Species Counterpoint: 1st species


Josephus: Now will you tell me also — if you do not mind — what is meant by this first species of counterpoint, note against note? Aloysius: I shall explain it to you. Fux, Gradus ad Parnassum (1725), 27.

The first species of counterpoint involves writing a new melody above or below the cantus firmus (CF), with one note in the counterpoint for every note of the CF. Both voices, counterpoint and CF, should move mostly by step with a few leaps, and should be as natural and effortless to sing as possible. To achieve this, work away from the piano (or any instrument but your own ears) at first. Sing everything you write, and use the keyboard only for final testing and correction.

Each line should be written with a specific vocal range in mind. The CFs can be transposed to any key to suit the range of any voice. The line of 1st species counterpoint should be written for an adjacent voice; that is, if the CF is in the alto, the line of counterpoint can be written for either soprano or tenor (example 1).

Before adding a line of counterpoint to the CF, you should absorb thoroughly the essence of the CF by studying it, singing it, and playing it. Learn its curves, its directions, its goals. The line of 1st species counterpoint must be compatible with the CF, but it must also maintain its independence from it. 

This species is written in whole notes, like the CF. The line of counterpoint may begin a P5, P8, or even P12 above the CF (example 2a), or on a P1 or P8 below the CF (example 2b).

The lower counterpoint cannot begin a P5 below the CF (although the upper counterpoint can begin a P5 above the CF), because of the modal or tonal confusion that would result. The P5’s root has an irresistible tendency to imply a particular mode or key; thus, its use in the lower counterpoint at the beginning of the exercise would suggest that the final or tonic were, in fact, a P5 lower than it should be. To test this assertion for yourself, play a P5 (both notes simultaneously), and then sing what you believe to be the tonic of the key (or final of the mode) suggested by that interval. It’s most likely that you’ll hear/sing the lower note of the P5 as the tonic or final — okay for upper counterpoint, but not for the lower counterpoint.

The unison should only be employed on the last interval (with the upper counterpoint), and on the first and last intervals (lower counterpoint). The P1 is never permitted in the middle of the exercise, since this would create the impression that one voice had suddenly disappeared into a black hole. 

The penultimate (next-to-last) note of the line of counterpoint must be the leading tone (or the 7th degree of the mode), and the final note must be the tonic whether it is above or below the CF. Thus, the final two intervals will always be 6 – 8 (6th – 8ve) when the counterpoint is in the upper voice, and 3 – 1 or 10 – 8 when the counterpoint is in the lower voice (example 3). 

In those modes which lack a natural leading tone, like Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian, a leading tone can be created by raising the mode’s 7th note chromatically. However, this artificial leading tone should be used only in the penultimate measure. The diatonic form of the scale or mode will be used in all other parts of the exercise. 

The reason for this restriction is twofold: first, it is desirable to foster a sense of true modality in species counterpoint, and this can be achieved by maintaining the diatonic integrity of the modes; and second, the leading tone is a note filled with tension and expectation for its release into the tonic degree, and therefore, if its use is not restricted the entire brief exercise will be filled with unbalanced and overwrought intensity.

In approaching the leading tone, the augmented second (A2) and the chromatic half-step are not to be used (example 4).

The Phrygian mode is a special case. Although it lacks a natural leading tone just as the Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian modes do, it contains a sort of upper leading tone in its 2nd note — a note one half-step above the mode’s tonic, or final, rather than below it. This upper “leading tone” is one of the Phrygian mode’s distinctive characteristics. Because of it, and the tension that it creates, this mode doesn’t need a lower leading tone at all. 

Unlike the CF, an occasional tied note can be used in the line of counterpoint. Be aware, though, that you should avoid tying the same note twice in the same exercise (since too much pitch-centeredness may result), and neither should there be more than two ties in the same exercise (only one for CFs ten notes long or shorter), since the result is stasis in the affected voice (example 5).

The following harmonic (vertical) intervals are permitted between the two lines: P1 (restricted to the first and last interval of the exercise (lower counterpoint only), P5, P8, and (rarely) P12, M3, m3, M6, m6, and M10 and m10. Very occasionally, the compound 6th (M13 and m13) may be used. These are all consonant intervals. All other vertical intervals are dissonant, and may not be used in first species. 

[Please note: the P4 is classified as a vertical dissonance in two-part counterpoint, even though it is the inversion of a consonant interval, the P5. It may always be used as a horizontal, or melodic, interval, however.]

The so-called imperfect consonances (3rds and 6ths, both major and minor, and their compounds), should be used more often than the perfect consonances in the middle of an exercise. This is because the perfect intervals are so stable and so strong that they have a tendency to impede the flow of the exercise with their purity. No more than three imperfect consonances of the same type (3-3-3, 6-6-6, e.g.) should be used in succession. Any more than this runs the risk of inducing a somnolent daze in the listener (example 6).

Example 6 contains still another flaw: notice the extremely limited range of the last seven notes in the line of counterpoint. This kind of aimless meandering should be avoided at all costs. The line of counterpoint should have energy and purpose, shape and grace. This line falls flat after the first few measures and is never able to recover its momentum. Sing it for yourself — you’ll feel the line’s flabby aimlessness.

The two voices should rarely be more than a 10th apart; extreme separation between voice parts is not characteristic of species counterpoint. The cross-relation (following a diatonic pitch in one voice with its chromatic variant in another, or vice versa) is forbidden (example 7).

There are four types of motion by which the voices may progress from one interval to another: parallel, similar, oblique, and contrary. In parallel motion, both voices move in the same direction by the same melodic interval. In similar motion, both voices simply move in the same direction (example 8). 

In oblique motion, one voice moves while the other is stationary. In contrary motion, the voices move in opposite directions (example 9).

Of these four types of motion, contrary motion is best, since it fosters the greatest sense of independence between lines, and should be used more often than the other three types.

The use of parallel perfect intervals (P1s, P5s, P8s, and P12s) are forbidden at all times (example 10a). These intervalic progressions destroy utterly any sense of independence between lines (obviously, parallel unisons are the worst offenders in this regarded, followed closely by parallel 8ves and parallel 5ths).

Direct or hidden 5ths and 8ves (approaching a 5th or 8ve by similar motion) are also forbidden in two voices (example 10b), because of the “hidden” 5ths or 8ves that they produce. (These progressions will be permitted in textures of more than 2 voices, however.) 

Perfect consonances must be approached either by oblique motion, or by contrary motion. In the latter instance, one voice (usually the upper voice) will generally move by step (example 11).

Progressions such as the following, in which both voices move by contrary motion and by leap into a perfect consonance, should be avoided. These are called “beaten” 5ths or 8ves (quinta battuta, ottava battuta) (example 12). 

Avoid simultaneous leaps (leaps in both the CF and the line of counterpoint at the same time) in the same direction when possible, especially large leaps (equal to or greater than a P4). See example 13a.

Voice-crossing (example 13b), a situation in which the higher voice drops below the lower voice, or vice versa, is also undesirable, as is overlapping (example 13c).

In overlapping, the lower voice moves to a pitch higher than the previous location of the upper voice, or vice versa. In the case of both voice-crossing and overlapping, a line’s very identity is called into question, since it is unclear which voice is the higher and which the lower under such conditions. 

As a cautionary example that reveals the importance of familiarity with the “C” clefs, look at Thomas Attwood’s performance one day under Mozart’s tutelage, and most particularly, note Mozart’s response to Attwood’s unimpressive work (example 14). 

The principles governing the melodic possibilities of the CF generally apply equally to the line of counterpoint, especially with regard to the melodic intervals permitted. The added part should be as beautiful and as independent as possible. It should have a climax which should not be simultaneous with the climax in the CF.

Finally, so that the CF presents a smooth, unbroken, musically self-contained profile, all spaces in the line of counterpoint which have been left open by leaps (larger than a 3rd) should be filled in.

Here are a few examples of first species counterpoint for your review. Fiddle around with these: identify each example’s mode, write the vertical intervals between the staves (numbers only, not qualities), play one line and sing the other, switching parts in order to gain full fluency in the reading of each clef, and to get personal experience with the elegance of simple melodic lines.

Note: The third example has an issue with the climax — contemplate and discuss.

First species EXERCISES:

1) What are the basic characteristics of first species counterpoint? Consider rhythm, melodic behavior, and harmonic behavior (the behavior exhibited by the two parts together).

2) Name the perfect and imperfect consonant intervals. 

3) Write 5 perfect consonances above and below a chosen pitch; then write 5 imperfect consonances above and below the same pitch. 

4) Write 5 dissonant intervals above and below a chosen pitch.

5) Describe and illustrate parallel 8ves, 5ths, unisons; and hidden 8ves, 5ths, and unisons. 

6) Add a line of first species counterpoint above and below cantus firmi chosen by your instructor. Be sure to write all harmonic (vertical) interval quantities between the two staves.

7) For extra practice (and maybe extra credit, depending on your instructor’s disposition), transcribe some or all of the Attwood/Mozart example above, noting the places where poor Attwood got his clefs (and his intervals) so wrong.

Onward to 2nd species!