Harmonising With Counterpoint

A lesson on harmonising for two guitars via the use of contrapuntal techniques.

Ultimate Guitar
Are you bored of harmonising in the same old ways? In this lesson I am going to teach you how to harmonise your lead lines through the use of contrapuntal techniques. What are contrapuntal techniques, you ask? I will cover that soon it's not half as intimidating as it sounds. This lesson will require that you have a basic knowledge of music theory, so if you can't name the major 3rd above G or you don't know the major/minor scales, then I suggest you learn some theory then return. I aim to make this lesson practical for the average guitarist. This is not a lesson on strict counterpoint, rather I will introduce the fundamental ideas taught in counterpoint. Hopefully by the end of this lesson you will have consolidated the skills to harmonise your lead lines in new and more interesting ways. The term counterpoint literally means point against point. Often in guitar based music we see lead lines harmonised in diatonic thirds or sixths. This is when one guitarist plays a lead part (the fixed melody from which you harmonise is called cantus firmus in counterpoint), and the other harmonises by playing a diatonic third or sixth above. In the Iron Maiden piece Hallowed Be Thy Name we see harmonisation in thirds:
  B   A   G F# G  F# E  F#
  G   F#  E D  E  D  C  D
  3   3   3 3  3  3  3  3
~ Throughout this lesson I will write out the notes as well
as the harmonic intervals for any examples included.
There is nothing wrong with harmonising like this, however it takes away each part's independent voice. In counterpoint the aim is for each part to have its own unique melodic line - this is what I am referring to when I use the term contrapuntal; writing for more than two or more independant parts. The first thing to draw your attention to is consonances and dissonances. For the purposes of what I am teaching you, dissonances are to be avoided. The harmonic consonances are as follows: Unison/octave Major and minor thirds Major and minor sixths Perfect fifths The interval between the two guitar parts should always be one of those listed. If one guitarist plays an A and the other guitarist harmonises above it with a C, this is acceptable they're playing a minor third apart. If one guitarist plays an A and the other harmonises above it with a B however, then it will create a dissonance as the interval is a major second. Whilst those are the consonant intervals for harmony, melodically you are given a lot more freedom. Just try to avoid the following: Diminished/augmented intervals Major and minor 7th If the melody of either guitar part uses one of these intervals, then it will sound dissonant. Before I go any further I should stress that all the notes you use should fit within the key you are playing in. The harmonising part should be a diatonic third, fifth or sixth above the lower part. If we are in the key of C major for example, the notes are C D E F G A B. I would not harmonise C with Eb, or B with F#, because even though they are a minor third and perfect fifth respectively, they are not in key. A diatonic third above C in the key of C major would be E, and the diatonic third above E would be G, etc. A diatonic fifth above B in the key of C major is F; this is a diminished fifth and therefore a dissonance. When writing for minor keys you may use both natural and melodic minor. (Melodic minor is the natural minor with a raised 6th and 7th when ascending). One key element found in contrapuntal music, essentially the element that defines contrapuntal music, is contrary motion. This is where the melodic lines move in opposite directions, one ascending and one descending.
  G  A  C  D  E  D  C  A  G  A
  E  D  C  B  A  B  C  D  E  A
  3  5  1  3  5  3  1  5  3  1
Not only does contrary motion sound great, but it will ensure that both guitar parts have a melody independent of the other. As cool as contrary motion is though, it isn't always an option. There are three other types of motions that are used in combination with contrary motion to create contrapuntal music: Parallel motion Notes move in the same direction maintaining the same interval. Using this for too long will result in loss of independence for each part. Try avoid using more than three parallels in a row.
  C  G  F  E  F  E  D  B  C
  A  E  D  C  D  C  B  G# A  
  3  3  3  3  3  3  3  3  3
Similar motion Notes move in the same direction with varying intervals. Even though the parts are moving in the same direction, they retain independence as the intervals differ.
  C  D  E  F  G  A  G  F
  A  B  G  A  C  F  C  A
  3  3  6  6  5  3  5  6
Oblique motion One part is moving whilst the other remains on the same pitch.
  A  Bb D  Bb A  F  A  Bb A
  D  D  D  D  D  D  D  D  D 
  5  6  1  6  5  3  5  6  5
Contrary motion should predominate, although all of the above may be used. I have now covered most of the essentials, but here are a few rules'/suggestions to help improve your harmonies: Consecutive fifths and octaves should be avoided as they reduce the sense of movement within the piece (consecutive fifths and octaves are forbidden in strict counterpoint). One reason contrary motion is so useful is because it's a foolproof way to avoid consecutive fifths and octaves. Unisons and octaves should be used very sparingly, typically only at the start or end of a phrase. The reason for this is that unisons/octaves are void of harmony, this greatly reduces movement and rids the parts of their independant melodic lines. Mainly use stepwise movement. Stepwise movement is moving up or down to the next scale degree. If you write a leap of a 4th or more (a leap is a melodic interval of a 3rd or greater), have the melody move in the opposite direction to balance this after. This especially applies with large intervals such as the 6th and octave. If the lead line leaps in one direction, avoid having the harmonised line leap in that same direction use stepwise movement, or if necessary, a small leap downwards. Try end the phrase on a perfect fifth, octave, or a unison. The use of contrary motion is ideal at the end of a phrase as it will create a strong conclusion (and will prevent any inadvertant use of consecutive fifths and octaves). Unless you have a very good reason to do so, voice crossing should strictly be avoided. This is where the upper part crosses below the other. Here are some examples which demonstrate harmonising through the use of counterpoint:
G minor:
  G  F  D  Bb A  F  E  F# G
  G  A  Bb G  C  D  C  A  G
  1  6  3  3  6  3  3  6  1
D major:
  D  E  F# D  D  C# B  C# D
  D  C# A  B  G  E  D  E  D
  1  3  6  3  5  6  6  6  1
C minor:
  Eb  F   F   Eb  Eb  G   G
  C   Bb  Ab  G   Ab  Bb  C
  3   5   6   6   5   6   5
This last example doesn't follow strict rules of species counterpoint (the academic form of which I have outlined the fundamentals of). If the resulting harmony isn't pleasing to the ear be sure to check both the melodic and harmonic intervals. I can say with almost 100% confidence that you will have broken one of the rules/suggestions listed above. If you follow the concepts that have been introduced in this lesson, you should have the ingredients to create melodic lines which blend seamlessly together, creating an effective harmony. Don't hesitate to break some of the rules, but as long as you're making this the cornerstone of your writing, it will be hard to take a wrong step.

13 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Fantastic lesson man, This really helped me. You can be sure I'll be looking at this again and again.
    Jesse Clarkson
    Thanks, comments/ratings are appreciated. Just waiting for a small error to get fixed up.
    very nice. but in the examples, it would have been nice to see some fuller harmonies -- using octaves and tenths, for example. you covered the fundamentals of applicable counterpoint very well.
    Jesse Clarkson
    I generally dislike the use of octaves bar from the beginning or ending of a phrase. A valid critique though, thanks.
    lets say i have the 3rd,5th,7th and 8th fret of the B string being played wat would be its harmonized line?
    edumico1234 wrote: lets say i have the 3rd,5th,7th and 8th fret of the B string being played wat would be its harmonized line?
    i mean 1st,3rd 5th,and 6th fret
    Jesse Clarkson
    What key is it in? C major, A minor, or F minor? You'd harmonise a line in C major differently to one in F minor. There are many ways you can harmonise the line you described. The reason for this lesson was so you could harmonise it yourself.
    Thanks for doing the lesson dude. One little thing that could've been included about parallel motion is that the quality of the interval is not considered. eg, It can be any type of 3rd, 6th etc
    Good write-up. The only iffy thing in the back of my mind would be the possibility of creating the impression that this is simply about deliberately harmonizing a part, while people miss that it's really two (or more) independent melodies that happen to "harmonize".
    Jesse Clarkson
    Good point mdc. I guess I overlooked it because it seemed obvious to me. I'll try to get it added. Brainpolice - It sounds like you're suggesting that counterpoint is just two melodies which conveniently harmonise. I would disagree, it seems to be very much premeditated. It is important to focus on the individual melodic lines though, which can often be ignored. Thanks for the feedback.
    On the third from last example, Gm, is that a quote? It sounds very familiar.