…there be many things which at the first sight seem easy which in practice are found harder than one would think. But thus much I will show you, that he who hath this kind of descanting perfectly may, with small trouble, quickly become a good musician. Morley, A Plain and Easy Introduction… (1597), 155.
The melodies and rhythms of strict, or “species” counterpoint, offer a serene and lucid source of material to work with in the pursuit of understanding basic musical concepts.
As you work in a simple two-voice texture with melodies reminiscent of those of the Renaissance, you will explore the nature of mode and key, of consonance and dissonance, balance, tension and climax, the relationship between rhythm and line, step and skip, drama and resolution.
Strict, or “species” counterpoint, provides a clear framework for the study of voice leading: the relationship between two or more voices. In strict counterpoint, we move from the simplest rhythmic relationship of note-against-note in the first species to the florid style of the fifth and final species, and through this orderly and systematic progression we develop an intimate knowledge of the processes by which voices or lines interact in the most natural, purposeful, and satisfying way, complementing and contrasting with one another.
In the first species of strict counterpoint, where each note in the cantus firmus, or underlying melody, is accompanied by a single note in the new contrapuntal line, we concentrate on consonant harmonic intervals and begin to develop a sense of melodic purpose.
The second species introduces the first category of harmonic dissonance in the form of the passing tone, and now for every note of the cantus firmus (except the last), two notes are used in the contrapuntal line.
The third species permits four notes against one, and consequently presents more complicated and challenging problems of creating a goal-directed line with increased possibilities for dissonant configurations.
Fourth species, like second species, permits two notes against one, but the suspension figure or syncope is the principal form of dissonance here.
Finally, in fifth species, mixed rhythmic values are encouraged in the contrapuntal line, with the added attraction of a few new types of embellishment and elaboration.
The systematic study of strict counterpoint is several centuries old. Mozart tutored the English composer Thomas Attwood in the elements of music between 1785 and 1787, from key signatures through strict counterpoint to free composition. Mozart himself, as well as Haydn, Beethoven, and countless other composers studied strict counterpoint in Johann Joseph Fux’s remarkable tutorial, Gradus ad Parnassum.
Why do we follow this centuries-old progression of study through the five species of strict counterpoint still, in the twenty-first century?
First and maybe most important, a person who devotes time and energy to this practice will reap an invaluable reward: the ability to hear and understand the delicate relationship between melody and harmony, line and interval. Species counterpoint is one of the great ear-training phenomena of all time.
Second, a thorough understanding of strict counterpoint, and of the application of the principles of strict counterpoint to “free” composition, is crucial for the development of musical instinct, as Felix Salzer and Carl Schachter point out in their classic text Counterpoint in Composition.
Species counterpoint, like the music of all periods and genres from the most ancient monophony to the music written for today’s concert halls and theaters, draws from a common gene pool of musical impulses and forces. In that shared source, music finds its codes for beginning and ending, conflict and resolution, drama, expressiveness, purpose, unity, and variety. Strict counterpoint provides a simple and uncluttered background in which familiarity with these basic forces can be fostered.
Through the writing, analysis, and singing of strict counterpoint, you will make these basic forces your own, and will learn to recognize them and recreate them in your own music and in the music of others.
Finally, strict counterpoint is simply fun. It is analogous, in a way, to an acrostic puzzle: the particular cantus firmus and the rules of each species provide clues to the completion of a musically satisfying solution.
Added to the challenge, of course, is the fact that every cantus firmus can be accompanied in more than one way, with lines written above or below it, perhaps in more than one species at a time. The possibilities are nearly infinite, and exploring those possibilities guarantees that ever more ingenious and felicitous solutions will result.
The discipline of strict counterpoint forms the foundation for more liberated compositional techniques and styles for four centuries. We will see that music from all stylistic periods owes a great deal to the five species of strict counterpoint.