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Species Counterpoint

Tuesday 21 September 2004 (10:03PM)

"Josephus – I come to you, venerable master, in order to be introduced to the rules and principles of music.
Aloysius – You want, then, to learn the art of composition?
Josephus – Yes.
Aloysius – But are you not aware that this study is like an immense ocean, not to be exhausted even in the lifetime of a Nestor?"
Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741), Gradus ad Parnassum (1725)

Counterpoint is a term derived from the Latin punctus contra punctum (note against note). It is a piece of music combining two or more contrasting melodies; each of which is an individual melody when played on its own. Pleasing results are achieved when the constituent contrapuntal melodies fit together and complement each other. The integral complexities associated with counterpoint make it, perhaps, the most complicated compositional technique to learn. Yet if it is to sound good and go beyond mere technique, composing counterpoint requires great skill and aesthetic insight.

Nevertheless, the composing of counterpoint is not based on fortuitous chance melodic combinations, nor is its practise restricted to only those possessing musical genius. Rather, it is the result of applying specific rules and guidelines. In other words, it is a skill that can be learned. The most famous means of teaching counterpoint is that developed by Johann Joseph Fux and explained in his dialogue ‘Gradus ad Parnassum' (Latin for "Steps to Parnassus").

In Greek mythology Parnassus was the mountain dwelling of the gods. A composer, having climbed Parnassus, would, according to the metaphor, have achieved a perfect compositional technique. This is achieved by learning species counterpoint.

Species counterpoint is based upon the stylistic conventions of the great Italian composer Palestrina. It has been successfully used as a pedagogical technique for over 300 years. It provides a set of strict rules of increasing complexity concerning the "valid" pitch and duration relationships between the notes found in contrasting melodic parts. The rules are introduced over five separate species of counterpoint. The counterpoint is initially of two parts, one of which, the Cantus firmus (Latin for fixed line; a melody consisting of mainly step-wise movement using notes of a semi-breve duration), is provided for the student. It is over the cantus firmus that the student sets their part using the rules of whatever species of counterpoint has been requested. Thus, a species counterpoint problem is set and the student improves their compositional technique by providing a solution. The intention is that the rules defined by the species counterpoint promote and encourage good compositional practices.

Before describing each of the five species some basic musical theory must be introduced:

Musicians call the differences in pitch between notes an interval. The interval is expressed numerically in terms of the number of notes between the two notes inclusive of the outer notes.

For example, the interval between two notes adjacent in pitch (‘C' and ‘D' for example) is a second (i.e. there are two notes; the lower and the upper). However, the interval between ‘C' and ‘F' is a fourth (as there are four notes between ‘C' and ‘F': C, D, E and F).

The illustration below shows the intervals used in species counterpoint within one octave (any larger intervals can be described as an octave and an xth for example).

It is important to notice that intervals are subdivided into two sets: consonances (that sound ‘nice') and dissonances (that don't). Consonances are further subdivided: the unison, fifth, and octave are called ‘perfect' consonances whereas the sixth and the third are ‘imperfect'.

In addition to the vertical (pitch) differences expressed as intervals, musicians also describe the horizontal movement of and relationship between notes. These can be summarised as follows:

Parallel motion is when two or more parts ascend or descend in pitch by the same distance in the same direction by skip or by step. Below is an example:

The above example is a very specific form of similar (or direct) motion. This is when parts ascend or descend in pitch in the same direction by skip or by step but may include a movement of different distances in each part. The illustration below makes this distinction explicit:

Contrary motion is when parts move by skip or by step in opposite directions to each other. This is demonstrated below:

Oblique motion is when one part moves by skip or by step while the other remains stationary thus:

We are finally in a position to be able to describe and give examples of each species of counterpoint. It must be noted that the rules and conventions that follow have been extracted from two types of source:

Finally, unless stated otherwise, the rules are compound. For example, the rules for the first species of counterpoint hold over, with certain modifications, into subsequent species.

Generic Features

Species counterpoint rules mainly concern melodic motion and the intervals between the voices. (A voice is a line of music intended for a singer[s] or instrument[s]).

With regard to the combination of intervals and the motion of parts almost any succession of intervals is allowed if the motion between the voices is contrary or oblique, but for similar and parallel motion there are basically two explicit restrictions:

Further rules (both implicit and explicit) that are concerned with ensuring an interesting yet conventionally sounding result include:

It should be noted that when writing out species counterpoint it is common practice to write a number denoting the size of the interval between the notes in the separate lines of music. Thus, ‘5' means an interval of a fifth, ‘3' a third and ‘8' an octave. In addition to making the relationship between the melodic lines explicit it also forces the person writing the species counterpoint to think about the various rules relating to musical intervals.

First Species

First species counterpoint can best be described as note for note counterpoint. In other words, for every note in the cantus firmus the first species provides a note to compliment it. As a result the first species of counterpoint provides the same number of semibreves as the cantus firmus.

The rules for this species can be summarised thus:

Second species

The second species of counterpoint adds two important features to the writing of a melody:

The rules for second species counterpoint can be summarised thus:

Third Species

In third species counterpoint the oblique motion is subdivided into four notes in the counterpoint against one note in the cantus firmus. The rules for this species are very similar to the second species but include some modifications to incorporate the new rhythmic texture.

There are only two exceptions to the above rules concerning the placement of dissonances.

Both the above exceptions to the rule may be inverted in pitch (turned upside down). However, this is rarely used and also causes the starting intervals that can be used to be inverted from the upper to lower (and vice versa) practice. (An inverted nota cambiata in an upper counterpoint can only start on an interval of a fifth or a third whereas in a lower counterpoint the starting intervals can only be an octave or a sixth.)

Fourth species

Fourth species counterpoint introduces the concept of a suspension. This is when a consonance in the counterpoint is held over as the cantus firmus changes note so that it becomes a dissonance. Furthermore, it is essential that the now dissonant note ‘resolves' in a downwards direction onto an adjacent consonant note. Thus, a suspension can be thought of in three parts:

As a result, the fourth species introduces the possibility of a dissonance at the start of a bar.

When writing fourth species counterpoint one changes pitch in the second half of the bar with a minim note (the preparation) that is tied over to another minim of the same pitch (the suspension) before moving to a new pitch that acts as both the resolution for the current suspension and preparation for the next.

Strictly speaking a suspension includes a resolving dissonance. However, one need not tie notes together to cause a dissonance and thus form a suspension. It is quite possible to leave out a suspension and tie notes of the same pitch that form consonances with the two different notes in the cantus firmus. In other words, step two of the suspension is changed into a consonance.

Fourth species counterpoint can be summarised with the following rules:

Fifth species

Fifth species counterpoint is a combination of the other four types with a few new decorative techniques introduced. As J.J.Fux stated in Gradus ad Parnassum, "As a garden is full of flowers so this species of counterpoint should be full of excellences of all kinds…" (Fux ed. Mann, 1943, p.64). In other words, a liberal mixture of all the previous species will produce the best results.

The most obvious new technique is the use of quavers as decoration to the counterpoint. Nevertheless, as in all things to do with species counterpoint, their use is specific and very clearly defined.

Fifth species counterpoint can be summarised as follows:

The above three rules are demonstrated in the following illustration:

Concluding Remarks on Counterpoint

By digesting the information on this page it is hoped that the reader will have reached their own Parnassus of understanding concerning the five species of counterpoint. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that the only way in which one can truly claim understanding is if a successful completion of practical species counterpoint problems can be demonstrated.

This can only come with practise and a process of evolving one's technique so that a solution is derived from a creative and intuitive process as opposed to a clumsy adherence to a set of rules.