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 – 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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