Fourth Species Counterpoint

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


  You'll need the Quicktime Player application from Apple Computer to play these examples. Click here to download this free player.

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


Example 1: the suspension figure

Thus in fourth 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).


Example 2a     Example 2b

The only exceptions to this would be the consonant suspension 5 - 6, which resolves up from the suspended note when the counterpoint is in the upper voice (example 3a) and occasions when a consonant suspension is departed by skip (example 3b).


Example 3a: ascending 5 - 6 sus

Example 3b: cons sus left by skip

Remember, though, that all dissonant suspensions must be resolved down by step.



If a consonant suspension is left by leap, the goal of the leap must also form a consonant interval with the cantus firmus.



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


Example 4a: bad!    Example 4b: better

These examples, from Thomas Attwood's studies with Mozart, show the appropriate treatment for both consonant and dissonant suspensions ("concords" and "discords" in Attwood's 18th-century terms).




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



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


Example 6a: ending the top line of counterpoint

Example 6b: ending the bottom line of counterpoint

Example 6c: another ending for the bottom line

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 suspensions in the upper voice (example 7a), and the 2 - 3 or 9 - 10 suspension in the lower voice (example 7b).


Example 7a: good upper-voice suspensions

Example 7b: good lower-voice suspensions

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).


Example 8a: 2-1 suspensions

Example 8b: 9-8 suspensions

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).


Example 9a: 4-5 in a series

Example 9b: 7-8 -- no good

An excellent rule of thumb for fourth 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).


Example 10a: two 9-8's in a row

Example 10b: the same passage without suspensions

The syncopation that characterizes fourth species means that the principal type of motion between the two voices is oblique (the cantus firmus 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).



Because of this oblique motion, 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 a dissonance (intervallic progressions like 8 9-8; 5 4-5; 1 2-1; and 8 7-8 are examples of this kind of situation), the effect is of thinly disguised parallels, and this is of course unpalatable (example 11a).


Example 11a: a nasty set of suspensions

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).


Example 11b: a better solution

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).


Example 12a: breaking species

Example 12b: tiresome repetition without breaking species

The following problematic example (example 13a), and two solutions to the problem (13b-c), reveal another reason to break species.


Example 13a: tedium

Example 13b: a solution Example 13c: another solution

Certain types of cantus firmus, 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 13a).


Example 13a: tedium redux

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, while example 14b shows one way of breaking that chain with a greater variety of intervallic progressions.


Example 14a: chain of suspensions

Example 14b: more variety

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 10a 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 14a).

Try to avoid breaking species -- it can turn into the weakling's way out of a challenging situation. Often a consonant suspension will solve your problem as handily as breaking species would. The essence of fourth species is the suspension, and its resultant syncopation. Resist the temptation to break species whenever you can.



The Best (and only legal) Dissonant Suspensions

Upper voice: 7-6, 4-3, and (rarely) 9-8

Lower voice: 2-3, 9-10, and (rarely) 4-5






First example

Second example

Third example

Fourth example


You will need manuscript paper to complete these exercises.

1. What are the basic characteristics of fourth 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. Print the four examples found directly above, and write the harmonic interval quantities between the staves for each example. 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 fourth 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. Remember to have a suspension into the second and in the penultimate measure wherever possible.


Copyright © 2001 Irene Girton