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Palestrina Style

The Palestrina style is the style of polyphonic vocal music as written by 16th-century Italian Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594). Palestrina's music is today regarded as the apotheosis of the polyphonic vocal ideal of that era, a music that seeks to obtain a balance between melodic independence and harmonic cooperation of individual voices. Palestrina's style is typified by a graceful melodic smoothness and careful treatment of dissonance, with the primary consideration being melody, and harmony coming as a secondary product of the melodic combination. A good source for study of Palestrina's style is Knud Jeppeson, in his The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance, and Counterpoint: the Polyphonic Vocal Style of the 16th Century.

Melodic pitch

The goal should be mostly stepwise movement with some leaps of varying size, handled carefully:

Avoid leaps greater than a fifth, except for

Octaves, ascending or descending

The ascending minor 6th

Avoid successive leaps, unless

Their direction changes

Or they outline a triad

Limit any allowed successive leaps to 2

If three ascending notes begin with a leap, the second interval should be smaller than the first. In three notes descending, the smaller interval should come first.

But this rule can be skipped if the first note is offbeat.

Avoid ascending leaps from accented notes (such as on a downbeat).

Compensate leaps of a 5th or more by moving in the opposite direction, preferably by step.

Compensate ascending leaps greater than a fifth by stepwise motion. Since your allowed leaps are limited this means that the ascending minor 6th and octave must be compensated by step only.

The rules about leaps are most important when the note values are relatively quick; the longer the note, the less disruptive are leaps. Jeppeson says that the rules are most strictly enforced if the note values are less than the unit of measure. In modern 4/4 time that would mean anything quicker than a quarter note, but you should observe them as much as possible regardless of note value.

Avoid all chromatic movement (movement by an augmented or diminished interval).

Avoid outlining a tritone or diminished fifth in melody. By 'outlining' is meant changing direction in a way that emphasizes a tritone or diminished fifth.

Limit the tessitura (distance between highest and lowest pitches in one voice) to a 10th or less.


A passage should not begin with rapid notes (rapid being defined here as anything less than the beat value: e.g. in 4/4, less than a beat). However,

A passage can begin with rapid notes if the first one is offbeat.

Voices should not enter together. To emphasize their independence, each voice after the first should be preceded by rests.

The first note of a tied pair should be the same length or double the length of the second. In this style you would not see a short note tied to a longer one.

Dissonance Handling

The fourth is treated as a dissonance if formed with the bass.

Augmented 4ths and diminished 5ths not involving the bass are treated as consonant if both notes are "essential" (i.e. part of the chord).

Dissonance should not be approached by leap, except for

A downward leap between essential tones

A leap in a cambiata figure

Avoid accented dissonances except for the suspension:
The suspension's preparation tone must be unaccented, and you should avoid using the note of resolution in the dissonant sonority. The suspension should resolve downward to an imperfect consonance (third or sixth). The "consonant fourth" preparation is allowed.

Dissonance should be resolved immediately by step, except for the cambiata figure. Although

You could write two successive dissonances if they are both rapid, stepwise in the same direction, and the first is offbeat.

Independence of voices

Avoid parallel fifths and octaves between adjacent notes, except

Parallel fifths are allowed if they are contrary (one fifth moving to another in contrary motion) and one voice is inner.

Avoid parallel fifths and octaves between notes on adjacent accents, except

They are allowed if the faster leaps by more than a third from the first perfect interval.

They are allowed if the intervening note is a concord.

Avoid direct fifths or octaves (similar motion to those intervals), except

They are allowed if disguised by syncopation.

They are allowed at a cadence in 3 or more voices.

The are allowed if one voice is inner and the exposed voice moves by step.

A direct 5th or 8va is allowed in the outer parts in 4 voice writing if the upper voice moves by step.

Avoid leaping motion in two voices going to a perfect interval, even when moving in opposite directions.

But this is allowed if either voice is an inner voice.

Avoid similar motion from a second to a third.

Avoid parallel fourths, unless combined with another voice provided the pitch class a sixth above the lower tone of the fourth (making parallel first inversion triads).

But these can be allowed if syncopated.

Avoid using the same interval between 2 voices more than 3 times in succession.

But this is acceptable if there are 3 or more voices, or the voices are crossing.


Do not place a 5th or 3rd below the cantus firmus at either the beginning or the end. This would give the impression of changing the mode.

A final sonority should include a major third.

Avoid doubling a pitch that is the upper tone of a seventh or the lower tone of a second.

Avoid adjacent chromatic cross-relation (i.e. using in adjacent sonorities both a pitch and its chromatically altered form).

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