Species Counterpoint: 4th species


Master: …music was devised to content and not offend the ear… …the mark whereat every skilful musician doth shoot..is to show cunning with delightfulness and pleasure. Morley, A Plain and Easy Introduction..(1597), 160 and 220.

In 4th species, the line of counterpoint moves in half notes against the whole notes of the CF, but unlike second species, the object of this species is to create as many suspensions as possible against the CF. A suspension consists of a preparation (P), which must be consonant against the CF, a strong-beat suspension (S), which is usually dissonant, and a consonant resolution (R) (example 1).

Thus in 4th species it is possible for the first time to have dissonance on the first part of the measure, as long as the dissonance is properly prepared and resolved. The second half of the measure must always contain a consonant interval in fourth species.

The suspensions used in these exercises will usually resolve down, by step, to a consonance (examples 2a and 2b).

The only exceptions to this would be (a) the consonant 5 – 6 suspension, which resolves up from the suspended note when the counterpoint is in the upper voice (example 3a); and (b) occasions when a consonant suspension is departed by skip (example 3b). Remember, though, that all dissonant suspensions must be resolved down, by step.

In the event that a consonant suspension is departed by leap, the goal of the leap must, of course, also form a consonant interval with the CF.

Example 4a illustrates an illegal skip to a dissonant interval; example 4b corrects this awkward line.

The following example, from Thomas Attwood’s studies with Mozart, shows the appropriate treatment for both consonant and dissonant suspensions (“concords” and “discords” in Attwood’s 18th-century terms) (examples 5a and 5b).

The 4th species exercise begins with a half-note rest, after which the line of counterpoint enters at one of the acceptable initial intervals from the CF (P5, P8, or P12 for upper counterpoint, P1 (unison) or P8 for lower counterpoint). 

The upper-voice counterpoint exercise always ends with a 7 – 6 suspension in the penultimate measure leading to a final whole-note P8 in the final measure (example 6a), or — lower-voice counterpoint — with a 2 – 3 (or 9 – 10) suspension in the penultimate measure leading to a whole-note P1 or P8 in the final measure (examples 6b and 6c).

You should use as many dissonant suspensions as possible, especially those which resolve to imperfect, rather than perfect, consonant intervals.

The most desirable and best-sounding suspensions are the 7 – 6 and the 4 – 3 (or 11-10) suspensions in the upper voice (example 7a), and the 2 – 3 (or 9 – 10) suspension in the lower voice (example 7b).

The upper-voice 2 – 1 and 9 – 8 suspensions should be used much less frequently, since they sound rather hollow and leave the impression (as always with octaves and, especially, unisons) that the texture has been cut in half with one voice absorbed into the other (example 8). 

The lower-voice 4 – 5 suspension should be used very rarely. Its use is only really justifiable if it is part of a series of suspensions (example 9a). The lower-voice 7 – 8 suspension should not be used at all (9b).

An excellent rule of thumb for 4th species counterpoint comes from J. J. Fux: the counterpoint should “sound well even if the retardations or ligatures [suspensions] are removed…” The following example shows how a pair of 9 – 8 suspensions (example 10a) creates parallel octaves when the suspensions are removed and the rhythm is normalized (example 10b).

The syncopation that characterizes 4th species counterpoint means that the principal type of motion between the two voices is oblique. The CF moves to a new note on the first beat of each measure, while the line of counterpoint is usually suspended over the barline, moving to a new note only on the second beat of each measure.

As you can see, directly adjacent (parallel) 5ths and 8ves are most unlikely in this species. However, 8ves and 5ths will occasionally occur with one intervening interval (near-parallel 8ves and 5ths).

When the intervening interval is dissonant, the effect is of thinly disguised parallels, and this is of course unstylistic (example 11a). Intervalic progressions like 8 | 9-85 | 4-51 | 2-1; and 8 | 7-8 are examples of this kind of situation,  If the intervening interval is an imperfect consonance, however, the perfect intervals on either side of it lose some of their power and the effect is much less problematic. Therefore, two identical perfect intervals should be interrupted by an imperfect consonance, not a dissonance (11b).

Occasionally it will be necessary or desirable to “break species,” or to refrain, temporarily, from using suspensions. In example 12a, by J. J. Fux, species is “broken” in mm. 5-6 in order to avoid a “bad repetition,” as Fux’s character Joseph says (example 12a). If the counterpoint had contained suspensions in those measures, they would have had to be identical to the suspensions in mm. 2-3 (example 12b).

Certain types of CF, if accompanied relentlessly by suspensions, will encourage the creation a line of counterpoint with no curve or character whatsoever, a line that does nothing but descend mindlessly to its inevitable conclusion (example 13). The following problematic example (example 13a), and two solutions to the problem (13b-c), reveal another reason to break species. 

There is one more reason for breaking species: to avoid a dull and lengthy series of the same suspension type (i.e., more than three repetitions of a suspension type). Example 14a shows a chain of five 7- 6 suspensions in a row, while example 14b shows one way of breaking that chain with a greater variety of intervallic progressions.

To summarize, then, the only good reasons for breaking species are:

1) To avoid a voice-leading error, like near-parallel 8ves or 5ths (see examples 10 and 11);

2) To avoid a limp, aimless, and uninteresting descending line (see example 13a); and

3) To avoid creating a lengthy and tedious series of the same suspension type (see example 14).

Try to avoid breaking species; it’s a lazy way out of a challenging situation. Often a consonant suspension will solve your problem as readily as breaking species would. The essence of 4th species is the suspension, and its resultant syncopation — resist the temptation to break species whenever you can.

These are the best (and only legal) dissonant suspensions

Upper voice against the CF: 7-6, 4-3, and (rarely) 9-8 Lower voice against the CF: 2-3, 9-10, and (rarely) 4-5

Here are four examples of 4th 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.

Fourth species EXERCISES:

1) What are the basic characteristics of 4th 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) consonant and dissonant suspension figures in both upper and lower voices. Indicate consonant and dissonant parts of the suspension with the letters “C” and “D.”

3) Are suspensions which resolve to perfect consonances more or less common than suspensions which resolve to imperfect consonances?

4) Write the harmonic interval quantities between the staves for all of the 4th species examples at the end of the chapter, and circle all dissonant harmonic intervals. Indicate which type of dissonance is used (“S,” “P”) above the counterpoint note or notes involved.

5) Add a line of 4th species counterpoint above and below CFs chosen by your instructor. Circle all dissonant harmonic intervals, and label all dissonant figures with the appropriate abbreviation. Remember to have a suspension into the second and in the penultimate measure wherever possible.

Onward to 5th species and quasi-freedom at last!