Second Species Counterpoint

Philomathes: I would not have thought there had been such variety to be used upon so few notes... Master: There be many things which happen contrary to men's expectations, therefore yet once again try what you can do upon this plainsong... Morley, A Plaine and Easie Introduction... (1597), 152.


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Most of the principles of first species still apply here. In writing two notes in the line of counterpoint against each whole note in the cantus firmus, the first half note in each measure must be consonant.

Now, however, it is possible to introduce dissonance in the second half of the measure in the form of passing tones, and thereby the energy and tension of the line of counterpoint can be greatly enhanced.



It is still necessary to begin on a perfect consonance, but now the line of counterpoint may begin either on the first beat (example 1a), or it may begin with a half-note rest (example 1b). Beginning the line of counterpoint with a half-note rest encourages the sense of independence between the two lines.


Example 1a: begin on the beat 

Example 1b: begin in 2nd half of measure 

The counterpoint will end on the note an octave or unison away from the final note in the cantus firmus, as in first species, and the penultimate note must be the leading tone or seventh modal degree (example 2a).


Example 2a: ending the line of counterpoint 



Occasionally a whole note may be used in the line of counterpoint in the penultimate measure; in this case it will always be the leading tone or seventh modal degree (example 2b).


Example 2b: penultimate measure

Dissonant intervals, such as the 2nd, 4th, 7th, 9th, and tritone, can be used on the second half note of a measure if the line of counterpoint moves up or down by step from one consonance to another (example 3).


Example 3: dissonant passing tones

Such dissonances are called passing tones (P or PT). A passing tone is a stepwise connection between two other tones a third apart.



The neighbor note (N -- a stepwise connection between two instances of the same note) may be used if and only if it is consonant with the cantus firmus (example 4).


Example 4a: (consonant N)

Example 4b: (dissonant N)

Never let the line of counterpoint leap into or out of a dissonant interval, since this effectively leaves the dissonance hanging, unfulfilled and unresolved (example 5).


Example 5: dangling dissonance

Leaps greater than a 3rd which cross over the barline (from 2nd beat to the subsequent strong beat) are more problematic than leaps within the measure. The goal of the leap sounds as though it had been shot out of a cannon.

If you must leap over the barline, follow the leap with an immediate change of direction -- this will mitigate that dangling sensation.



Large leaps within the measure should also be followed with a change of direction ("recovered"). This keeps the line of counterpoint from extending its register too low or too high (example 6).


Example 6: recover your leaps

A large melodic interval (P5, major or minor 6th, or P8) can be broken into two smaller leaps; this is a useful technique for slowing down registral expansion.



A P5 can be traversed by using two consecutive leaps of a 3rd (example 7a); a 6th can be traversed by using two consecutive leaps of a 3rd and a P4, or a P4 and a 3rd (7b); and finally, a P8 can be traversed by leaping a P5 and a P4, or a P4 and a P5 (7c).


Example 7a: breaking up a 5th

Example 7b: breaking up a 6th 

Example 7c: breaking up an 8ve 


Any other combination of consecutive leaps (P4 + P4, 3rd + P5, for example) will result in a dissonant outline (7d), and is therefore forbidden. As always with leaps, all intervals formed against the cantus firmus must be consonant. When you use two smaller leaps to gain a larger interval, the first of the two leaps should not be recovered. Once the goal is reached, however, an immediate change of direction should occur.


Example 7d: breaking up a 7th -- don't do it

Directly adjacent (parallel) P5s and P8s are, as before, forbidden under any circumstances (example 8a). P5s and P8s on successive strong beats, mitigated by only one intervening half note, are to be strenuously avoided (8b). P5s and P8s on successive weak beats, however, are acceptable, as long as they do not form a sequence (8c).


Example 8a: parallel 8ves

Example 8b: strong-beat 8ves

Example 8c: weak-beat 8ves


The line of counterpoint may move by leap as long as both vertical intervals formed with the cantus firmus are consonant (example 9).


Example 9: leaps are entirely consonant

The unison can now be used, but only on the second half of the measure, in the middle of an exercise, and it must be left by step in the opposite direction from its approach (example 10a).


Example 10a: approaching and leaving a unison

If you leave it with a skip, it is as though the line of counterpoint has fallen temporarily into a black hole (example 10b).


Example 10b: the black hole

The leap of a P8 or an ascending m6 (never a descending 6th, nor an ascending M6, since these are relatively difficult to sing) will prove useful to change the counterpoint's register from time to time in these exercises, especially when the voices are getting too close together (example 11).

Example 11: the useful 8ve leap

As in 1st species counterpoint, the 2nd species counterpoint line should achieve a unique (unrepeated) climax which is not simultaneous with the high point of the cantus firmus.



It is always helpful to sketch in a possible climax when beginning to write the line of counterpoint; this will help to avoid such common problems as painting oneself into a registral corner (being too high or too low relative to the close of the exercise, with insufficient time to recover), and arriving at a climactic point on a weak beat.



Repeated notes (example 12a), tied notes (12b), sequences (12c), and repetitions of groups of notes (12d) are all off limits in 2nd species.


Example 12a: repeated notes

Example 12b: tied notes

Example 12c: sequence

Example 12d: note group repetition


To summarize, the second half note in the counterpoint has several functions: consonant (example 13a) and dissonant passing tone (13b); and to change register quickly within the measure (13c).


Example 13a: consonant P

Example 13b: dissonant P

Example 13c: change register


The second half note in the counterpoint can also be used to break a large leap into two smaller and less obtrusive ones (13d); and to avoid potential voice leading errors like parallel 5ths or 8ves (13e).


Example 13d: break up a big skip

Example 13e: break up parallels




First example

Second example


Third example

Fourth example


You will need manuscript paper to complete these exercises.


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

2. Describe and graph (or illustrate in notation) ascending and descending passing tones.

3. Print the four examples found directly above, and write the harmonic interval quantities between the staves for each example. Circle all dissonant harmonic intervals. Label passing tones with the letter "P" above the counterpoint note.

4. Add a line of second species counterpoint above and below cantus firmi chosen by your instructor. Circle all dissonant harmonic intervals, and label passing tones with the letter "P."


Copyright © 2001 Irene Girton