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Why Palestrina? Why Counterpoint?

Why is a concept born out of a 16th century composer still relevant today? Why should we try to understand at least a LITTLE about counterpoint?

So glad you asked!

I didn’t start studying counterpoint until I was in my 50’s, for a simple reasons. I didn’t see the relevance, as I was a jazz/R&B player. What does counterpoint bring to THAT table? I ignored it. A complete pile of arrogance was I. (did you hear Yoda in that last sentence?) During a music appreciation class I was teaching at a private arts academy, I was covering the Renaissance and its music. While researching what made the music of that era stand out, I stumbled across Palestrina. His music was haunting and unlike anything I had EVER heard before. I quickly fell in love with it. His music soothed me and calmed me down. As I researched this particular 16th century composer, I was astounded to find that 500 years after he lived, today’s universities and colleges STILL look to Palestrina to teach and demonstrate counterpoint. How cool is it that someone could be such a genius that his style and technique would still be relevant 500 years after he died?

So, I started to research counterpoint and Palestrina’s music in particular to see if I could find out exactly WHAT made his music so wonderful to listen to. Initially, I thought I was studying something beautiful, but with little to relevance for today’s music. So my adventure and my trip down the counterpoint rabbit hole began. I also bought a book called “Counterpoint in Composition” by Felix Salzer and Carl Schacter. My intent was to plow my way through this book and master its content… and feeling generous, I gave myself a year to complete it… arrogance popping its head up again. 4 years later, I am still in chapter 1. Was it THAT hard? No, quite the opposite – it was SO understandable, that whenever I would do one of the exercises, I would get inspired and I would write choral music and bury myself in that composition for long periods of time. It was so exciting! Each exercise prompted me to write something. As a result, I have worked with only First Species Counterpoint (chapter 1) for the last four years. I have only recently cracked the book at chapter two and am beginning to study Second Species counterpoint.

Here is what I have discovered – the principles contained in writing good counterpoint are universal in their applications. And that is precisely WHY counterpoint is still relevant today. If you begin with the premise that counterpoint is the fine art of voice-leading, it’s not a huge leap to see its application to modern music. The goal of Palestrina (and any composer, for that matter) was to write music that was pleasing to the ear. For example, in most of Palestrina’s music there was minimal dissonance, and where there was minimal dissonance, a good resolution to consonance. There was also minimal leaps, with most of the musical motion being steps and perhaps thirds (sometimes called a skip – anything greater than a third is called a “leap”).

Imagine my excitement when I looked at Elton John’s hit “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and realized his melody pretty much followed the same “rules” as drawn from the study of counterpoint! Now does that mean Elton John consciously used counterpoint and a cantus to frame that wonderful melody? I can pretty much assure you he did not. But how, then, can I attribute his melody to the rules of counterpoint and the Cantus? Simple – his melody is mostly steps and skips (thirds) with only a few leaps. And when his melody leaps up, he steps BACK in the opposing direction. (Leap up, step down; leap down, step up). By and large, his melody conforms to the rules of writing a cantus and counterpoint. It is my current contention that most melodies of our popular songs are popular because they are pleasing to our ear. And we have Palestrina and his contemporaries to thank for building that foundation for future musicians.

As I was discovering this, it caused me to ask the question – “What ELSE do these masters know that I don’t?” What I have learned so far from Palestrina has had a direct impact on my performance as a bassist and guitarist and as a composer. What else is there for me to learn? Stay tuned.

Mr G out.

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Written By:

Paige Garwood

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