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 – 37.) Beginning Rules to Renaissance Counterpoint

To write appropriately within the style of the music, one must be aware of the hard and soft rules.

For Renaissance counterpoint, there are a lot of rules – some that can be broken in certain situations, and some that must stay intact at all times. These next blog posts will be a barrage of rules. But do not worry! Throughout, we will be reinforcing these rules so that they become second nature and that you won’t forget while writing.

To begin, it is worth to note that most of the pieces composed during this era were written using cut-time of a 2/1 or a 4/2 time signature. Most of these upcoming posts will attempt to stay within the limits of 4/2, but might occasionally drift into the now commonly accepted time signature of 4/4.

In addition, the music of the Renaissance era was known for its rhythmic contrast. This came from the use of agogic accents, or the secondary rhythm comprised of irregular accented syllables on beats 2 and 4.

When beginning to write a piece in the style of Renaissance counterpoint(especially in 4/2), it is good to have these rules in your pocket:

  • Compositions must begin with a note value of a dotted half-note or longer.
  • Compositions must end with a note value of a breve or longer.
  • Note values of equal length may be tied to each other, but only breves, whole notes, half notes, and occasionally quarter notes.
  • Only in triple time may a dotted note be tied to another dotted note
  • Note values may be tired to another note half their value, but the larger value must appear first*.
  • *(Unless it is the end of the piece, then a whole note may be tied to a breve.)
  • Dotted whole notes must only be placed on beats 1 or 3.
  • Rests usually occur only on beats 1 or 3.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 36.) Church Modes

As we begin entering the realm of counterpoint, we need to touch upon some music history. Renaissance counterpoint will be the first destination.

Early chant, called plainsong, were composed using 8 different modes. Modes, as we have previously talked about, are scales the encompass the same pitches as a key area, but are not technically our known major or natural minor. By the 16th Century into the Renaissance era, it expanded with a few more.

These Ecclesiastical Modes, or Church Modes, define which notes are more important than others in contrapuntal musical pieces. Each modes are built off of different species of whole and half-note combinations.

There are authentic church modes, which are the “main” modes than cover a range of an octave (but can go a step out from each end of the mode). And there are a plagal church modes which are derived from the “main” modes by starting on the fifth degree above the tonic.

Church modes have their own special characteristic notes of finals (the literal “final” note of a melodic line), and dominant (the recitation tone which is held during chant).

In the picture above, the half-notes denote finals within a mode while the triangles denote dominants.

When composing, is a person uses way more than the range of the mode – it is called excessive. If the melody of the contrapuntal piece covers both the range of the authentic and plagal church modes – it is called mixed. And for those melodies that never cover the range of an octave – it is called incomplete.

Before wrapping up this post, it should be mentioned that certain scale degrees can be flattened to avoid the tritone interval, and other scale degrees can be raised for cadential purposes.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 35.) Building Seventh-Chords from Scales

Now, we are going to be covering where all of these different kinds of seventh-chords appear within a key by building them off of different scale degrees.

First, we will take the major scale:

Notice how there are only four different seventh chord possibilities: the major seventh, minor seventh, half-diminished seventh, and dominant seventh. This should be pretty easy to memorize.

As for the natural minor scale, it is just a reordering of the major scale:

Now, we add the leading tone for the harmonic minor scale:

The harmonic minor scale, because of the raised leading tone, creates an augmented seventh as well as a fully-diminished seventh. Also, we have a seventh-chord we have never discussed before… the minor-major seventh which is a minor triad with a M7 interval from the root on top:

Finally, the melodic minor scale:

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 34.) Inverting Seventh-Chords

If you remember all there is to inverting triads, inverting seventh-chords should be no problem at all. On the other hand, if you still have trouble with inversions – I suggest you look over past posts before starting with this one.

As mentioned in the past, inverting a chord is like reordering the chord members… but this time, a note besides the root is in the bass.

Whereas a triad had three different inversions (one for each chord member), a seventh-chord will have four different inversions:

  • Root Position – where the root is in the bass; noted with a “7” symbol
  • First Inversion – where the third is in the bass; noted with a “6/5” symbol
  • Second Inversion – where the fifth is in the bass; noted with a “4/3” symbol
  • Third Inversion – where the seventh is in the bass; noted with a “4/2” symbol

These inversions can be noted with Roman numerals (below the staff) or in lead-sheet notation (above the staff):

Try writing various seventh-chords, identifying them, and then inverting them. Also, listen to how each of the inversions sound.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 33.) Identifying Seventh-Chords

Before we begin, let’s review:

Previously, we have talked about triads, which are chords comprised of three different pitches, with the notes (from lowest to highest) are a third apart from each other.

If we add another third on top of the triads, we get a seventh-chord, which is a chord comprised of four different pitches with the notes (from lowest to highest) are a third apart from each other and span a distance of a seventh.

The alteration of a triad to a seventh-chord will look like as such:

Now, just like triads, seventh-chords have different names depending on the intervals between each chord member. However, if you can identify the triad the seventh-chord is built from as well as the extra interval above it – you will be more comfortable with identifying triads.

Let’s take a look:

  • Augmented Seventh = Augmented Triad + M7 above root
  • Major Seventh = Major Triad + M7 above root
  • Dominant Seventh = Major Triad +m7 above root
  • Minor Seventh = Minor Triad + m7 above root
  • Half-Diminished Seventh = Diminished Triad + m7 above root
  • Fully-Diminished Seventh = Diminished Triad + d7 above root

This is how they would look (with the third of the chord placed an octave above):

Another way of being able to distinguish between the different seventh-chords is through this diagram:

In comparison to the Major Seventh chord (which we will call “home base” due to its lack of alterations), all the other seventh chords have a pitch raised or lowered.

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