Teach Yourself Music Theory – 42.) Improving Counterpoint Workflow

After beginning to compose your own counterpoint in the first species, you will begin to notice one thing… it is hard! Between all of the rules that you have to follow as well as all the other limitations you can think of, it might feel that every turn you take will lead you to a dead end.

One practice that will help you is to write between each of the staves the interval number. Like this:

This will help you keep track of your intervals and your harmonic movement as you work on your composition.

Another practice that can help your output when writing counterpoint is to keep to all consonant intervals except for the P5. This is for an invertible counterpoint option where you flip the lowest melodic line on top of the first. Flipping a P5 would get a P4, and that is not allowed.

So, with invertible counterpoint, you can get two pieces for the price of one!

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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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Tip #249 – Neighbor Accents in Harmony

Take a look at the example below:

You will notice that the harmony doesn’t exactly stay the same within the measure – and that is due to the neighbor tones.

Not only does this bring interest to what would otherwise be a stagnant harmony within the context of the measure length, but it also brings attention to the individual notes that make up the harmony.

A trained ear can pick out the different notes that build a harmony, but when one voice changes with the use of neighbor tones, it takes interest to any listener.

Try it out!

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How To Beat Writer’s Block – Tip #21

Here is a game you can play for writing melody lines, bass lines, arpeggios, accompaniments, etc.

Let the root be a given. After that, decide on different scale degrees to form a shape that you will use for in a chord progression.

Like this:

Say I decide the root (given), the second, and fifth. Now, on each harmony, I can only play those scale degree in relation to the chord being played.

If the harmony is a G major triad, I would only play the G , A , and D during it.

So what’s the purpose of this? Well, for one, the limitations in note choices will force you to be creative. Second, this is just a starting point – merely a game – to get your writer’s block defeated.

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Tip #248 – Understanding the Navanitam Scale

The Carnatic music of South India has 72 scales (melakartas) comprised of seven different notes in either an ascending (arohana) or descending (avarohana) fashion. These scales are used in a kind of India music called rāga and are extremely beautiful. In addition these scales are grouped into different chakras, based on certain similarities.

Today’s melakarta is the Navanitam scale, the fourth scale from the seventh chakra.

Below is a representation of the scale as if it was put into Western notation:

Both the first (SA) and fifth (PA) scale degrees are in a placement normal to most scales found in Western music.  However, the lowered second (RI) and third (GA) scale degrees as well as the raised fourth (MA) degree creates chromatic lines.  Plus, it has a raised sixth degree (DHA).

Try playing around with the scale, possible harmonies, and progressions!

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Tip #247 – Setting a Sample to a Pitch

Sometimes, we just default to the idea that the sound sample that a person takes (whether of an instrument, pitch or unpitched, sound effect, etc.) should stay at its captured pitch.

Thanks to the advance in music technologies from the 1980’s to present-day, we have the ability to modulate the pitch of any sound. In addition, we have the ability to tune any captured sound to a frequency we desire.

Experiment with taking sounds like a kick drum, an explosion, a tap on the table, an animal sound, etc. and tune it to several different pitches. Then, try to use what you have melodically! Take advantage of the technology you have before you!

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Tip #246 – Start Small Before Going Big

Remember how when you first started out… with pretty much anything, you had to start at the beginner level, or with the smallest amount, or in the most simplest form? Same rule applies to when writing for an ensemble.

The excitement of getting to write for an 80-piece orchestra might be hard to handle, but before rushing in to see how you’ll write for each instrument – start out small. Start by section, and go even small to groups.

Meaning, you might have the capability to write for 10 horns. Start instead by writing as if you only had 2 horns available. Then write as if you only had 3. Now 4.

At this point, you will begin to train yourself to write first the necessities and then worry about how you will orchestrate across a large ensemble.

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