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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Tip #242 – Changing a Voicing Midway

Most people when writing or performing music tend to stick to one chord voicing for a harmony. While this is perfectly okay to do, this can lead into having trouble to voice leading because there is a limit to possibilities.

Often, composers don’t practice re-voicing a harmony. For example: if you have an A major seventh chord that lasts a measure long, try a different voicing at the halfway point.

Here is another example of it in action:

Try it out and see if it makes transitions sound smoother and give the piece more interest/variety!

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Tip #241 – Understanding the Jalarnavam 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 Jalarnavam scale, the second 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.

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

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Tip #240 – Add Some Nice Crunch

One way to add some nice density to your chords for some unsettling atmosphere is by adding tones that will creating a m2 interval.

Triads, as you know, are made up of combinations of major and minor thirds. Dissonance mostly occurs in the stacking of two minor thirds or two major thirds (a diminished and augmented triad, respectively).

By either adding a fourth to a major triad, or a second to a minor triad, you create the really dissonant m2 interval:

Not only can it make the sound spooky, but add2 and aad4 chords can create some nice clusters for density purposes.

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Tip #239 – Nobody Likes a Bad Fingering Musically

While growing your skill as a composing (if that is what you want to be) is a good thing and should be a priority – there should be some time put to practicing an instrument.

Reason being is so you know the capabilities of an instruments… as to what it can and cannot do, or what is physically impossible for a musician to play.

As you are composing and writing notes down on paper or in a DAW, keep in find how it can be performed. Can you play it? Can you write down what fingers the musician should use, and does require a lot of dexterity?

Not only will this help a musician when playing your music, but it will make you look more competent for knowing about their instrument.

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Thinking Out Loud – Musical Culture

I recently read a chapter of a book in where a man describes his musical cultural background to be that of Western European classical music. And while he grew up with it, he has distaste for it. What’s more interesting is that this person was actually born in the 20th Century in London – which is certainly not the classical era of music.

This got me thinking, “can a person’s musical culture be that of what is not going around them,” and “is this culturally appropriate to say?”

For example: if you are Polish and were born to Polish parents, but spent your youth listening to music from Kenya, is this African music you cultural background?

For me, this is where it gets tough. While I cannot deny the individual with their personal experience to what they grew up listening to, it is difficult to define it as “cultural” because the definition refers to a group of people. Also, in this example, the listener is isolated from the culture of people that made the music.

On the other hand, music is a form of expression and communication used the share costumes across cultures. So there are arguments for either side.

Just thinking out loud.

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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