Middle & Late 20th Century Counterpoint

Neoclassical and Neoromantic

These labels are sometimes used to categorize the music of composers that continue to apply methods that are reminiscent of the music, or the ethos, of earlier periods.  Labelling a composer’s output is not a very revealing practice, because they usually go through periods of applying different techniques during their personal development.  Stravinsky wrote in a variety of styles, but he referred to himself as a classicist.     

However, these labels can be used to identify pieces of music that harken back to earlier times rather than ones that are completely experimental, or based on a new system, such as Schoenberg’s serial music.  That being said, both of these composers employed counterpoint frequently and effectively. 

Clarity and restraint were common characteristics of the neoclassical style, while more passionate and emotional music is considered neoromantic.  However, composers seldom constrained themselves to one or the other mode of expression.  It might be more useful to view the music of the 20th century as being influenced by varying degrees by music of the past.  Listen to and analyze the pieces listed below, looking for similarities and differences between this contemporary music and what went before.  These are linked in the Materials below. 

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) wrote a set of Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op. 87 in 1951.  Two fugues from this collection, No. 6 in B Minor, and No. 23 in F Major are representative examples.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34 in 1946. The work demonstrates the unique features of each orchestral instrument, and was intended to introduce young listeners to the instruments in the ensemble context.  The composition, originally entitled Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, ends with an extensive Fugue.  It incorporates individual instruments and sections presenting the subject in a masterful piece of orchestration.

Elliott Carter (1908-2012) wrote an energetic fugue in the later part of his Piano Sonata, Movement II, Allegro giusto, in 1946.

 Samuel Barber (1910-1981) also wrote a fugal finale in his Piano Sonata in E-flat minor, Op. 26, Movement IV, Fuga, published in 1949.  It was premiered by Vladimir Horowitz, who requested a virtuosic finale rather than the slow movement that Barber had planned.

These mid-century composers leaned toward the classical ideal, along with others such as Walter Piston, who wrote textbooks addressing Counterpoint, Harmony, and Orchestration.  There is also a significant amount of polyphony written by major composers with a more romantic spirit, such as Aaron Copland, Serge Prokofiev, Jean Sibelius, and Vaughn Williams.  They used counterpoint texturally to contrast homophony and promote independent linear motion in sections of their music.

Expressionist and Avant-Garde

In contrast to the practice of composing with quasi-tonal and consonant materials as ways to modernize contemporary music, these two camps rejected traditional means of organizing pitch and rhythm.  Many composers who wrote music in the middle of the 20th century experimented with organizing pitches using tone rows.  They were referred to as Expressionists, following in the footsteps of Arnold Schoenberg.  Some modern composers were also attracted to electronic music, computer music, and synthesis when new sound sources became available.  Less formal structure was preferred by others, who wrote indeterminate, aleatoric music and used non-traditional forms of notation.  Avant-garde composers pushed the listener’s definition of music and exposed them to new ways to organize sound.

A few important avant-garde composers were Edgar Varese (1883-1965), Henry Cowell (1897-1965), Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Luciano Berio (1925-2003), Pierre Boulez (1925-2016), and Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007).  Explore a few works by each of them.  Here are some examples of works by two of the most influential avant-garde composers in the mid to late 20th century.  These are linked in the Materials section. 

Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006) was one of the most original and important composers of the 20th century.  His works span a wide range of genres.  A small sample of his piano music is provided here from the Musica ricercata.  The music from his late period is full of rhythmic complexity, and each piece in this collection differs greatly from the others.  Number VII, Cantabile, molto legato has a sotto voce ostinato that runs through the entire piece.   Number XI, Andante misurato e tranquillo is an homage to Girolamo Frescobaldi.  What do you see and hear that is derived from Frescobaldi’s music?

John Cage (1912-1992) was a radical thinker with a powerful influence on music in the 20th century.  He promoted the concept that all sounds are music, which demanded an innovative approach to listening.  His most famous piece, 4’33”, frames a period of time and invites the listener to consider the sounds of the environment to be the content of the composition.  Cage discarded inherited structures, and had little use for rule-based musical traditions.  Counterpoint has traditionally involved the application of rules and guidelines in a particular style, but Cage insists that we broaden our definition of counterpoint along with music itself.  He pioneered indeterminacy after studying Indian music and philosophy.  He created a specially prepared piano with objects placed between or on the strings and hammers, and wrote Sonatas and Interludes during 1946-48 for the instrument.  These pieces have a strong focus on rhythm, as do many of his later works.  Sonata V is a delightful example from this collection, not without careful attention to the principles of counterpoint, which he studied with Arnold Schoenberg.  Another piece by Cage that is highly contrapuntal is Living Room Music.  Composed in 1940, it is a quartet for unspecified instruments, all of which may be found in the living room of a typical house.  The spoken movement is based on a poem by Gertrude Stein, The World is Round.


This term has been used loosely to address an aversion that listening audiences felt upon hearing atonal music that did not appeal to their musical tastes.  Some modernist music of the Post-Tonal era that began in the early 20th Century began to meet resistance because it was so dissonant and academic.  Around mid-century, when contemporary music was cast in opposition to what went before, extremist modern composers writing atonal, serial music were losing some of their audience.  In contrast, postmodern music offered a more consonant, derivative, and eclectic experience.  It appealed more to the casual listener than to the academic.  Regarding counterpoint, the music just seemed to evolve with less focus on closed forms and structure, and more interest in openness, indeterminacy, and improvisation.  Cultural influences, popular music, and new forms of media changed the musical landscape.  The line between music for art’s sake and music to be enjoyed as a commodity was becoming blurred.  The group of composers dubbed Minimalists felt the need to develop new ways to write music that did not place demands on the listener to develop a taste for atonality, and the pendulum swung back.

Minimalism and Process Counterpoint

The term minimalism refers to a movement in art and music to simplify and reduce the complex elements used in creation.  Minimalistic music is often influenced by non-Western styles, particularly Indian and African.  Independent lines that are repeated in layers is a contrapuntal feature of many minimalist compositions.  Some of the characteristics listed below may be found in minimalistic music.

  • Uses a limited set of materials or musical elements
  • Employs repetition, typically without variation, and is often pattern-based
  • Usually created by a process, which may be the composition itself
  • Has a steady pulse; subdivisions may vary
  • Is relatively consonant, with diatonic or tonal pitch materials
  • Exhibits a slow rate of change, with no conclusive goal
  • It is static, with steady states or drones

There were four major pioneers of American minimalist music, all of whom were born between 1935 and 1937.  A brief description of their styles and a few major works are list below.  These are linked in the Materials section. 

La Monte Young (1935) studied at UCLA, UC Berkeley, Darmstadt, New York, and in India with Pran Nath.  He was interested in drones and steady state sounds, among other things.  His radical way of thinking about what might be considered music is an extension of John Cage’s philosophies.  Counterpoint is not a primary texture in most of his works.  An early piece from 1960 is the Trio for Strings, based on drones.

Terry Riley (1935) studied at UC Berkeley, Paris ORTF, and taught at Mills College.  He was interested in exploring and creating what he called pattern fields.  Riley was a classmate and a friend of La Monte Young.  He developed a style consisting of short motivic patterns that are repeated in performance, and players are allowed to determine various parameters of the music.  Two of his famous early works are In C and A Rainbow in Curved AirHis later works for string quartet are recorded by the Kronos Quartet.

Steve Reich (1936) studied music at Cornell University, Julliard, Mills College, and learned about African drumming in Ghana.  His early music was predicated on phase shifting.  An example of phase shifting using two tape recorders is It’s Gonna Rain, and an example in which performers offset the pulse is Drumming.  In his later works, he developed layers of counterpoint based on repeated segments.  Two long-form examples are Music for 18 Musicians and The Desert Music.

Philip Glass (1937) studied at the University of Chicago, Julliard, and in Paris with Nadia Boulanger.  He was interested in repetitive, reductive music, and in opera.  Written in 1979, Mad Rush is a representative example of his piano music.

Glassworks, released in 1982, is a very popular collection of compositions that consists of six movements for a small chamber ensemble of woodwinds, strings, and keyboards. Listen to the various movements for a good sampling of the techniques and timbres used by Glass.

Glass also wrote a number of Hero Operas that centered around the life of a prominent or powerful historical figure.  One of the most popular, written in 1976, is Einstein on the Beach.  The Dance 2 movement demonstrates his signature polyphonic texture, created with layered short tonal/modal sequences repeated incessantly to build a dense polyrhythmic effect.

Numerous composers continued the tradition of writing what has been referred to as “minimalist” music, and by around 1980 the original precepts upon which the movement was founded were firmly established.  The early works of the four pioneers mentioned above, along with that of their contemporaries, were solidified into what might be considered the initial period of minimalism.  The music that followed in related styles has been labeled Post-Minimalist, as it built on the original concepts and expanded the forms in which it was delivered.  Many major composers joined the movement, and a few of the more notable ones are identified below, with a list of their works.

John C. Adams (1947) is one of the most widely performed composers of his era.  He began writing minimalist music in the 1970s.  In the 1980s he was writing post-minimalist music using gradually shifting harmonies, which culminated in the opera Nixon in China.  From the 1990s to the present his music has been primarily contrapuntal.  Shaker Loops, written in 1978 for string septet, shows his early minimalistic style.  An especially popular orchestral work written in 1986 is the orchestral fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine.  One of his later works in the century, Naïve and Sentimental Music, was written in 1999.  These later works show his use of a wide variety of textures, but a consistent use of polyrhythmic layers, particularly 3 against 4.  Adams won a Pulitzer Prize in music for On the Transmigration of Souls for orchestra, chorus, children’s choir, and prerecorded soundtrack, first performed September 19, 2002.

Louis Andriessen (1939-2021) is regarded by many as the most important European minimalist composer.  He wrote in a wide range of styles and successfully incorporated American Jazz elements in his works, most of which were for non-standard ensembles.  De Staat, written in 1976, gained international recognition.  In 1985 Andriessen wrote De Stijl, a very eclectic piece written for a large jazz band with guitars and synthesizer.  He won the Grawemeyer Award for music composition for La Commedia, written in 2008.

William Duckworth (1943-2012) has been credited with writing some of the first post-minimalist pieces of music, The Time Curve Preludes for piano.

While they did not rely on counterpoint as a primary texture, there were a number of other important composers labeled as minimalists.  They include Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016), Michael Nyman (1944), and Gavin Bryars (1943).  Others worth mentioning here are Daniel Lentz, David Behrman, Kyle Gann, Ludovico Einaudi, and Michael Torke.  Almost all minimalist music with multiple parts that rely on repetition, patterns, and processes is contrapuntal.

Popular music and dance music influenced composers in all styles in the 1970s and 1980s.  A great deal of analog electronic music was created and distributed on vinyl, just prior to the sweeping changes brought about by digital audio tools and distribution platforms.  Two notable minimalist composers who worked in the electronica genre were Klaus Schulze and Vangelis.

Klaus Schulze (1947-2022) was a pioneer using the earliest synthesis and recording devices.  He favored long-form works, often lasting an hour or more, and incorporated elements of techno and trance Electronic Dance Music (EDM).  His music was often based on tape loops or sequences layered under a bed of improvised melodies.  The result was a meditative, transcendental experience.  Two examples from 1975 are Timewind and Into the Blue, and in 1980 he recorded Sense

Vangelis (1943-2022) usually created music rooted in rich orchestral timbres, and improvised sweeping melodies over rhythmic sequences.  The technology was beginning to give minimalist composers the capacity to create loops of sampled instruments that could be manipulated and layered by computers.  The digital sequencer provided an automated process to create counterpoint.  An excellent example of early music by Vangelis is Soil Festivities, Mvt. 1.  He scored many films, one of the most popular being Chariots of Fire.

Original Minimalistic Music

In some Minimalistic music, a process is used to generate the layers of counterpoint.  I call my approach to this method Rhythmic Process Counterpoint.  Simply defined, it is the combination of two or more parts that are repeated without significant variation, creating a polyphonic texture.  The parts may differ rhythmically in the accentual patterns as well as in length.  The pulse rate is typically the same in all parts, but not necessarily.  If pitch is defined, a pitch class set or a scale may control linear and simultaneous pitch collections.  The procedure may be used to provide a background for improvisatory elements in the composition, or it may be used exclusively to generate the music.

The composer makes decisions regarding the timbre used for each part, the time signature for each part, and the length of the parts.  A clear contrapuntal texture is achieved by choosing sounds that are contrasting in timbre, and not too rich.  A complex texture can be created by using a different time signature for each part.  Each part should be varied in length, from relatively short phrases to lines of several measures.  This process can be used to create music with rhythmic interest and a steady pulse.

Examples by the author can be found on the Recordings page of this site.  Most of the pieces on the Mystic Dances album were written using Rhythmic Process Counterpoint.


Shostakovich:  Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op. 87, Fugue No. 6 in B Minor (1951) 

Shostakovich:  Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op. 87, Fugue No. 23 in F  (1951)

Britten:  The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34, Fugue 

Carter:  Piano Sonata, Movement II, Allegro giusto (1946)

Barber: Piano Sonata in E-flat minor, Op. 26, Movement IV, Fuga (1949) 

Ligeti:  Musica ricercata.  Number VII, Cantabile, molto legato   Piano  (PDF)

Ligeti:  Musica ricercata.  Number XI, Andante misurato e tranquillo  Piano  (PDF)

Cage:   Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, Sonata V  

Cage:  Living Room Music, Assorted noise makers  


Young:  Trio for Strings 

Riley:  In C (1964)  (PDF)

Riley:  A Rainbow in Curved Air  

Reich:  It’s Gonna Rain 

Reich:  Clapping Music  (PDF)

Reich:  Drumming

Reich:  Piano Phase  (PDF)

Reich:  Music for 18  Musicians

Reich:  Desert Music 

Glass:  Mad Rush (1979)  

Glass:  Glassworks (1982)  

Glass:  Einstein on the Beach, Dance 2   

Adams, John C:  Shaker Loops (1982)  

Adams, John C:  A Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Adams, John C:  Naïve and Sentimental Music  

Andriessen:  De Staat (1976)  

Andriessen:  De Stijl (1985)  

Duckworth: The Time Curve Preludes

Schulze:  Timewind

Schulze:  Into the Blue

Schulze:  Sense (1980 live)

Vangelis:  Soil Festivities, Mvt. 1

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