Teach Yourself Music Theory – 41.) First Species Counterpoint

In ways of teaching counterpoint, five species of counterpoint were developed to train the beginning composer the strict rules. These species get less strict with each one, but they still have many rules. It was the hope of music theory scholars prepare students for more full-fledged contrapuntal writing.

We will do the same with first species counterpoint, or “note-against-note” counterpoint where the ratio of notes between the and the newly added line and cantus firmus is 1:1. It should look something like this:

Now, it is time for the rules:

  • All downbeats (and therefore, all vertical harmonic intervals) must be consonant
  • Start all compositions on unisons, perfect fifths, or octaves.
  • End all compositions on unisons or octaves.
  • Only have unisons at the start or end of a composition, never in the middle.
  • Avoid no more than two perfect intervals in a row.
  • At most, the largest harmonic interval you should get is a major twelfth.
  • There must be some form of motion at all times.
  • Only approach perfect intervals by contrary or oblique motion.
  • Most of the motion should be stepwise
  • Skips should account for less than half of all melodic motion
  • Parallel motion can only be used 3 times in a row.
  • Try not to have both voices skip at the same time.
  • Attempt to fill large skips in before or after it.
  • Immediate repetition of a melodic idea is forbidden… unless it is spaced out.
  • No more than two sequential repetitions are allowed.
  • Cover the whole melodic range of the mode approximately every 10-20 notes.
  • Incorporate all other rules previously stated.

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Author: Bryan M. Waring

Bryan Waring is a graduate of USM's School of Music with a B.M. in Performance – Composition and is now attending Belmont University for a M.M. in Commercial Media – Composition & Arranging. During his time at USM, he studied violin with Dino Liva and composition with Dr. Daniel Sonenberg, as well as has premiered several pieces during the semiannual Composer's Ensemble concert series. In 2017, Bryan was a writer for the original musical theater work of "Molded By The Flow," directed by Paul Dresher and Rinde Eckert. Outside of school, Bryan has been involved with writing music for videogame developers at Portland's CI2 Lab, collaborating with the King Tide Party, and studying with Larry Groupé (Straw Dogs) in San Diego. Now living in Nashville. Along with composing, Bryan teaches music to children, receiving the Master Teacher Award for his work at ESF Camps; and does audio engineering for live ensembles. Besides talents in music, Bryan is a team-player in any competitive work environment; equipped with skills in leadership, organization, mathematics, creativity, communication, and managing. On the side, Bryan has worked as a model for several skilled artists in the New England area. Among his other accomplishments include obtaining the rank of Eagle Scout in April 2013 with a project of building a side parking area with guide rails for Webb Mountain Park in Monroe, CT.

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