II. Counterpoint

Sixteenth Century Contrapuntal Style

Mark Gotham

Key Takeaways

  • The sixteenth century contrapuntal style is related – but not identical – to the principles outlined in species counterpoint.
  • This chapter sets out some key principles and practice exercises especially for .

The sixteenth century contrapuntal style has historically enjoyed a prominent position in the teaching of music theory. ‘Pastiche’ or ‘counterfactual’ composition of sixteenth century imitative choral polyphony (especially in the style of Palestrina) has frequently appeared in curricula and sometimes conflated with the later, 18th Century notion of ‘species counterpoint’ which we met in the previous chapters. This chapter sets out some rules of thumb to bear in mind when completing style-composition exercises based on this repertoire where you are given a partial score to complete. At the end, you’ll find a couple of example exercise in this format.


Imitation sees two or more parts enter separately with (versions of) the same melody. This is a common practice in sixteenth century contrapuntal music, particularly for beginning whole movements and large sections in those movements (with the introduction of a new line of text of instance). You might think of it as a precursor to the later fugue (which we’ll return to in the High Baroque Fugal Exposition chapter).

  • Identify (potential) points of imitation: in any given part, look for changes of text (often preceded by a comma or rest), and particularly any repetition of text with same music.
  • Pitch interval: the intervals between imitative parts at the start of a section or movement are usually perfect fifth (/ fourth) or octave (/ unison). That said, others are eminently possible, especially later in the movement. Note that we are talking about the primary corresponding interval between the parts and not necessarily the very first pitch. We sometimes see examples of the ‘tonal answer’ typical of the later high-Baroque fugue (about which see more in the next chapter).
  • Meter: Imitate at metrically comparable positions (strong beat → strong beat; weak beat → weak beat).
  • When working out what imitative relationships will work, try out all options in both directions, including where this means eliding apparently separate sections.
  • Make sure there is meaningful overlap between consecutively entering imitative parts. To achieve that, shorter points of imitation may require correspondingly shorter intervals between entering parts.
  • Consider how much of the point to imitate. How much has been repeated exactly in any given part?
  • Consider how closely to imitate the point. Try to preserve at least the rhythm, and distinctive intervals / contour / shape of the point’s opening.
  • Remember that phrases and sections can overlap, even at strong cadences.


  • Contrary motion predominates between parts (partly to maintain independence of lines).
    • Avoid too much parallel writing even of permitted intervals (though the exceptional case of the ‘fauxbourdon’ parallel 6/3s).
  • Conjunct motion predominates within parts
    • Approach the final by step (in most parts).
    • Raise the leading note when approaching the final from below (in most modal contexts, though not Phrygian).
  • Melodic intervals:
    • 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, and octave are all permitted;
    • The status of 6ths is more complex. Rising minor 6ths are used fairly freely (814 times in the Palestrina masses); rising major 6ths are rarer (54 times), and descending 6ths are extremely rare (7 descending minor, 1 single case of descending major);
    • 7ths and tritones are avoided. Do not even outline these intervals with successive leaps or by the boundaries (high and low points) of a melodic gesture;
    • Successive leaps in the same direction are generally avoided. If you do have such successive leaps, then position the larger leap lower (first when rising, second when descending);
    • Large leaps are to be followed (and often preceded) by motion in the opposite direction. This is connected both to the idea of ‘gap-fill’ and regression to middle of the tessitura;
    • Avoid ‘triadic’ writing like the ‘arpeggiation’ of ‘chords’.
  • Contour: The arch shape is common for melodies (what goes up must come down!);
  • Range per part: The octave is a useful, notional default that is also connected to ideas about modal identity (see ‘plagal’ versus ‘authentic’ modes). In practice, parts more often span a slightly wider range of 14 semitones. Extremely few parts exceed the twelfth (octave plus fifth), so take that as a notional maximum.
  • Common melodic devices:
    • Suspensions: Suspended notes are to be ‘prepared’ as a consonance on a weak metrical tied to a dissonance (on a strong position) and resolved by moving the suspended, dissonant part down a step. For 7-6 and 4-3 suspensions, this involves dissonance in the upper voice; for 2-3 suspension the dissonance is in the lower voice (as an inversion of 7-6);
    • While not a suspension, the oblique motion from 5th to 6th is also common;
    • Decorations at the end of a phrase are more common than at the beginning.

Rhythm and Meter

  • While notationally anachronistic, metrical thinking is abundantly clear in this repertoire. While modern editions will usually put barlines in explicitly, remember that these are editorial interventions, not original and they may also change the tactus level not values (from half to quarter notes, for instance). With those caveats borne in mind, the editorial intervention can be helpful. Apart from the obvious information, there are also subtler hints such as the use of ‘longer’ metres (2/2 in place of 4/4) to hint at the possibility of thinking in terms of longer beat, and thus the possibility of longer dissonances, for instance.
  • Melodic lines frequently start (and often end) with slower rhythmic movement.
  • Half tactus (quarter notes) movement should begin on weak metrical positions – on an unaccented beat (2 or 4), or between beats (as part of a dotted rhythm).
  • Ties connect long notes to shorter ones (not vice versa).
  • In the (relatively rare) cases of triple metre, rhythms generally divide into 2+1 rather than 1+2 (as in many styles).

Text Setting

  • Clarity of music and text is held is high regard by many composers of this time. This is said to be especially true of Palestrina, and further said to have appeased the Council of Trent in its review of recent developments in music.
  • Meter: The above caveats notwithstanding, match textual and musical metres by placing strong syllables on ‘strong beats’. Systematic exceptions follow the conventions outlined above including syncopations, suspensions, and ‘metrical dissonance’ (use of a consistent meter in one part that is contrary to that prevailing in other parts (usually the one notated in modern editions).
  • Phrase music with the text.
    • Typically use least one beat (half note) for each syllable.
    • Exceptions include dotted rhythms where the shorter (quarter) note frequently receives its own syllable. This may be thought of as a modification of a ‘straight’ rhythm which meets the ‘one per beat’ rule of thumb.
    • Syllable changes immediately after sub-tactus (quarter note) motion is rare.


  • The appropriate texture is usually clear from the given parts in these exercises.
  • To generalize rather crudely, broad conventions for textures in Mass settings are as follows (where I = usually imitative; H = may be (more) homophonic):
    • Kyrie (I)
    • Gloria (H). The ‘qui tollis’ frequently exists as a separate section.
    • Credo (H). Especially often homophonic at important moments. ‘Crucifixus’ separable.
    • Sanctus (I). Hosanna  (H)
    • Benedictus (I). Often for fewer voices. (Second Hosanna usually a repeat of the first)
    • Agnus Dei (I). There may be a second or third Agnus, often with more parts and canons.
  • The Magnificat tends to be a freer genre, more flexible with the points of imitations.


  • Parallels: Avoid parallel 5ths (as in laters idioms) including those involving diminished 5ths (unlike in later idioms).
  • ‘Exposed’ intervals (fifths / octaves).
    • avoid in principle (some rationalize this on the basis that they imply parallels that would present if the intervening passing notes were added;
    • more common at cadences and / or when mitigated by strong contrary motion in other part(s).
  • Diminished chord
    • Used not infrequently in Palestrina’s music (despite comments to the contrary in some textbooks), mostly in first inversion.
    • Useful especially as a solution for cadences in multi-part music with 2 – 1 motion in the bass, for instance.
    • Resolve according to standard voice-leading: scale degree 2-1, 7-8, 4-3.
  • Dissonance: types and treatment
    • Suspensions: preparation (weak beat) – suspension (strong) – resolution (weak).
    • ‘Inessential’ dissonances – passing notes, neighbour note at the sub-tactus (quarter note) level.
    • Nota Cambiata, ‘changed note’ (generally 8-7-5-6). The only case of a dissonance left by leap.
  • Final chord: Bare fifth of major (‘Picardy’ third)
    • The raised (‘Picardy’) third ‘Originated c. 1500 when for the first time, the third was admitted in the final chord of a piece … in the second half of the sixteenth century this practice became fairly common.’ (Willi Apel, Harvard Dictionary of Music).
    • By Palestrina, major triads are the dominant kind of final chord (accounting for c.85% of cases in the Palestrina masses).
Online Resources

In addition to well-known only score hosting libraries like IMSLP, there are some interesting projects dedicated specifically to Renaissance music.


Try your hand at imitative writing in the sixteenth century contrapuntal style. In these exercises, you’ll have at least one complete part for reference, and one part with missing passages for you to complete in a suitable style.[1]

  1. Lassus: Benedictus from the Missa Venatorum. 2 voices. .mscz
  2. Lassus: Bicinum IV. 2 voices. .mscz
  3. Palestrina: Benedictus from the Missa Brevis. 3 voices. .mscz
  4. Palestrina: Surge Propera a 4 (extract). 4 voices. .mscz


  1. These exercises use original note values, modern time signatures for those values (4/2), some editorial accidentals (ficta), and (with apologies to the purists) only G- and F- clefs.


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