The rules and versions of a counterpoint came with the first polyphonic pieces. Counterpoint comes from the Latin phrase “punctus contra punctum“, which means “note against note“. The typical polyphonic forms ,structures or compositional techniques, which involve a counterpoint are the following:

  • C.F – technique : One after another voice is added to an existing one (the cantus firmus)
  • Free imitation : A rhythmical or melodic motif is recited in one voice and emulated by one or more voices.
  • Canon (Rounds, Catches): A strict form of imitation where not only a theme or a motif is emulated but the whole voice. The melody of the voice is played time-displaced in one or more other voices
  • Fugue : A composition-technique, where a subject (theme) is being answered by a counter melody
  • Ricercar : A precursor of a fugue, where one imitates section by section.


Furthermore, there are 5 big groups a counterpoint can be part of :

  • Species Counterpoint :

The species counterpoint is meant to be for students, where they are supposed to learn to add a counterpoint to a cantus firmus in five steps (or species).  In the first species the students are asked to add one consonant note against each note, or the on-beats of the cantus firmus (first voice). For the second species the students have the task to add two notes for each note of the first voice instead of one. It is allowed to put dissonances over off-beats. The third species requires to write four notes per bar, whereas dissonances may occur on the second, third and fourth beat. For the fourth species the students have to work with syncopation. The fifth and last  species combines all of the previous ones and is supposed to give students a good understanding of the counterpoint. In all of the species octave and quint parallels should generally be avoided. (2)

  • Free counterpoint : This kind of counterpoint is not strictly bound to the rules of the species counterpoint  and sometimes even appears without a cantus firmus.

Any chord used in Harmony is available for use, dissonances enter without preparation, and are used with irregular and with interrupted resolutions ; chord progression determines to a great extent the voice progression. (York, 1994)

  • Linear counterpoint : In the Oxford Dictionary of Music I found the following definition :

    Term used specifically to describe type of 20th‐cent. counterpoint with emphasis on the individual strands of the fabric rather than on their harmonic implications—but all counterpoint is by nature linear.  (Michael Kennedy, Joyce Kennedy and Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2013).

  • Dissonant counterpoint : For the dissonant counterpoint all the rues from above are turned upside-down, the composer has to primarily focus on dissonances and can put in a few consonant notes in. (3) One good example for a dissonant counterpoint is Sarah Cahill’s “Dissonant Counterpoint“.

  1. Heukäufer, N.(2014). Musik Abi –  Kompaktwissen Oberstufe. Berlin: Cornelsen Scriptor, p. 57-58
  2. Pankhurst, T. (2017). Schenker’s Theory of Counterpoint. (online). Available at : (Accessed 17. February 2019)
  3. Spilker, J. (2013). Dissonant counterpoint. (online). Oxford Index. Available at : (accessed at : 17.February .2019)