Wednesday, July 09, 2008

How to Compose Counterpoint (Where to Begin)

This is not a post about the rules of counterpoint, rather this will be about where to start once you've learned the basic rules. The title of the post is a Google search term I find in the Sitemeter log fairly frequently, so I thought I'd dedicate a specific post to it. So, I'm assuming here that you have already suffered through all of the tedious classroom type exercises of feces species counterpoint, and are ready to begin composing your own pieces from scratch.

Whether you play the guitar as I do, or a keyboard instrument, the place to start is with simple binary or ternary form miniatures in two voices. One of the biggest mistakes aspiring composers make is getting overly-ambitious. Sure, we'd all like to compose "The Great Symphony," but that is exactly the wrong place to begin.

This is only the second piece in traditional counterpoint that I ever wrote - the first being a set of six variations - and it is a perfect model for what I'm talking about. Now, I had ten years of writing jazz and other popular styles under my belt by this time - I was twenty-nine years old - so it isn't exactly nursery rhyme simple, but it's close.

As you can see, I wrote this over twenty years ago in 1987 (Where does the time go, anyway?), and since I had a decade's worth of popular idiomatic rhythm concepts in my noggin, one of the decisions I had to make was to almost completely eliminate rhythm as a variable: As soon as I tried to get overly rhythmic, it started to sound jazzy. This turned out to be a good decision for me, but you may not have that issue.

What I did here was to take the counterpoint exercises I had done as a point of departure, and I just wrote my own lines. I composed the melody first and then added the bass line, so I was basically still using the good, old fashioned cantus firmus technique I had learned, but I just wrote my own cantus.

As you can see, the piece is in B minor and it is completely diatonic to the melodic minor contextual idiom: No modulations at all. The more variables you can eliminate - the simpler you can make the project - the better your chances of success.

There are only two sections to the form; an eight measure A section and a twelve measure B section. The overall repeat scheme makes the form, A, A, B, A, B, A' where A' (The coda) is just the second four bars of the original A section. The rule of thumb for repeating the A sections is this: If there is a first and second ending, then you will probably want to repeat the A sections in between statements of the B section, but if there is only one ending to the A section, then you won't. Exceptions to this crop up, of course, but I find that they are very infrequent. Shortening the final A section is usually a good idea in a little piece like this that doesn't modulate, because, "brevity is the soul of wit" with tiny works like this.

My model for this, by the way, was the Scherzo of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, only I wrote it in 6/8 instead of 3/4, and I didn't use imitation. If you know that and you play the tune, the connection becomes obvious.


Now, I was specifically trying to learn the traditional melodic minor idiom at that point - which was new to me as a composer then - and I had already mastered traditional major from my jazz composing days, so an even simpler and better place to start would be the major mode. Here is a major key version of the same piece I rendered last year.

I got the idea to do this when I considered adding a little rhythmic vitality to the minor key version, but I decided against it because I really liked the continuous drive of the perpetual motion version in minor. So, since there are hardly any pieces for classical guitar in five sharps, I decided to transcribe the piece to major and add the lilting rhythm to it. That rhythm sounds much better to me in the major mode anyway.

Looking at it in the major really makes it look absolutely pure, doesn't it? There isn't a single accidental in the entire piece.

The only changes I made to the counterpoint were in the bass line, and one of those was an instance of, "things that work in minor, but not major": The A-natural in the bass of measure 9 in the previous version was a cool modal effect only available in minor (Unless I wanted to get all mixolydian about it, which sounds goofy in a context like this), so I lowered that to G-sharp in the major key version. Then, at measure 11, I lowered the E an octave to use the lowest note on the guitar there. I could have done that in the minor key too, but I just like the respective versions in the respective modes, "just because."

This major key version, by the way, just came up on my, "to do" list, and it sounds excellent. It's kind of an anachronism for me - I don't think I could write a completely diatonic major key piece today if my life depended on it (OK, a slight exaggeration) - but it fits into my set perfectly because, like I said, a guitarist can never have enough pieces in B major (I've only ever composed three pieces in B major, with this being the third). And yes, I've been performing the minor key version on and off for over twenty years now.

The bottom line is, if you have the innate, natural musical intuition to create tiny little gems of absolute perfection like this, you can develop that over time by writing more and more ambitious pieces until you reach the point where you are composing multi-movement sonatas containing large works that are also models of perfection. You just have to start simple and gradually and naturally develop over the course of time.

I never would have been able to master the fugal and sonata processes if I hadn't started simple like this.


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