Counterpoint Guidelines

Counterpoint – the art and technique of combining two or more melodies at once.

Counterpoint has been an integral part of learning to compose for hundreds of years, and a great way to learn how to write melodies that will sound good together. Our future study of part writing is an expansion of counterpoint technique that emphasizes bass and soprano voices.

The most common way to study counterpoint is through species. To focus on melody writing and combination, we eliminate all of the other interesting aspects of music. We avoid interesting rhythms, melodic motives, timbre, etc. This way we can work specifically on the melodies’ contour and the harmonic intervals between them. This strict style that is without all the cool parts of style will allow us to apply the knowledge we gain to any music we like.

The one downside of the strict technique is that it comes with lots of rules to make sure we maintain our focus. I don’t expect you to memorize all of these guidelines, but know that many of them will apply to our later studies in part writing.

Melodic Guidelines

  • Diatonic with one exception:
    • Ti-Do (or La-Ti-Do) in ending cadence for melodies in Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian.
  • Repeat notes rarely.
  • Mostly stepwise with a few leaps.
    • No + or ° melodic intervals.
    • Leaps: P5 or smaller (and P8), rarely an ascending m6.
    • Leaps preceded or followed by motion in the opposite direction.
    • Rare: 2 leaps in same direction that outline a consonant triad.
  • Have one high or low point of focus.
  • Melodic cadences: end on either Re-Do or Ti-Do (Ra-Do or Te-Do in Phrygian).

Two-Part Guidelines

  • Two equally good melodies. One will be given to you: the cantus firmus. Your melody is the counterpoint.
  • Points of focus happen in different places for each melody.
  • Beginning harmonic intervals:
    • PU or P8 (Do in both melodies),
    • or P5 when writing above the cantus firmus (You add Sol to the cantus firmus Do).
  • Keep track of types of motion.
    • Oblique – one voice moves and the other stays the same.
    • Contrary – both voices move in the opposite direction.
    • Similar – both voices move in the same direction, but by different interval size.
    • Parallel – both voices move in the same direction by the same interval size.
  • Make sure you write in the harmonic interval sizes between the staves (qualities are not needed) to help you keep track of your work.