Teaching and understanding counterpoint in the music curriculum: Music theory pedagogy through music history and performance

Chi Kuen LEE

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


Counterpoint study is an essential part of music curriculum at university level. It serves as the fundamental of Western music. However, as important as it is, it seems that counterpoint study is still a “taboo” in many institutions’ music departments. That may be due to only a few pedagogical literature and instructional methodologies that are available for teaching guides while many music theory scholars would tailor-make their own texts for their teaching. As a result, general theory instructors, especially those who have less counterpoint training, may not feel comfortable to teach beyond what the textbook stated. Under this circumstance, students would not be able to get the entire picture of what the counterpoint is, how the counterpoint operates, and why the counterpoint is important in the history of Western music. Such phenomenon becomes a vicious circle not only in, theoretically speaking, the dissemination of musical knowledge, but it also happens practically in musical performance. In order to solve these problems, I adopted two aspects in the music curriculum of the Associate of Arts (Music) Programme in my teaching: revisiting counterpoint through concept and reinterpretation—Music History, and orchestral experience of counterpoint—Performance. This paper illustrates how I apply the above aspects in different courses and music activities at school. They include Materials and Techniques of Music, Western Music History, Studio Pedagogy, Conducting, and orchestral rehearsal for concert performances. In revisiting counterpoint through music history teaching, I begin with organum in the medieval period and through compositions in the Renaissance period to the pieces in the common practice period. The objective is to allow students to understand the origin of counterpoint and its evolution rather than “jumping” in abruptly from the Renaissance and Baroque periods without knowing prior historical knowledge. Regarding the orchestral experience, it involves demanding ears to listen carefully how voices interact with each other. Listening habit is further strengthened in conducting course. Students are attentively required to listen and shape the musical voices and point out the weakness during coaching session. Ensemble rehearsals provide a complement for the players to listen how his/her line interacts among different parts. These trainings allow students to understand deeply the vertical, horizontal, and imitative aspects of counterpoint with respect to various repertoires. Consolidated by music history and performance, hence, teaching counterpoint is not a difficult task as many theory instructors think when you understood how this develops, transforms, and interacts through time.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2015


Lee, M. (2015, July). Teaching and understanding counterpoint in the music curriculum: Music theory pedagogy through music history and performance. Paper presented at The 10th Asia-Pacific Symposium for Music Education Research (APSMER): Music education for the future generation, Hong Kong Institute of Education, China.


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