Introduction to strict voice-leading

The study of the theory of Western music involves three main components: voice-leading, harmony, and form. Voice-leading deals with the relationship of two or more musical lines (or melodies) combined into a single musical idea. Harmony addresses the rules or norms for combining chords into successions. Form addresses the rules or norms for the combination of phrases and other small musical units into larger units—including whole movements and works.

We will address all three of these facets of musical theory. However, of the three, voice-leading is the most fundamental. Thus, we begin our study of music theory, then, with strict voice-leading, or counterpoint.

Twentieth-century musician and theorist, Heinrich Schenker, wrote:

The purpose of counterpoint, rather than to teach a specific style of composition, is to lead the ear of the serious student of music for the first time into the infinite world of fundamental musical problems (Kontrapunkt, p. 10).

Following this line of thinking, our early voice-leading exercises will not be in a specific style (classical, baroque, romantic, pop/rock, etc.). Instead, these exercises will eliminate important musical elements like harmony, orchestration, melodic motives, formal structure, and even many elements of rhythm, in order to focus very specifically on a small set of musical problems. These other elements of music will be introduced one-by-one as we progress through the course (and into future courses).

The “fundamental musical problems” we will address in the study of counterpoint center around the way in which some basic principles of auditory perception and cognition (how the brain perceives and conceptualizes sound) play out in Western musical structure. For example, our brains tend to assume that sounds similar in pitch or timbre come from the same source. Our brains also listen for patterns, and when a new sound continues or completes a previously heard pattern, it assumes that the new sound belongs together with those others. On the other hand, the breaking of these regularities in the sonic environment can signal danger, or at the very least the need for heightened attention to be applied to the sonic “culprit.” Identifying irregularities in the sonic environment and boosting attention and adrenaline when one is found have been absolutely essential to the survival of the human species. These abilities are also what allows music to have the emotional effect that it does on so many people. Whether or not a composer or songwriter is aware of the science and psychology of hearing, a masterful composer mediates and plays with these basic concepts.

“Mediates” and “plays” are important ideas here. Music that simply makes it easy for the brain to parse and process sound is boring—it calls for no heightened attention, it doesn’t increase our heart rate, make the hair on the back of our neck stand up, or give us a little jolt of dopamine. On the other hand, music that constantly activates our innate sense of danger is hardly pleasant for most listeners. Thus, fundamental to most of the music we will study is the dance between tension and relaxation, motion and rest.

The study of counterpoint will help us to engage several important musical “problems” in a limited context, so that we can master them compositionally and understand them analytically. Those problems arise as we seek to bring the following traits together:

  • smoothness
  • independence and integrity or melodic lines
  • tonal fusion (the preference for simultaneous notes to form a consonant unity)
  • variety
  • motion (towards a goal)

These traits are based in human perception and cognition, but they are often in conflict in specific musical moments, and need to be balanced over the course of larger passages and complete works. Counterpoint will help us begin to practice mediating these conflicts.

Also, note Schenker’s expression “lead the ear.” Counterpoint is not a pencil-and-paper (or lecture-and-homework) study. Rather, the exercises are mini- (micro-? nano-?) compositions that must be performed—with voice and/or keyboard, often with a partner—so that the ear, the fingers, the throat, and ultimately the mind can internalize the sound, sight, and feel of good (and bad) musical lines, and good (and bad) combinations of musical lines.

The specific method we will use is called species counterpoint—so called because the study progresses through stages, or species, where one or two new musical “problems” are introduced. This approach has existed in some form since the early seventeenth century. The specific method we will use is very close to that articulated by Johann Joseph Fux, in his Gradus ad parnassum (Steps to Parnassus, 1725). Master composers from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries have used this method, or some variation on it. While Fux proposed five species, moving from two-voice combinations up to six- and eight-voice combinations, we will focus on species one through four, in two voices only.