Pitch Structure: Harmony and Counterpoint

The term harmony has two meanings in music. A harmony can refer to an individual chord or triad that occurs in a work of music ("harmony" in this sense refers to the togetherness of disparate notes when they join together to make a triad or chord). Harmony also refers to the "logical" way chords or harmonies progress in tonal music. The following example, from the chorale "Du Lebensfuerst , Herr Jesu Christ" from J. S. Bach's Cantata Gott faehret auf mit Jauchzen, will illustrate these two ideas.

Counterpoint refers to the joining together of individual melodic lines to create a work of music. Listen to the opening of "And with his stripes" from Handel's Messiah ( ).

The passage begins with the sopranos singing the following melody by themselves:

Play soprano line ->

Shortly thereafter, the altos begin singing a melody whose opening echoes what the sopranos just sang:

Play alto's echo ->

Yet while the altos are singing, the sopranos begin to sing a different melody against the alto part:

Play soprano's continuation ->

Play both parts ->

In other words, the sopranos are singing a tune that "counters" the tune in the alto part. (NOTE: "And with his stripes" is an example of imitative counterpoint--the altos imitate what the sopranos sang. Not all counterpoint involves imitation, although imitation is a common contrapuntal device because it helps the listener recognize and hear the individual melodic lines.)

Counterpoint is often considered to be the opposite of harmony: whereas harmony views music "vertically," as a succession of chords, counterpoint looks at music "horizontally," as the simultaneous joining of melodies. This distinction is somewhat misleading if it suggests to us that some works are "harmonic" whereas others are "contrapuntal." Rather, elements of both harmony and counterpoint play a role in most classical music, although our attention may be directed more to one or the other. Consider, for example the Bach chorale above. Although we looked at the work from the perspective of its triads and their progression, the work is also contrapuntal: it combines four individual melodic lines sung by different parts of the chorus. Listen to each of the individual melodies that make up the chorale, then listen the the chorale as a whole:

Soprano part
All Parts (piano)

All Parts (chorus)

Alto Part
Tenor Part
Bass Part

Similarly the contrapuntal joining of melodic lines in "And with his stripes" is done in such a way as to create harmonies and harmonic progressions. Listen first to the combined melodies of the alto and soprano lines, then listen to the progression of complete triads those individual lines imply.

Play the lines ->

Play the the implied harmonies ->

A nice metaphor to describe the relationship of harmony and counterpoint is consider the relation of horizontal and vertical design in an ornately patterened woven rug. The pattern arises from many parallel strands of multi-colored wool. Yet without some guiding principle to control the alignment of those individual strands, the pattern would quickly fall into chaos.

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