What is counterpoint? It’s defined by Merriam Webster as:
one or more independent melodies added above or below a given melody
The rules of counterpoint have been developed to instruct a composer on how to create a counter melody that can be independent yet still blend harmonically with the main melody.
The video below demonstrates the steps to composing with nothing more than the most basic understanding of music theory and counterpoint. All you need to know is what notes are in a chord, what notes belong to the scale in the key of your chord progression, how to choose a chord inversion so that one chord more easily flows into the next and 2 very simple and basic counterpoint rules. That’s it.
For choosing chord inversions, what I mean is that if you are playing a C chord “C-E-G” and you wish to move to an F chord, instead of playing C-E-G and then F-A-C, you are better off playing C-E-G and then C-F-A, because this represents less movement. Instead of all notes moving up by 4 notes, one note stays the same and the rest only move up by one note. This is referred to as good voice leading.
So, the steps from the video below are as follows:
- Start with a chord progression One chord per bar. You could use C F Am G C for example – though that’s not what was used in the video. It’s just a nice easy chord progression
- Create a half tone melody using chord tones from whatever chord is being played in that bar. If you are playing a “C” chord, your chord tone melody can use “C”, “E” or “G” since those are the notes that make up a “C” chord
- Replace some half tone notes with shorter notes to move from one half tone melody note to another, usually by playing a fragment of a scale moving up or down towards the next melody note
- Add a half tone harmony (which will become the counter melody) to the existing main melody you already have from step 3. To do this, choose a note that is a 3rd or 6th below the melody tone. Other intervals can be used but this requires a slightly more advanced knowledge of counterpoint which provides guidance on which intervals can follow and precede other intervals (see my follow up post about counterpoint). 3rd and 6ths can always follow and precede each other so for now, it’s simplest to stick with 3rds and 6ths. Note that steps 3 and 4 can also be done in the opposite order.
- Repeat step 3 for the harmony, with this rule in mind: generally, when the melody is holding a note, the counter melody should be moving. When the melody is moving, the counter melody should be holding a note. So for example, if the melody is playing a half note, perhaps the counter melody could be playing quarter or eighth notes using either chord tones or part of a scale.
Between 4:18 and 18:26 is a good example of easily using just the basics of music theory and counterpoint as described above. (I’ve already set the video to start at 4:18)