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Modern Counterpoint for Film Composers

(*this post has been adapted from my youtube video on counterpoint. For audio examples, check out the video! https://youtu.be/r_RbmbBmX9E )


Counterpoint is one of the oldest techniques in western music. Essentially, it’s the art of writing multiple, independent melodies that get played at the same time. Over hundreds of years, the techniques that were developed for counterpoint eventually lead composers to favor certain combinations of notes over others, and these combinations would eventually become our modern-day chords.


Today, counterpoint is viewed as a complicated but effective tool that can take a composer’s music to the “next level”. This is especially true for musical theater and film.


Skilled and Knowledgeable composers will use counterpoint to write multiple themes for a single project. While each melody can stand out on its own, writing them contrapuntally allows each theme to be layered with the others at any point. The composer can layer the themes on top of each other without having to worry about whether or not it will “work”.


Composers like Howard Shore and Lin Manuel Miranda are famous for this. Their ability to have multiple melodic ideas performing at the same time allows for the emotions and ideas associated with each theme to blend together and create an entirely new emotional experience.


Now traditionally taught, counterpoint is a complex and difficult skill to master. Baroque period counterpoint has so many different rules, exceptions, and requirements that you could spend years studying and struggling to understand. However, we no longer live in the baroque period, and outside a few select settings we can quite easily get away with a less traditional and dogmatic approach. Instead, we can follow a much simpler and more flexible strategy.


First off, all counterpoint requires at least two elements. A cantus firmus or “fixed voice” and a counterpoint line. The Cantus firmus is basically just the original melody. It’s the first melodic idea that you write. Each counterpoint line is an additional melody that you write to work contrapuntally with your cantus firmus.


Effective counterpoint will consist of a cantus firmus and one or more counterpoint lines that remain rhythmically independent while at the same time being both rhythmically and harmonically complementary to each other. But how does this work? Let‘s start by looking at the rhythmic portion first.


Rhythmic Elements of Counterpoint

Traditionally Counterpoint is typically taught in a style known as “species counterpoint” with each species basically referring to a different rhythmic ratio.


Species one counterpoint has a 1:1 ratio. Or for every 1 note in a melodic line, the other melody will also have 1 note.




Species two covers both ratios of 2:1 and 3:1, which means for every 1 note a melody has, the other would have 2 or 3.






Species three covers a 4:1 ratio.




Species 4 focuses on syncopated melodies (the notes are played or articulated on traditionally weak beats)





And species 5 has a combination of one or more of these species and is typically what people think of when they imagine contrapuntal music (play example)





Now we aren’t going to bother ourselves with trying to tackle the individual idiosyncrasies and rules of each species, but the concept of thinking in ratios is important for our own approach. Rhythmically speaking we’ll want to be aware of just how many notes each counterpoint line has in relationship to the cantus firmus at any given point.


Generally speaking, an effective counterpoint line will try to offer a contrast from the original melody. If the cantus firmus uses longer notes, then a counterpoint line might consider using shorter ones. If the cantus firmus uses shorter notes, then the counterpoint line might try focusing on longer note values. In either situation, the ratio remains on the larger side, which helps provide energy and forward momentum to the music.


Harmonic Elements of Counterpoint


Harmonically speaking, we’ll want to consider two things; interval types, and motion types.


Interval-wise, we want to watch for key moments where we focus on “consonant” or “pleasant” intervals. These key moments are typically on the strong beats of whatever meter you are working on or any moments where the cantus firmus and counterpoint line articulate a new note at the same time. Other than these two moments, you don’t have to worry too much about trying to remain consonant.


Motion-wise, there are four basic types we can consider. Contrary motion is when the cantus firmus and counterpoint line move in opposite directions. If one moves down in pitch, the other moves up. This type of movement helps add energy and momentum to the sound, by really highlighting the fact that these are two independent melodic ideas.


Parallel motion is when both lines move in the same direction and by the same interval. So if the cantus firmus moves up by a minor 3rd interval, so will the counterpoint line. This approach sounds much more unified and low energy. As a word of caution, using too much parallel motion can run the danger of completely undermining your counterpoint. The whole point of writing contrapuntally is to emphasize the independence and individuality of each line. Using too much parallel motion makes the two melodies sound like one basic idea just played in different registers.


Similar motion is closely related to parallel motion but without the same dangers. Here both voices move in the same direction but at different intervals. For example, if the cantus firmus moves up by a minor third, the counterpoint line could move up a P4, P5, or any other interval other than a minor third.


Finally, the 4th kind of movement, or oblique motion, is when one voice moves to a new pitch, but the other doesn’t. This type of movement helps offer contrast, and underline the independence in a similar but slightly less dramatic way to the Contrary motion.


With all this information about rhythm and harmony in mind, we can finally address our actual approach to using counterpoint.


Writing Counterpoint

So first things first, we need a cantus firmus. Here we have a short 8-bar melody that we can work with.





This melody is written in 4/4 time, which means that the strong beats are on beats 1 and 3. Let’s go through and add two half notes for each bar of our counterpoint line, one for each strong beat. When doing this, we want to focus on two things: the 1st is that we maintain consonant intervals between each of these half notes and the cantus firmus notes that start at the same time. The second is that our counterpoint line needs to be able to stand on its own as a strong melodic idea, so keep an eye out for motivic ideas that you can start to form with these half notes.





So here I’ve gone and written out a few ideas. I’ve made sure to include notes on each of the intervals the two melodies form with each other every 1st and 3rd beat of the measure so we can see that each interval is considered consonant. As a reminder, the P4 interval can be considered either consonant or dissonant depending on who you ask. Since the cantus firmus was written in a minor key (A minor) I decided that the subtle dissonance of the P4 would be perfectly at home in the counterpoint. However, this decision is up to you, and something you can make your own decisions about while writing your own music.


If you’ll look at the counterpoint line, the first two measures are starting to show a hint of a motivic idea that returns in measures 5 and 6, a repeated pitch that moves up and then returns back down. This is something useful that I can keep in mind when I start to embellish this line and make it more melodic.


Our next step is to revisit our fledgling counterpoint line and start looking for ways that we can embellish it. Since we’ve gone through the trouble of selecting consonant notes for each of the strong beats, we can now revisit them and place new notes in between, without worrying about whether or not they form consonant intervals with the cantus firmus. So long as we keep the starting points where they are, we should be good. The one exception is if we write a new note that is articulated at the same time as a note in the cantus firmus. If this happens it’s important to try and make sure that they form a consonant interval with each other as well.


Let’s try tackling this for the first few measures. In measure one we have both a 2:1 ratio in the first half and a 1:1 ratio in the second half. To keep things simple, let’s try to even that out. We’ll keep the 2:1 ratio in the beginning, and let’s add another note in the second half to maintain it. I’m going to split this half note into two quarter notes and bridge the gap between E and G by placing an F in between to act as a passing tone.





In measure two, We’ll do the opposite and turn each half into a 1:1 ratio, by splitting G into two notes and stepping back down to the E.





In this third measure, let’s try adding a bit of variety by keeping the 2:1 ratio in the first half, but breaking it down into a 1:1 ratio in the second by turning the second half note into an F and A respectively, which create a little leap in the melody before resolving back down to G.





Finally this fourth measure we’ll try a 3:1 ratio overall by bridging G and B together with a short A note in between.





Now we have a simple but effective 4-bar phrase in the Counterpoint line. To make sure that we establish this as a strong melodic idea, let’s repeat this phrase, with some subtle variations.





As you can see, I’ve kept mostly to the same exact rhythmic pattern, with some slight variation, and only adjusted the pitches as necessary to keep with the original rough draft.


One other thing that I’d like to bring to your attention is the transition from Measure 4 to Measure 5. In the Cantus firmus, we have an E5 moving down to an A4, which is an interval of a P5. In the counterpoint line, the B4 is moving down to an E4, which is also an interval of a P5. If you remember from earlier, when two voices move in the same direction by the same intervals it is called “parallel movement”. Traditionally any parallel movement by a P5, P4, or Octave is strictly against the rules. Any strict counterpoint professor could have a field day on this! However, in our contemporary approach, this isn’t as big of a deal.


The risk here is that parallel movement by perfect intervals undermines the independence of the voices. However, the golden rule for our contemporary approach is “yeah, but does sound good?” If you like the way it sounds, then don’t worry about it! If you don’t, then try something else! As long as this type of movement doesn’t happen too frequently the independence between our melodies shouldn’t be put in jeopardy.


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