First Species Counterpoint

FIRST 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.


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The first species of counterpoint involves writing a new melody above or below the cantus firmus, with one note in the counterpoint for every note of the cantus firmus.



Both voices, counterpoint and cantus firmus, should move mostly by step with a few leaps, and should be as natural and effortless to sing as possible. To achieve this, do all your work away from the piano 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 cantus firmi can be transposed to any key to suit the range of any voice.



The line of counterpoint should be written for an adjacent voice; that is, if the cantus firmus 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 cantus firmus, you should absorb thoroughly the essence of the cantus firmus by studying it, singing it, and playing it. Learn its curves, its directions, its goals.


Example 1: vocal ranges.

The line of counterpoint must be compatible with the cantus firmus, but it must also maintain its independence from it.



This species is written in whole notes, like the cantus firmus.



The line of counterpoint begins on a P5, P8, or P12 if it is above the cantus firmus (example 2a), and on a P1 or P8 if it is below the cantus firmus (example 2b).

The lower counterpoint cannot begin a P5 below the cantus firmus (while the upper counterpoint can), 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.

The unison (P1) should only be used 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.

The penultimate 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 cantus firmus. Thus, the final two intervals will always be 6th - 8ve when the counterpoint is in the upper voice, and 3rd - P1 or 10th - 8ve when the counterpoint is in the lower voice (example 3).


Example 2a: beginning the upper counterpoint 

Example 2b: beginning the lower counterpoint 








Example 3a: ending the upper counterpoint 

Example 3b: ending the lower counterpoint 


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 degree chromatically. However, this artificial leading tone should be used only in the penultimate measure. Use the diatonic form of the scale or mode 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.

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 leading tone on the 7th modal degree at all.


Example 4a: the augmented 2nd

Example 4b: the chromatic half-step






Unlike the cantus firmus, 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 (too much pitch-centeredness may result otherwise). Neither should there be more than two ties in the same exercise (only one for cantus firmi which are ten notes in length or shorter), since the result is stasis in the affected voice (example 5).




Example 5: too many ties

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, P12 (rare), M3, m3, M6, m6, and M10 and m10. Under exceptional circumstances, 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, since any more than this runs the risk of inducing a somnolent daze in the listener (example 6).





Example 6: boring... too many 6ths 

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.


Example 6 again

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).


Example 7: the dreaded cross-relation

There are four types of motion by which one 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 (example 8a).

In similar motion, both voices simply move in the same direction (example 8b).





Example 8a: parallel motion

Example 8b: similar motion

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.


Example 9: oblique and contrary motion



Parallel perfect intervals (P1s, P5s, P8s, and P12s) are forbidden at all times (example 10a). These intervallic progressions destroy utterly any sense of independence between lines. Parallel unisons are the worst offenders in this regard, 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 (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).


Example 10a: parallel 5ths and 8ves




Example 10b: hidden 5ths

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).


Example 11: approaching perfect consonances

When both voices move by contrary motion and by leap into a perfect consonance, they create so-called "beaten" 5ths or 8ves (quinta battuta, ottava battuta) (example 12). These progressions should be avoided.


Example 12: beaten 5ths

Avoid simultaneous leaps (leaps in both the cantus firmus 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.


Example 13a: leaps in similar motion


Example 13b: voice crossing

Example 13c: voice crossing





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: "You are an ass"



The principles governing the melodic possibilities of the cantus firmus 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. Its climax should not be simultaneous with the climax in the cantus firmus.



Finally, so that the cantus firmus presents a smooth, unbroken, musically self-contained profile, "for every note x of the counterpoint line lying above (below) the cadence tone, some note lying one step lower (higher) than x must appear in the line at some point subsequent to x."

In other words, by the time the exercise is completed, all spaces in the line of counterpoint which have been left open by leaps must be filled in -- the linear fabric must be seamless and intact.



First example

Second example


Third example

Fourth example


You will need manuscript paper to complete these 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. Print the four examples found directly above, and write the harmonic interval quantities between the staves for each example.

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

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

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

7. Add a line of first species counterpoint above and below cantus firmi chosen by your instructor.


Copyright © 2004 Irene Girton