Fifth Species Counterpoint

To enter music, touch the appropriate note or rest symbol and then touch in the music to place it. To change the pitch of entered notes you can drag them up or down, or use the pitch arrow tools on selected notes. For more help in entering and editing music in these exercises, please refer to the instructions for the Composition activity (accessible whether or not you own the activity).

About Species Counterpoint

Species counterpoint is a system of graduated exercises based on the style of 16th century vocal composers, particularly Palestrina. It is a method of study that formed part of the education of great composers long after Palestrina's style had become antique. The goal of such study is not to make you write a particular kind of music; it is to develop your ability to control effects in polyphony. To keep things simple we focus only on this one style of writing; it is complex enough and there is much to learn about it that is widely applicable. You will find that following the style rules as you would a recipe will produce results that sound credible and even musical. It's like working out a puzzle, but with a musical reward at the end.

Fifth species overview Independence of voices
Melodic movement Dissonance handling
Rhythm Harmony

Fifth species overview

Fifth species is also known as florid counterpoint. It is a combination of the first four species. This is not the same thing as free counterpoint, since the florid part is still confined to just one accompaniment voice. All additional parts remain in first species:

In fifth species one of the voices can use any of the patterns from second, third, and fourth species, which means you can employ whole, half, and quarter notes plus half and quarter rests. The software will allow you to employ eighth notes too, but only in pairs, and in common time these can occur only on the second and fourth beats - you are not permitted to begin a measure or the second half of a measure with eighth notes. You may find that working within these limits actually frees your imagination. The "rules" ensure that your results will sound plausible, and with luck could even be beautiful. In fifth species you'll want to begin with a rest, but it can be either a half or a quarter rest. Try to have as much variety as possible within the limits of the first four species.

Melodic movement

Modified from first species:

• No voice should make a leap larger than a fifth, except for the octave and ascending minor sixth. But large leaps are not allowed between notes less than half the value of the c.f.'s notes. Very quick notes (eighth notes in our examples: notes 1/4 the value of the beat) must be stepwise.

As in first species:

• Avoid making successive same-direction leaps in the same voice unless they outline a triad. If they can't be avoided they should at least total less than an octave.

• Leaps greater than a fifth should be compensated by stepwise movement in the opposite direction.

• No voice should move by a chromatic interval (any augmented or diminished interval).

As in third species:

• You should take care not to outline a tritone in melody. A tritone is outlined if the melodic line changes direction at the notes that form it (see illustration in the third species instructions.)

As in first species:

• Avoid repeating a pitch in the lowest voice. In upper parts you can repeat a pitch as many as three times successively if necessary.

• Keep each voice confined to a singable range for the part, preferably not exceeding a 10th from its highest to its lowest pitch.

As in second species:

• Avoid writing the same melodic interval twice on the same pitches.



• One voice of your accompaniment may freely mix elements of Species 1-4, and you can add pairs of eighth notes as well (see below). Dotted notes will not be used. Additional voices remain in first species.

• Avoid beginning a passage with rapid notes, unless the first note is offbeat.

As in second species:

• The faster voice should begin after the cantus firmus, following a rest. The parts will still end together and can use the same note value for the final sonority. In three or more parts only one voice will be moving faster than the others; the others can still enter together.


• Avoid beginning a measure with the rhythm known as Anapest (short-short-long) unless the long note is tied forward.

• When you tie a note forward in the fourth species style, you should make the second note half the value of the first except at a final cadence. In fourth species both notes would have the same value, but in fifth species this pattern is modified.

• Assuming that the cantus firmus moves in whole notes, you should avoid using more than two eighth notes in any measure, and they should always appear in pairs and only in metrically weak positions (the 2nd or 4th beats of a 4/4 measure, for example).

Independence of voices

As in first species:

• Avoid writing parallel fifths or octaves (moving two voices in the same direction from one fifth or octave to another).

As in second and third species:

• Avoid parallel fifths or octaves between the downbeat (accented) notes of two successive measures, unless the faster voice leaps by more than a third from the first perfect interval, or if an intervening note are consonant.

As in first species:

• Avoid writing direct fifths or octaves (moving two voices in the same direction to a fifth or an octave). There are exceptions: these may be acceptable at a cadence, or if one voice is inner and the exposed voice moves stepwise. Direct fifths in the outer voices will be accepted if the upper voice moves by step.

• Do not let two voices leap to a perfect interval unless one of them is an inner part.

• One perfect interval can follow another in the same voices only if one of the voices moves stepwise.

• Avoid parallel fourths unless the lower tone of the fourth is not the bass and the pitch class a third below that note is present (i.e. parallel first-inversion triads are OK). Fourths can also be allowed if one of the tones is nonessential (not part of the harmony; a non-harmonic tone).

• Upper voices can sometimes cross if necessary, but avoid "overlapping" (in an overlap voices do not cross, but one moves to a position that is at or beyond the previous pitch of another voice).

• Avoid writing more than three of the same interval in a row in any two parts (e.g. four consecutive thirds or four consecutive sixths).

• In all species of counterpoint, use contrary motion frequently to emphasize the independence of voices.

Modified from fourth species:

• The unison is acceptable at the beginning or end of the composition, and in passing within it if not accented.

Dissonance handling

As in fourth species:

• With the exception of the Cambiata figure in third species passages, dissonances are resolved stepwise.

• Any dissonant downbeat note must have been approached by suspension as in fourth species, and must be left by downward step.

• When resolving a suspension dissonance it is best if the note of resolution is not already present in the sonority at the time of the dissonance.


• In fifth species you'll be allowed to delay by one note the resolution of a suspension, as in the following example from Fux¹. The intervening note must be a concord. The asterisk marks the intervening note that delays resolution:


As in first species:

• If in two parts the music must begin with perfect consonances (octaves, fifths, or unisons) and end with octaves or unisons. In three or more parts you can begin and end with full triads, but the ending must be either a major triad or a perfect consonance. Fux advises that if the mode does not contain a major third over the tonic, then it is best to leave the third out of the final chord rather than to raise it to a major third.

• The cantus firmus will always begin and end with the tonic. If the cantus firmus is in an upper voice be sure not to harmonize it with a fifth below at the beginning. That would give the impression of a different mode.

• Avoid doubling a seventh.

• Avoid placing the chromatically altered form of a note immediately adjacent to its unaltered form in a different voice (i.e. cross relation).

• When in two parts, avoid writing a downbeat note that would form a tritone with the previous note of the cantus (false relation of the tritone). Similarly, the last note of accompaniment in any measure should not form a tritone with the following cantus note unless the note of accompaniment is a passing or neighbor tone.

• In general keep to the pitch classes of the mode expressed by the cantus firmus. Unless you transpose a cantus firmus this will in practice mean the "white key" notes in species exercises. Nonmodal tones may be introduced, however, if they accord with conventional principles for altered tones. Those are too much to cover here, but if you're interested there is a discussion of them in the online counterpoint instruction at Ars Nova.

¹ Fux, Johannes. The Study of Counterpoint, Ed. Alfred Mann, p. 64.

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