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A Quick Guide To Species Counterpoint

Most songwriters these days will sit down and write their music. Depending on the type of song, they might add some harmony lines or, if they are adventurous, some countermelodies.

However, like most things, there is a technical side to this process that goes way further. It is called Species Counterpoint. And if you want to get the most out of how you write, there are some rules to learn. That’s why I decided to write a Quick Guide To Species Counterpoint, so let’s get straight to it…

Why Try to Learn Species Counterpoint?

Because simply put, if you’re looking to become a professional composer, you will need to know it. How it works, when to use it, and how to write the harmonies to go with melodies that make up counterpoint.

It is not the end result. Rather it is a method to teach you composition techniques. It is not the dynamic and interesting melodies you want. Instead, it teaches you how to achieve them without telling you the notes to use. That is your job. It just teaches you how to construct the levels of melody and harmony you will most definitely need.

A Brief Explanation of Species Counterpoint

A Brief Explanation of Species Counterpoint

It can be best described as the relationship that exists between two or more melody lines being played at the same time. It is a way of writing melodies that will have a harmonic synchronization.

Some Terminology

It will be useful to understand some of the terms that are used in the descriptions. Let’s get that out of the way before we get into the nuts and bolts.

  • A Voice- this is a term that relates to a single melody line.
  • Cantus Firmus – Latin, of course, so don’t ask for plurals or other grammatical equivalents. This could be described as the ‘first or fixed voice.’ The other voices or melodies are based on the Cantus Firmus. It is the first melody that forms the basis of your polyphonic composition.
  • Steps – the difference in the pitch or distance between two consecutive notes on a scale.
  • Skips – Any difference in pitch that is larger than a step. For example, C to D is a step. C to E is a skip.

The Five Species of Counterpoint

Since this a quick guide to species counterpoint, we will continue to keep it brief. There are five species of counterpoint that you can also refer to as levels if that is a clearer way of describing them.

  • First level.
  • Second level.
  • Third level.
  • Fourth level.
  • Fifth level.

Cantus Firmus is the first level. This is written in whole notes or semibreves. It is usually a very basic and simple melody. This is to allow you to construct other levels from it and around it using this base to work from.

There is no fixed length for the first level, and it could be anything up to eight bars or even longer. The First level then will be the easiest, and the level of difficulty should increase with the levels. The Fifth level is the most complex.

Rules for All Levels or Species

Rules for All Levels or Species

As we said earlier, there are some rules for constructing and managing all five levels of the counterpoint. But these are not what you might call “across the board” rules. Some rules will apply to all five levels, while others refer to melodies and harmonies that are created.

These rules apply to every level.

  • There needs to be a climax in the melody line of the counterpoint. This should preferably occur in the center of the melody.
  • It is not a good idea to include more than one skip, either up or down. If it happens, then the second skip needs to be less than the first. And you will need to check that there are no harmony clashes or dissonant notes.
  • If there is a skip in direction, up or down, then it needs to be followed by a similar action in the other direction.
  • The last note of the sequence must be approached with a step.

Some rules apply in the case of the combination of parts.

  • The section of music needs to start and finish in perfect consonance.
  • You should try and use contrary motion, where one melody moves in an opposite direction to another melody. One could be ascending and one descending.
  • Any melody line should not be an octave plus a third (a 10th) above the other.

Creating the Levels or Species

The rules for building the species are more intense. And as the levels are built and layered upon each other, they become more complex. The first level is basic with a simple melody, and the second might have twice the amount of notes. If the first level is written in, for example, semibreves, full notes, then the second would be in half-notes or minims.

Going to the third level, the melody line would include crotchets or quarter notes. The fourth might start to include note suspensions, where notes are carried over the bar line.

When you get down to the fifth level, you can put together the structures of the previous four levels. That could give you semibreves, minims, crotchets, and suspensions all combined.

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And don’t miss our handy guides on the Best Music Theory AppsDiatonic Scales, and The Baroque Music Period for more useful musical information.

A Quick Guide To Species Counterpoint – Final Thoughts

Within each of the processes for constructing each level are sets of rules. Far too many to start deciphering them here. But it is important you learn what you can do and what you can’t do.

It is going to feel overwhelming at first. But like most things, it takes practice and a serious effort to understand. You can start slowly with just a short four or eight-bar first level for practice. Then add on further levels. Time, dedication, and practice are what it will take, but the results will be worthwhile.

For further reading, here are some guides that will help you to identify the rules of Species Counterpoint:

Until next time, let the music play.

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