The Study of Counterpoint: From Johann Joseph Fux’s “Gradus Ad Parnassum”

This book could occupy all of your time if you wished.  It is an essential read for every composer, containing the manual that nearly all great classical composers learned from.  Contemporary composers still use it today both as a way to learn and a tool for teaching their students.

So, what is it?

The majority of the book is excerpted from Johann Joseph Fux’s treatise Gradus Ad Parnassum.

Gradus Ad Parnassum is a study of how lines of notes relate to one another, i.e. counterpoint.  The book is not a typical textbook, but rather attempts to read like a dialogue.  There is a conversation that runs throughout the text between Josephus, the student and Aloysius, the master.  Josephus is any student who wishes to learn the art of composition, and Aloysius is the master teaching Josephus.  It is worth noting here that Aloysius is a stand-in for Palestrina, the great Renaissance composer whose work this treatise distills.

But, the overall purpose of the book is not to tell a story, but to provide the reader (you) with a solid backbone in relating consonance and dissonance to each other as you write melodic lines.  By studying the relationship between consonance and dissonance in both horizontal and vertical directions, you will grow as a composer in your understanding of the basic units of western music.  Yes, the book uses the work of Palestrina as the ideal music, and yes, Palestrina’s music is amazing, but the goal for you should be to really understand the basic building blocks of putting pen to paper.

But, what if you have already worked as a composer and things are going well?

Buy it anyways.  Right now on Amazon it’s between $4 and $14 depending on the condition of the book.  Buy it because you can always get better, and doing these exercises challenges you to really examine your fundamentals.

You may hear on sports channels on television that a player has “good fundamentals”; that a team has a “solid foundation”; that the roster is “deep”.  Think of this book as a way to ensure your fundamentals are as good as they can be, that your foundation is solid, that your skills are so deep that they are second nature and you can focus on writing the best music you can.

Buy the book, and do the exercises too.  Sing them out.  Play them on a piano.  Spend hours doing these things, and you will come out a much better, more well-informed, and more instinctively-tuned musician.

There is also some commentary by the translator and editor, Alfred Mann.  This helps to contextualize the book.  This book was a staple for common practice period composers such as J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and others.  It codified and solidified a set of “rules” that were the basis for the formation of baroque, classical, and romantic music over centuries.  In short, both pedagogically and musically, it all starts here in this book.  This book is relevant because it is the backbone, and the starting point for the study of western musical composition.  The body of music written up to today is at your fingertips as you read and study it.

My copy is pictured up top.  Don’t ask me how it still has an intact cover after so many long nights. 🙂


5 thoughts on “The Study of Counterpoint: From Johann Joseph Fux’s “Gradus Ad Parnassum”

  1. David L. Almond

    Hi Dan,
    You made me reach up just now to pull Fux from my bookshelf. I do have – and have worked with – a paperback copy of Mann’s translation like yours, but the one on the bookshelf over my desk is a copy in German. Copyright: Moeck Verlag in 1938, this clothbound copy is inscribed by the translator, Alfred Mann. He gave the book as a gift to harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1941. I think I bought the book for $10 when I was working at Kingswood-Oxford Middle School. The bookshop – “Frog” or “Toad” something – was on Prospect Blvd. near where it crosses Farmington Ave. I have worked through several exercises, sharpening both my counterpoint and German language skills. We Schenkerians need to keep those skills honed. Thanks for the nudge. I may revisit “Gradus ad” during the winter to keep warm. I read your entries each day. Season’s Greetings, my Friend. Peace and Love.

    1. Hi David, Thank you—I’m glad to hear that “Gradus ad” played a good role in your development, although based on your flowing counterpoint at Lehigh, I’m not surprised you’ve worked out exercises. Thank you for reading and Season’s Greetings!

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  3. Einhardt Adler

    I’m stuck on the second lesson in the book, makes no sense to me; he says he starts with a fifth, but looks like a fourth to me – five intervals between F on the tenor clef & E on the alto clef? can someone explain this because I’m not getting it – none of the other intervals make sense either.

    1. I’m not entirely sure; I don’t have my book handy at the moment but I have a hunch it is either invertible counterpoint or there is an issue with the clefs. Maybe another reader will be able to assist?

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