Online Lexicon of Music - Terms of the Music Theory with Audio Samples

Terms of the Music Theory with Audio Samples

Home Index Literature Documents Contact


In polyphony, the melody becomes a voice. However, polyphony is not just a collection of melodies that only come together externally by sounding at the same time. What characterises the voices in polyphony is not their sheer coexistence, but their relationship of movement. This immanent relation of the voices, which has its reference point in the melodic form, is what constitutes and defines the counterpoint.

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword


In polyphonic music, melodies refer to each other as voices. Strictly speaking, the melodies only become voices by the fact that they enter into a genuinely melodic relationship with each other: They compare themselves as melodies with each other, so that they relate to each other in accordance with their own way of movement. Each voice is constantly related in its progression to the progression of each of the other voices. The leading of the voices is therefore identical with the counterpoint.

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword

Counterpoint, Voice leading

The counterpoint is the aesthetics of polyphony. Contrary to popular belief, the counterpoint has nothing to do with harmony. The voices do not have a harmonious relationship to each other by nature; they are not capable of such a relationship because of their nature. What harmonises are the tones that sound together in bars or bar segments, not the voices as such. That the harmonising tones are also part of the voices, is another matter. Within a melodic tone sequence, the tones always represent scale degrees on which other tones can lie just as well. The course of the voices is not being changed if an accidental is put or canceled in front of one or the other note. What changes is just the key and the succession of harmonies. Conversely, a specific succession of harmonies can be realised in a variety of voice movements.

Wrong is also the view that the counterpoint stands in a contrast to harmony, as some theorists claim:

"The crux of contrapuntal theory is how two or more lines can unfold simultaneously in the most unhampered melodic development – not by means of the harmonies, but despite the harmonies." (Ernst Kurth, Selected Writings, edited and translated by Lee A. Rothfarb, Cambridge 2006, p. 47)

The harmony of the sound combinations and of their succession do not "hamper" the melodics of the voice motion. In this case, there is nothing that needs yet to be brought into accordance. The melodics of tonal music exists by no means independently of their harmonic basis. And also the voices themselves have no negative relation to each other. They do not stand in the way of each other, but compare themselves in regard to the form of their movement. The counterpoint is a positive relation of the voices.

The independent motion of the voices, that is, the discrete identity of the musical lines, is logically presupposed in their positive relationship. The enjoyment of the counterpoint is, insofar, bound to the separate perceptibility of the voices and their respective movement. This precondition is most easily ensured by playing the voices by various instruments preferably contrasting in terms of their timbre. The counterpoint and the therein presupposed independence of the voices, however, also exist in music pieces that are merely played on a piano or an organ. Why this is so, can be seen in the forms of the counterpoint, that is, in the different forms of movement of the voices:

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword

Parallel motion of the voices

The simplest form of the counterpoint is a parallel motion of the voices. In this motion, complete melodic accordance dominates: Each voice progresses at the same time, in the same direction, and by the same interval; and the interval between the simultaneously sounding tones of the voices is therefore always of the same size. However, for longer passages, the parallel motion in thirds and sixths is preferred because, in this way, the sequence of consonances and dissonances in the tonal movement can be structured continuously.

J. S. Bach, Bourrée (BWV 807)

Example of a parallel motion of the voices

In contrast to this typical form of movement of the tonal music, the parallel motion of early polyphony was not yet based on tonality. It initially appears as a parallel motion in fifths and fourths.

Although the voices led in parallel motion do not differ by the movement that they carry out, it is precisely for this reason that they differ all the more by the position which they occupy relatively to each other: They relate to each other as upper and lower voice. The belonging of the tones to one or the other voice is thus defined by their relative position. The melodic identity of the voices does not have to be established by contrasting timbres or separately locatable sound sources, but springs – already in this simplest case of polyphony – from the figure of the counterpoint itself.

However, the same relation of motion that establishes the independence and separateness of the voices by the determinacy of their relative position also contains an element of relativisation of the melodic independence, namely, by the reciprocal dependence of the voices in terms of the course of their movement. However, the independence of the voices is by no means "endangered" by the parallel motion, and the view of the old counterpoint doctrines regarding this merely absolutises the, in the logic of the counterpoint, further developed shapes, with which the original polyphony has been advanced.

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword

Parallel fifths, Parallel fourths (Consecutive fifths or fourths)

Parallel fifths and parallel fourths

The early polyphony avoids the thirds and sixths as sound combinations which were considered imperfect due to their deduction from fifths. The first form of the parallel motion consists of parallel fifths because of the fundamental importance of the fifth in the Pythagorean system. It is based on the idea that tones sounding together should harmonise only on their own, not as a part of sound sequences within a key or a system of keys. Parallel fifths and the bourdon style are the main forms of the medieval "organum".

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword

Similar and contrary motion

While in the case of the parallel motion the voices are dependent on each other due to their coupling, a voice movement that progresses in different intervals gains greater independence. The voices move towards or away from each other while moving either in the same or in the opposite direction.

J. S. Bach, Choral (BWV 15)

Contrary motion of the voices

The gain in independence by a movement that brings them into increasing proximity or distance to each other also opens up the perspective of a voice crossing, thus going a little at the expense of the independence which lies in the rigid separation of the top and the bottom in the parallel motion. However, a crossing of the voices can only be achieved if the voices can be identified independently of  their motion ratio. In the case of piano pieces, for example, the simultaneously sounding tones differ only according to their pitch so that they can only be assigned to a voice on the basis of their relative position. The perception then consequently stays with the assumption that there are upper and lower voices, and this constellation cannot be broken by the form of the counterpoint considered here. The situation is different when the voices do not progress simultaneously, but in the oblique motion.

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword


Homophony meant, up to the 18th century, monophony (in unison). Then one also meant a melody with chordal accompaniment in which no melody is formed. The meaning of the word homophony even extends to the forms of polyphony which are characterised by a simultaneous progression of the voices, i.e. parallel motion and similar motion.

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword

Oblique motion

The third figure of the couterpoint contains a rhythmic contrast of the voices: While a tone continuous to sound in the one voice, the other voice proceeds to move. The contrast in the motion ratio of the voices lies not only in the form and direction of the respective movement, but in the simultaneous taking place or not taking place of the forward motion. This is the actual form of the oblique motion (and the original meaning of the Latin name motus obliquus).

An crossing of the voices is possible here by the form of the counterpoint itself. While one tone continues to sound, the other voice can move across that tone. The melodic identity of a voice is no longer bound to a relative voice position in such a motion ratio; the terms "upper voice" or "middle voice" are no longer proper criteria to identify a voice. A tone, namely, cannot lose its identity as a component of a voice during its sounding so that even simultaneously sounding tones cannot exchange their belonging to a voice with this tone, but at most their relative positon. As a result, the autonomy of the voice motion is not bound to the position of the voice, but to the tones themselves with which the voices progress.

This asynchronous progression of the voices can be found in different ways: The hierarchical division of the bar into segments can be more pronounced in one voice than in the other so that the voices progress either more sporadically or more steadily at different speeds. Or the voices progress alternately so that synkopes always sound in one of the voices. An extremely pronounced form of this non-simultaneous progression is the organ point.

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword

Organ point

A tone that is sustained for several bars while the other voices move further. This form of the counterpoint (a special form of the oblique motion) presupposes that the successive harmonies all contain the same tone. This tone can go through considerable harmonic metamorphoses if sustained within the framework of extensive modulations. An example:

J. S. Bach, Prelude (BWV 569)

Example of an organ point

According to the laws of modulation, in the above example, the key of C major is constituted by an almost complete scale, changes to A minor in the last third of the bar, back to C major in the second bar, and then – again in the last bar third – to D minor. The tone A sustained in the bass as an organ point begins its harmonic career as the subdominant third of C major and continues it as the tonic root tone of A minor, as the subdominant third of C major, and as the dominant root tone of D minor.

The organ point differs from the drone style of the Middle Ages by its harmonious foundation.

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword


A suspension is a tone in a dissonance that, during the subsequent transition into a consonance, moves a half or whole tone step further while the other voices remain in place.

Example with harmonic formula:

Example of a suspension

The suspension has the following harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic characteristics:

A closer look at the above example reveals that the transition from the dominant dissonance to the (consonant) dominant resolves the harmonic tension that lies in the dissonance, at least to the extent that it is no longer included in the individual sound itself. Now, the only tension left exists in the sequence of the subdominant and dominant, which is resolved by the tonic. The dissonance is thus successively resolved.

Since the dominant was already included in the dissonance, its freeing from the 'non-dominant ingredients' appears as a reduction of the bar content to its actual harmonic core. Although the dominant is an (elegant) detour in the resolu- tion of the dissonance into the tonic, the dissonance appears conversely as a detour in the sequence of the subdominant and dominant. This gives the impression of a retarded appearance of the dominant – or, in melodic terms, of a retardation in the movement of a voice. In harmony teachings and on the internet, one often finds a description of this impression, which however comes along as a factual determination of the suspension: This is then defined, for example, as a "delayed or retarded entrance of a chord tone". If the suspension is interpreted in this way, it is no longer considered to be a tone that itself is a chord tone during its sounding within the dissonance Supposedly, this tone has no harmonic identity at all, it is simply a 'nonchord tone': "Suspensions are nonchord tones which replace the adjacent chord tone."

This idea corresponds entirely to Riemann's theory of functions: In its harmonic art of interpretation, this theory decides whether the tones belong to the chord they form. It is one thing that a tone, regardless of the fact that it is heard, supposedly does not belong to the ensemble of sounding tones (=chord). In addition, it is said that it is not what it is: It "replaces" another tone. Since Riemann, tones have been interpreted as placeholders, substitutes, and functionaries of other tones. In the case of the suspension, the subsequent tone is supposed to be the tone actually meant, the suspension itself its mere replacement. According to this theory, what constitutes a suspension is its deviation from the supposedly intended tone. In the functional harmony theory, the suspension is treated quite analogously to the fiction of the altered chord.

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword

Drone, Bourdon

In the Bourdon style (or Drone style) of the Middle Ages, a tone is constantly sustained as a so-called vox organalis while in the vox principalis, the same tone functions as a recitation note or as an orientation tone (repercussa) to which the melody constantly returns. The Bourdon style and parallel fifths are the main forms of the organum.

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword


Early polyphony based on modal music. The recitation tone is characteristic of this polyphony, whose main forms are the drone style and parallel fifths.

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword

Asynchronous pausing

Juxtaposition of a sounding and pausing voice. This form of the counterpoint is particularly obvious when the pauses are noted as such:

J. S. Bach, Prelude (BWV 569)

Two asynchronous pausing voices

The separation of the voices is ensured here by the phases in which both voices can be heard simultaneously. However, the movement ratio of these voices tends to separate the simultaneousness of the voices into a temporal succession. This state of a seeming monophony in which always only one of the voices is perceivable at each point in time assumes, however, the clear separation of the voice positons.

If the alternation between the appearance and the pausing of the voices occurs in a quick succession, then a quasi-simultaneity of the voices arises. These move in a similar way to such voices whose movement is not interrupted by pauses and whose movement ratios correspond to the previously discussed progression forms of the counterpoint. Hence, the polyphony is based here on the counterpoint in a double sense: The immediate sequence of tones is about the fact that the appearance of the voices is constantly interrupted by pauses. However, once one disregards this form of the appearance of the voices and looks at the motions that the voices carry out when they each appear, then it is a matter of motions by intervals and of motion relations such as parallel motion, similar motion, contrary motion or oblique motion. In the following example, the confrontation of a proceeding voice and a stationary voice – that is, an oblique motion, or more precisely an organ point – is clearly evident:

J. S. Bach, Toccata (BWV 565)

The counterpoint in a theme of a toccata by J. S. Bach (BWV 565)

The two voices can easily be notated as one voice because they never sound simultaneously. That this is, nevertheless, a case of alternately pausing voices can be seen by their counterpoint. The counterpoint here is directly the cause of the polyphony. The separation of the voices takes place on this basis by their attachment to bar segments: The stationary voice appears in the above example always at the unaccented points.

The form of the counterpoint discussed here is easily confused with a medieval early form of polyphony called hocket.

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword


Early form of asynchronous pausing, usually in the form that one singer sings a note and then pauses while another singer sings that note and so on. This form of singing, which has been common since about 1200, is characterised by a voice movement that was not yet based on the counterpoint, but on its fixation on the specificity of a sound source. The term voice has therefore a completely different meaning in connection with the early polyphony. From the point of view of the tonal music, the polyphony of which is emancipated from the allocation of the voices to separate sound sources, the hoquet appears as a form of performing the tones of a melody with distributed roles in a constant alternation. The separation of the "voices" lies neither in the position of the voices nor in the contrast of the mode of movement, but solely in the audible origin of the tones. The hocket, in the meaning of the modern concept of the voice, only evokes the illusion of a polyphony, and this illusion disappears immediately when the notes of a corresponding passage are played on the piano.

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword

Primitive Counterpoint, Descant, Cantus firmus

In the course of the disengagement from the organum, the style of the discantus emerged in the High Middle Ages, a form of polyphony where similar motion, contrary motion, and oblique motion were preferred. One of the voices functions as cantus firmus, as a given, mostly known, excessively stretched out melody, while one or more additional voices – at first improvisatory – are set against it. The additional voices refer to the cantus firmus like voces principales to a constantly changing drone tone, so to speak. The voices are still fully fused with its sound source and have, concerning the performance technique, no mutual relation to each other yet: While the cantus firmus progresses in a quiet, undeterred, and persistent way, the additional voices are each one-sidedly referred to it. In substance, however, melodic motion relations as well as more or less harmonic sound relations are made audible. And in this respect, the coordination of the voices, which, in the cases of the drone style, the parallel fifths or monophonic choral singing, could still orientate itself towards a reciting tone and the "rhythm" of the linguistic articulation, was no longer quite so unproblematic: The musicians experimented with a polyphony whose tonal charms they did not have under control. The mensural notation was created to solve this problem.

The early counterpoint doctrines were interested in methods to ensure a well-sounding polyphony. The approach corresponded to the medieval irrationality of a search for the philosopher’s stone: The aim was to satisfy the ear without making it a judge. The innermost secrets of music were supposed to be fixated by rules as if music were a question of arbitrariness or regularity. Ideas of perfect and imperfect proportions of tone lengths and sound combinations shaped the system of notation as well as the regulations according to which composing had to be done. The shorter note values were at first basically defined as a third part of the longer ones – corresponding to the perfection of the number three, which is authenticated in the Christian faith. Not until later, after the progressing three-part division of the note values had already reached a certain peak, halved note values have been considered as equally acceptable. In the case of the sound combinations, at first only the octave and the fifth were everywhere accepted as perfect, thirds and sixths however, not until the end of the Middle Ages.

The lack of knowledge of the real harmonic and rhythmic basics of the music as well as the meagre results of the methodically controlled composing have been compensated by feigned competence and the rigour of teaching. The assertion of the discantus against the persistent organum took place by a prohibition of parallel fifths.

After the discovery of the major and minor triads in the 16th century, the counterpoint became less important in two respects: First, the counterpoint as a concept received competition by the thorough bass, which made the sequence of harmonies the central point of the music composition and thereby contributed substantially to elaborate the harmonic and rhythmic basics of today’s music. Secondly, the voice motion of that music became a subordinate form of the harmony sequence so that the counterpoint was carried out into comparatively simple, random, and inconspicuous forms. Not until after the establishment of the tonality and bar rhythmics did the counterpoint experience a renaissance – as the modern counterpoint of the tonal music. However, to this day, it has not lost its reputation as a (questionable) methodical miracle tool of good composing.

Home Alphabetical index of the musical terms back next keyword

© 2020 Franz Sauter, Hamburg

Data Protection