Counterpoint in the Palestrina Style

To enter music, touch the appropriate note or rest symbol and then touch in the music to place it. If you keep your finger down you can further drag the note to change its pitch before letting go. To change the pitch of notes already entered you can drag them up or down, or use the pitch arrow tools on selected notes. You can change the time value of items by selecting them with a touch and then choosing the desired note or rest value. 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 that activity).

Palestrina style overview Independence of voices
Melodic movement Dissonance handling
Rhythm Harmony

Palestrina Style overview

It's best to arrive here after completing the full course of first through fifth species. Species counterpoint exercises are an attempt to model the style of Palestrina, but this exercise goes beyond Fifth Species in that all the parts can have different rhythms. In fifth species exercises one part combines all the techniques of the first four species and the others are in first species, but now you can use all the species in every voice.

The program will create a cantus firmus for you or you can delete the provided one and enter your own, or just write freely. Note that the computer is not as good a composer as Palestrina, but if using a cantus generated by the program you can press New Example repeatedly until you see a cantus you like. You can also use the Cantus Options button to change the mode or to choose which staff will hold the cantus.

In this exercise the cantus is not really so "firmus" since you can edit it. In fact, you are encouraged to edit it, because it's unlikely that it cannot be improved; especially in the context of writing your own additional parts; each will affect the other. Think of it as a starting point. You might even find it useful to delete the provided melody and enter a real Palestrina composition to find out what the program thinks of it. It's possible the program will find some "errors" - Palestrina was not writing exercises - but this can be a useful study aid.

The usual process in all the counterpoint exercises is to press Evaluate repeatedly as you work. Repeated evaluation is especially important in these more complex compositions in which each voice can move freely. Notice that each time you press Evaluate the music scrolls to the current play position - you may find it handy when working in the later measures to set the play position closer to the measure you're looking at - that will keep that section from scrolling out of view when you evaluate. To set the play position, touch and hold in one of the staves until the edit menu pops up, then choose "Set 'Play from Here'." The same edit menu has a "Cancel 'Play from Here'" command that will return the play position to the beginning.

There are many books on the Palestrina style that can help. The below principles are a good start, and you can find more in such works as Knud Jeppeson's Counterpoint: The Polyphonic Vocal Style of the 16th Century.

You can employ long, whole, half, and quarter notes plus half and quarter rests. The software will allow you to employ eighth notes too, but only in pairs, so there is no eighth rest provided. In the usual 2/2 or 4/2, eighths 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.

Best practice is for each voice to begin at a different time, so rests can be used before the start of each voice after the first one. You may find that working within these limits actually frees your imagination. The "rules" ensure that your results will sound plausible, and with luck or inspiration could even be beautiful.

You allowed to change the meter via the meter signature choices box, but you'll normally use 4/2 or 2/2. In 4/2 you'll have need of the long note and long rest, each twice the value of a whole note, so they are also provided in the note/rest tool palette. Note that modern editions of music from this era sometimes have the time values halved, but the style descriptions here assume that the beat is carried by half notes.

One difference between the counterpoint windows and the Composition activity is that by default the measures are already filled with blank space as far as the cantus specifies. This makes it easier to puzzle through the counterpoint - you can do a later measure before doing an earlier one. Remember, though, that when using these prefilled measures the program will not let you add more time value to a measure than it can hold - if a measure of 4/2 already contains four half notes you can't change one of the halves to a whole unless you delete another one to make room.

Melodic movement

• 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 smaller than the half note, and very quick notes (eighths) must be stepwise.

• 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).

• 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.)

• Avoid repeating a pitch in the lowest voice more than once. 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 12th from its highest to its lowest pitch.

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


• You can use dotted whole and half notes but not dotted quarters. Eighth notes must be in pairs.

• Avoid beginning a passage with rapid notes (quarters or eighths), unless the first note is offbeat.

• It's best for voices should begin at different times, or at least for additional voices not to begin with the cantus. The parts will still end together and can use the same note value for the final sonority.

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

• When you tie a note forward you should make the second note half the value of the first except at a final cadence.

• 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

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

• 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.

• 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).

• Use contrary motion frequently to emphasize the independence of voices.

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

Dissonance handling

• With the exception of the Cambiata figure, dissonances are resolved stepwise.

• Any dissonant downbeat note must have been approached by suspension and must be left by downward step, but now there is an additional level of freedom not found in Fourth Species: now the non-syncopated note can change before the syncopated note resolves, so long as it moves to a note consonant with the note of resolution in the syncopated voice¹.

• 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, and the resolution should be to an imperfect consonance (that is, a 3rd or a 6th).

• You're allowed to delay by one note the resolution of a suspension, as in the following example from Fux². The intervening note must be a concord. The asterisk marks the intervening note that delays resolution:


• 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 tonic of the mode should be in the bass at the conclusion.

• 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).

• Avoid adjacent use in different voices of two pitches that form the tritone (tritone cross relation).

• In general keep to the pitch classes of the mode. Unless you transpose a cantus firmus this will in practice mean the "white key" notes. 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 Jeppeson, Knud. Counterpoint, p. 156.
² Fux, Johannes. The Study of Counterpoint, Ed. Alfred Mann, p. 64.

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