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A Brief Guide to Species Counterpoint
Back to Counterpoint | Introduction & First Species | Second Species | Third Species | Fourth Species | Fifth Species

Introduction
Species counterpoint is a method used for centuries to teach students how to compose the sort of counterpoint found in the works of Palestrina. The student is introduced to counterpoint in five stages. For each stage the student is asked to write a different species (or type) of contrapuntral line to go with a given melody in semibreves called the cantus firmus.

In the first species the student is required to write one note for each note of the cantus firmus; in the second species they are required to write two; and in the third, four (i.e. crotchets against the semibreves of the cantus firmus). The fourth species introduces the student to syncopation, while the fifth permits a mixture of all the four previous species. Schenker wrote two volumes on species counterpoint (Counterpoint) and he did so for two main reasons:

  • He thought that music students ought to understand how notes 'behave' under the artificial conditions of species counterpoint as it would help them not only in composition but in the understanding of music.
  • He believed that the strict rules which apply to the voice-leading (or progression from one note to the next) in species exercises apply to all tonal music (how this works is explained elsewhere in SchenkerGUIDE). These rules form one of the cornerstones of his theory.

This part of the site gives a very brief summary of the species exercises that were used to teach generations of composers (they are important for this reason alone!). The five different stages are each illustrated with a few bars from the end of a sample exercise. An even briefer guide to how species counterpoint affects analysis can be found here.

First Species (note against note)
In this species every note of the part added by the student must be consonant with the cantus firmus (consonance and dissonance are explained here). You have probably had to harmonise Bach Chorales as part of your studies, and you will remember that there are rules prohibiting such things as parallel fifths between the voices. Species counterpoint exercises involve following similar rules but in a slightly stricter way.

There are three possible types of motion between two parts in any music:

  • similar - both lines move to the next note in the same direction
  • oblique - one line moves while the other stays on the same note
  • contrary - the two voices move in opposite directions
These three types of motion are allowed in different circumstances in first species counterpoint depending on the interval between the two voices of the exercise. Parallel sixths, for example are fine but parallel fifths are not. Also, with only one note per voice in each bar, moving to a fifth from any other interval creates a similar effect to parallel fifths so this is not allowed either.

The following table summarises which of these types of movement are permitted between which intervals in this species. In case you have forgotten, the perfect intervals are fourths, fifths and octaves, imperfect intervals are thirds and sixths.

Similar Oblique Contrary
Perfect to perfect No Yes Yes
Imperfect to perfect No Yes Yes
Perfect to imperfect Yes Yes Yes
Imperfect to imperfect Yes Yes Yes

There are various rules governing leaps, range and direction of motion that are designed to create what Schenker calls 'melodic fluency'. Interestingly, Schenker also emphasises the prohibition of melodic lines that might encourage the listener to think harmonically (e.g. triads). This is in order to preserve the distinction between harmony and counterpoint until the student is ready to write free compositions.

An example of first species counterpoint:


[numbers refer to the interval between the parts - 6 = 6th etc.]

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