Counterpoint is the craft of combining melodies. In the middle ages when composers began to harmonise plainchant and other vocal melodies (see the article on Medieval Music) certain conventions were established that defined how the second part should be written in relation to the original melody. Over the centuries the rules of counterpoint became more refined, and in many ways more strict, as more and more independent parts were added, resulting in much more complex music.
The contrapuntal style of music which counterpoint produced is essentially the domain of the renaissance and baroque periods. It went somewhat out of fashion during the classical period and although composers continue to write in this style it has never dominated music the way it did in the 15th-18th centuries.
Nevertheless, the influence of contrapuntal writing on music is undeniable even today. Two names stand out as the pinnacle of the contrapuntal style, each representing the two main schools of counterpoint still studied today. These are Giovanni Palestrina, who’s contrapuntal technique defines counterpoint of the 16th century, and Johann Sebastian Bach who is almost universally acknowledged as the supreme master of 18th century counterpoint. One other name worth mentioning in relation to counterpoint is Johann Joseph Fux. Fux’s 18th century treatise on counterpoint ‘Gradus Ad Parnassum’ outlines the method for studying counterpoint that is still used by student’s today.
For more about counterpoint, follow the links below.