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Thread: Counterpoint vs Harmony Theory

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    Default Counterpoint vs Harmony Theory

    Hello... I'm very interested to hear your views on the 'counterpoint vs functional harmony theory' debate... which is overwhelmingly being won in academic establishments by the 'harmony-ists'.

    It is known that the Bach family (and the 'Bach school' for that matter) rejected Rameau's theories (although Kirnberger did try to reconcile it with figured bass). Figured bass is of course in-line with counterpoint, not harmony theory.

    There is also no evidence that Haydn, Mozart, Hummel, Beethoven, or Cherubini were in the slightest bit influenced by Rameau's principles ...except in the more superficial sense via French composers who applied his methods (via 'Galante' style favored by C.P.E Bach, who's treatise was studied and taught by the above composers).

    Mozart even mocked Abbe George Joseph Vogler's treatise which was based on Rameau's method: "...his book is more useful for teaching arithmetic than teaching composition".

    Yet their works are now almost exclusively analysed in the vertical 'chord at a time' perspective with Roman numerals.

    Finally, the whole acoustic theory behind 'fundamental bass' has long been debunked. There is simply no good acoustical or musical reason to regard chords built on major scale-tone roots to be regarded as I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, viio, at all.

    I'm probably a bit optimistic in getting a constructive debate out of this, but anyway...
    Last edited by Minona; Mar-11-2014 at 19:59.

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    Senior Member PetrB's Avatar
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    Common practice theory is but a brief episode in music history, and the notion of it came well after the fact of about half of the Common Practice period was already past!

    Though I learned theory ala 'chord function,' all through my undergrad training in those harmony courses, we heard the following often enough it could be a mantra.
    "Good counterpoint is good harmony. Good harmony is good counterpoint."

    There is, I think, a whole lotta truth in that.

    When theory is taught as naught but melody and vertical chords / harmony (and that very watered down quasi contrapuntal thing us Yanks call "voice leading," unless the student goes much more horizontal thinking on their own... well, I think that is responsible for a lot of highly banal or uninteresting music. (I.e. I tend to think no matter which approach you take, it should be 'all lines' and not a tune or theme over chunka chunka chord progressions. One does not have to be a counterpoint nutter or purist to still come up with something a bit more than a tune, motif, and a bunch of chords.

    I kinda wince when I hear music spoken of as thought to be 'melody' 'chords,' harmony, and I'm agin (very much) thinking in terms of 'chord progressions,' -- at least initially -- thinking whatever your musical idea, it should come to you "all of those elements in play all at once."

    Melody is hugely over-rated; a lyric quality to any part is very under-emphasized.
    Chord progression is also hugely over-rated (and emphasized,) instead of coming up with harmony stemming from the consequence of multiple horizontal activities.

    [But this is easy for me to think and say: my very first piano lessons in childhood were an anthology of Bach (Anna Magdalena notebook pieces and a few others) and Bartok's Microkosmos, which I'm certain hugely influenced me to listen and think horizontally, regardless of the style. To my way of thinking, the best beginning anyone could have, but it is 'what I know,' and has become my preference and bias... (and yet I love Rameau -- go figure :-)

    AD P.s. there are educators who advocate first learning modal counterpoint, then tonal counterpoint, then the rest, i.e. in chronological order as they happened, and I can very much see the sense of that. I think if a school used that sequence and it was advertised in its catalogue, many a beginning student would avoid it. The other sequence which makes as much sense to me, also advocated by some, is start with contemporary harmony and work back in time. I think neither one is 'sexy' as far as selling people on those learning plans, though :-)
    Last edited by PetrB; Mar-11-2014 at 21:07.

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    Senior Member Freischutz's Avatar
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    I'd be interested to have a discussion, but you'll have to teach me a little first, or at least provide me with some explanatory links (it's not obvious where to go on Wikipedia).

    My semi-layman's understanding, which I can only suppose is wrong based on what you've said, was that counterpoint is a description of the interaction of harmonious but otherwise independent melodic voices (and therefore a compositional technique), whereas functional harmony is a tool for the analysis of pieces of music, so on that basis, I can't understand in what way they are in competition because they seem to be doing two totally separate things...

    I also don't quite understand what you mean by suggesting that there is no acoustic or musical reason to think of chords as I, ii, iii etc. because I believe this is still the basis of common practice theory, so why is it being taught if it's wrong?

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    Quote Originally Posted by PetrB View Post
    "Good counterpoint is good harmony. Good harmony is good counterpoint."

    There is, I think, a whole lotta truth in that.
    Well, I'm thinking more of the approach really. I get the feeling that, had Rameau never written the treatise Fundamental Bass, composition and music theory would have been far better off... no need for Schenker even to argue his point, no confusing theories and Roman/Jazz chord symbols with no real acoustic basis, no need for eyes to glaze over at Roman numeral analyses, etc.

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    Quote Originally Posted by PetrB View Post
    Common practice theory is but a brief episode in music history, and the notion of it came well after the fact of about half of the Common Practice period was already past!
    The common practice period spanned at least 250 years. Do you consider this a brief episode?
    Last edited by EdwardBast; Mar-12-2014 at 20:04.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Minona View Post
    Well, I'm thinking more of the approach really. I get the feeling that, had Rameau never written the treatise Fundamental Bass, composition and music theory would have been far better off... no need for Schenker even to argue his point, no confusing theories and Roman/Jazz chord symbols with no real acoustic basis, no need for eyes to glaze over at Roman numeral analyses, etc.
    Frankly, I think those who think there is "an acoustic basis" as some fundamental truth for "what is good music" are deluded, if not a nutter :-)
    Last edited by PetrB; Mar-13-2014 at 04:47.

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    Quote Originally Posted by EdwardBast View Post
    The common practice period spanned at least 250 years. Do you consider this a brief episode?
    Relatively, yes, I do. We are now nearly one hundred and thirty years into post common practice (1890 to present) and there were centuries before of formalized classical music if not including the 1100's, certainly by the time of de Machaut, the 1300's. Further, there was no such thing in Bach's time, His son's era, Mozarts lifetime, Beethoven's lifetime, etc. the notion of it is a construct generalization made in retrospect when "music history" was born.
    Last edited by PetrB; Mar-13-2014 at 04:50.

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    Quote Originally Posted by PetrB View Post
    Relatively, yes, I do. We are now nearly one hundred and thirty years into post common practice (1890 to present) and there were centuries before of formalized classical music if not including the 1100's, certainly by the time of de Machaut, the 1300's. Further, there was no such thing in Bach's time, His son's era, Mozarts lifetime, Beethoven's lifetime, etc. the notion of it is a construct generalization made in retrospect when "music history" was born.
    Without getting into what "common practice" means, I think it's apparent that most people would identify music of a thousand years ago as clearly "tonal." And music remained so until tonality was weakened in the late 19th century and some new directions entirely were taken around the turn of the 20th century. To the extent such directions prevailed, broad interest in "classical music" seems to have declined. I find it hard to believe that some can deny this, though they seem to do so.


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    Counterpoint gives you an early composition method (what, How), harmony gives you an early general guide (where, When, Why). Of course it is easier to differentiate than to integrate properly. The actual principles are the same.

    ; I support the chronological approach.

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    Quote Originally Posted by KenOC View Post
    Without getting into what "common practice" means, I think it's apparent that most people would identify music of a thousand years ago as clearly "tonal." And music remained so until tonality was weakened in the late 19th century and some new directions entirely were taken around the turn of the 20th century. To the extent such directions prevailed, broad interest in "classical music" seems to have declined. I find it hard to believe that some can deny this, though they seem to do so.
    This is denied because it is wrong. Modal music is not tonal. Post-common practice tonalities of the 20th century are not tonal in any way that would be meaningful in (common practice) tonal terms.

    Of course, one can call all of these things tonal if one wishes, but then there's no real reason to call expressionist and serial music "non-tonal", and all music is tonal.

    Which is fine by me. The music of Schoenberg and Boulez sounds tone-centric to me.
    Last edited by Mahlerian; Mar-13-2014 at 13:39.

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    Quote Originally Posted by PetrB View Post
    Frankly, I think those who think there is "an acoustic basis" as some fundamental truth for "what is good music" are deluded, if not a nutter :-)
    Well, then there is no reason to label of chords in terms of them being built on scale degrees then, and therefore their supposed 'function' is explainable in terms of lines.

    Quote Originally Posted by Richannes Wrahms View Post
    Counterpoint gives you an early composition method (what, How), harmony gives you an early general guide (where, When, Why). Of course it is easier to differentiate than to integrate properly. The actual principles are the same.
    Not true at all! The Bach school (which was practiced by common practice composers mentioned (via CPE Bach's famous keyboard treatise) is fundamentally different.

    Certainly, CPE Bach and his father were acquainted with Rameau’s theory, but they completely disagreed with it. (This was made known in a letter to Kirnberger, cited in his Kunst des reinen Satzes: “You may proclaim that my and my deceased father’s basic principles are contrary to Rameau’s.”)

    For example, all chords that contain sevenths are treated successively in Bach's approach. They are the chord of the seventh, the seven-six, the seven-four, and the seven-four-two chords. Although only the first of these is a chord in the Rameau sense, all are chords in Bach’s sense.

    Rameau's method was based on a false acoustical notion, and leaves us with no reason to think of chords in his categories. Of course, it's usually possible (though certainly not with Bach's modal chorales, for example) to label harmony in that way, and then add all kinds of alterations and rules for exceptions, etc. But it's absurd.

    Quote Originally Posted by Richannes Wrahms View Post
    I support the chronological approach.
    You mean counterpoint?
    Last edited by Minona; Mar-13-2014 at 16:43.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Minona View Post
    Hello... I'm very interested to hear your views on the 'counterpoint vs functional harmony theory' debate... which is overwhelmingly being won in academic establishments by the 'harmony-ists'.

    It is known that the Bach family (and the 'Bach school' for that matter) rejected Rameau's theories (although Kirnberger did try to reconcile it with figured bass). Figured bass is of course in-line with counterpoint, not harmony theory.

    There is also no evidence that Haydn, Mozart, Hummel, Beethoven, or Cherubini were in the slightest bit influenced by Rameau's principles ...except in the more superficial sense via French composers who applied his methods (via 'Galante' style favored by C.P.E Bach, who's treatise was studied and taught by the above composers).

    Mozart even mocked Abbe George Joseph Vogler's treatise which was based on Rameau's method: "...his book is more useful for teaching arithmetic than teaching composition".

    Yet their works are now almost exclusively analysed in the vertical 'chord at a time' perspective with Roman numerals.

    Finally, the whole acoustic theory behind 'fundamental bass' has long been debunked. There is simply no good acoustical or musical reason to regard chords built on major scale-tone roots to be regarded as I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, viio, at all.

    I'm probably a bit optimistic in getting a constructive debate out of this, but anyway...
    Minona, see my blog Harmonic Function on p. 9 of my blogs.

    Here is the relevant excerpt, which explains how "chordal harmonic function" is, indeed, based on acoustic factors, which are derived from the vertical tonal hierarchy of "all things relate to 1" or the tonic note. All subsidiary chordal functions are ratios of this, and these ratios are based on sonance. Sonance (consonance or dissonance) is based on the acoustic harmonic model of a fundamental tone and its subsidiary overtones, or ratios.

    __________________________________________________ ________________________________________

    Most dissonant intervals to most consonant intervals, within one octave:

    1. minor seventh (C-Bb) 9:16
    2. major seventh (C-B) 8:15
    3. major second (C-D) 8:9
    4. minor sixth (C-Ab) 5:8
    5. minor third (C-Eb) 5:6
    6. major third (C-E) 4:5
    7. major sixth (C-A) 3:5
    8. perfect fourth (C-F) 3:4
    9. perfect fifth (C-G) 2:3
    10. octave (C-C') 1:2
    11. unison (C-C) 1:1

    The steps of our scale, and the "functions" of the chords built thereon, are the direct result of interval ratios, all in relation to a "keynote" or unity of 1; the intervals not only have a dissonant/consonant quality determined by their ratio, but also are given a specific scale degree (function) and place in relation to "1" or the Tonic. This is where all "linear function" originated, and is still manifest as ratios (intervals), which are at the same time, physical harmonic phenomena.

    One (1:1) is the ultimate consonance.

    The interval ratios in the chart above, to the right, are just a way of expressing the relationship of two notes. For example, 2:1 is the octave, or doubling of frequency; conversely, 1:2 halves it.

    In the key of C, a simple 1-3-5 G triad is not identical to the simple 1-3-5 C triad, because of its position (functioning as V) in relation to the root. They are major triads and are equally dissonant. The functional difference is only apparent once tonic has been established. Tonic is established correctly once the listener has heard and connected (COGNITIVELY) the series of intervals that constitute the diatonic scale.

    No chord exists in isolation, but all exist in relation to "1", unity, or tonic.

    Implicit in any harmonic interval, whether it be 2:3 or 3:4, is an implicit relation, and specific note-position in the hierarchy, in relation to "1" or tonic, as well as its being more dissonant or more consonant in relation to "1" or the root.

    __________________________________________________ _____________________________

    You can see in the above chart how the "functional importance" of each chord is directly related to its sonance in relation to I or tonic: most important, of course, is I (1:1), then 2:3 (V), next in importance is 3:4 (IV), and so on. This is the "hierarchy of importance" based on sonance.

    I hope this helps. I invite you to read my blogs; there's a lot of food for thought.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Mar-13-2014 at 17:50.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    This is denied because it is wrong. Modal music is not tonal.
    Note: Mahlerian is using a strict academic definition of "modal" which is needlessly confusing, and only relevant to academics. The fact is, all "modal" folk musics are "tone-centric" and are therefore tonal, in the broad, inclusive sense of the term.

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    In terms of principles I wasn't referring to Rameau's "generalized and manageable" theory of harmony, but of the principles behind vertical intervallic constructions.

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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    Note: Mahlerian is using a strict academic definition of "modal" which is needlessly confusing, and only relevant to academics. The fact is, all "modal" folk musics are "tone-centric" and are therefore tonal, in the broad, inclusive sense of the term.
    I thought that tonal music was just a part of modality with the two major and minor scales being the ionian and aeolian modes...

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