From what I understand, harmonic function came later but since most modern harmony textbooks teach harmony using functional harmony, shouldnt species counterpoint also be adapted to include harmonic function? If I write a bassline as a cantus firmus, I would consider harmonic function because I have been taught the function of those scale degrees and how they relate to chords, and similarly, if I wrote a counterpoint, I would consider the two part counterpoints harmonic implications because I have been taught this way. However, species CP makes no reference to harmonic implications of the two lines. Why is this? Shouldnt the species exercises be updated to include harmonic function?

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    I always say "practice precedes theory." To talk about dominants and tonics in baroque music is an anachronism, but it's easy to hear them. There are a million and one "La Folia"s running around the 16th and 17th centuries, and it's just silly to ignore the one-y-five-y-ness of it. It might be wrong to use harmonic language in talking about composers' intent, and it might lead to mistakes to analyze early music using 19th-century tools, but there's no denying that elements of harmonic practice started long, long before their labels. May 15, 2023 at 12:30

2 Answers 2


@Richard's answer is excellent, and I generally agree. I'd only add the the reason species counterpoint doesn't concern itself too much with teaching harmonic function is that this is simply not the point of counterpoint. Think in terms of the horizontal and vertical aspects of composition.

Horizontal writing: What is most important is that each "voice" is given a legitimate, independent melodic line. Three or four (or more) of these melodic lines weave together to make a musical whole. If you are writing a string quartet, the viola part is just as interesting and musically satisfying as the first violin, because your intent as a composer is to focus primarily on the horizontal (i.e. melodic) aesthetics of your writing. Within certain time periods, there were fairly strict rules in place to be sure that the voices also formed reasonable-sounding chords with each other. But strict counterpoint writers always value the beautiful, independent melody of each voice over their combination into chords. This is what species counterpoint teaches.

Vertical writing: What is most important is that the voices all combine to make exactly the chords, with exactly the harmonic function we want them to have, on every beat. Imagine you are composing for a jazz ensemble. Your lead alto sax plays the melody, and your other 4 saxes play the exact same rhythm as the lead. Their notes hop all over the place, and the inner parts might be full of awkward leaps to weird intervals, but we don't care. We want to hear that G7b9 resolve into that C6 chord, and we don't really care how each voice might get there. If you play the second alto by itself, it is not a valid melody. But together with the others, it works. This is pretty much the opposite of species counterpoint. There's nothing wrong with it; it works perfectly well in many musical styles. But counterpoint it is not!

One informs the other: I don't think anyone nowadays writes either strictly horizontally or strictly vertically. Each approach informs the other. The jazz arranger doesn't write species counterpoint for the saxes -- but they probably do use the ideas of contrary motion to make sure the lowest voice complements the highest voice. And the "horizontal" writer of string quartets is certainly aware of what chords their four voices are making even as they write glorious melodies for the viola and second violin.

Why we avoid function in learning counterpoint: There is a problem, though. If a young composer learning counterpoint comes to the study with a strong knowledge of chords and functions, they are likely to lean on this knowledge as they learn counterpoint. Their thought process might be...

"Hmm, this is my dominant A chord, so what should this voice here do in the bar before it. Well, that should be an E minor chord as a predominant, so I'll let them sing a G."

While this thinking might result in a perfectly reasonable exercise, it also might end up that the inner parts lack good independence because the writer was thinking chords first and melody second. We want our composers to approach that same problem with their melody-brains:

"Hmm, these altos are singing a D here, suspended over the barline to the leading-tone C#. What would be a good way to get to that D? Ooh, they could leap up to D from an A. They haven't used a leap in a while and that makes a really good melody. How does that D and A work with the rest of the ensemble? Oh, cool, that D and A fit in nicely with the "chord-of-the-sixth" that the bass F# suggests. That could work. Then the bass can move through G as a passing tone to give us an A under that 4-3 suspension.

Here the composer first evaluated the horizontal (melodic) aspects of the piece, and then considered its effect on the harmonic function. The more we teach this manner of thinking, the better the counterpoint is. And the less we rely on thinking about chords and functions, the more we can think about horizontal motion.

  • In counterpoint it is not possible for each line to be interesting all the time. Even in the most idiomatic counterpoint isnt it true that the viola cannot be as interesting as the violin at the same time? they would have to take turns in some way right? This is usually achieved by one line becoming less active than the other.
    – user35708
    May 16, 2023 at 9:42
  • In your sax ensemble, why would the 4 harmony saxes be jumping all over the place? They can still be arranged as harmony parts with good voice leading that support the melody. I dont understand this.
    – user35708
    May 16, 2023 at 9:47
  • @armani of course it's all relative, nothing is perfect. But consider Bach's WTC Fugue in C minor. Each voice IS interesting, and they DO take turns with the best material. There is a balance, though. Someone has sixteenth while someone else has 8ths and so on
    – nuggethead
    May 16, 2023 at 9:49
  • @armani in my sax example the second alto part was a weaker melody than first because it is simply filling out chords. And it lacks rhythmic independence, often having the exact same rhythm as first alto
    – nuggethead
    May 16, 2023 at 9:51
  • Perfect thanks for explaining. Your answer was very well "composed"
    – user35708
    May 16, 2023 at 10:12

It's really a question of philosophy.

To some, learning these concepts in the ways that historical composers learned them is the optimal learning style. They fundamentally believe that because Palestrina, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. learned strict species counterpoint long before we had modern conceptions of functional harmony and harmonic progression, then so too should we.

There are others, however, that blend the two traditions into one, giving a harmonic backdrop to a given cantus firmus. Their claim is that keeping the two traditions divorced leads, at best, to a very skewed and limited understanding of species counterpoint as it relates to later Classical music.

Of course, there's at least one more camp to consider: those that believe that species counterpoint is an outdated, moldy tradition no matter if it's connected to functional harmony or not.

Nevertheless, there are pros and cons to each approach. Keeping species counterpoint separate can create a very teleological pedagogy, and one that's perhaps better able to match the style of 16th-century counterpoint in a way that wouldn't be possible when connected with harmonic function. Conversely, I would argue that including harmonic function helps you better match the style of music of about 1780 and later. And ditching both allows one to focus on recent music, lead-sheet notation, and the role of chord progression in modern popular and jazz styles.

In short, it's really up to one's specific goals which of the above makes the most sense to you.

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