Counterpoint is the technique of writing independent melodic lines that work together to create effective music. This linear perspective has influenced some of the most popular songs and artists in the 20th century, including the music of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and many other contemporary artists—even in the sampling techniques of hip-hop and techno. The study of Counterpoint is essential knowledge for songwriters, composers, and musicians who want to strengthen their compositional skills.
Berklee Online's Counterpoint course explores the mechanics of basic contrapuntal technique, focusing on the horizontal aspects of composition; in other words, how melodies interact with one another. The course begins with writing a simple melodic line that works with an existing melody. You will then learn to add complexity to your melodic lines using thicker textures and the concepts of consonance and dissonance. You will study motivic manipulations of sequence, inversion, retrograde, and other variations. The course also explores various canonic techniques, including simple, mirror, crab, and mensuration canons.
This course uses musical examples from the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th century periods, in addition to relevant examples from contemporary popular artists and styles. You'll have access to a timeline from which you can see the chronological and geographical placement of musical examples as you listen to them. Throughout the course, you will strengthen your music listening, reading, and writing skills through hands-on writing activities. The goal of the course is to give you a broad overview of counterpoint and improve your compositional skills, regardless of stylistic preference.
By the end of this course, you will be able to:
- Identify and compose music using various contrapuntal techniques
- Differentiate and apply counterpoint ratios, including 1:1, 2:1, 3:1, 4:1, suspensions, and consonant syncopations
- Identify stylistic uses of consonance and dissonance in diverse style periods
- Manipulate and apply motives, using sequence, inversion, retrograde, and other variations
- Write canons, including simple, accompanied, at intervals other than the octave, crab, and mensuration canons
What Is Counterpoint?
- Three Musical Textures
- Counterpoint Overview
- Consonance and Dissonance
- Degrees of Dissonance
- 1:1 and 2:1 Ratios
Lesson 2: Ratios, Phrases, and Form
- Applying Ratio Principles
- Identifying Form in Music
- The Phrase
- Phrases in Jacquet de la Guerre's "Menuet"
- Call and Response Phrasal Format
- The Cadence
- Antecedents and Consequents
- 3:1 and 4:1 Ratios and Syncopation
Lesson 3: Non-Chord Tones
- Chord Tones
- What Are Non-Chord Tones?
- Passing and Neighbor Tones
- Retardations, Anticipations, and Pedal Tones
- Appoggiatura, Escape Tone, Cambiata
- Writing Counterpoint with Non-Chord Tones
Lesson 4: Motivic Manipulation
- What Is a Motive?
- How to Use a Motive as a Generating Device
- Motivic Manipulation
- Digging in Deeper
- Do You Want to Dance? Basse Danse, Yours or Mine?
Lesson 5: Canon
- What Is a Canon?
- Sumer Is Icumin In
- Bizet, L'Arlesienne, "Farandole"
- How to Write a Simple Canon at the Octave
Lesson 6: Writing Two-Part Tonal Counterpoint with Simple Canon
- Revisiting Bizet
- Canon and Non-Canonic Imitative Counterpoint
- Analyzing Bach's "Minuet"
Lesson 7: Accompanied Canon
- Getting Acquainted with Pachelbel's "Canon in D"
- "Canon in D" in the 21st Century
- Moving Forward with the Ground (or Under the Ground as in Purcell's "Lament")
- Returning to Summer
Lesson 8: Inverted Canon at the 4th and 5th
- Canons at Intervals Other than the Octave
- Inverted Canon (or Canone in Moto Contrario)
- Bach's "Goldberg Variation No. 12"
Lesson 9: Double Counterpoint, Alchemy, and the Crab Canon
- Double Counterpoint
- Bach's Invention No. 6
- Theile, Musicalisches Kunstbuch, Selections from Number 7
- Crab Canon
Lesson 10: Stretching and Squeezing Time: Prolation and the Mensuration Canon
- Defining Prolation and Mensuration
- Canons by Augmentation and Diminution
- Row, Row, Row Your Boat
- Josquin des Prez' "Ex una voces tres" from Agnus Dei II
Lesson 11: Versatility of the Canon
- "Thirteen Canons for Women's Voices, No. 4, Op. 113, No. 6"
- Revisiting "Sumer Is Icumen In"
- Early 20th Century Example: Bartok
Lesson 12: Introduction to "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber
- Listening to Barber's "Adagio for Strings"
- "Adagio for Strings:" Melody, Phrase 1
- "Adagio for Strings:" Melody, Phrases 2-3
- "Adagio for Strings:" Section 2 Summary
- "Adagio for Strings:" Registral and Tonal Centers
- Structural Melodic Summary
Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements
Student should be able to:
- Demonstrate fluent music reading skills including use of treble and bass clefs, intervals, key signatures, time signatures, and chord identification
- Understand simple triadic melody harmonizations
- Contemporary Counterpoint: Theory & Application by Beth Denisch, Berklee Press
- MuseScore, Finale 2012 or higher, or Sibelius 4 or higher. Note that assignment templates will be provided as MusicXML files, which you will import into your notation program to complete. The completed homework files should be saved as a .pdf file for submission to the instructor.
After enrolling, please check the Getting Started section of your course for potential deals on required materials. Our Student Deals page also features several discounts you can take advantage of as a current student. Please contact email@example.com for any questions.
General Course Requirements
Below are the minimum requirements to access the course environment and participate in live chats. Please make sure to also check the Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements section above, and ensure your computer meets or exceeds the minimum system requirements for all software needed for your course.
- Latest version of Google Chrome
- Zoom meeting software (available in the course when joining your first chat)
- Speakers or headphones
- External or internal Microphone
- Broadband Internet connection
Author & Instructor
Beth Denisch is a Professor in the Composition department at Berklee College of Music. Her music has been performed throughout the U.S. and in Canada, Mexico, Greece, Ukraine, Russia, China, and Thailand and recorded by Juxtab, Albany, and Interval record labels.
She has received awards and grants from ASCAP, Meet the Composer, PatsyLu Fund, American Composers Forum, and American Music Center. Her music has been commissioned by the Handel and Haydn Society, St. Louis Historical Society, Equinox Chamber Players, Philadelphia Classical Symphony, and Chamber Orchestra Kremlin. Denisch is active in the Feminist Theory and Music, Gender Research in Music and Education, and Women's Philharmonic Advocacy organizations. She holds a bachelor of music degree from North Texas State University and master and doctoral degrees in music from Boston University. Read Less
When taken for credit, Counterpoint can be applied towards these associated programs: