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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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 40.) Counterpoint Harmony & Movement

As we begin to get further into the topic of Renaissance counterpoint, it is now time to add on some more terms, definitions, and rules.

The first term that will be introduced is the cantus firmus – a melody used in a consistent rhythm for other melodic lines to be added around it. Think of it as the “main melody” or basis for what all the other contrapuntal lines will be built around. A cantus firmus can be taken from a pre-existing melody or it can be originally composed.

As other melodic lines are being added to the cantus firmus, the composer must be mindful of the harmonic interval qualities. This, will probably come as a review:

  • Perfect Consonance – PU, P5, P8
  • Imperfect Consonance – m3, M3, m6, M6
  • Dissonance – m2, M2, P4, A4 / d5, m7, M7

Being mindful of your voice leading, the relationship between the melodic and harmonic dimensions in music, will help you create wonderful contrapuntal music.

Now, it is time to talk about movement and the different types:

  • Parallel Motion – when both voices move in the same direction over the same distance
  • Similar Motion – when both voices move in the same direction, but in different distances
  • Oblique Motion – when one voice stays put while the other one moves
  • Contrary Motion – when both voices move in opposite directions
  • No Motion – when both voices repeat their same pitch and don’t move

Keep these in mind as we continue to dive in deeper into the world of Renaissance counterpoint.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 39.) Beginning to Craft a Melody

As mentioned previously, Renaissance era counterpoint was vocal – but that doesn’t mean that they song only on “ooo”s and “ahh”s. Their lyrics usually came from liturgical texts, like psalms.

Before beginning to write a contrapuntal piece, one must be able to master the style of writing a single melodic line before trying to weave multiple independent lines together. This blog will talk about the process of doing so.

First thing you want to do is decide on the text you want to set to music.

Second, you will need to decide on the appropriate mode. Each mode has its own qualities an shades to best fit the mode of the text.

Third, you will want to assign the melody to the right voice. Look below at the different voice ranges. The out-most notes are the “extremes of the voice range, while the two pitches in the middle connected by a line suggest the comfort range:

Fourth, start the melody on the authentic or plagal pitch. Adjacent voices (when we start incorporating more melodic lines) with start on the opposite choice.

Fifth, start writing your melody to shape the text. Keep in mind:

  • Word Painting – doing something musical to invoke the images of the lyrics
  • Accenting important words with skips and leaps
  • Keeping the overall melodic line moving with stepwise motion instead of repeating notes
  • Be sure to cover the range of the mode within the limits of the vocalist without hitting the extremes too much
  • Have a interesting melodic contour
  • Avoid outlining or moving by dissonant intervals

Sixth, cadence by stepwise motion from above or below.

  • The Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian modes should have the their leading tones raised.
  • Ionian and Lydian already have natural leading tones and require no raising of pitches.
  • Phrygian has its own unique cadence of going down by half-step and going up by whole-step.
  • The Aeolian mode can have a “Phrygian cadence” by lowering the tone from above.

Below is a chart of the modes as if they were in the key of C:

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 38.) Melodic Restrictions

Music during the Renaissance era were written mostly for voice. As one would assume, the music made was in turn restricted by the capabilities of the voice. Meaning, that the range of the melody in Renaissance counterpoint was limited to that of voice (review the modes and see how each fit with a voice part). In addition, the melodic contour and interval make up of the melody had to be written at the ease of a vocalist. So, no difficult leaps or jumps!

Below is a chart of all the melodic intervals used for composing in the Renaissance era, their direction of ascending or descending, and how frequently they were used:

One thing to take note in the chart above is the banning of augmented and diminished intervals. In any natural key, there will be a tritone formed between two pitches. Not only does this ban include the melodic and harmonic intervals, but also the melodic outline. Meaning, a melody starting on F and ascending stepwise to B would be unacceptable because the melody spanned a tritone. Composers of the Renaissance era used musica ficta, accidentals, to get around this by flattening pitches to correct them to a P4 or P5.

Occasionally, musica ficta was used to raise pitches, but that would only appear at cadential points. Regardless, these accidentals are to be used as little as possible.

Besides that, there are some other rules to follow when constructing a melody:

  • Use steps more often than skips.
  • Precede and follow a large skip with stepwise motion in the opposite direction
  • Don’t use more than two skips in succession
  • Two skips in succession should cover a P5 or P8 in range.
  • Rarely, a P4 may follow a P4 in the same direction – same as P5’s.
  • An ascending P5 may be followed by a m3 in the same direction, if the mode is Dorian.
  • Attempt to stay within the “pyramid rule” of having larger intervals of skips in succession stay at the bottom.
  • Never have your melodic line outline a dissonant interval (expect for a m7).
  • Be cautious with repeating notes, as the melody becomes too stagnant.
  • Arrive at the extremes of you modal range with steps instead of skips.
  • Accidents are to be resolved in their proper manner (flats go down, sharps go up).

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 28.) Interval Characteristics

Previously, we have talked about naming and grouping intervals.

Another characteristic we can classify intervals by is if they sound “good” or “bad” to the ear.

Now, this topic is VERY subjective. However, in theory, we have rules to classify the intervals.

An interval (melodic or harmonic) that generally sounds pleasing to the ear and stable is called consonant. Any interval that doesn’t sound “right,” has a need to resolve, classes sonically, or is outside diatonic tonality* is called dissonant.

Within consonance, there are perfect consonances that feature the perfect intervals, and there imperfect consonances that feature everything else.

If this sounds confusing, do not worry. These are labels to help understand the sonic quality of intervals as well as their stability/resolving motion.

Perfect Consonances

  • P1 or Unison
  • P5
  • P8

Imperfect Consonances

  • m3
  • M3
  • m6
  • M6


  • m2
  • M2
  • Tritone
  • m7
  • M7
  • Any diminished interval
  • Any augmented interval

Noticed how the P4 wasn’t included in any of these lists. That is because in the pre-historic times before the Renaissance the P4 was considered a perfect consonance. Then into the Renaissance era, the P4 was regarded as a dissonance. Now, scholars have evaluated the P4 interval again and pretty much made it a wild card.

Listen to the intervals and see if you agree with their classification.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 27.) Digging Deeper Into Intervals

If you are still not comfortable with the topic of intervals, I suggest reviewing previous posts. Otherwise, let’s go for a quick refresher:

An interval is the distance between two different pitches/notes. The two different notes can either occur at the same time (called a harmonic interval) or consecutively one after another (called a melodic interval).

Another way to classify intervals is by the span. Simple intervals are those that span an octave or less in length between any two pitches. Those that are of a greater distance than an octave are called compound intervals.

Previously, we have only named up to an octave. To name compound intervals, do the following:

  • Take out the octave(s) distance apart
  • Decide what is the leftover simple interval quality
  • Name it (i.e. M2 )
  • Then at a 7 to the value ( M2 +7 = M9 )

Intervals can also be classified by being grouped into their inversion relation; meaning, that when you take two notes and invert them by either having the lower note go above the higher note… or having the higher note go below the lower note, you produce another interval.

Let’s practice this concept. Start by writing middle C on a staff followed by the E4 pitch above it. Notice that this interval makes a M3. Now, take the middle C and move it up an octave to C5. You have now inverted the pitches, creating a m6 interval. So, M3 and m6 are inversionally related.

Practice writing two different pitches and naming the interval. Then, invert them and find the new interval.

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