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A Quick Guide To Species Counterpoint

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Written by Samuel Chase

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If you want to study to become a composer or musician, you most likely will have to learn about Species Counterpoint. It is often taught at the college or university level to composition students so that they can learn the rules and structure of counterpoint and how to write the melodies and harmonies of the counterpoint style.

This post will help you with everything you need to know to start learning species counterpoint. First, let’s start off with a recap of what counterpoint is.

What is Counterpoint?

Counterpoint in music is the relationship between two or more simultaneous melody lines.

It is a structure that helps us decide how to write melodies that fit together harmonically.

When talking about counterpoint, we use the term voices to refer to each melody, one of which is the fixed voice, or cantus firmus, from which the other melodies are based off of.

If you want to learn more, check out our article on counterpoint here.

The Five Species Of Counterpoint

In counterpoint, there are five species of counterpoint that you can learn which are:

  • First species
  • Second species
  • Third species
  • Fourth species
  • Fifth species

Think of the species like levels, so First Species counterpoint is the easiest, and they get gradually harder and harder up to Fifth Species

In all species counterpoint, there is a cantus firmus that is notated in semibreves (whole notes).

This melody could be four, six, eight bars long or longer, and is usually very simple.

The cantus firmus is then used as the basis for composing the counterpoint melody. Here’s an example: 

Basic Rules for All Species

There are a number of rules that apply to all five species of counterpoint.

Some rules are applied to both melodies, the cantus firmus and the counterpoint melody, and some rules are applied only to the combination of the two melodies and the harmonies they create.

Some of those that apply to each part are:

  1. The final note must be approached by step. In a minor key, if the final is approached from below, then the leading tone must be raised (e.g. C to C# in D minor).
  2. The melody can be made up of specific intervals: major and minor 2nds and 3rds, perfect 4ths, 5ths, and octaves, and the ascending minor 6th (which must then be followed by motion downwards).
  3. Generally, do not write more than one skip at a time in the same direction. If it is done, the second skip must be smaller than the first, and the first and third note cannot be dissonant to each other.
  4. If you have a skip in one direction, it should be followed by motion in the opposite direction.
  5. There must be a climax (high point) in the counterpoint melody line. This should occur somewhere in the middle of the melody on a strong beat.

Rules that apply to the combination of the parts:

  1. The piece must begin and end on a perfect consonance.
  2. Contrary motion should be used as often as possible.
  3. Perfect consonances (4th, 5th, or octave) must be approached by oblique or contrary motion.
  4. Imperfect consonances (3rd or 6th) may be approached by any type of motion.
  5. One melody line should not be more than a 10th (an octave + a 3rd) above the other.

First Species Counterpoint

In First Species counterpoint, you have one note against one note.

Therefore, with a semibreve cantus firmus, you have semibreves in the counterpoint melody.

In addition to the list of rules above, there are a few more rules specifically for First Species counterpoint:

  1. The counterpoint must begin and end on an interval of either unison, octave, or fifth, and usually only unison or octave.
  2. You cannot use unison intervals (the same note in both melodies at the same time) except at the beginning or end.
  3. Do not move both parts in parallel 4ths, 5ths, or octaves.
  4. Avoid “hidden” parallel 4ths, 5ths, and octaves, which is movement by similar motion to a perfect 4th, 5th, or octave, unless one of the parts moves by step.
  5. You cannot use any interval more than three times in a row.
  6. Try to use multiple parallel thirds or sixths in a row (though only up to three, as stated in rule 5).
  7. Do not move both parts in the same direction by skip.
  8. Avoid dissonant intervals 2nds, 7ths, augmented or diminished intervals, and (often) perfect 4ths.

With these rules in mind, I have written out a counterpoint melody to the cantus firmus shown above, with both melodies following the rules.

The cantus firmus is the bottom line, and the counterpoint melody is on top.

First species counterpoint

Second Species Counterpoint

Second Species counterpoint is similar to first species, except that the counterpoint melody line has double the amount of notes.

If the cantus firmus is notated with semibreves, then the counterpoint line is notated with minims (or half notes).

A few additional rules (or relaxations of previous rules) are added for second species counterpoint as well.

  1. You can begin on an upbeat, leaving a half-rest at the start of the counterpoint voice.
  2. The accented beat (first minim in each bar) must only have consonant intervals (3rds, perfect 4ths and 5ths, or 6ths). The second minim beat may have dissonance, but only as a passing tone, and it must be approached and left by step.
  3. Unison, while still avoided, may occur on the unaccented part of the bar.
  4. You cannot have successive accented perfect 5ths or octaves.

With these rules in mind, I wrote an example of second species counterpoint, using the same cantus firmus from before. 

Second species counterpoint

Third Species Counterpoint

Third Species counterpoint is when you have four counterpoint notes against one cantus firmus note.

So if the cantus firmus is composed of semibreves, then the counterpoint voice is composed of crotchets (or quarter notes).

This species is more flexible than the previous two, and allows for two dissonant passing tones in a row, although the first beats of each bar must always be consonant. 

Here is an example of third species counterpoint. 

Third species counterpoint

Fourth Species Counterpoint

In Fourth Species counterpoint, you have notes that are “tied” over the bar line, creating “suspensions” of the counterpoint voice over the cantus firmus voice.

This means the first beat of the bar (the accented beat) often has a dissonant interval, which is then made consonant by the next note, on the unaccented beat.

Here is an example of fourth species counterpoint.

Fourth species counterpoint

Fifth Species Counterpoint

In Fifth Species counterpoint, you can combine the rules and structures of the previous four species, so you can have suspended notes, minims, crotchets, and semibreves. 

Here is an example of fifth species counterpoint.

Fifth species counterpoint

Summing Up

That’s all there is for species counterpoint. There are a lot of rules that were just thrown at you, and at first it definitely seems overwhelming when you first start, but it gets easier as it goes along.

Start with writing a small, four or six bar First Species counterpoint.

Then move on to Second Species, and keep the same cantus firmus and just add more notes on the counterpoint voice.

Do the same with Third Species, and then look to create dissonance in the first part of the bar for the Fourth Species.

Once you can do all four, all you need to do is put them all together! 

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Samuel Chase has been playing music since he was 5 years old, and teaching music since he was 13. He has a PhD in Music from the University of Surrey, and he has composed music that has been played in three different countries. He is currently working as a film composer and writing a book on film music.