– Hi. Various people have written to us in recent months to ask for a bit of advice on writing counterpoint. So, let’s see if we can just get you started with a bit of counterpoint writing in just a few minutes. Obviously it’s a huge agenda, and if you want to do it properly, well you can go back to the 16th century and work through the 16th century styles and there’s something called species counterpoint to help you do that. But also it’s worth looking at a lot of Baroque music which is based on a contrapuntal style, and certain forms, particularly fugue, is a kind of high point of counterpoint.
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But you don’t really want to start by going and doing something that is really complicated. So how about we just getting something going that just invites a little bit of contrapuntal thinking. I think what lots of people are telling me is that they’re okay at kind of writing chords maybe writing a melody with chords, but they end up with their music kind of organised vertically without this idea of layering some melodic strands. So what I’ve done here is just to give us a five note opening.
And we’re just going to do this in a sort of Baroque style, but it doesn’t really matter if you work in a Baroque style or not. And how would I go about turning that into the opening part of a little bit of counterpoint? Well, we’ve got this idea at the top here. And the most obvious thing that we can now do is to imitate that in the left hand. Now one thing we could do is imitate it at the same pitch.
Would work perfectly well. Another thing we can do is to take this idea sometimes called a “point” so counterpoint, you see where this is coming from, a little point of imitation. We could take this point and imitate it at a different pitch like this. How about that? Doesn’t really matter which you decide to do you’re very free to do that. You could imitate this and slightly change the end of it. Do something like that. So we’ve imitated this, it feels a little bit contrapuntal but it’s not entirely strict. So there’s strict counterpoint and there’s free counterpoint, so you can be strict if you want to or you can be free. So options we’ve talked about so far, imitate this exactly, an octave lower. Sounds perfectly good. Imitate it exactly, but starting on C instead of F, so this is a tonic and then we’re going to start on the dominant. Or have a slightly freer approach maybe starting on C, but changing the end of that little group, so we keep the same rhythm because sometimes that imitation of rhythm is stronger in definition then the imitation in notes. Well, how about we do a free one for now, doesn’t really matter we could’ve done with any of those. So if I, copy this point here. But I’m going to start on C, and then I’m going to go up to E, and then I’m just going to change the last two notes, just to demonstrate really that it’s perfectly feasible to do that. And then I’m going to go up to there. Quite a good idea to sort of leave that value open, because we’re not quite sure where we’re going to go to next. Now if you seen what I’ve done, I started with these five notes and then I’ve got the five notes that imitate it. Once I’ve got that going I can then come back and write the upper part for this bar. Now you can see the danger here and this is what people get into. They start with these five notes and they carry on right in the upper part and then they say, “Well I can’t get this to imitate in the left hand, “because it doesn’t fit “with what I’ve written in the right hand.” So see what I’ve done, written the first five notes on the right hand and then written the next five notes on the left hand, because when I’ve got this I can then think, “Okay what I’m I going to do up here?” We also in counterpoint, want a bit of a conversation going between the two parts. So, you know, we’ve had one voice saying this and then the other voices answered saying this. So, try not to have the identical rhythm going in the upper part now because we want this to be the distinctive moment and this is maybe just going to play a sort of more minor role for the time being, as a sort of background accompaniment to this, and maybe just pad out the harmony a little bit. One important thing when you write counterpoint, you’ve still got to think harmony, if you just think counterpoint you end up with all sorts of wacky things going on in the harmony. Well what’s going on here, this is really chord I, F major, this is looking like chord V isn’t it? And then probably we’re going to come back to chord I again. So having a harmonic plan you can work to is important. Now what I’m going to do here, this is dotted crotchet so we’ll hold on to that, while we can enjoy listening to the beginning of the point there. Then what I could do, is bring that down to B-flat because then that turns our chord V into V7, C into C seven, or dominant chord into a dominant seventh. Now keep thinking about things we know from harmony, like if you write a dominant seventh, then the seventh usually wants to fall by step. So, that B-flat is going to have to come down to A. So that gets us started. Now what are we going to do next? So far, we’ve got this. Okay, now we could then think, “Okay let’s have something else we could imitate”, so let’s turn this into a quaver and maybe have another pair of semiquavers. So we carry on using some of the same melodic or rhythmic ideas that we’ve had. Now this is all going by step, what we call conjunct movement. So here I’m trying to keep a bit of conjunct movement going, but I’m also sort of thinking well maybe we could have some leaps at this point. So maybe we could leap an octave at that point. How’s this shaping up? So, I’m now sort of writing the next little idea, which is based on this, you see rhythmically it’s the same thing, but melodically it’s doing something different. So. And then maybe I could, get into something that’s slightly more extended. Sorry I should have extended these staves. So maybe some semiquavers would then flow on from here quite nicely. You can sort of see how that might spin into something else. One thing that can happen when you write counterpoint is that you end up with lots of little fragmentary ideas, which is fine some of the time, but sometimes they want to kind of spin into something else, like I’m doing here. So, we’ve got this and then. Okay, so that’s kind of getting something else going there. Now at some point, we want to get the left hand maybe to start to imitate something we’ve done there. Because we’re now going emphasis on the right hand, emphasis on the left hand, emphasis in the right hand, the left hand doesn’t want to be too busy in this bar. So we could just use it to fill out some harmony. So maybe I’m going to use that chord I there, F, I could come down to A, which then means that we’ve moved from I to Ib, so we’re thinking harmonically. And then probably we could move on to chord IV, because that would fit with all of that quite happily. So you see some of the time we’re just completing the harmony. You don’t want to get into a situation where one hand goes “da da da pom pom” then the other hand goes “ba ba bum bum bum” then the other hand goes “ba ba bum bum bum” then the other hand goes “ba ba bum bum bum” you can see the problem, it just becomes incredibly predictable. So we’re kind of doing this “da da da pom pom” different melody but same rhythm to give us a bit of cohesion and then it’s sort of flowing on a little bit, into something else. So I haven’t got the bass starting straight away imitating it because that’s may be just a bit too predictable. What we could do next? Maybe carry on down the scale. And then we’ll see where that goes. I’ll tell you what we could do, we’ll have a B-natural here and we’ll have a little sort of hint of a modulation to the dominant key of C. And then when we get there, we’ll maybe this is the time to get this going in the bass, but I’ll transpose it cause now we’re in the key of C. So how about we do this? Do you see what I’m doing? Transposing that. So now I’ve driven it from the bass line, I was driving this from the upper part, and then allowing the bass line to fill in, but now I’m picking up the counterpoint in the left hand, and the right hand is just going to need to step back for a moment. So, I could just having had all this activity, have maybe a dotted crotchet E, and then maybe we’re going to go onto another point there. But do you see how I’m constructing this? Not by thinking I’m writing this, then this, then this, which is what we do harmonically, we’ve still got to think harmonically, but I’m thinking there’s a fragment of right hand, there’s the imitation of it in the left hand. Here’s the right hand with the next little fragment imitation, then we’re kind of extending that little bit before the left hand gets involved in something else, and it doesn’t have to alternate, right, left, right, left, right, left, you could just keep that a little bit unpredictable. Just to be clear about the harmony, what’ve we’ve done here? Well we’ve used this B-flat to B-natural sort of chromatic movement to go Vb in the key of C, and then this is I in the key of C. Now it might be that we’re modulating the C major, it might be we’re just using a secondary dominant in C major, and then we’re going to carry on in F major. Depends where it all goes next. But what have we written so far? And now we go to the next thing, but can you hear how that counterpoints working? And on we go, so you can see how this could then follow on so I could have some semiquavers now from the right hand here run into the left hand. So instead of just taking those five notes, I’ve now expanded it a little bit, so now the bass line could go. And we could carry on to something else, either taking us back to F or staying in C major. So just a few minutes of introduction as to how you might go about writing a piece of counterpoint.