Notes On Musical Tensions and Canon Counterpoints

Notation for Le Ray Au Soleyl by Johannes Ciconia (c. 1390s)

What is it that keeps your attention when you encounter a music? Is it its instrumentation and timbre world? Its performers (human or machine)? Its melodies? Its chords and harmonies? Its feel and vibe? Its sheer volume? (That bass!) Its rhythms that make you want to move? Does the music ask you to slow down or get hyped up? Does it invite you to concentrate on it, or is it content to percolate in the background? Does it reference other musics, or does inhabit its own realm (or both)? Perhaps most importantly, does the music give you a reason to return to it again?

The musics that I return to have in common the fact that they create tensions whose affective power don’t diminish over time. I think of these tensions like taut rubber bands or strings in a state of stretch, containing energy. The tensions are an enchantment held suspended, yet they keep changing. Part steady-state, and part ever evolving, my favorite musics are analogues of what running coach Shane Benzie calls a “sea of tension.”

There are many established ways to create tensions in music. The simple wavering of a tremolo is an example. The low drones used in TV and film soundtracks is another example. Strict repetition of parts is also a tension maker, as it creates anticipation for when and where something will disrupt the musical texture. A problem with such tension-makers is that once we notice them, they are less impactful.


Some of my favorite musics are seas of tension constructed so that parts relate to one another in measured ways. One counterpoint technique for achieving such tension dates back to the 14th-century and is known as prolation canons (or mensuration canons), whereby a main melody is accompanied by imitations of it in other voices (parts). The tension created in musics built upon prolation canons comes from the fact that these imitations of the main melody happen at different rates of speed (or prolations). For example, an accompanying voice can extend the note values of the main melody, through a process of augmentation. Or the voice can reduce/compress the melody’s note values, through a process of diminution.

The prolation counterpoint technique evokes structural/design approaches in other realms. Think of an architect who spins out a single idea into various facets of a building in related proportions, the novelist who weaves storylines at different rates of unfolding, or the chef who prepares a single ingredient four ways for a dish. What all of these scenarios have in common is that the practitioner recognizes and explores the fractal-like potentials of a set of materials. There is nothing more exciting than understanding that even the smallest gesture contains within itself a world potential creative counterpoint. 

Here then, are five examples of musics built around prolation canons, from the 14th- to the 20th-centuries.

Le Ray Au Soleyl by Johannes Ciconia (c. 1390s)

Missa prolationum by Johannes Ockeghem (mid-15th century)

Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales (agnus dei) by Josquin Des Prez (1547)

Canon a 4 per Augmentationem et Diminutionem by J.S. Bach (1751)

Cantus in memorium Benjamin Britten by Arvo Pärt (1977)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s