Emir Gamsız
December 24, 2018
Counterpoint technique is a musical writing that ensures the harmony of melodies with each other, it plays a great role in the development of the communication of the members of the society with each other.


Please feel free to listen to the music included in this article while you read.

Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful.

— Socrates

Eastern and western societies all over the world share common ground in many aspects of social life. Thanks to high-speed internet access, TV and Hollywood, entertainment music has become one such commonality. Still, when it comes to artmusic, eastern and western societies maintain quite different qualities.

The melodies present in different cultures display the fascinating and colorful richness of human creativity. For example, the traditions of different languages and geographies produce varying styles and structures in their melodies. While yodeling is a perfect fit in the echoing atmosphere of the Swiss mountains, it would sound incongruous in the beaches of southern Turkey. In the mid-twentieth century, when big-time European orchestras recorded Antonio Vivaldi’s music, the result was a heavy sound. This didn’t match the energetic and tough attitude that comes from the windy, rainy, unpleasant climate of Vivaldi’s hometown, Venice. The sounds produced by the throat in the Arabic language allow singers from that geography to create sounds that a French speaking singer would never be able to create. It would be quite possible to write a book about the relationship of location and tradition with music, but in this article I will concentrate specifically on how the structural progress in music has affected societies in the eastern and western worlds.

Nihavend Longa (Turkish classical music)

I grew up in Istanbul, a city that sits perfectly between the eastern and western halves of the world. Ironically, while living on the European side of Istanbul, I took a boat every morning across the Bosphorus to study western classical music at the Istanbul University State Conservatory on the Asian side of Istanbul. Istanbul is a city where you can hear Turkish classical music, Middle Eastern arabesk music, western style Turkish pop, jazz and western classical music. Since childhood, the dictatorship of a single melody in Middle Eastern arabeskand Turkish classical music remained a constant element of my life. As much love as I had for these very colorful melodies, I never missed an opportunity to listen to western classical music. As my mother is a ballet teacher, the music of Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, and Chopin surrounded me. The musical duality of my environment continued until I decided to study piano at the age of twenty—with no prior training. A year after this illogical decision, I became a piano performance student in the conservatory and my music preferences were changed forever. Now that the reader knows that I am a fanatic and active performer of western classical music, I can explain how my ear for eastern melodies affected my approach to western classical music.

In western classical music, we first learn tonal harmony and the two basic modes of major and minor, as well as the church modes. More advanced theory gives us atonal and serial systems of music. In Turkish classical music, scales are called makamand each makamspecifies a unique intervalic structure and melodic development. There are 590 makams. So if we combine this colorfulness with Jewish, Arabic and Andalusian scales it is quite fair to say that the color scheme is greater than the melodic diversity of western classical music alone. The nuances in the music based on these regional scales are the air we breathe, the water we drink and the blood that runs in our veins. Although I am not as deeply informed about East Asian, South Asian and African music, the colorfulness of melody in East and South Asian music and the enormous variety in the rhythmic qualities of African music is self-evident.

Rhythm is the other key aspect of music alongside melody, but its effects on social life are a subject for another article. Often when I perform, the melodies for which I receive the most compliments are also the most sensitive—the works of Chopin, Schubert, and Bach. Strangely enough, these are the exact pieces that I hear in an eastern fashion in my head!

The way eastern music deals with melody is far more detailed compared to western melodies. In her book The Anatomy of Melody, Alice Parker says, “In Western European music, it’s almost as if the process for 400 years was one of increasing melodic simplification, cresting in this Classical period (ca. 1720-1800).”

Les Variations d’Heybeli, Op. 2, No. 4

So how on earth could western classical music survive with such simplicity and with the lack of eastern melodic color? How on earth does Mozart, who to me seems the very definition of simplicity in music, reach to even the farthest eastern societies that have so many diverse melodies within their own cultures?

Generally speaking, human beings don’t like being under any sort of dictatorship and there have been many, many social and political explorations of systems to avoid dictatorship. But none of the efforts to create better polyphony in music were based on the dictatorship of a melody. It was the will to hear another voice in concinnity and this is why we have the musical composition technique called counterpoint. Counterpoint comes from “punctus contra punctum” in Latin which means “point against point.” In music, we can interpret this as “note against note.” The philosophy of this technique exceeded its primary intentions and gave direction to the social life of the Western European and later American societies.

Contrapunctus 14, Die Kunst der Fugue, BWV 1080

Contrapunctus 14, Die Kunst der Fugue, BWV 1080

Any musician who has studied the rules of counterpoint knows that they can get a correctly composed counterpoint with two or more voices. On the other hand, those who had the chance to study this technique with master musicians know that being contrapuntally correct is not enough to produce a meaningful and satisfying musical composition. For a tasteful result, each of the voices should make sense when they are listened to just by themselves. Each voice should move according to the rules to be in good harmony with other voices, without losing their individual character and color. This sounds very much like the definition of democracy to me.

Although the idea of democracy predates counterpoint theory by many centuries, the improvement of western societies by way of democracy has much to do with the concept of counterpoint. Let us start with quotes from the minds who were responsible for the birth of political philosophy in the first democracy at Athens: Aristotle, Plato, Socrates. Over 2300 years ago, Aristotle spoke about music’s ability to communicate the emotional states of humankind:

Music directly imitates the passions or states of the soul… When one listens to music that imitates a certain passion, he becomes imbued with the same passion; and if over a long time he habitually listens to music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form.

Aristotle recognized that music communicates emotion, and it can shape our character. Plato similarly observed the effect that music had on society in his day and made this thought-provoking statement:

Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited. When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.

Plato also spoke about the contribution music made to the moral decline of ancient Greece:

They were men of genius, but they had no perception of what was just and lawful in music… And by composing licentious works, and adding to them words as licentious, they have inspired the multitude with lawlessness and boldness, and made them fancy that they could judge for themselves about melody and song… In music there first arose the universal conceit of omniscience and general lawlessness; freedom came following afterwards, and men, fancying that they knew what they did not know, had no longer any fear, and the absence of fear begets shamelessness. For what is this shamelessness, which is so evil a thing, but the insolent refusal to regard the opinion of the better by reason of an over-daring sort of liberty?

In another quote we can observe the ideas of Socrates, who extensively studied the effects of music, recognizing its potential as an instrument of indoctrination and character development:

Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful.

Even hundreds of years before counterpoint was created, philosophers were aware of the effects of music on social life. So, it’s probably not an absolutely crazy idea to claim that counterpoint had a lot to do with the organization and balance of western life over the last thousand years. In his book Structure and Style,Leonard Stein writes,

In the early medieval period (300-1000), the Gregorian chant was crystallized and the first Christian hymns appeared. From the stand-point of its potential for the future of music, the most epochal innovation of this period was organum, the first notation of polyphony in music. This is the decisive point at which the music of the Occident and that of the Orient separated. Organum is the collective name for various types of “two to four voice polyphony” used in church music from 850-1200.

While western societies were simplifying their melodies to get a singular, harmonious sound from different voices, eastern societies invested more time and effort toward creating disparate individual melodies. Some of these eastern voices were more assertive than others and almost every single piece of music began to dominate all other voices, leading to imitation. When I inquired about the polyphony in Turkish classical music to a professor at the Turkish Classical Music Conservatory in Istanbul, the answer was more depressing than I expected. He said, “There are some examples of polyphony in Turkish classical music but it’s such a small amount that it is okay if we say it doesn’t exist.” The oppression in the structure of music indeed affected the oppression among the creators of music.

The structure and style of music is one of the main causal agents to how social life transforms all over the world. Based on the structural variety between eastern and western music, it is time that we interweave the diversity of each other’s music to dissolve the distinction between east and west. Perhaps the east should learn more about how to organize and build harmoniously created music. Perhaps the west should learn about how to hear all voices in their own colors and create more colorful music. After all east, west, borders and boundaries are all human inventions; we know that the earth is still round.

Rhapsody on Istanbul Tunes, Op.1, No.4

Emir Gamsızoğlu performs a “Chatty Pianist” recitals in United States, Europe and Turkey. For more information, please see classicalforall.com

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