First Species Counterpoint

The idea of species counterpoint is to start off very strict, and then slowly add new complications for each species. First species focuses on writing good consonances between whole-note melodies. Second species adds stepwise dissonances and half notes in one melody. Third species lets you write quarter notes against the whole-note cantus firmus and has more elaborate dissonances. Fourth species teaches you to write half-note suspensions, one of the most expressive dissonances. And fifth species lets you combine all the previous work into one melody.

Since we have very little time to cover as much as we can, we will only work on writing in first species. If you would like to gain better control over writing mutliple melodies at once, I recommend that you take counterpoint as an upperclassmen. Of all of the classes I took in undergraduate, I am most glad that I took 16th century counterpoint. I use this way of thinking regularly as a composer.

1:1 (One-to-One) Counterpoint

First Species is all about writing the best single note to go with each cantus firmus note. We have two criteria for each note we write:

  1. It sounds good with the cantus firmus note (consonances only).
  2. It helps create a good melody (follows melodic guidelines.)

Notice that these two criteria are based on how this music sounds. So make sure you sing each melody and play both of them together. If you do not listen to or perform the counterpoint, then you are learning nothing. This is not a puzzle to be solved. We want beautiful music, now.

Some guidelines to help you write a good first-species counterpoint:

  • Use only harmonic consonances: P5, P8, m3, M3, m6, M6 (PU only at beginning or end).
  • P4 is a harmonic dissonance here. Don’t write it.
  • Don’t write two 5ths or 8ves in a row (parallel or contrary). It makes the two melodies sound like one.
    • (Parallel 5ths, Parallel 8ves, 5ths by Contrary Motion, 8ves by Contrary Motion)
  • Don’t approach a 5th or 8ve by similar motion. Sounds too much like parallels above.
    • (Direct 5th, Direct 8ve)
  • Don’t cross voices or let one sing a note below (or above) where the other one just was. This will confuse the voices.
    • (Voice crossing, Voice overlap).
  • At most, three 3rds or 6ths in a row.
  • Write the cadence first (last two or three notes), then write the opening, then try to write the focal point (climax), and then fill in.
  • You will erase many notes along the way. This is trial and error at its most basic. Be willing to try lots of options. There is no single right answer to writing counterpoint. There are a few good ones, and lots of middling and bad ones. Labeling the harmonic intervals will help you as you work.
  • This is an experiment in creating beauty. Sing your music.