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Please help me understand Beethoven (or counterpoint in general)

Hello Dear Forumers. :) Very happy to write my first post.

I'm an amateur and like to study works of classical masters to see how certain things are done and among other things I also try to grasp counterpoint theory and learn about species. Recently I listened and analysed the score of Beethoven's 9th symphony's 2nd movement molto vivace and was struck how the strings are written:

So when I looked at the score I could not grasp what is going on here because sometimes for example there are parallel thirds descending between two voices when another voice go opposite direction, sometimes the rhythm is hanging on one note, change of octavesetc. You can see the strings "bricks" in the video so you'll see what I mean. I can't understand how it is written, is it note against note counterpoint with rules broken? I have a hard time to figure out which voice is written against which voice if that makes sense. :)

I also have a side question for things like Bach:

I was taught by the materials that two voices should generally be in opposite direction or oblique motion for the best effect, but this uses parallel motions almost all the time from the beginning minus the leaps on every first note in the group. Bach's ear dictated this or are there other principles behind this?

Thank you.

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Species counterpoint is a (very old!) method of teaching counterpoint.  However, it is merely that: a pedagogical tool.  Very few composers (if any!) actually follow it to the letter (or follow it at all!). Beethoven in particular was fond of deliberately breaking the "rules" when he felt they were stifling his artistic expression, and sometimes just because he can.  Even Bach did not always stick to the "rules", though his work is definitely closer to species counterpoint than Beethoven.

The truth is, the "rules" are actually a description (and an idealization) of what composers were writing at the time (that's a few hundred years ago). Music theory comes from describing what has been written, rather than dictating what will be written. So in a sense, the "rules" aren't really rules at all, in the sense that they must be followed no matter what.  Rather, they encapsulate what others have done in a succinct form so that if you study the rules carefully, you might be able to also learn some of the principles that they applied when they wrote their works.  So in this sense, learning to compose "within the rules" is a good training for your "musical muscles", but when it comes to actually composing your own work, you should realize that you are not bound by the "rules"; rather, it's up to you to apply the principles you have learned from studying the "rules" (or not apply them, if you see a different way that "works" -- it does require experience to know what "works" and what doesn't, though!).

It's also a good idea to study where other composers have "broken the rules", and to understand why -- which is what you're doing here, and that's very good. There may not be a single answer, though. Certainly, there's no textbook answer.  A lot of the time, it's a matter of what the composer intended to achieve, what was in his mind at the time, how he interprets the principles behind the "rules", artistic liberty, etc.. We may not be able to give you a satisfactory answer either -- you have to study it yourself and see if you can find an explanation. Or, more importantly, discover principles that may underlie a particular "violation" of the rules that you may be able to apply to your own music.  Never write anything off as irrelevant or unexplainable; always study it carefully and see if you can derive useful principles from it. And always study in the larger context of the entire passage or movement or piece, and maybe even other pieces that the composer wrote around the same time.  Many things cannot be understood out of context, so if you get stuck with a particular difficulty, always step back and look at the larger context. The answer (or an answer) can usually be found there.

P.S., also, I should add that when it comes to orchestral pieces, you need to realize that an instrument part does not always correspond to a "voice" in the sense described in music theory.  A staple technique of orchestration is to use doubling: multiple instruments playing in unison or parallel octaves for strength of sound, either because a single instrument would sound too weak against the rest of the orchestra, or the composer wants to accent that line so that it stands out.  This should not be considered as multiple voices moving in parallel.

And although orchestral doublings are most often at the octave or unison, doublings at the 3rd or 6th is also a common technique for "thickening" the sound of a particular line.

There's also the technique of dovetailing: a single logical "voice" is realized by one instrument playing the first part, and the a second instrument "taking over" the next part by sharing a common note and continuing the line while the first instrument stops or picks up a different line ("voice"). This is often done to get around limitations in instrument register, or sometimes for coloristic effects.

Then there's also accompaniment (background) vs. thematic material (foreground). Orchestral chords. for example, are generally much less distinct in terms of voice leading than, say, a choir of 4 voices; so you'll often find unusual voice leadings when the orchestra is playing a sequence of chords. You'll also find that background accompaniment figures in orchestral works frequently "break" good voicing "rules" because they're in the background and you probably won't even hear the difference anyway. (This doesn't mean you can just write the background carelessly, though -- there are limits as to how far you can go before it becomes noticeable. Again, it takes experience to know what works well and what doesn't.)  So before you go about analysing orchestral works according to species counterpoint, you probably want to learn a few basics of orchestration first, so that you know how to pick out where are the primary thematic materials and what are merely accompanying frills.

HS...2 great posts.

Just felt impelled to mention also that the benefit of studying technique imparts  a close association with what is possible and brings you closer to your own artistic self. The technique gives you a confident foundation, wings if you will, which emancipate your inner imagination. To all the naysayers and decriers of technique, take note - the greatest pieces of music ever written where done by master technicians (in the serious music field of course) and not buskers. 

I think, in my opinion -

Bach and Beethoven certainly were trained musicians, who certainly knew their theory and 'the rules' well. Remember, the rules were still being developed back then. 

Which goes to say, like Mike mentioned, the rules are just a foundation to work off of. If everyone followed 'the rules' to a T, we'd all end up writing things that sound similar. 

So in your examples, perhaps the composers were simply using their ears to define what sounded correct rather then writing and thinking in terms of musical theory. Only after the fact can you go in and analyze what is going on theoretically. Sometimes in my own writing I do not know exactly what is going on in the theory aspect of things, but I just use my ear to determine if it 'sounds right'. The theory can become useful when in a rut, or you just can't get certain passages to work well. 

I don't think great works are crafted by using intense theoretical knowledge at all times. Theory is math, rules, intervals, a way for humans to define things if needed. Words in a dictionary- it's up to you as the writer how to put those words together into a story for people to read. (Or listen to in this matter) But do not get me wrong- it's very important to know as many words as possible, because with that, more doors open. Hence why theory should always be a never ending pursuit of knowledge. 

David, you bring up an interesting point about the duality of theory / analysis vs. creative writing (composing).  I find this duality at work all the time -- sometimes I sketch out the large scale structure of pieces using theoretical considerations, but they seem to remain dry, empty husks until one day, in a spark of creativity, I receive concrete motifs and ideas to fill in the sketched-out theoretical forms. Sometimes I get stuck in the middle of a piece -- ran out of creative fuel, you might say -- but stepping back and analysing what I have done so far often reveals possible ways to move on that I hadn't thought of.  OTOH, sometimes I'm in theory mode while writing, and eventually have to stop because I'm starting to churn out Average Gray Generic Stuff by following theory to the letter. Then I have to go back and throw out the last N bars, maybe take a walk or something, then come back in fresh creative mode to continue in a fresh new direction.

(I was going to allude to the worn metaphor of two sides of a coin, but then I remembered Möbius strips and refrained. :-P)

Thank you all for the replies. Yes I read many times that rules are broken and books are often only guidelines but I thought there is a kind of a system to these examples or something more than just "oh f*** it" :DDD I am studying Counterpoint By Fux from Alexander Publishing which is pretty great.
I can already see a pattern in the Beethoven that there is a figure of BbAGFEDC#DEDC#D that is present in all sections and changed according to chord change. Seems like the moment fluctuates between d minor and a minor. But its easy, the hard part is what is going on in the other voices. It also seems surprising that there is a lot of analysing of the form construction but nothing about that kind of deep analysis.
Oh well, maybe one day I will figure this out, lol!
Thanks again!

For the Beethoven, heres a search with many results for its analysis--hopefully something will be of use there:

And as for these "rules" for my money maybe only look upon them as older suggestions..observations on what was done..and when confronted with judging what sounds good versus following a rule, throw the rule out.

Also in music as regards the saying "you need to know the rules before you can break them" , Id choose to simply write your own rules, using your heart, ears, and brain to guide, create, and decide your own rules.

To me its the road to originality in ones music..and of course with all of this -YMMV! :)!!

Thanks Bob

Well said Bob. Basic knowledge is crucial and continued study is a good thing but that next note you enter has to come from inside unless you're doing a tribute, which is certainly OK too.

There is certainly an important place for theorists and musicologists though, and I would think you could do both, just maybe not at the same time?

Bob Porter said:

But don't think of it as there being "rules". There are guide lines for how things have been done in the past. These guide lines might tend to define what "Western" music has become. But Beethoven did what he did because he was ......... Beethoven. The rest of us are not.

I think that you won't find too much in depth analysis because we are composers, and not theorists. Yes, we pay attention to the theory. But that is not our goal. So yes, we tend to just " go for it". I would rather write something that, if I were lucky enough to have it sound good, sounded good because it was musical. Not just because the theory was sound. I want my music to have my soul, and not just be a collection of formulas.

I see the "rules" as a kind of distilled summary of principles and techniques employed in successful compositions, in the context of an older era of music.  (Though I must state that IMO, older does not mean irrelevant or outdated -- I reject the modernistic notion that to be "relevant" one must throw out the old altogether and reinvent the (square) wheel.)  What's important is not the letter of the rules, but the principles embodied in them.  Ultimately, it boils down to what sounds good, and what "works" in terms of dramatic arc, pacing, engaging the listener, etc..  These are far more important than the nitpicks about whether parallel motion is good or bad, what intervals are concords or discords, etc.. But you still have to understand these nitpicky details, because they are the language that the older classics are built from, and before you can discern what the composer has done in terms of dramatic arc, pacing, etc., you have to "speak the same language", so to speak.  Only after that can you truly appreciate how the composer crafted his composition so that it has just the right amount of drama, pacing of different musical ideas, etc., and thus learn what makes a composition successful or not.

For example, if you can't tell the difference between a concord and a discord in, say, Beethoven, you'd completely miss the structure of where he places deliberate discords at strategic points in order to impart forward momentum to the piece. If you don't know what a chord inversion is, and the "expected" functions of each, then you'd overlook how Beethoven deliberately uses unconventional 3rd inversion 7th chords as a way of "shocking" the listener to grab his attention.  It's from understanding how he uses these techniques to drive drama and forward momentum, that you learn how to impart the same kind of momentum to your own works -- and you don't even need to be using the same harmonic language at all; your piece could be atonal and you'd still be able to apply the same principles. But you can't learn the principles if you've never learned how to "speak" Beethoven's harmonic language.  You won't learn much from studying a history textbook in Russian, for example, if you don't understand Russian in the first place.

Though I must state that IMO, older does not mean irrelevant or outdated -- I reject the modernistic notion that to be "relevant" one must throw out the old altogether and reinvent the (square) wheel.)

Its sad that its unfortunately viewed this way--

No one is trying to reinvent the wheel, or dictating the "rules of relevance"...

Writing music nowadays in older styles etc thats already been done so excessively, and  done so much better many many years ago-- ie using and reusing  the same old "wheel"--doesnt work for ALL of us..We seek to use sounds, methods and materials available to us now, while we're alive, and write music of our time.

It seems that possibly some are using reinventing 'music' in place of the 'wheel' in that quote, and again, all that I feel is being done are composers being of "our time" our thoughts and methods of creating music.

And for those who choose to write music in older styles, etc, go for it.! IMHO, though I would hope at least SOMETHING of each composer will be there new in these older style pieces, so we can hear THEIR voice, and not keep hearing the same old already well established, all too familiar voices drowning them out.

Thanks Bob

Bob, when I say that I reject the notion of old being irrelevant, I do not exclude other composers from exploring new sounds and new directions.  In fact, I myself explore new sounds and new directions too, within the context of my chosen style (and sometimes even without).

I think at some level we actually agree -- it's altogether too easy to take the lazy way out and just copy older works and churn out boring facsimiles of Beethoven, et al that actually do not even live up to the standards of what is copied.  But I see this as a matter of laziness rather than a matter of requiring, as if by necessity, a departure from established idioms.  As you say, something of the composer must be new in these "older style" pieces, meaning that it isn't just a matter of passive adherence to whatever past norms (IOW, laziness); it requires the composer to write something new even if the chosen language (harmony, style, etc.) is well-established.  But the same can be said for "modern" pieces: it is also possible for modernistic composers to take the lazy way -- they may throw out all established norms, yet write arbitrarily without much thought or effort, thus producing boring "brown music" of not much interest to anyone except themselves.  In other words, it's a matter of laziness rather than style / language / etc..

Im sure the same can be sad of anything H. S...but Im not sure in either case its simply "taking the lazy way out", or is a matter of laziness.

I feel composers make a choice as to what kind of music they'll write, and then it remains to be seen--first to themselves, and then to others-- if theyre successful in that genre.

Ive heard many people write in older styles as they like it more, and are more comfortable there-- and with all thats been written on it, easier to understand and therefore express themselves. And again thats fine, as with my previous comments.

And this comment of " boring brown music" is completely new to me, but I really do have a hard time accepting that ANYONE in any style would knowingly produce sub standard music and spend their time on it, and then affix their name to it. I dont know what kind of purpose that would serve, to anyone..

However thats just me, and I really do have a hard time attributing it all away to laziness.

Thanks Bob

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