Composing Music – Part 4 – Exploring Counterpoint

Notes from recommended chapters in Taylor


Up to the 17th century, instructions were rarely given concerning speed, dynamics, phrasing or ariculation. The se were sometimes deduced from the character of the music. Speeds for dances were more or less agreed upon and it was usually up to the individual performer to decide. From the late 17th century onwards, composers became more and more concerned to show as precisely as possible how accurately they wished their music to be performed. From the late 17th century onwards composers became more concerned to show more precisely how they wanted their music to be performed, until we came to the early 20th century very meticulous directions were given and he freedom of performers to decide things for themselves was vastly reduced.

Metronome mark or direction in words specifies the speed. Metronome marks are sometimes written with “c” (circa) in front of the figure. Speeds can be altered for practical circumstances ie. a resonant building. Metronome marks are the clearest possible indications of tempo and must always be taken seriously. Play ing a piece much faster or slower than a given metronome mark misrepresents what a composer wants. You must be careful not to misread the note value not the figure.


Word directions concerning softness and loudness are written as abbreviations

  • f forte
  • mf mezzo forte (medium (half) loud)
  • p piano (soft)
  • mp mezzo piano (half soft)
  • ff fortissimo ( very loud)
  • pp pianissimo (very soft)

Performers are prone to exaggeration, f should not be “as our as possible” nor p “practically inaudible”

Dynamic marks can never be exact with reference to the volume of sound needed, they need assessing in relation to other dynamic markings run the piece and the mood as a whole.


Wording is not as precise as metronome marks. Sometimes the language of the written word is unfamiliar to the performer. Italian is the most commonly used language. Another mistake is that words may be exaggerated. Allegro for example is quick but not “very quick”. words which denote gradual changes of speed are exaggerated or distorted. Accelerando – gradually getting faster NOT suddenly. Rallentando and ritardando imply gradually slowing down not an abrupt change of speed. words sometimes change their meanings over the centuries.

Notation can occur at changes of time signature. Metronome marks can indicate changes. A fermata symbol indicates a pause. The pause is a discretion but can be exaggerated but if a composer wants a long pause he generally uses “lungs pausa” GP is general pause and is only used when a group of players is involved – it warns that all are silent at the same time.

Rhythmic freedom for the performer is given by “rubato” (robbed) ie tempo rubato. This can be interpreted in two ways.

  1. The underlying pulse of the music as a whole becomes slightly flexible.
  2. The accompaniment remains in strict time but melody is flexible. This is a technique which jazz soloists, playing or singing with some freedom against a strict time backing have made familiar. This was not made in the 20th century, Mozart and Chopin, used essentially the same technique in playing the piano, when they accompanied am expressive “singing” melody in the right hand with a left hand in strict time.


Accentuation can be shown using appropriate signs, above, or below a note or. word. Accent marks must be used in context. Gradual changes of dynamic level can be shown by words or signs. Signs can be better to show where dynamic changes end. Hairpins have a clear beginning and end. Use your own intuition when using words or signs for clarity of expression. Gradual changes of dynamic level can be qualified by words like poco a poco (little by little) and molto (much). It is important to use these as carefully and evenly as possible.


Word directions are often given to describe mood or character of the music. The words used all have implications concerning, tempo, dynamics and phrasing.

Phrasing Marks

When composers use “phrasing marks” hey usually show a good deal more than where prases begin and end. They are more concerned to indicate in detail how notes within a phrase are to be “performed “. Whether they are to be separated from each other, whether they are to be played smoothly in groups of two or more etc.

The slur

The only circumstance in which an articulation mark also coincides with a complete phrase (could be called a phrase mark), is when a slur stretches from the first note of the phrase to the last.

In performance, the end of a slur implies a slight shortening of its last note with a brief silence before the next note. Slurs are not to be confused with a tie.

Staccato signs

The staccato dot shortens the note and is positioned above or below the note head or near the appropriate stem where necessary in a written piece.

The opposite of staccato may be shown by the word tenuto (ten). Any notes to which this applies are to be held for their full value and not shortened in any way. A horizontal dash above or below a note may also indicate tenuto (the dash is called a Tenuto Mark)

Double phrasing

Exended slurs are sometimes superimposed over groups of notes which are already articulated by subsidiary slurs/staccato dots or other separation signs and also rests. A superimposed slur shows that the notes within it still belong to each other as a group, in spite of the small breaks in sound between some of them.

Counterpoint and Dissonance

Counterpoint derives from the Latin contra punctum “against note”- the unique ability of music to say two things at once and remain completely comprehensible. First used in the 14th century accompanied by a system of strict rules. Strict counterpoint can be challenging.

Dissonance is tension. Resolution of dissonance is a craft.

Tuned Percussion

These have a 5 line stave. Timpani uses bass clef and the others have treble clef unless passages are easier to read where low register passages are required (few ledger line).

The xylophone is not resonant, and timpani have a v very limited resonance. Notes for both instruments can be sustained by using a tremolo. The trill for timpani is in effect the same as for untuned instruments, however the trill for all other tuned percussion is an alternation of two neighbouring notes. The tremolo on all tuned instruments is the alternation of any two notes, however far apart.

Timpani (Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “round”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 21 Jul. 2011, Accessed 7 February 2023.)
Xylophone (Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “xylophone”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 23 Jan. 2023, Accessed 7 February 2023.)
Marimba (Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “marimba”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 Apr. 2018, Accessed 7 February 2023.)
Vibraphone (Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “vibraphone”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 14 Dec. 2018, Accessed 7 February 2023.)
Glockenspiel (Orchestral Bells) (Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “glockenspiel”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Jan. 2023, Accessed 7 February 2023.)
Chimes or Tubular Bells (Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “glockenspiel”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Jan. 2023, Accessed 7 February 2023.)
Crotales or Antique Cymbals (Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “glockenspiel”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Jan. 2023, Accessed 7 February 2023.)