Second 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.

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

Second species overview

In second species counterpoint one part moves in rhythmic values that are half those of the cantus firmus, assuming the cantus notes are divisible by two (i.e. not dotted). If the cantus notes are dotted the faster part would have three notes for each of the slow voice, but we're going to stick to the simpler division for these exercises. If there are more than two voices, one voice has the shorter note values while the others move together as in first species:

The voice written with shorter notes can be placed in any staff (other than the one with the cantus!) The others remain in first species, note by note with the cantus. In that faster voice you should begin with a half rest; it's characteristic of second species. You end, however, with a whole note.

Just as first species principles could be applied to any passage in which two or more voices share the same rhythm, second species principles could be applied even with a cantus of varied rhythm whenever the accompaniment had two notes for one of the cantus. But for these exercises the cantus will be supplied in plain whole notes.

The big change in second species (aside from the quicker movement) is that you can now introduce dissonances formed with the bass, and they can be any kind of dissonance, including 2nds, 7ths, etc. But these dissonant notes can come only on the second of each pair within a measure, and must be approached and left by step and otherwise follow the below style rules. If you were writing three notes to one of a dotted-note cantus, either the second or the third accompaniment note could be dissonant so long as it was approached and resolved by step - but again we're staying with undotted notes for this exercise.

Melodic movement

As in first species:

• 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 stepwise movement in the opposite direction.

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

• Avoid repeating the same pitch, especially in the fast voice. If writing in 3 or 4 parts the voices that move with the cantus can repeat pitches if necessary, up to 3 successive pitches at a time. But those are best if limited to inner voices.

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


• Avoid writing the same melodic interval twice on the same pitches. For example:



• With an undotted cantus one voice has two notes to each note of the cantus firmus; if the cantus notes are dotted the faster part moves 3 to 1. If there are additional voices, they move with the cantus firmus as in first species.

• In both two-to-one and three-to-one writing you may occasionally substitute a rest for the first note of each group (that is, the one that coincides with the cantus firmus).

• 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.

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).

• 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.


• Avoid writing parallel octaves or fifths between two adjacent downbeat notes (beginnings of measures).

1. The parallel is allowed if the intervening accompaniment note leaps by more than a third.
2. The parallel is allowed if the intervening note is a concord. In the second of the downbeat parallels below, the leap of a fourth is thought to mask the effect of the parallel.

As in first species:

• 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 voice 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 (in other words, parallel 1st-inversion triads are OK). Fourths can also be allowed if one of the tones is nonessential (a note that is not part of the harmony). But it will be better to keep things simple.

• 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 the unison except at the beginning or end. Authorities disagree: Fux forbids unisons except at terminals (though he occasionally shows one 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


• The second (unaccented) note of each pair in the fast voice can be either consonant or dissonant. The accented notes must be consonant. In triple meter either the second or third note of each group can be dissonant, but not both.

• Any dissonant note must be approached and left by step.


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.

• Avoid doubling a seventh. It would not be possible to resolve both properly without creating a parallel.

• 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 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.

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