say Gouldians find it difficult to appreciate Mozart because Our Hero
told us that Mozart was lousy.  It took me at least five years to get over
that idea and to realize that Glenn Gould was almostly completely wrong

>Also, even when Mozart's music is
>contrapuntal (such as 4th mvt of Jupiter symphony, or 3rd mvmt of 19th
>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.
>achieved complexity and lightness at the same time.

Agreed about the economy of means in general; there's not much extraneous
junk in it, though he did maybe "phone in" some of those Alberti basses.

But I'd say his music is contrapuntally written *most of the time* (except
in the piano works).  The symphonies, operas, sacred works, and chamber
music are thoroughly contrapuntal, with parts weaving in and out all the
time.  Our problem is that we're too culturally conditioned by other types
of music to listen for only one thing at a time, rather than hearing many
parts of the texture at once.  (Remember the "Mozart makes you smarter"
campaigns of the past few years?)  A section of a piece doesn't have to be a
fugato to be contrapuntal; it's just that the counterpoint is more blatantly
obvious there.

But I agree with you that Mozart was great at suggesting things without
having to make his music only one way or another at any given moment.  He
learned that from J S Bach, Handel, CPE Bach, JC Bach, Haydn, etc.

Bradley Lehman