HOSTS- Jeremy Burns, Matthew Scott Phillips

TYPE- Theory


BUMPER MUSIC- "Duet for Violin and Viola"

(Matthew Scott Phillips)

ANNOUNCER- Mike Cunliffe


Counterpoint, the art of combining two or more independent melodic lines, is a practice that has been around for hundreds of years. However, not a lot of musicians are familiar with the term. In this episode, part 1 of 2, we will discuss it's origins, it's usefulness and the many rules that revolve around it's process. We will build a cantus firmus, based on these rules. We will also learn what a cantus firmus is! Finally, we will tease part 2 of this series with a brief discussion of species counterpoint.

Different theorists and educators choose different times to introduce counterpoint to their students, based on their own unique philosophies and pedagogical processes. We chose to wait until after a base knowledge of theory has been covered.

For a refresher course of melody and voice leading, check out the following episodes:


02-Theory Basics Pt. 1: Melody


22- Voice Leading Pt. 1


KEY WORDS MELODY- A succession or arrangement of notes forming a distinctive sequence or theme, often repeated or revisited through out the piece. The melodic line works within the horizontal aspect of music. COUNTERPOINT- The combining or intermingling of two or more independent melodic lines as well as the set of principles that accompany this process. CANTUS FIRMUS- The original melody, upon which the counter point is built. These were often based (loosely or directly) on the traditional plain chant melodies that were written for worship in early church services. SPECIES COUNTERPOINT- Also known as "strict counterpoint", SPECIES COUNTERPOINT refers to the approach music students are given to write counterpoint while observing a number of conventions. These conventions are made to ensure each melody it's own independence. EXAMPLES A BRIEF HISTORY OF COUNTERPOINT

Counterpoint in the Renaissance period (mid to late 1500’s) followed very strict rules and is still used as the “go to” model for instruction. These rules were made to ensure each melodic line maintains it's own independence.

In 1725, an Austrian composer and theorist named Johann Joseph Fux published the Gradus ad Parnassum (“Steps to Parnassus”). This was a treatise on counterpoint which outlined the five species in species counterpoint.


1. Note against note.

2. Two notes against one.

3. Four notes against one.

4. Notes offset against each other.

5. All of the previous 4 species together.


In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, polyphony was often built on a pre existing melody, borrowed from the PLAIN CHANT melodies that were used in church services and masses. This melody was known as the CANTUS FIRMUS, the "fixed song". This melody would adhere to the following rules:


1. These melodic lines are diatonic with 2 exceptions:

      1.) V in minor includes a sharpened scale seven

           to make that note a leading tone.

      2.) The ascending melodic minor scale has a

            raised scale degree 6 and 7, both of which

            are lowered while going back down the



 2. Repeated notes are very uncommon.


 3. Melodic motion will be mostly by step.


 4. Leaps are acceptable with the following limitations:


      -Avoid augmented or diminished intervals.

      -Avoid leaps larger than a P5, with the

          exception of the P8. P8 is almost considered

          a unison function but we still try not to use it

          too much.

      -On occasion, however, ASCENDING m6

           intervals are acceptable.

      -All leaps should be preceded by OR followed

          by contrary motion.

      -Double leaps (2 successive leaps in the same

        direction) should be preceded AND followed,

        by STEP, in contrary motion. They must also

        outline either M or m triads.


 5. The melody should have ONE focal point or climax. If this occurs on a high pitch, it is called the ZENITH. At a low pitch, it is called the NADIR.


 6. The last 3 or 4 notes, in the same direction, in a passage should not stress a tritone.


 7. Melodies should end on scale degree 1, or the FINAL of the mode, from either above or below.


We should note that, this system was first established at a time before notation and didn't rely on any established rhythm or meter.

For the sake of this example, we are using half notes in the MODE of D Dorian.

Two Part Counterpoint

Let’s observe some of the conventions that will result in beautiful 2 part counter point:


 1. Good counterpoint is made of equally interesting and independent lines.


 2. The climaxes of the two lines should occur at different times. If they occur at the same time, they begin to sound more like one part has been doubled. Or it sounds kind of like harmonic motion, which was not common back then.


 3. BEGIN the counterpoint with PU, P5 or P8. Counterpoint can begin with one note that splits into two lines, such as in the case of the PU (perfect unison).


 4. END the counter point on the TONIC of the scale, or the FINAL of the mode, with either PU or P8 only.


 Now we we’ve established the rules of working with 2 lines, lets discuss the 4 types of motion:



We've mentioned MOTION, in reference to how two lines work together. Lets discuss the 4 types of motion:

  1. Oblique- One voice moves up or down. The other stays put. Like a drone?


  2. Parallel- Same direction with same intervals. Classic way to build a harmony.


  3. Contrary- Voices move in opposite direction


  4. Similar- Same direction BUT not necessarily the same intervals.


-Counterpoint came about in the Renaissance period. In 1725, Austrian composer and theorist, Johann Joseph Fux published the first treatise on counterpoint.


-The first counterpoint was arranged by adding extra lines to an already established melody. This was the CANTUS FIRMUS.


-Good counterpoint allows for two or more lines of music, or melodies, to be played at the same time while each line maintains it's own independence.