Unit 1: First-Species Counterpoint

Getting Started: Outer-voice Counterpoint and Species Counterpoint

I want to start with what is most essential: outer-voice counterpoint, the counterpoint between the main uppermost melody and the bass line.

These two parts are the most audible and most important, as compared to the inner parts (sorry, altos and tenors).  The same principles will hold when there are just two parts, as when there are inner parts.  We are interested in the counterpoint between the most prominent upper melody and the bass line.

To demonstrate the importance of outer parts, consider the Baroque practice of writing unfigured basses (bass lines without the figures that would indicate what chords to play).  The composer of an unfigured bass wrote only a melody and a bass line—just the outer parts.  A performer at the keyboard or of a fretted instrument (for example, the lute) was expected to fill in the inner parts in real time.  This was possible because outer voices imply certain harmonies, and it was the job of these musicians to realize the chords implied.  For listeners, too, the outer parts are most essential.  We often tend to focus on the main melody, which is often in the highest register, and the bass is intimately tied to the harmonic support for that melody.

Species Counterpoint

We will use a species-counterpoint approach to outer-voice counterpoint.  This was how many composers (such as Mozart and Beethoven, even Cage) learned their craft.  Why is it called “species” counterpoint?  “Species” means kind. . . kind of animal, plant, counterpoint.  The kinds of exercises in this approach gradually build in complexity.  See the chart below:

The Species of Counterpoint (as presented by Fux, Gradus ad Parnasum, 1724)

Notice the gradual introduction of embellishing tones (sometimes called “non-harmonic tones,” although that term does not apply here because there are no chords, only melodies).  First-species counterpoint serves as a framework for elaboration.  The other species each concentrate on a particular way of elaborating a consonant framework:


Basic Goals of Counterpoint

Although the species approach keeps things simple by introducing new situations gradually, it does so artful, musically.  Counterpoint, at its essence, is the artful combination of melodies.  I’ll take up each of these aspects in turn.

First, “artful combination” means that the melodies combine to form a pleasing whole even as they remain independent of one another.  Counterpoint writing makes us attentive to the intervals between the parts.  Dissonant intervals between parts are treated with special care.  Perfect consonances cause parts to blend together due to their purity.  Counterpoint also sensitizes us to the way each melody moves in relation to another melody.  The up and down motion of the melodies colors the effect of the intervals used between the melodies:  If two melodies are consistently a perfect interval from one another, they lose their independence.  In essence, one part is then doubling the other, and the melodies have lost their independence.  The two parts are said to be moving “in parallel.”  You have probably heard that good voice leading, such as the avoidance of parallel motion between perfect 5ths and 8ves, is a primary concern in writing counterpoint.  That is not to say that parallel motion does not have a beauty of its own.   Parallel motion, as in Debussy’s technique of “planing,” can create wonderful effects.  However, common-practice music is crafted such that each part has its own, independent life.  The study of species counterpoint allows us to deal, from the outset, with some of the main challenges we encounter when creating the rich textures formed by melodies in common-practice styles.

Second, counterpoint is concerned with beautiful melodies.  These are not stale exercises.  The idea is to write real melodies, not a string of block chords, as is found in the exercises of many harmony textbooks.  From here on out, even when we are writing four-part harmony, write a good outer-voice counterpoint first.  Then fill in the inner parts.  If the outer parts are poor, what is the point of harmonizing them well?  That would be like constructing a building on a shaky foundation.  Lay a solid foundation for future work by learning how to create good outer-voice counterpoint.


First-Species Counterpoint

As mentioned, counterpoint is the art of combining independent melodies in a beautiful way.  How is this done in first-species counterpoint?

First-species counterpoint

  • is note-against-note, which means that you write one note in your melody for each note in a melody that is given to you (the given melody is often referred to as the cantus firmus).
  • uses only consonant intervals between your melody and the given melody.


Consonance and Dissonance

Intervals are categorized as (1) perfect consonances, (2) imperfect consonances, and (3) dissonant intervals as shown in the table below.

Note that perfect fourths are treated as dissonant, in need of resolution (thus, a suspended fourth requires resolution down to a third: 4-3).


Contrapuntal Motion

The Four Kinds of Contrapuntal Motion:

  Illustration of the Four Kinds of Contrapuntal Motion


Choosing Appropriate Intervals and Contrapuntal Motions

Keep your melody independent of the given melody.

  • Contrary motion keeps melodies independent of one another.
  • Avoid parallel motion into a perfect interval.
  • Parallel 3rds and 6ths, imperfect intervals, are always fine if you do not use too many in a row.

Notice how notes sounding together that are an imperfect interval from one another do not blend together the way that notes separated by a perfect interval do.


Writing a Good First-Species Melody

  • Begin on any note of the tonic triad (scale degrees 1, 3, or 5)
  • End by moving by step to the tonic scale degree

OR: I will also accept stepwise motion to scale degree 3, even though that does not create the perfect interval traditionally used at the ends of works.

  • Melodic shape

Have a climax.  Do not let the melody stagnate:  Avoid repeating notes; avoid hovering within a cluster of notes.

  • Use mainly stepwise motion.

Do use leaps, perhaps even some large leaps, but avoid highly disjunct melodies.  First-species counterpoint will serve as a framework for elaboration.  Save arpeggiation mainly for later species.

  • Law of recovery—The larger the leap, the more likely it is that a step in the opposite direction will immediately follow.

After a leap, especially a big one, try to use a step in the opposite direction.

  How to Write a First-Species Counterpoint


On the Importance of First-Species Counterpoint as a Foundation for Future Work

Here ends the section on first-species counterpoint.



4 thoughts on “Unit 1: First-Species Counterpoint

  1. Very good, well thought out lesson!

    Is this how you introduce part-writing and recognizing part writing errors? Where do you teach this in the sequence of first semester theory? (I teach HS AP Music Theory in NC)

    • Thanks, and greetings from TN! The topic of first-species counterpoint follows the introduction of intervals. It is helpful to work with just one melody against a bass line before dealing with four parts. When we then move to the topic of chords, I continue to emphasize outer-voice counterpoint. To introduce the process of writing in four parts, I start with the outer parts and show how to fill in the two inner parts.

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