II. Counterpoint and Galant Schemas

First-species Counterpoint

Kris Shaffer and Mark Gotham

Key Takeaways

The First Species of involves combining two parts that move together, at the same rate, without any rhythmic variety. In this, we begin to consider how to start and end melodic lines, and most importantly, how to keep them independent of each other.

The counterpoint line

In general, the counterpoint should follow the principles of writing a good cantus firmus discussed in the previous chapter, Introduction to Species Counterpoint. There are some minor differences, to be discussed below, but generally a first-species counterpoint should consist of two cantus-firmus-quality lines.

Here are the complete examples of first-species counterpoint from Part I of Gradus ad Parnassum. Each example sees one of the cantus firmi we’ve already met combined with a new counterpoint line either above or below. I’ve each one annotated with the interval that the counterpoint line makes with the cantus firmus. For the complete examples from Gradus ad Parnassum as exercises, solutions, and annotations, see Gradus ad Parnassum; Exercises.

I-Annotations-1st by FourScoreAndMore

Beginning and Ending

Beginning a first-species counterpoint

To exemplify goal-oriented motion, the first-species exercise should begin and end with the most stable of sonorities: perfect consonances. Thus, when writing a counterpoint above a cantus firmus, the first note of the counterpoint should be do or sol (a P1, P5, or P8 above the cantus).

When writing a counterpoint below a cantus firmus, the first note of the counterpoint must always be on the modal final, do (P1 or P8 below the cantus firmus). Beginning on sol would create a dissonant fourth; beginning on fa would create a P5 but confuse listeners about the tonal context, since fa–do at the beginning of a piece is easily misheard as do–sol.)

Ending a first-species counterpoint

The final note of the counterpoint must always be do (P1 or P8 above/below the cantus).

To approach this ending smoothly, with variety, and with strong goal orientation, always approach the final interval by contrary stepwise motion. If the cantus ends redo, the counterpoint’s final two pitches should be tido. Likewise, if the cantus ends tido, the counterpoint’s final two pitches should be redo. Thus the penultimate bar will either be a minor third or a major sixth between the two lines. This is the case for all modes and keys.

Independence of the lines

Like the cantus firmus, the counterpoint line should have a single climax. To maintain the independence of the lines and the smoothness of the entire passage (so no one moment is hyper-emphasized by a double climax), these climaxes should not coincide.

A single repeat/tie in the counterpoint is allowed, but try to avoid repeating at all. This promotes variety in the exercise, since there are so few notes to begin with.

Avoid voice crossing, where the upper voice is temporarily lower than the lower voice, and vice versa. Voice crossings diminish the independence of the lines and make them more difficult to distinguish by ear.

Avoid voice overlap, where one voice leaps past the previous note of the other voice. For example, if the upper part sings an E4, the lower part cannot sing an F4 in the following bar. This also helps maintain the independence of the lines.

Intervals and motion

The interval between the cantus and counterpoint at any moment should not exceed a perfect twelfth (octave plus fifth). In general, try to keep the two lines within an octave where possible, and only exceed a tenth in “emergencies,” and only briefly (one or two notes). When the voices are too far apart, tonal fusion is diminished. Further, it can diminish performability, which though not an essential principle of human cognition is an important consideration for composers, and it has a direct effect on the smoothness, melodic integrity, and tonal fusion of what listeners hear during a performance.

In general, all harmonic consonances are allowed. However, unisons should only be used for first and last intervals. Unisons are very stable, and serve best as goals rather than mid points. They also diminish the independence of the lines.

Imperfect consonances are preferable to perfect consonances for all intervals other than the first and last dyads, in order to heighten the sense of arrival at the end, and to promote a sense of motion towards that arrival. In all cases, aim for a variety of harmonic intervals over the course of the exercise.

Never use two perfect consonances of the same size in a row: P5–P5 or P8–P8. This includes both simple and compound intervals. For example, P5–P12 is considered the same as P5–P5. (Two different perfect consonances in a row, such as P8–P5, is allowed, however, but try to follow every perfect consonance with an imperfect consonance if possible.) These “parallel fifths and octaves” significantly promote tonal fusion over melodic independence at the same time that the consecutive stable sonorities arrest both the variety and the motion of the exercise. Thus, they are far from ideal, and to be avoided in species counterpoint.

Vary the types of motion between successive intervals (parallel, similar, contrary, oblique). Try to use all types of motion (except, perhaps, oblique motion), but prefer contrary motion where possible. It is best for preserving the independence of the lines, in addition to variety.

Because similar and parallel motion diminish variety and melodic independence, their use should be mediated by other factors:

  • Do not use more than three of the same imperfect consonance type in a row (e.g., three thirds in a row).
  • Never move into a perfect consonance by similar motion (this is called direct or hidden octaves). This draws too much attention to an interval which already stands out of the texture.
  • Avoid combining similar motion with leaps, especially large ones.
  1. First Species Counterpoint A (.pdf, .mscx). Asks students to compose a first species example and do error detection.
  2. For the complete set of Fux exercises, see the Gradus ad Parnassum chapter.


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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Kris Shaffer and Mark Gotham is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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