Anthony Tommasini on Counterpoint

There is a whole language of technical jargon to describe music. Though these words and concepts are very handy to musicians, they tend to mystify non-musicians. Even people who go to concerts all the time, upon being confronted with terms like chromatic harmony, passacaglia and sonata form may have no real idea what they mean.

After I wrote a column about Chopin and Schumann, whose bicentenaries are being celebrated this year, and mentioned their use of counterpoint, some readers wrote to me asking: What is counterpoint?

Counterpoint is a basic component of all music. The word, which literally means point against point, sort of implies what the musical concept is: namely, music written in multiple, overlapping voice, or lines, lines that are essentially equal and independent. This concept, though hard to explain in words, is fairly easy to illustrate using musical examples.

So, the lesson for today: What is counterpoint? Here is a short video in which I try to explain it, playing excerpts on the piano of music from Bach to the Beatles. This video is in line with others I have posted on the Times Web site, explicating other seemingly elusive topics, including 12-tone music and bel canto opera.

Counterpoint, however, is very basic, very elemental. I hope this helps.

Anthony Tommasini | July 23, 2010

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