Here at Canon Fodder, one of the most common reasons we hear that people don’t like classical music is that they don’t know anything about it, and therefore that they won’t understand it. The truth is, though, that even people who consider themselves newbies know more about classical music than they realize. For one thing, classical works are much more present in people’s everyday lives than they might think. From movie and television soundtracks to commercials to even many pop songs, you have probably been exposed to more of the “great works” than the average person who was alive when they were written.
Much of pop music today relies on the same concepts of harmony and composition that were established over hundreds of years of classical music1. So when we talk about some fancy-schmancy classical music concept like counterpoint, it’s important to remember that you probably know more about it already than you think, and you have definitely already heard it. I’m going to give you the basics of counterpoint so you can impress your friends and co-workers at happy hour, and show you how it’s still being used today — come for the Renaissance, stay for Bob’s Burgers!
Counterpoint is the combination of multiple independent melodies. That’s it! Bada-bing, bada-boom! When we say melodies, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re different, just that they act independently of each other. There are many different contrapuntal “forms” or “techniques” that can be used to combine and/or transform melodic lines. Ever sung “Row, row, row your boat” or “Frère Jacques” in a round? Congratulations, you’ve performed a canon2! That’s counterpoint, baby! As you can probably tell, this is a VERY vague concept, so let’s rewind to the beginnings of counterpoint, back during the Renaissance, to break it down a bit more.
One of the most formative composers of counterpoint was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1524-1594). This was way before orchestras existed, so much of his music was written for small vocal ensembles (one voice per line) with, in some cases, one or two instruments. Palestrina wrote music that followed strict rules, such as avoiding huge leaps in melodic lines and minimizing dissonance. Take a gander at this excerpt from the Kyrie of his Missa Papae Marcelli. Even if you can’t read music, it can help to see counterpoint visually3 because it looks… pretty specific:
Each line moves independently of the other, in this case with the voices even starting at different times.
Compare this to the beginning of another Renaissance work, Tallis’ “If ye love me”. This is an example of homophony, in which the voices move together and focus on creating harmony, rather than separate melodies. The four lines move together, and in the same direction.
An important note is that say a piece is contrapuntal is not to say that it is exclusively made up of independent melodies in every voice. Renaissance composers would often mix counterpoint with homophony within the same piece, as in “If Ye Love Me”.
As time went on, counterpoint evolved. Over a century later in the Baroque period, our cover boy Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) became something of a contrapuntal rock star. To paraphrase Hamilton: he changed the game, played and raised the stakes. His melodies became more complex, and related to each other in more intricate ways. Take, for instance, his masterful collection of preludes and fugues for keyboard, The Well-Tempered Clavier, which is essentially an exercise in contrapuntal madness that covers all 24 major and minor keys, as well as basically every contrapuntal form.
As music evolved, counterpoint did as well. It was still very much used, but loosening the strict rules that defined much of Renaissance and Baroque music.
Today, counterpoint can still be found everywhere. So let’s check out some more recent examples!
God Only Knows, the Beach Boys
The end of “God Only Knows” is a perpetual canon, repeating and overlapping the refrain “God only knows what I’d be without you” at 2:00 until the song fades out almost a minute later. Not only that, but Brian Wilson layers in another countermelody that is slower and has a significantly larger range of pitch than the main theme.
It also makes it an interesting companion to “Sloop John B”, the song that immediately precedes it on Pet Sounds (and ends the A side of the record). Sloop John B, an arrangement of a traditional Bahamanian folk song, also features a brief contrapuntal section (1:50-1:58) in which Wilson layers recognizable melodies from the song a cappella.
Just Dance, Lady Gaga
This is a good example of how what we can think of as counterpoint has changed with modern musical styles. The brief canon on display in the middle of “Just Dance” is significantly narrower in terms of timing than “God Only Knows” — the phrase “Half psychotic sick hypnotic” is repeated closely together. Moreover, the canon is spoken, rather than sung. However, Gaga uses spatialization to further separate the repeated voices. Listen to 3:00 through 3:15 with your headphones a few times, and experiment taking off one side and then the other as you listen to get the full effect. Here, modern production techniques create new contrapuntal possibilities.
Bad Stuff Happens in the Bathroom, Bob’s Burgers
A common place you’ll find super recognizable counterpoint is in musical theater. This is especially true of large ensemble pieces that can often be found right before intermission, from “One Day More” to “Non-Stop“. It’s a neat way to present many conflicting perspectives, summarize the characters’ desires, and build momentum into the second act. Rather than looking at a traditional piece of musical theater, though, I present a song from one of my favorite TV shows: Bob’s Burgers.
Note how Bob and Louise have different, but related, melodic lines that are presented separately but then combine. This also highlights that you can often think of counterpoint in music like counterpoint in debate: multiple sides (AKA voices) that present different arguments (melodies).
As you can probably see by now, counterpoint is a general term for a BIG concept that has been used many ways throughout history, right through to today. More than anything else, it’s a series of tools composers can use to bring a wide variety of interest and emotion to their work. Check out the full playlist of examples below, and let us know in the comments if you’ve heard any good examples of counterpoint lately, classical or otherwise!
1 It should be noted that classical music — or what can be called Western/European art music — is only one influence on today’s popular music, which is heavily derived from jazz and blues, and, from there, African music including spirituals, work songs, and folk songs.
2 Note that this is NOT the type of canon we’re talking about with Canon Fodder, which refers to the GREAT CANON OF ART MUSIC oOoOoOoO
3 Palestrina was actually writing before music notation was standardized, so this is a version that has been adapted for modern musicians to read.