Third Species Counterpoint

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 (1939), 109.


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In third 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 must be one of the same perfect consonances used in both first and second species (example 1).

Example 1a: begin on the beat, upper voice

Example 1b: begin on 2nd quarter, upper voice

Example 1c: begin on 2nd quarter, upper voice

Example 1d: begin on 1st beat, lower voice

Example 1e: begin on 2nd quarter, lower voice 

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).

Example 2a: endings, upper voice 

Example 2b: endings, lower voice

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).

Example 3a: 2nd-beat dissonance  

Example 3b: 4th-beat dissonance

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

Example 4a: 3rd-beat dissonance, upper voice

Example 4b: 3rd-beat dissonance, lower voice

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).

Example 5a: double P, upper voice 

Example 5b: double P, lower voice 

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 may now be used in third species (recall that the consonant neighbor note was permitted in second species) (example 6).

Example 6a: diss N, upper voice 

Example 6b: diss N, lower voice 

The double neighbor figure 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).

Example 7a: double N, upper voice 

Example 7b: double N, good contour 

Example 7c: double N, less appealing 

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 (example 8).

Example 8a: nota cambiata, upper voice 

Example 8b: nota cambiata, lower voice 

In example 8, all of the notes of the nota cambiata are consonant with the cantus firmus, with the exception of the second note, which may be dissonant. The dissonant note is followed by a leap of a third, after which the melody moves 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 cantus firmus must be consonant, while the second and fourth intervals may be dissonant (example 9).

Example 9: nota cambiata, clarified 

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


The inverted nota cambiata, 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).

Example 10: nota cambiata, inverted 

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

Example 11: nota cambiata from 3rd beat 

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

Example 12a: not enough room between 5ths 

Example 12b: better 

Example 12c: best 

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

Example 13a: these 8ves are okay 

Example 13b: so are these 8ves 

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

Example 14a: two many strong-beat 8ves 

Example 14b: better 

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).

Example 15a: avoid big arpeggios 

Example 15b: here's another example 

Embellishing tones (consonant skips with a return to the original note), are very useful in third 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).

Example 16a: embellishing tone 

The ordinary consonant skip (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 third species. Remember that leaps of a P4 or greater should be followed by a return in the opposite direction (16b).

Example 16b: consonant skip 

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 -- with the short note values of third species, such progressions 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).

Example 17a: leaps which "dangle" 





Example 17b: the "holes" are filled in 

As a rule, the same melodic pattern should not be used twice in a row during the course of an exercise. Such pattern repetition is called a "sequence."

Example 18: sequences 

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 third 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).

Example 19: "Schlecht" 

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

6) Embellishing tones and consonant skips: embellishing tones are consonant 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. See examples 16a and 16b.



First example 

Second example  

Third example 

Fourth example  


You will need manuscript paper to complete these exercises.


1. What are the basic characteristics of third 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. Print the four examples found directly above. Now write the harmonic interval quantities between the staves for each example. 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 third species counterpoint above and below cantus firmi chosen by your instructor. Circle all dissonant harmonic intervals, and label all dissonant figures with the appropriate abbreviation.


Copyright © 2003 Irene Girton