Improvised Counterpoint in the Twenty-First Century:
The Musical Memory Bank as a Cure for Paralysis by Analysis
Improvised counterpoint was a common skill in the Renaissance, heard not only in churches but in homes, taverns, fields, mines, and even public baths (Wegman 1996). Despite its former ubiquity and accessibility, I argue that efforts to revive the practice have been held back by modern methods of teaching counterpoint based on theoretical rules. These rules either unhelpfully tell the contrapuntist all the things they may not do, or present what they may do so abstractly as to require a level of mental calculation not practical for performance situations.
I propose a method of learning improvised counterpoint based on historical pedagogy, music cognition, and my own experiments in performance and teaching. There are two types of early counterpoint treatise: those written for university students, which distil counterpoint into rules, and those for choirboys, marked by multitudes of examples of note-against-note counterpoint to be memorized like multiplication tables (Busse Berger, 2005). I suggest that taking the choirboy approach, memorizing examples such as the interval successions presented by Johannes Tinctoris (Liber de Arte Contrapuncti, 1477), allows the performer to internalize the building blocks of counterpoint, developing a fluency unachievable using rules alone. The use of a musical “memory bank” is supported by studies of jazz improvisation (Norgaard 2011; Biasutti 2015), as is the need to eliminate calculation from real-time performance (Johnson-Laird 2002). Finally, my own experiences of learning, teaching and performing improvised counterpoint have been critical to developing my approach.
This paper includes performances of live improvisations in simple and florid counterpoint.