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.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read! Feel free to comment, share, and subscribe for more daily tips below! Till next time.