How to do it like Bach: Counterpoint in Writing

Something that I’m working on in novel #3 is keeping various lines in the plot going at the same time while also creating meaningful connections between these lines. In music, this is called counterpoint. (Disclaimer, y’all: I’m no musician. In fact, my elementary school music teacher took me aside before a school concert and gently suggested, “You just mouth the words, honey.” The only reason I know such a thing as counterpoint exists is that I had many musically gifted friends some 12 years ago when I was a student at Simon’s Rock.)

A quick skim of the Wikipedia article on counterpoint confirms that it is, precisely, what I’d like to accomplish with my current plotting efforts:

In its most general aspect, counterpoint involves the writing of musical lines that sound very different and move independently from each other but sound harmonious when played simultaneously… In the words of John Rahn:

It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal structures that create each of the voices separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyphony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual voices. 

The separation of harmony and counterpoint is not absolute. It is impossible to write simultaneous lines without producing harmony, and impossible to write harmony without linear activity. The composer who chooses to ignore one aspect in favour of the other still must face the fact that the listener cannot simply turn off harmonic or linear hearing at will; thus the composer risks creating annoying distractions unintentionally. Bach‘s counterpoint—often considered the most profound synthesis of the two dimensions ever achieved—is extremely rich harmonically and always clearly directed tonally, while the individual lines remain fascinating.

So, from now on: my new mantra is, “Bach it.” I’m betting I’m not alone in my aspirations. All right, y’all, go Bach it now.


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