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Theory Home | SolfegeSightsinging

by Dr. Peter Gries

I. Why counterpoint?
Why use the species approach? These are valid questions to which there are valid answers. Appendix 3 in the Gauldin text provides an introduction to counterpoint in which some reasons for studying counterpoint are discussed. However, one of the most important reasons for studying counterpoint not mentioned is that it will increase your awareness of:
  • How purely melodic events help shape musical procedures. Melodies used in species counterpoint are aimed at excluding all aesthetic goals save those that are purely melodic. Rhythmic, motivic and textural interest, harmonic and polyphonic implications and dramatic expressiveness are all excluded in favor of this goal. By so doing, experience in counterpoint heightens one's awareness of how purely melodic events contribute to and enhance musical structures.
  • How dissonance is used to create musical impetus and a natural flow. Dissonance equals instability, and that creates the need to "move on," in other words, a movement through time. However, dissonance in tonal music must be used in such a way as to promote coherence and "naturalness." Species counterpoint provides the opportunity to learn these procedures without the complication of other factors being present.
  • The nature of melodic embellishing events, passing tones, neighbor notes and suspensions are isolated and focused on in a particular species. In Counterpoint in Composition, a counterpoint text by Salzer and Schacter, there is a wonderfully clear explanation of melodic, dissonant embellishments:
    All dissonances arise out of three fundamental types:
    • a) the dissonance created by motion (passing tone),
    • b) the dissonance caused by the ornamentation of a stationary tone (neighboring note),
    • c) the dissonance produced by rhythmic displacement (suspension). 
Dissonant passing tones materially further the sense of directed motion...The tension of the dissonant passing tone creates the expectation of continued motion to a new stable point...The passing tone does not merely occur between the consonances, it connects them. To ensure the closest possible connection between the dissonance and the two consonances, the passing tone must be approached and continued by step. 
The neighboring tone arises out of a melodic impulse very different from that which produces the passing tone. The passing tone forms a stepwise connection between two different tones; the neighboring note represents the stepwise decoration of a single tone.
A clear understanding of these passages will go a long was toward keeping your work in melodic embellishment (called "figuration" in the text) free from confusion
and frustration.
II. What is Counterpoint?
The basic goal of a counterpoint exercise is to write two (or more) melodies that sound "good" together, yet are distinctly different. The usual procedure is to have a given melody, called the cantus firmus (or c.f.) against which you are to write a counter melody. The counter melody is called the counterpoint. Although the cantus firmus, (or c.f). is discussed in the text, the text, as an abbreviated introduction, necessarily omits important information. The melodies of species counterpoint have very specific characteristics. These can be revealed by examining and describing the melody of a typical Cantus Firmus. Here's a good example:
This model reveals that the c.f. should present one smoothly contoured shape, be singable, be as interesting as possible within the restrictions imposed, have a natural flow and be tonally stable. The following directives contribute to these goals.
  • To give the impression of one shape, it has to be long enough to give a feeling that something has begun, continued and ended. It also has be short enough so that it can be perceived as one, continuous melodic thrust or gesture. A melody of 8 to 14 notes generally accomplishes these objectives.
  • To give a definite sense of shape, it should have a climax point, generally a high note. To repeat this high note weakens the sense of having one, definite shape.
  • If it's not easy to sing, it's wrong. What makes something singable? Generally speaking, motion that is predominantly stepwise and that flows. There is a saying, "stepwise motion is the carrier of melodic activity."
  • Don't have two large leaps in a row, especially if one is a fourth or larger, and especially if they move in the same direction. Such a passage is very difficult to sing.
  • Have no leap larger than a minor 6th, and use that only rarely (although you can use octave leaps.
  • In general, it sounds more natural to leap from a strong beat than from a weak beat.
  • The contour of the melody should be interesting, with several changes in direction. Exclusive stepwise motion is not interesting. Motion in just one direction is not interesting. There must be at least two leaps. The shape should have a sense of balance-leaps in one direction are usually immediately balanced by motion in the opposite direction, stepwise, if possible.
  • The melody should flow naturally within the tonal context. Anything that contradicts this goal is wrong. For example, the notes of a melodic augmented interval tend to want to resolve in opposite directions, creating the effect of two voices (a compound melody). This contradicts the goal of creating a melodic continuum, so use of augmented intervals in a melody is forbidden. Continuing in the same direction after a leap has the same effect, so this is to be avoided also.
  • Every note should contribute as equally as possible to the contour of the melody. Motivic patterns contradict that goal, because they give a feeling of a group of notes repeating-and some notes of a motive are always heard as embellishing others. So, do NOT use repeated pitch patterns when writing species counterpoint.
  • If every note is going to have a chance to contribute equally, they have to be of equal duration. Long notes tend to be heard as more "important" than short tones. Therefore, except for 5th species, each melody will for the most part use only one kind of note value.
  • The melody should begin and end with a feeling of absolute tonal stability. This is accomplished by beginning and ending the melody on the tonic note. A feeling of finality or "closure" is desired with the last note. A descent to the tonic through the supertonic gives more of a feeling of closure than an ascent to the tonic. Therefore, most c.f. melodies end with scale steps 2-1.
Below are some examples of c.f. that exhibit these characteristics. Be able to sing any of these melodies without hesitation. Note that all these cantus firmi are written in the alto clef. You may wish to rewrite them in bass or treble clefs. You can also transpose them to different key to better serve the voices you are writing.
III. The study of counterpoint has been divided into five distinct kinds of examples, called "species." Each species is designed to allow a focus on a specific music factor. Before engaging in a detailed discussion of these factors, a brief discussion of each species is presented to give a sense of the overall scope of the study of species counterpoint. Although counterpoint is done in two and three voices, we will confine our work in this class to two-voice exercises. In addition, although counterpoints are written both above and below a given c.f., we will confine our work only to counterpoints written above the cantus firmus. For all five species, the cantus firmus melody is exclusively in whole notes. The second voice, the counterpoint that you will compose, changes note
values with each species. 
An overview of the five species 
Each of the first four species has a distinct use of dissonant harmonic intervals:
  1. In first species, no dissonant intervals are permitted, only perfect and imperfect consonances are used.
  2. In second species, only passing tone dissonant intervals may be used.
  3. In third species, neighbor notes and the neighbor group in addition to passing one dissonant intervals may be used.
  4. In fourth species, only suspension dissonant intervals may be used. 
Since fifth species is a combination of the above, no substantively new kind of dissonance is introduced. 
IV. General descriptions of each species
The rhythmic values and dissonances permitted in each. 
  1. First species: the two voices, the c.f. and the counterpoint move note against note (both using whole notes), using only consonant harmonic intervals. This allows us to gain familiarity with the relative musical effect of perfect and imperfect consonance and learn Consult the chapter on Overtones for an explanation of consonance and dissonance. 
  2. Second species: in which the counterpoint moves in half-notes against the whole notes of the c.f., allows us to gain an awareness of the nature and melodic effect of passing tones - the only kind of dissonance so far permitted. 
  3. Third species: the counterpoint moves in quarter-notes against the whole notes of the c.f., allowing us to gain an awareness of consonant and dissonant neighbor notes, now allowed, along with passing tones, as embellishing tones. 
  4. Fourth species: The counterpoint uses only half-notes, and as many as possible are tied over the bar. Fourth species focuses exclusively on suspensions. 
  5. Fifth species: is a combination of all of the above. In this species the use of rhythm as contributing element to the aesthetic quality of the melody is added. 
Relative motion. In two-voice counterpoint you are to write melody that forms a two-voice texture with a given cantus firmus. This allows us to become familiar with the four kinds of relative motion between voices: contrary, parallel, direct and oblique. These motions can be described as follows:
  • Parallel motion: Both voices move in the same direction and stay the same distance apart.
  • Contrary motion: the voices move in opposite direction (one up, the other down).
  • Direct (or similar) motion: the voices move in the same direction, but they don't stay the same distance apart (one voice may go up a second, the other a fourth).
  • Oblique motion: one voice moves while the other one doesn't (it stays on the same pitch).
V. Detailed descriptions and examples of each species 
First Species
The procedures for creating a first species exercise are fairly simple. Some of these directives for 1st species are repeated in the appendix of the text. 
  1. The counterpoint uses whole notes, and must form only consonant intervals with the cantus firmus. The counterpoint MUST have a different pitch in each measure. Well, we'll relax that a bit and permit one repeated pitch per exercise.
  2. Beginning the exercise: For maximum tonal stability, the exercise should begin with the stability of a perfect consonance, the fifth or the octave. Although it's possible to begin with a unison, it will create difficulties, since most c.f. begin with an ascent-and this won't leave room enough between the voices. Repeat! Begin only with a 5th or and octave above the c.f. note.
  3. Ending the exercise: For maximum closure, the exercise will end with the stability of a unison or octave. The next to last note will be the leading-tone (a major 6th against the 2nd scale step of the c.f.) Repeat! The last two notes of the c.f. will always be "re-do". The last two note of the counterpoint will always be "ti-do".
  4. In the Course of the exercises: Avoid having too many perfect consonances during the course of the exercise. The stability of the perfect consonances will cripple the musical flow. Instead, use as many imperfect consonances as possible (3rds and 6ths). The 3rds and 6ths can be major or minor, but never augmented or diminished.
  5. Parallel motion: parallel imperfect consonance (parallel 3rds and 6ths) are good, but use no more than 3 in a row (one voice will sound like an echo of the other and its independence will be weakened).
  6. Parallel perfect consonances are forbidden. In fact, do not ever get TO a perfect consonance by moving both voices in the same direction, EVER. If you have a perfect octave or fifth, make sure have approached it only by contrary or oblique motion. Repeat! If you use a perfect consonance, it must be approached only by oblique or contrary motion.
  7. The melody of the counterpoint must match the stylistic characteristics of the c.f. 
Second Species
  1. In 2nd species, the counterpoint is written ONLY in half-notes, except for the last measure (the exercise ends with whole notes in both voices). However, you may also use a whole note in the penultimate measure if necessary. Each successive note must be on a different pitch. No exceptions.
  2. As in 1st species, you must begin with a perfect consonance and end with a unison or octave. The counterpoint can begin on either the first or second beat of the first measure. The exercise must end with either a unison or an octave. You may revert to 1st species (use a whole-note) in the next-to-last measure.
  3. You may use a dissonance in the course of the exercise, BUT! 
    If you use a dissonance
    1. It MUST be a PASSING TONE - a passing tone is an embellishing note approached and left stepwise in the same direction. In other words, it fills in the interval of a melodic third;
    2. The dissonant passing tone MUST be on the second half of the measure, the "weak" beat - NEVER on the first or strong beat!
  4. The same principles governing the use of motion to perfect and imperfect intervals are still in effect. 
Third Species
  1. In 3rd species, the counterpoint is written ONLY in quarter-notes, four notes to a measure, except, of course, for the last measure (the exercise must end with whole notes in both voices). Each quarter-note must be a different pitch-NO repeated notes.
  2. Beginning: As in 1st species, you must begin with a perfect consonance and end with a unison or octave. The exercise can begin on either the first, second, third or fourth beats of the first measure.
  3. Ending: As usual, the exercise must end with a unison or an octave. The next to last note of the counterpoint MUST be the leading tone (as in 1st and 2nd species), and form a major sixth with the penultimate note of the c.f. (the last two notes of the counterpoint will be "ti-do".)
  4. Dissonances: dissonances are allowed in the course of the exercise, but must be either a passing tone or a neighbor note, but NEVER on the downbeat.
  5. Neighbor notes: a neighbor note motion is like visiting a neighbor:
    1. a) you start from home (a consonant tone)
    2. b) go next door (step-wise up or down to a dissonant or consonant embellishing tone), then
    3. c) return home (the consonant tone you started from. This is a complete neighbor note motion. If you do not start from home or do not return home, it will be an incomplete neighbor note motion. In counterpoint, only complete neighbor note motions are permitted.
  6. A lower neighbor has the effect of creating ascending motion immediately following the return to the main note. The upper neighbor has the opposite effect. Experiment with this to see how it works, then use these effects to create a natural flow in your melody.
  7. Singing neighbor notes: Singing the neighbor note affords an opportunity to take advantage of your natural musical instincts. If you sing a neighbor note knowing that you are going to return to "home" to the main note being embellished, you can (and should!) retain the sense or memory of the pitch of the main tone even while singing the neighbor. This can be a great help when trying to sight sing, or even sight-read on your own instrument.
  8. Additional dissonant use: the "double neighbor, "neighbor group" or "changing tone." These names are synonyms; they all refer to the same thing. In 3rd species we have the first instance of dissonance that does not have an immediate, visual stepwise relationship to a consonance. It is a pattern involving upper and lower neighbor that omits the return to the main tone in between the neighbors. Although there is a literal leap from a dissonance in the notation, the ear hears both notes clearly as being stepwise neighbors to the main tone. The pattern is called a double neighbors or a neighbor groups. Page 79 in the Gauldin text offers a discussion of this embellishment and also gives it yet another name, the changing tone. The example below will make this embellishment clear.
  9. Avoid the tendency to create successive one-measure melodic gestures that do not create a long-line flow.
  10. It is much easier to create interesting melodic lines in 3rd species than in either 1st or 2nd species, there are so many more choices.
  11. Procedure for 3rd species. A good way to write a 3rd species exercise is to first write a well-constructed 1st species exercise, then connect the first species note by filling in the spaces between the downbeats with fluid, graceful non-sequential quarter-note motion.
Fourth Species
In Fourth species the counterpoint is written in half notes, as in 2nd species. However, the half notes are tied over the bar as much as possible. Fourth species is sometimes called "syncopes," and it presents the opportunity to become familiar with suspensions-caused by the tied notes over the bar. Suspensions are dissonances caused by delaying the movement of one voice in a context where one consonant interval moves to another consonant interval. Either the top or bottom voice can delay its movement, but in this class we will only consider delaying motion in the top voice. For example:
Two voices are a fifth apart: C - G. Each voice
moves a step toward each other, to the 3rd, D - F.
 If the top voice delays its motion to the F
until after the bottom voice has moved to D,
a dissonant 4th ,D - G is created. That is the
essence of a suspension. It's that simple. 
Now to define that simple event. Much of the discussion that follows parallels the text.
  1. Suspensions are identified by the dissonant suspended interval and its consonant resolution. Thus, the above example is called a "4 - 3" suspension.
  2. A suspension has three parts:
    1. the preparation (above, the C - G intervals),
    2. the dissonant suspension (the D - G 4th ) and
    3. the resolution (the D - F 3rd).
  3. Since the original context involved two voices in 1st species, the preparation and the resolution (what you would be left with without the delayed motion) MUST be consonant. 
  4. Avoid situations in which the 1st species original context (without the suspension) would arrive at perfect consonance with direct or parallel motion.
  5. Most suspensions in common-practice music resolve stepwise down to a consonance, but some resolve up. In species counterpoint ALL resolutions must be stepwise and down. You cannot do anything with a dissonance suspension except resolve it STEPWISE, DOWN to a CONSONANCE.
  6. The delay always happens where you expect the note to move. That is ALWAYS on the beat, or in simple counterpoint, on the downbeat beat of the measure. Repeat: THE SUSPENSION WILL ALWAYS HAPPEN ON THE DOWNBEAT.
  7. This means that both the preparation and resolution will be in a rhythmically weaker place. In species counterpoint, they will always be found on the second half of the measure, the weak beat.
  8. When doing a fourth species exercise:
    1. use as many tied half-notes as possible.
    2. Consonant suspensions are allowed, and although they can resolve down, they do not have to move stepwise down, you are free to treat it as any other 2nd species consonant note.
    3. You may temporarily revert to 2nd species if a tied note is impossible.
    4. The possible dissonant suspensions are: 
    5. Beginning: start, as usual, with a P5 or P8, but on 2nd beat of 1st bar.
    6. Ending: ALWAYS end with a 7-6 suspension in the next to last measure, immediately before the final octave of the last measure. This will enable you to end with the usual "ti-do" as the last two notes of the counterpoint.
    7. Since the movement of the melody is restricted by the need to resolve down, and the dissonant suspension tends to call attention to itself at the expense of the melodic flow, the need to create an interesting melodic is much less important in this species.