First Species Counterpoint

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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.

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

First species overview

In first species exercises you'll write note-to-note polyphony: the notes all move together. The voices are rhythmically identical, but aim for independence in their melodic lines. Traditionally these exercises are performed using whole notes, like this exercise in two parts from Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum:

Melodic movement

• No voice should make a leap larger than a fifth, except for the octave and the ascending minor sixth.

• 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 movement in the opposite direction. If the leap is ascending make sure the compensation is stepwise.

• A leap of an octave should be balanced: preceded and followed by notes within the octave.

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

• Avoid repeating a pitch when possible, particularly when writing in two parts. In first species you'll be allowed to repeat a pitch once if necessary, or if writing in 3 or 4 parts you can write the same pitch up to three times successively. Such repeats are best done in the inner voices where they won't stand out.

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


• Voices all move together in the same rhythm as the cantus firmus. For traditional exercises all notes are whole notes.

Independence of voices

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

• 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 5ths 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.

• 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 (that is, parallel 1st-inversion triads are OK).

• 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).

• Upper voices can sometimes cross, 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).

• Do not move to an octave with leaping motion in either voice unless the movement is oblique (one voice remaining on the same pitch).

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

• Avoid the unison except at the beginning or end. Authorities disagree: Fux forbids unisons except at terminals (though he occasionally shows on in his examples). Jeppeson is much more free with unisons. But since these exercises are mostly based on the Fux method we'll keep his objection to unisons.

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

Dissonance handling

• In first species there is no dissonance, so the only harmonic intervals allowed are the thirds, sixths, fifth, and octave (and, when in 3 parts or more, the fourth if its lower tone is not the bass). The diminished fifth and augmented fourth will be considered consonant if they are not formed with the bass. Note also Fux's admonition that full triads should be used whenever possible, and when that is not possible use thirds and sixths in preference to "empty" fifths.


• 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. However, a concluding major triad was common practice and is acceptable here.

• Avoid doubling the seventh of a chord.

• The c.f. will always begin and end with the tonic. If the c.f. 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 placing the chromatically altered form of a note immediately adjacent to its unaltered form in a different voice (i.e. cross relation).

• In two-part writing, avoid adjacent use in different voices of two pitches that form the tritone (tritone false relation).

• 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.

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