1st species counterpoint and its real-world application

January 12, 2011

Students in music theory classes around the world study a kind of “counterpoint with training wheels” called Species Counterpoint. There are five species: note against note, two notes against one note, four notes against one note, a study in suspensions, and finally free or florid counterpoint. Students put their own contrapuntal melodies against a given melody (a cantus firmus), stated in whole notes. There are lots and lots of rules, all derived from Renaissance Polyphony Some teachers allow more modern elements, some do not. I try to assure students that after they learn all the rules, they will be able to break them: but for now they MUST play by the rules. Just to get the sound in your head, here is some four part music by Orlando di Lasso, or Lassus as we call him, that has some good stretches of homophonic texture or 1st species counterpoint. (My students are only doing 2-part counterpoint right now.)


A colleague who is sitting in on the class asked what “real world” application first species counterpoint had. I replied that anytime you hear note against note, from country to jazz, that is 1st species. Traditionally our exercises are in [boring, lifeless] whole notes, but it’s important to go slowly. To show that 1st species doesn’t have to just be boring whole notes, I brought into class a bluegrass fiddle tune in two parts. It occurred to me later that I could have brought in “Jessica” by the Allmann Brothers or any of the three part singing by Crosby Stills and Nash. As I remember, “Helplessly Hoping” is largely homophonic in texture, with occasional embellishment. Although the opening of “Carry On” is homophonic, the vocal break has a bit of pop counterpoint.


In “Jessica,”the opening organ with guitar duo may stretch rules governing voices “leaping” into dissonances and in similar motion, but we hear the 1st species shine through; and the charm of the piece is in the opening homophonic guitar duo plus organ: note-against-note.


I argue with a colleague who is unconvinced of the value of Species Counterpoint, but I maintain its real-world applications are everywhere and therefore valuable, even though the specific rules we pass on encourage the composer to sound as though their music were written for and to be sung by smart monks. Real musicians see through the training wheels aspect and skate through the exercises. The most common harmonic intervals in 1st species are 3rds, 6ths, and their larger siblings, the 10th and 13th. Most pop music features harmony that uses these harmonic tendencies. Usage of the more hollow, olden intervals like the perfect 5th and 8ve, must be handled and approached with kid gloves, lest we sound too olden. Thirds rule; you just can’t begin or end on one.

And some embellished homophony from Bulgaria closes out the value of teaching note-against-note exercises in 2, 3 and 4 voices to students. Once they learn it, the really don’t have to sound like Lassus–unless they want to.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

thalkowski January 13, 2011 at 7:49 am

This blog entry (and others of yours) reminds me of a selfish request — as you contemplate retirement from UCLA, this reader would be delighted to see a book by you on ‘music theory for music lovers’; not for practitioners, but for people who find that certain pieces and bits of music thrill them, and would like to know how and why those bits of music work the way they do.

Roger Bourland January 13, 2011 at 7:59 am

Ahh, that’s kind of you to say. My guess is that my blog will be that book, so keep checking in from time to time. Don’t hold your breath for a paper document, but you can count on thousands more posts!

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