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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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 32.) Building Triads from Scales

Continuing with our topic of triads, we are going to be discussing what and which triads are built from scales… covering major, natural, harmonic, and melodic minor.

Beside the lead-sheet note note names, the Roman numeral figured-bass and triad quality remains the same from each respective scale regardless of starting pitch.

Let’s start with the major scale:

Building triads on each note, we get what we have above. 3 major triads, 3 minor triads, and 1 diminished triad. Chords I , IV , and V will always be major in a major key.

Now, natural minor:

We have the same amount of major, minor, and diminished triads… but they are in a different order.

As for harmonic minor:

With the inclusion of the raised leading tone, we see a quality of the chords change. Instead of v being minor, V is major in harmonic minor. Also, we have two diminished chords.

Finally, melodic minor:

With two raised pitches, we get another completely different group of triads. Now, the ii chord is minor… but the vio chord is diminished.

NOTE: the “B” symbol in the pictures means “flat” just like the “b” sign.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 31.) Figured-Bass and Lead-Sheet Notation

Even though we have been using the staff and writing notes to communicate which notes to play, there are other ways of notating music.

The first way we are going to talk about is figured-bass, which is a more “classical music way” of using Roman numerals and symbols to notate what chords to play in relation to the key.  To notate with figured-bass, you take the following steps:

  • Start by finding the key that you are in (with the example below, we are in C major)
  • Next, determine the chord harmonies with their qualities and inversion
  • Place a Roman numeral underneath each chord, with the numeric value corresponding to the root of the chord in relation to the kay
  • If it is a major triad, use uppercase letters
  • If it is a minor triad, use lowercase letters
  • If it is a diminished triad, use lowercase letters plus an “ o “ symbol
  • If it is an augmented triad, use uppercase letters plus a “ + “ symbol
  • Finally, add extra figures if inverted
  • If it is in first inversion, add a “ 6 “
  • If it is in second inversion, add a “ 6 “ with a “ 4 “ below it

Notice how the “ 6 “ and “ 4 “ correspond to the interval made with the root during an inversion.

Another way is lead-sheet, which is a way commonly found in jazz, pop, and rock tunes of writing out the letter names, chord qualities, as well as inversions of the harmonies.  To notate in a lead-sheet style, you take the following steps:

  • Determine the root of the chord and write it in an uppercase letter above the chord
  • If it is a major triad, do nothing more for its chord quality
  • If it is a minor triad, add “ min “
  • If it is a diminished triad, add an “ o “ symbol
  • If it is an augmented triad, add a “ + “ symbol
  • Finally, add extra figures if inverted
  • Add a slash mark “ / “ and write the bass note after it

Tah-dah!  There you have it.  Give it some practice, but we will be using these forms of communicating and writing for now on.

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