Species counterpoint is a method that has been used for many years to teach polyphonic musical composition. The method is modeled after the compositional works of Palestrina. This method of study was propelled forward in our modern musical culture primarily by the Johann Joseph Fux’s book entitled Gradus Ad Parnassum. The starting point for this method is creation of a fixed melody or cantus firmus. Next, the student composes additional melodic lines as harmony parts to the cantus firmus. Each species of counterpoint implements a different set of rules that the harmony line must follow in relation to the cantus firmus.
Why Study Species Counterpoint?
What makes a melody beautiful? Why do certain harmonies sound nice, and others do not? In tonal music, there are certain melodic and harmonic characteristics that are considered beautiful and expressive. The study of species counterpoint helps composition or music theory students to understand, identify and replicate these characteristics.
What Is A Cantus Firmus?
A cantus firmus is a pre-existing fixed melody that forms the basis or foundation of a polyphonic composition. One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with the parameters of a well written cantus firmus is to study pre-existing examples. Here is an example of a cantus firmus:
- Cantus firmi do not extend beyond the range of a tenth, and they usually remain within the range of an octave.
- Most cantus firmi are 8-16 notes in length,
- Cantus firmi begin and end on the tonic.
- Cantus firmi usually approach the final tonic by step.
- Cantus firmi contain a single climax.
- Cantus firmi contain no rhythmic variation (they are composed of all whole notes).
- Cantus firmi contain mostly stepwise motion, but have some jumps (usually small).
- Leaps larger than a fourth are followed by stepwise motion in the opposite direction.
- Cantus firmi do not contain more than two leaps in a row, and consecutive leaps are usually in opposite directions.
- The intervals between consecutive pitches in a cantus firmus are always melodic consonances.
Webster’s defines consonant as: being in agreement or harmony; free from elements making for discord. It defines dissonant as: a mingling of discordant sounds; especially: a clashing or unresolved musical interval or chord. A simple explanation of these terms would be that consonant intervals create pure harmonies while dissonant intervals create impure or even clashing harmonies.
I covered the concept of consonance and dissonance in my Learning Music With Ray: Musical Intervals lesson. However, the basic consonant and dissonant intervals discussed in that lesson are harmonic intervals. A harmonic interval is the distance between two pitches that are heard at the same time. A melodic interval is the distance between two pitches that are heard consecutively. The rules for melodic consonance differ slightly from harmonic consonance. Like harmonic consonance, melodic intervals that are perfect, major/minor thirds or major/minor sixths are considered consonant. However, diatonic steps are also considered to be melodic consonance.
When you watch a good movie, sporting event or read a good fiction, what happens? It starts slow, then some issue develops that puts you on the edge of your seat. Finally it reaches a climax and then resolves. The same thing happens in good music. Dissonance is used to create conflict, then consonance is used to resolve the conflict. Learning to control the flow of tension and release in musical composition is an important key to creating beautiful and expressive music.
The study of species counterpoint helps us to understand the nature of musical tension and release, in addition to other musical laws and tendencies. To start studying species counterpoint, one must first study the nature and composition of a cantus firmus. Continued study of existing cantus firmi, along with practice composing cantus firmi according to the rules listed above, will aid you in these studies.
This Learning Music With Ray video discusses is meant to open a series I will be teaching on species counterpoint. In this first lesson, I will give a brief description of what species counterpoint is. I will also discuss the illusive concepts of musical expression and beauty. I will explain how the study of species counterpoint can aid in understanding the construction of expressive and beautiful music. Finally, I go on to discuss what a cantus firmus is, and the rules that form the basis for its composition.