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I’m in the midst of trying to grasp counterpoint and I’m at a bit of a stand still in terms of my understanding of it. I want to be able to go beyond memorizing the rules and really understand the implications behind them and what makes “counterpoint” counterpoint, so I can use those principles in other music. I’ve got a pretty good grip on first species, but I want to make sure I have a good understanding of the principles before moving on to second species. Below is a summary of counterpoint how I understand it. Any feedback would be appreciated!

The ultimate goal is to create multiple melodies that are independent, but oriented towards the same goal. In order to do this we create stability on either end of both melodies and motion in the middle. The stability in the beginning and end comes from octaves, unsions and fifths which means we should avoid them in the middle because it would cause a stop of the motion we want.

While we don’t want stability in the middle, we also don’t want dissonance. If we were to use dissonant intervals like 2nds and 7ths, the two melodies would sound like they don’t belong together. However, if we were to use 5ths and octaves, they would sound too much like the same note, which is more like one melody than two independent melodies.

In terms of motion we want to use contrary motion as much as possible because when the notes move in different directions it further emphasizes their independence, while parallel motion would make the notes seem more similar.

Overall does this describe counterpoint well? Again, I’ve only studied first species.

A couple of other things that seem important are variance and contour. For example, things like repeated notes in melodies, repeated intervals etc. should be avoided as well as more than one leap. Why is this? What does repeating things and making too many leaps add to the music that we don’t want in counterpoint?

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You seem to get the general gist of it. But the blanket condemnation of fifths and octaves in the middle of your exercises is too much of a generalization, even in first species. The main purpose of good counterpoint is, as you said, independent lines that are oriented towards the same goal. If your lines, in your opinion, become more independent and "interesting" by occasionally writing fifths or octaves in the middle of your exercise, by all means write them. Just don't overuse them to the point of your counterpoint sounding stagnant or aimless. The only thing that is absolutely forbidden is two octaves or two (perfect) fifths immediately following each other. (Although going to an octave or a fifth by similar motion is also frowned upon in two-voiced first species.)

As for contour and repetition, you have to understand that what you're trying to recreate is the vocal style of art-music of the 16th century, or some more or less tonal approximation thereof. Melodies that contain lots of leaps tend to be awkward to sing (excepting leaps of an octave, which may be used a bit more freely as long as they don't take you out of the voices' range). Also, 16th century composers and listeners prized naturalness and variety above everything else. Which is why repeated notes and sequential figures were used sparingly, and often not at all in the long note durations of first species.

The aesthetic ideal that one has to aim for in writing these first species exercises is long, gently flowing, wave-like melodies, that are easy to sing, while never becoming stagnant, repetitive, or monotonous. This is difficult to achieve in first species (I know all about it), but it is important nonetheless. One often finds that intricate polyphonic music is built around a solid first species "skeleton", decorated with suspensions, diminutions, etc. (Even though experienced composers can usually conceive these decorations simultaneously with the skeleton.)

Hope this helps, and best of luck in your endeavors.

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You seem to be going about it the right way. And I think that's a pretty good summary of counterpoint.

Repeating things - notes or intervals - can lead to a lack of variety or of melodic independence, but I think you can have one repeated note and up to three repeated intervals in a shortish exercise. The 'repeated interval' rule probably exists for the same reason as the rule about parallel fifths and octaves: people were sick of them! You heard them everywhere: in the overtones of church bells, and especially in amateur music-making. It was too easy. [Like people singing the last line of 'Happy Birthday To You' always a third above the tune!]

Leaps are very attention-grabbing and can interrupt the flow. As you know, leapfrogging is not allowed. So if, for example, the upper voice has just sung a middle C, the lower voice shouldn't sing a middle D in the next bar. But if your leaps don't break that rule, and as long as they're used very sparingly, they're permitted.

By the way, Dr. Bernard Stevens's most withering judgement of my early efforts used to be, "What a faceless piece of counterpoint!"

So. Good luck. Avoid facelessness!

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  • Thanks for the feedback! I will try my best to not be faceless haha – YoungCapone May 2 at 20:22

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