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Counterpoint

Updated on December 23, 2010

A counterpoint, in music, the playing or singing of two or more melodies simultaneously. Each melodic line is distinct from the others, but the separate themes interweave to produce a harmonious effect. Counterpoint is also known as polyphony. It is one of the most important elements in music and is used in various musical forms, including the symphony and the concerto. Counterpoint is especially characteristic of the canon, the fugue, and the round.

The term "counterpoint" was first used in the 14th century. It referred to a single vocal melody, or canto fermo, to which was added another vocal melody written note for note against the original. As a vocal art, counterpoint reached its highest point in the 16th century with the works of such composers as Giovanni Palestrina and William Byrd. Their counterpoint is known as strict counterpoint, because it was written according to specific rules of harmonic progression.

German composers of the 17th century perfected the art of counterpoint in instrumental music. They also broke away from the rules used by earlier composers and developed greater freedom in melodies and harmonies. The master of this free contrapuntal music was Johann Sebastian Bach, who is often regarded as the greatest contrapuntalist of all time.

Other composers who contributed importantly to the development of counterpoint include Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner. Among the outstanding contrapuntalists of the 20th century are Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg. Modern jazz musicians often improvise counterpoint to accompany the solo instrumentalist.

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