What is Species Counterpoint in Music?

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  • What is species counterpoint, and where did it come from?
  • How do you write counterpoint?
  • What are the rules for each species?

Music is a continuum. As much time as we put into characterizing different forms of music and different genres and sub-genres, all music grows from branches that trace back through time and influences to common predecessors.

It is for this reason that music theory and the study of old music, even really old music, will often reveal the blueprint for new music, especially if you look below the surface at the structure holding the whole thing up.

This article is just such an endeavor: we will look at an old style of composing music, knowing full well that other approaches of music grew out of this one, and others out of those, and so on. We will then find a circuitous connection from this old style to the most current approaches of today.

By the end of our exploration, we may find some truths that will inform our own composition, or perhaps even some inspiration to innovate even further!

What Is Species Counterpoint?

Species counterpoint is both a means of classifying counterpoint and an approach to learning it. Species counterpoint features a number of approaches that increase in complexity. They are designed to teach you about counterpoint so you can write more dynamic and interesting melodic lines.

First species counterpoint is the note-against-note counterpoint, in which there is one note in the counterpoint for every note in the cantus firmus (Latin for “fixed melody”).

In second species counterpoint, there are two notes in the counterpoint for every note in the cantus firmus.

Third species counterpoint contains four notes for every note in the cantus firmus.

Fourth species counterpoint is also known as syncopation or ligature, in that it features notes in the counterpoint that are offset from the cantus firmus to create a syncopated effect.

Finally, fifth species counterpoint is also known as florid counterpoint, as it combines the approaches of all the other species to introduce the greatest variety of rhythmic possibilities to the counterpoint.

Johann Joseph Fux: Fux With Counterpoint

Johann Joseph Fux played a major role in shaping music theory in the world of Western Art Music, as he is largely responsible for standardizing the method of species counterpoint.

He wrote Gradus ad Parnassum, which translates to “Steps to Parnassus,” the highest part of a mountain range in Greece often referenced in classical era literature, in 1725.

Inspired by the work of Renaissance-era composers, particularly Palestrina, the goal of this text was to formalize a method of learning species counterpoint.

Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all studied counterpoint with the help of Gradus, thus it influenced the standard-bearers and writers of many of the great works of the Classical and Early Romantic periods in Western Art Music, as well as every composer who followed in their footsteps.

The Rules of Counterpoint

In this section, we will get into the specific rules of counterpoint. Keep in mind that species counterpoint is meant to be a step-by-step learning experience, so if you are new to composition you might have your hands full with first species counterpoint for the moment.

Come back later, though, and you might find the remaining species well within your capacity. Regardless of your level of experience, there should be something for everyone here.

Melodic Characteristics

In species counterpoint (and in many other forms of music both within and outside of western art music), melodies tend to consist primarily of conjunct (stepwise) motion with the occasional leap.

Two back-to-back leaps are generally avoided unless they outline triads (meaning these leaps consist of two 3rds), and one should avoid leaps by augmented or diminished intervals, nor by any kind of seventh.

The best melodies in species counterpoint gradually approach a single high point and then descend to a final cadence. Finally, the total range of a melody should rarely exceed an octave and never exceed a tenth.

Terms

In species counterpoint, voice can refer to either the cantus firmus melody or the counterpoint melody. Each of these parts will belong to the same mode, and the most common modes are the Ionian (major) and Aeolian (natural minor) modes.

Interval is an important concept from the very beginning, as first species counterpoint distinguishes each harmonic interval as either consonant or dissonant.

Interval is important in the melodic context as well (a melodic interval is an interval formed by two pitches played one after the other within one of the parts), as there are several melodic intervals – dissonant leaps and very large leaps – that are forbidden.

Motion between the voices is detailed from early on, and rhythm and meter grow increasingly important as greater variety in rhythmic values are introduced with each subsequent species.

First Species Counterpoint

First species counterpoint is primarily concerned with consonant harmonies and categorizing relative motion between voices. The harmonic relationship between the notes of the cantus firmus and the corresponding notes of the counterpoint should always be consonant.

Consonances in species counterpoint include the perfect octave, perfect fifth, major and minor sixth, and major and minor third. All augmented and diminished intervals, as well as the major and minor seventh, major and minor second, and perfect fourth are categorized as dissonant in species counterpoint.

Consonant (green) and dissonant (red) harmonies in species counterpoint

The first pairing of notes in the phrase should form one of the perfect intervals, the unison, octave, or the perfect fifth, and the final pairing should form an octave or unison, with the penultimate notes approaching the octave in stepwise contrary motion (meaning that one voice will move 7 – 1 and the other will move 2 – 1).

In a minor mode passage, the 7 should be raised a half-step to #7, the leading tone, for the resolution. It is important to note that unison is permitted in species counterpoint, but is only usable at the beginning and end of the phrase in first species counterpoint, as illustrated in the example below.

An example of first species counterpoint

The goal of every piece of counterpoint is to create independent voices. The relative motion between the voices helps to create that sense of independence in the voices.

The four types of motion in order of the degree to which they affirm the independence of the line are contrary motion, oblique motion, similar motion, and parallel motion.

In contrary motion, the voices either diverge or converge, meaning that they move in opposite directions. In oblique motion, one voice maintains the same pitch while the other voice either ascends or descends.

In similar motion, both voices move in the same direction but by different intervals. Finally, parallel motion is movement in the same direction by the exact same interval.

The four types of relative motion between voices

A piece of first-species counterpoint featuring entirely contrary motion or even mostly contrary motion with some oblique motion is ideal, whereas similar motion and parallel motion is less characteristic of first-species counterpoint.

An important thing to note also, on the topic of motion, is that parallel fifths and parallel octaves are expressly forbidden in this style of music, but parallel sixths and thirds are permitted (though not as strong as contrary motion).

Second Species Counterpoint

Second species counterpoint introduces a rhythmic pattern, in that the second species counterpoint positions two notes against one note in the cantus firmus.

This results in a strong beat (the beat that coincides with the changing of notes in the cantus firmus) and a weak beat (the offbeat) that follows different rules. The weak beat is where one may introduce dissonances, provided they always resolve to consonances on the strong beat.

It is generally discouraged to have back to back 5ths and octaves on strong beats (known as accented 5ths and accented octaves), even with other intervals intervening on the off-beats, except in the case of accented 5ths in which a leap in the counterpoint allows contrary motion, as illustrated in the example below.

The unison is treated somewhat like dissonance in second species counterpoint, in that it should only occur on the weak beat and the counterpoint voice should move by step to its next strong-beat note.

An example of accented fifths that is permissible

The best approach to dissonance is stepwise, as is the resolution; thus, one of the most common uses of dissonance in second species counterpoint takes the form of dissonant passing tones, as illustrated in the example below.

The passing tone, a dissonance approached by step and resolved by step in the same direction

Third Species Counterpoint

With the addition of two more notes in the counterpoint to every note in the cantus firmus, third species counterpoint makes possible a new kind of dissonance known as neighbor tones, as illustrated in the example below.

The neighbor tone, a dissonance approached by step and then resolved by step in the opposite direction

Much like second species counterpoint, it remains important to build a consonance in the voices on the downbeat. However, beats two, three, and four can be consonant or dissonant.

Also held over from second species counterpoint is the importance of moving to and from dissonances in stepwise motion.

While accented fifths and octaves were discouraged in second species counterpoint, the presence of three intervening weak-beat notes softens their use in third species counterpoint.

That said, too frequent use of accented fifths and octaves will begin to break down the illusion of independent lines, so they should be used sparingly, if at all.

Fourth Species Counterpoint

Fourth species counterpoint is a unique departure from the approaches to handling dissonance in second and third species counterpoint, in that the dissonances in fourth species counterpoint occur on the strong beat.

This is because the fourth species counterpoint dissonances are the result of suspensions, in which the counterpoint line changes notes on the weak beat, against a cantus firmus in which the notes change on the strong beat. What begins always as a consonance on the weak beat can become dissonant as the note changes on the strong beat in the cantus firmus.

Suspensions

Strong beat dissonances are accented and thus more impactful, and the only way to resolve the tension of these dissonances is by moving down a step to a consonance.

In the event of a suspended consonance, a movement from a consonance on the weak beat to a consonance on the strong beat, the counterpoint melody can move by step or leap in either direction to the next consonance.

In comparison to second and third species counterpoint, fourth species counterpoint offers composers relatively few options for developing strong melodic lines.

As a result, it is okay on occasion to break with the rules and introduce second species counterpoint rules for a section in the midst of fourth species counterpoint, but only every once in a while, as it is not exactly in line with the style.

Fifth Species Counterpoint

Fifth species counterpoint combines the rhythm patterns and dissonances of second, third, and fourth species counterpoint, with the addition of introducing subdivision on beats two and four.

The main challenge and the goal of fifth species counterpoint, or “florid” counterpoint, is to mix in a variety of rhythms so that changes from one rhythmic figure to another never sound disruptive.

The most common practice is to build momentum through the use of longer durations in the beginning of a phrase and gradually introduce shorter durations as the melody nears the cadence, as is illustrated in the example below.

An example of fifth species counterpoint

In general, fifth species counterpoint melodies will reserve the use of a whole note for the final cadence. The rules for approaching and resolving dissonance will correspond to one of the previous species, depending on the note value of the dissonance: a half note will follow the rules of second species, a quarter note those of third species, and a suspension those of fourth species.

The eighth notes introduced in fifth species counterpoint should never occur more than two at a time, and they should be reserved for the weakest beats, two and four. They should move stepwise as well, meaning that either note can be dissonant.

No rhythmic value should dominate the melody in fifth species counterpoint, meaning that there should never be more than two measures of the same repetitive note value. In mixed note value measures, the longer duration should generally occur at the beginning of the measure, with the shorter durations occurring in the second half of the measure.

Conclusion And A Challenge

Music theory is not the same as music itself; it is a way of understanding music and making it digestible so that we might make our own music more effectively.

It is essential to remember that music theory does not pre-date music, however. Before there was Fux formalizing species counterpoint, there was Palestrina creating beautiful counterpoint melodies to add texture to cantus firmi. The rules came after the compositions, and there can be no theorist without the composer.

For this reason, I would challenge you to learn some of these rules and practice writing music in two parts in first species counterpoint, especially when writing basslines and toplines that you want to groove nicely.

Then have the discipline to take off your student hat and replace it with your musician hat, because the most innovative music always forges its own direction and remakes the musical principles.

Eventually, theorists have a chance to catch up and codify what the musicians have created, but the musicians have to do their thing or else there is nothing new to codify. So there is the challenge: learn the old rules but also find your voice and make the next work of art that defies all the rules, too.

If you want to learn more about music theory or just need a refresher, you can check out our other articles for songwriters and producers: