Counterpoint for Guitarists: 1

Counterpoint, the artful combination of two or more simultaneous melodic lines, (Grout and Palisca, A History of Western Music, 5th ed, p. 809) is considered by many people to be a relic of a bygone age with little or no use in today’s music. While the ‘golden age’ of contrapuntal writing has certainly passed, the use of counterpoint, or contrapuntal techniques and ideas, has continued unbroken up to, and including, the present. Contrapuntal techniques in modern guitar-based music may not be as extensively used as in classical music, but guitar-based music still contains contrapuntal elements. Often these elements occur through the use of voice-leading when played solely on the guitar, but they can also occur between a guitar and another instrument, or instruments. Consider the opening of Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin, the solo guitar has a melody, in eighth notes, which is moving against the slower half note chromatic bass notes.


The use of two or more different note values played simultaneously is one of the main components of counterpoint. Notice also that the highest eighth notes in the first two bars are moving in contrary motion with the half notes.

Contrary stairway

Contrary motion is used extensively in contrapuntal textures as it highlights the independence of the melodic lines.

Even in the opening four bars of this iconic song there are a number of contrapuntal techniques being used. As we shall see, solo guitar music uses many of these techniques, especially when a complete texture of bass line, melody, and accompaniment is desired (we will return to solo guitar parts in later articles).

Continuing with the opening of Stairway to Heaven, after the initial introduction, shown above, a group of recorders enter. The recorder’s melodies often simply double the notes of the guitar or sustain the underlying harmonies, however, their parts also contain several contrapuntal elements.

Stairway recorders

In the first full bar of the above example, the recorders simply follow the guitar’s harmony, albeit with longer note values in the upper parts. In the second full bar some independence is created with the highest recorder playing a descending line against the stationary F half note – this is called oblique motion. The upper recorder line is also moving in contrary motion with the middle recorder’s ascending C – D – E quarter notes. As you can see, there is often many more ‘lines’ of music moving with some independence, even within the vertical harmonic progressions. It must be remembered that the underlying harmonic progressions must always be kept in mind when attempting to incorporate any contrapuntal techniques.

So how can we begin to incorporate contrapuntal elements into our own music?

To answer these questions, and expand on some of the techniques introduced above, let us consider the melody of the first four bars of J. S. Bach’s Bourree in E minor. Many guitarists have performed this piece, and it was also featured in the movie Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny. 

Bourree melody

As its name suggests, the Bourree is in the key of E minor, which can be confirmed by the raised leading note (D sharp) and the use of the ascending and descending forms of the E melodic minor scale.

As mentioned earlier, when writing counterpoint the underlying harmonic progression must always be kept in mind. In this piece, the rate of harmonic change is usually fairly rapid but this is not always necessary or desirable. Looking at Bach’s bass line counterpoint in the upbeat bar and first full bar, we see that the bass and melody are moving in contrary motion throughout.

Bourree bar1

Notice also that the movement of the melody and bass in the upbeat bar and first quarter note beat of bar one create a voice-exchange; in this instance the bassline’s G and E exchange with the melody’s E and G. This exchange pivots around the F sharp eighth note and extends tonic harmony across two quarter-note beats.

When two, or more, parts move together, using the same note values and rhythm, the counterpoint is said to be note against note. This is the so-called first species of counterpoint contained in Johann Joseph Fux’s 1725 treatise Gradus ad Parnassum. In two-part first species counterpoint both parts together imply the harmonies and can create different harmonies for each quarter note beat or, as is the case with the voice-exchange example discussed above, the harmony can be extended over several beats. In the above example, the harmony of the upbeat bar and the first quarter note beat of the first bar is expanded by the voice-exchange and contrary motion between the melody and bass. With two-part first species counterpoint one note of the triad must be omitted. It is this fact that can lead to harmonic ambiguity if the composer does not define the intended harmony. Even when the composer’s intentions are clear in their mind, there may still be several ways of hearing a certain combination of notes. Consider the following

EG example

In the key of E minor the notes E and G may imply tonic harmony; without the fifth, B. However, the notes E and G in E minor may also imply submediant harmony C major; without the root.


When using extended harmony, E and G may belong to other types of harmony also, such as an A minor seventh chord. It is the context which should help to define which harmony is being used at any given moment. Also, as always, your ears should guide you in this regard.

Looking again at the Bourree, the harmony on the second quarter note beat of bar one can be heard as chord two in E minor, F sharp – A – C, the diminished supertonic chord. This can be confirmed by context, as the harmony on beat three, B – D sharp, is clearly the dominant, and so we are dealing with a ii – V cadential progression. When either analysing a piece of music or writing your own piece, remember that your harmonies need to create convincing progressions.

On beat two of bar one the melody moves with two eighth notes against the bass’ single quarter note. This is the second species of counterpoint in Fux’s Gradus and consists of two notes moving against one. The two notes in second species counterpoint may both be harmony notes, notes which are both present in the chord, or one may be a passing note, which passes by step between two harmony notes. In this regard, the two F sharp notes in the voice-exchange can be heard as passing notes, as they pass between the harmony notes E and G of the tonic harmony. In the case of the diminished supertonic harmony on beat two of bar one, the E clearly passes by step between the F sharp and D sharp in the melody and so can be called a passing note. In this context, however, the E is probably more correctly heard as a harmony note, as it is the seventh of the supertonic seventh chord – the seventh (E) of this chord also resolves correctly in this context.


As the dominant typically moves to either tonic or submediant harmony after a cadential progression, we can expect either of these chords to follow. On beat four of bar one, however, the note combination doesn’t imply either. It is not until the beginning of bar two that we get a note combination which suggests the tonic.

Bourree bar 2

To explain the notes on beat four of bar one we must look at the extended dominant harmony: B – D sharp – F sharp – A; the dominant seventh chord. As with the supertonic seventh, the dominant seventh’s seventh note (A) resolves correctly and the F sharp leaps to the fifth (B) of the tonic harmony on beat one of bar two. Remember, in second species counterpoint, harmony notes may leap while non-harmony notes, such as passing notes, must pass by step. The F sharp leaping and the A correctly resolving helps to confirm that dominant harmony continues from beat three to beat four of bar two.

The E on beat four passes between the D sharp and F sharp of the dominant seventh harmony but does not belong to this harmony (in Bach’s day, the dominant eleventh was not yet considered a chord in its own right and so the E in this context is treated as a non-harmony note). Passing notes may be unaccented; they pass on the offbeat,


or accented; they pass on the beat.


Both types are used extensively in many styles of music. The key point to remember is: in both examples, the passing note passes by step, it is simply the level of dissonance which varies between the two examples.

The handling of consonance and dissonance has evolved considerably over time and is a topic which should not overly concern us at present. We should be aware, however, that when notes combine in the types of intervals which are found in typical chordal constructions, such as 3rds, 6ths, fifths and octaves, they have a more stable, relaxed sound to them. And when notes combine with intervals not typically found in chordal constructions there is more dissonance, or energy, which propels the music forward towards the next point of stability; these intervals include 2nds, tritones and 7ths. Bear in mind that much contemporary music uses dissonance as a basis for its sound and these observations regarding consonance and dissonance are not intended to influence your own compositional style; rather they are included as a brief explanation of the thought behind much classical theory.

Already we can see that the rate of harmonic change may vary within a bar and that typically there is a mixture of a quicker and slower rate of harmonic change throughout a work. The chords (not showing inversions) from the upbeat bar through beat one of bar two can be summed up as follows


Notice also that Bach makes considerable use of inversion, which prevents the overuse of root position chords while also creating a smoother bass melody.

The harmony on beat two of bar two can be heard as a leading note first inversion diminished triad which resolves to the tonic on beat three. Once again Bach includes an accented ascending passing note (C sharp) on beat two which propels the melody, through the raised leading note (D sharp) towards the root note on beat three. The leading note diminished triad on beat two of bar two can be heard as expanding the tonic harmony across beats one to three.

Beat four of bar two can probably best be heard as a first inversion D secondary dominant seventh chord which resolves to the G-B note combination on beat one of bar three

to Bar3

The D dominant seventh occurs in the same point when bars one to the first beat of bar three repeat in bars five to the first beat of bar seven (not included in our example). In bar six the D dominant confirms the modulation into the relative major (G) and can be thought of as the true dominant of that key. In bar two to three, however, the D secondary dominant seventh simply precedes the G-B note combination, which at this point can be heard as the tonic, E minor, without the root. This progression still works as it can be heard as an interrupted cadence in G major, V-vi: D – E minor, or, the F sharp – C combination on beat four of bar two can be heard as the leading-note diminished triad without its root – the D note is a descending accented passing note. Either way, the music is propelled into bar three by the need for the tritone F sharp – C to resolve.

Continuing into bar three,


Bach continues towards the dominant of E minor (B) on beat three. The vertical note combinations on beats two and four of bar three are a little ambiguous but can be heard as following a similar cadential progression to that found on beats two and four of bar one; they also both contain the same bass melody. While the cadential progression in bar one progresses ii -V and on to i in bar two, the progression in bar three proceeds iv – V – vii, and on to i in bar four.


The harmonies in bar three may not be as explicitly represented as those in bar one, but if we imagine a third part in bar three, the underlying voice-leading becomes a little clearer


The chord on beat two of bar three contains a seventh (G, making it a subdominant seventh chord) which resolves correctly to the fifth of the dominant (F sharp).

In Bach’s original two-part version, the harmonies on beats one to three of bar three all sound a bit bare as they are incomplete: the subdominant seventh lacks its third and fifth (C, E); the dominant on beat three lacks its third, the leading note (D sharp); and the leading note diminished triad on beat four lacks its root and third (D sharp, F sharp). Despite this, the ear accepts the progression towards the tonic at the beginning of bar four. This is partly due to the use of the same bassline as in bar one, and also partly due to the presence of the tonic and dominant on the same beats as in bar one; the ear simply accepts the move through beats two and four and on to the tonic in bar four. The listener is more likely to accept bare harmony if they have heard similar harmonies and similar melodic shapes previously.

The harmonies in bar four proceed: i – V – i to complete the first phrase of this work. Beats one and two are connected by a passing note (A), while the dominant on beat two begins with a descending accented passing note (G) which moves on to the dominant’s fifth (F sharp). The phrase ends with the familiar voice-leading of a perfect cadence: the bass leaps from V to i while the fifth of the dominant resolves to the doubled root (E) of the tonic.

Contrary motion is the most common motion in these few bars, there are, however, two occurrences of similar motion: from the end of bar one to the beginning of bar two (F sharp to B and A to G) and from beat two to beat three of bar four (F sharp to E and B to E). Because contrary motion helps to highlight a part’s independence its use is encouraged, however, there should be a mix of the various motions: contrary, oblique and similar, so that variety saves a work from predictability and monotony.