Species Counterpoint: 3rd species


The melody must be quiet and sure in its movement, so that it … knows where it is going and … [is not] wandering willy-nilly here and there. Jeppesen, Counterpoint: The Polyphonic Vocal Style of the Sixteenth Century (1939), 109.

Third species counterpoint is all about flourishes and frippery: passing tones, neighbor notes, the nota cambiata, the escape tone…a treasure chest of embellishments. Control is still the name of the game, however; don’t get carried away just yet!

In 3rd species, the line of counterpoint may either begin on the first quarter note of the measure, or it may begin with a quarter note rest. In either case, the first interval formed against the CF must be one of the same perfect consonances used in both 1st and 2nd species (example 1).

The penultimate note in the line of counterpoint must be the fourth quarter in the penultimate measure and, as always, this note will be the leading tone or seventh modal degree (example 2).

The interval on the first quarter note in the measure is always consonant, and the third quarter is usually consonant, while the second and fourth notes may be dissonant (example 3).

The third quarter note may be dissonant if the other three are consonant (example 4).

In such cases as the following, where each quarter note in the measure moves by step to the next, it is possible to have a dissonance on both the second and third quarter notes (this figure is called the “double passing tone“) (example 5).

The unison may now be used in the body of the exercise on any quarter except the first (it may also be the first and/or last interval in the exercise with the lower counterpoint, as before). The dissonant neighbor note (N) may now be used in 3rd species (recall that the consonant neighbor note was permitted in second species) (example 6).

The double neighbor figure (DN) may also be used, and this will sometimes result in a (legal) leap from a dissonance. This 5-note figure (original tone, N1, N2, original tone, continuation) sounds best if it begins on the first beat of the measure, and if the upper neighbor precedes the lower. Follow the 4th tone of the figure with a stepwise progression in the same direction as that of the last two notes (example 7).

Be careful with neighbor notes, both single and double. They are useful for slowing down the flow of the counterpoint, but if they are overused, the result will be an aimlessly meandering line, which runs the risk of inducing terminal ennui in the listener.  The only other case (besides the double neighbor) in which one may leap from a dissonance is that of the so-called nota cambiata (cambiata, or NC) — example 8.

In example 8, all of the notes of the melody’s cambiata are consonant with the CF, with the exception of the second note, which may be dissonant. The dissonant note is followed by a leap of a third continuing the direction of the first two notes, after which the melody reverses direction up to the note which was, in effect, skipped.

The nota cambiata really consists of two passing motions, as shown in example 9, and therefore must have five notes; the first, third, and fifth intervals formed against the CF must be consonant, while the second and fourth intervals may be dissonant (example 9).

In addition, it is wise to remember that there are only two possible starting intervals for an upper counterpoint NC, and two for the lower counterpoint as well: the upper counterpoint’s NC may begin either with the interval of an 8ve or a 6th above the CF, and the lower counterpoint’s NC may begin either with the interval of a 5th or a 3rd below the CF. 

The inverted NC, although rare, may also be used. It may begin on a 3rd or a 5th in the upper counterpoint, or on an 8ve or 6th for a lower counterpoint (example 10).

The NC usually starts on the first beat of the measure, but it can also start on the third beat (example 11).

P5s and P8s that occur against two different notes of the CF should be separated by at least two quarter notes (three intervening quarter notes are even better) (example 12).

P5s or P8s with only one intervening quarter note occurring within a measure (i.e., over the same CF note) are fine (example 13).

Avoid having more than two consecutive strong-beat 5ths or 8ves (example 14).

Although two consecutive leaps of a third in the same direction may be used occasionally, full-octave arpeggiations should be avoided, since they break up the line and are not, in these relatively rapid note values, truly a vocal idiom (example 15).

Embellishing tones (consonant skips with a return to the original note), are very useful in 3rd species. This 3-note figure (original note, embellishing tone, original note) can begin on the first, second, or third beats in the measure. The embellishing tone must form a consonant interval against the CF, and should not be further than a P4 away from the original note (example 16a).

The ordinary consonant skip or CS (not including a return to the initial tone in the leaping pair) is analogous to the leap of second species, and is still useful in 3rd species. Remember that leaps of a P4 or greater should be followed by a return in the opposite direction (16b).

Use large leaps (leaps greater than a P4) with restraint and taste, as always. The shorter the note value, the more difficult it is to sing large leaps.  You should also try to avoid using two consecutive leaps in the same direction unless they are both 3rds, since with the short note values of 3rd species, such progressions will tend to travel too far in too short a time. Remember to fill in the “holes” left in the counterpoint by leaps with conjunct motion in the opposite direction (example 17).

As a rule, the same melodic pattern should not be used twice in a row during the course of an exercise, unless it is simply a stepwise pattern (example 18).

Since there are so many notes of equal value in this species, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of direction and purpose in the line. The student should sketch a solution for the line of counterpoint, including a possible climax on a strong quarter (first or third), and the last two or three measures. Here are a few examples of the unhappy Attwood’s attempts at 3rd species; this time he doesn’t even wait for Mozart to excoriate his work, but instead he himself calls it “bad,” in four languages (example 19).

Here is a summary of the categories of dissonance and embellishment which are now available to you:

1) Passing tone (P): a three-note stepwise figure spanning the melodic interval of a 3rd, moving completely in one direction; first and last intervals must be consonant. See examples 3-4.

2) Double passing tones (P P): a four-note stepwise figure spanning the melodic interval of a 4th, moving completely in one direction; first and last intervals must be consonant. See example 5.

3) Complete upper and lower neighbor note (UN, LN): a three-note stepwise figure leaving and returning to the same note, moving up by step, then returning down by step (UN), or the reverse — moving down by step, then returning up by step (LN); first and last intervals must be consonant with the CF. See example 6.

4) Double neighbor notes (DN): a four-note figure which begins and ends on the same note.

Profile: stable tone, UN, LN, return to stable tone. LN may precede UN in this figure, but this is less common than UN followed by LN. There is a leap of a 3rd between the two neighbors. See example 7.

5) Nota cambiata (cambiata or NC): a five-note figure embellishing a stepwise progression from beat 1 (or 3) to the next beat 1 (or 3). The NC’s normal contour moves down a step, down a 3rd, up a step, up another step. If the NC is inverted (which is rare), the contour is up a step, up a 3rd, down a step, down another step. The 1st, 3rd, and 5th intervals in this five-note idiom must be consonant with the CF. See examples 8-11.

6) Embellishing tones and consonant skips: embellishing tones are consonant melodic skips which leave and return to the same note (similar to neighbor notes in that regard).

Consonant skips can be used to relieve stepwise motion and to break up larger skips. The skip itself, and the intervals formed at the beginning and the end of the skip, must all be consonant with the CF. See examples 16a and 16b.

Here are four examples of third species counterpoint for your review. Identify each example’s mode, write the vertical intervals between the staves (numbers only, not qualities), identify the types of melodic behavior (P, N, etc.), 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.

Third species EXERCISES:

1) What are the basic characteristics of 3rd species counterpoint? Consider rhythm, melodic behavior, and harmonic behavior (the behavior exhibited by the two parts together).

2) Describe and graph (or illustrate in two-part notation) upper and lower neighbor notes, double neighbor notes, the nota cambiata in its normal and its inverted form, and double passing tones. Indicate consonant and dissonant parts of each figure with the letters “C” and “D” (or “C/D” where either a consonance or a dissonance is acceptable).

3) Write the harmonic interval quantities between the staves for all of the 3rd species examples at the end of the chapter, and circle all dissonant harmonic intervals. Indicate which type of dissonance is used (“UN,” “LN,” “DN,” “nc”, “P”) above the counterpoint note or notes involved. 

4) Add a line of 3rd species counterpoint above and below CFs chosen by your instructor. Circle all dissonant harmonic intervals, and label all dissonant figures with the appropriate abbreviation.

Onward to 4th species!… or maybe 5th?