I’ve been thinking about what advice I’d give to a listener who wants to explore musical counterpoint. What is the best way to understand a composition where several musical parts (or lines, or voices) are moving independently, in a way that seems fascinating but sometimes overwhelming and difficult to follow?

The best way I can explain counterpoint is to liken it to a spoken conversation. To understand a contrapuntal piece of music, you can apply the same listening strategies that you would use in understanding a conversation between people.

For our purposes, imagine there are two people speaking excitedly about some topic, in a way where their phrases sometimes overlap. This scenario is analogous to two-voice counterpoint in music.

Let’s say we’re hearing a male voice and female voice, and the conversation is proceeding so quickly that we can’t hope to pick out every single word uttered, or every thought expressed. When both voices are active at the same time, it can be hard to separate the details of what each one is saying. How do we make sense of this torrent of simultaneous speech?

The first thing to know is that we don’t have to comprehend it all at once. Let’s say we’re just practicing. The conversation has been recorded and we get to go back and listen to the recording as many times as we like. What strategies could we use to make sense of the recording as we listen to it again and again? Here are some possibilities:

  • First try to isolate the voices. Try to follow just the male speaker while mentally blocking out the female speaker. Then try to follow just the female speaker while mentally blocking out the male speaker.
  • Now try switching your focus back and forth between the two voices, first concentrating on a few words uttered by the male speaker, then the female speaker, then the male, and so on.
  • Now try following both voices at once and see how much you can absorb. As you try to distribute your attention to both voices equally, are there moments where one voice seems to steal your attention, or the other voice seems to lose it? Are there moments where both voices are so noisy that you only hear a blur? Are there moments where the voices seem so clear that it’s easy to understand both at once?
  • Now try listening to the overall soundscape, the texture of the conversation apart from its meaning. Imagine you don’t speak the language in use. Don’t try to make sense of it, just listen to it as a collage of sounds. What patterns do you notice in that collage?
  • Continue listening to the soundscape, but now try to make some guesses about the language being spoken. Are there recurring sonic events that might be important words in this conversation?
  • Now imagine you do speak the language, but you’re only trying to understand the gist of the conversation, without aiming to memorize any specific phrases that have been said. Let the words wash over you and see if, without trying too hard, you come away with a general sense of what it’s about. Is it a happy or sad conversation? Do you know the topic?
  • Now think about the relationship between speakers.  What kind of connection do they have? Close or distant? Respectful or disapproving?
  • Now focus only on those places where the two voices overlap. What’s going on there? Does one voice seem to be interrupting the other, or joining the other? Are the speakers agreeing or disagreeing? Are the speakers in the same state or different states of mind?
  • Now listen for echoes between the speakers. When one speaker says something that strikes you as interesting or colorful, wait a moment and see if you can hear the other speaker repeat it. How often does one speaker quote or echo the other?
  • Now listen for pitch contours. Is one speaker getting higher or lower? When one speaker gets higher, does the other follow or do the opposite?
  • Now listen to the rhythm and pace of the conversation. Is it going fast or slow overall? Is it changing speeds? Is it choppy or smooth? Are the speakers going at the same pace or is one faster than the other? When both speakers are active at the same time, are they rhythmically in sync?
  • Now listen for gaps or pauses. Are there certain gestures that always seem to precede a pause? What happens after a pause – is it always the same speaker who breaks the silence?
  • As you replay the recording, see if you can begin to memorize certain phrases that you hear. When you notice the male speaker launching into a phrase that you’ve memorized, see if this frees you to focus more on the female speaker, while still remaining aware of the male speaker, and vice versa.

Each of these strategies for understanding a spoken conversation can be applied to music. For example, the strategy where you listen only to the lower-voiced speaker in a conversation is like listening only to the bass line in a piece of music. Focusing only on the higher-voiced speaker is like concentrating on the top line, or soprano part in a piece of music. The strategy where you listen for echoes, or phrases that are repeated by the speakers, is like listening for melodic imitation in a piece music.

Now that we’ve considered these many listening strategies, the important thing to realize is that you can actively switch between them. You try to isolate the bass line. You follow it for a while and notice that it’s made a catchy gesture. Now you listen for imitation: you wait and see if this catchy gesture is repeated in the upper voice. Now you’re following the upper voice by itself. You switch to following both voices at once. It gets overwhelming so you step back and focus on the soundscape. There’s a pause and you notice the upper voice coming back in, so you follow it for a while, and then…

As you listen again and again, actively switching between listening strategies, you begin to comprehend more and more of the piece in its bustling simultaneity, but you’ll never perceive everything about it at once even if you’re a trained musician and can play it from the score. When you have two musical parts interacting, just as when you have two speakers in dialogue, you are beholding something infinite.

What differentiates really good counterpoint from lame counterpoint is that in really good counterpoint, each listening strategy, each “angle of view,” will reveal something beautiful.

I could take two beautiful melodies and play them at the same time, but if I do this without any planning or craft, it’s not likely to yield really good counterpoint. Since we posit that each individual melody in this experiment is beautiful, the listening strategy where I focus on one line in isolation may reveal that beauty. And yet when I apply another strategy, listening for echoes between the lines, I’m not likely to hear any echoes, or if I do hear some they will be haphazard. When I step back and listen to the overall soundscape, it will be hard to identify any coherent texture. When I concentrate on overlaps between the lines, they will not seem to be agreeing or reinforcing each other, but if they seem to disagree it will be as though they are talking past each other, about different topics entirely.

Really good counterpoint is almost like a “Choose your own adventure” story where at any decision point, you can choose any path, any listening strategy, and it will take you to yet another place of wonder. It’s this experience of kaleidoscopic beauty, this feeling of immersion in layers of unfolding wonder, that makes counterpoint worth your practice, worth your effort as a listener. ■

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