Music Theory and Practice – Introduction to Counterpoint

Bringing the Baroque into the 21st Century

Counterpoint Dates Back to Renaissance But Is Still Used by Composers Today
Counterpoint Dates Back to Renaissance But Is Still Used by Composers Today

What is Counterpoint?

Counterpoint refers to an argument, idea, or theme used to create a contrast with the main idea. It can be in language, visual art, or in music. For our purposes, we are focusing on musical counterpoint, which is the two or more voices (instrumental or vocal) that are harmonically dependent upon one another while being independent in their rhythm and melodic contour. The term "counterpoint" comes from Latin phrase punctus contra punctum, meaning point against point, which in musical terms is note against note.

Counterpoint originated in the music of the Renaissance (1300s to 1600s) era where composers began to discover that they prefer the way that certain intervals sounded together and began developing the concept of Western harmony. Two Renaissance composers who helped standardize counterpuntcal practice include Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 – Feb.. 2, 1594) and Orlando di Lasso (c. 1530 – June, 14, 1594). Listen to the example of fully embellished or "florid counterpoint" composed by di Lasso in the video below.

Counterpoint continued to be an important musical idea and practice throughout the common practice era (1650 to 1900). Counterpunctal composition characterized much of the music of the Baroque (1600 to 1750), and one of the greatest composers of counterpoint of all time was German Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach (March 31, 1685 – July 28, 1750). Bach's two-part works called inventions and his three-part works called sinfonias (not to be confused with symphonies) as well as his fugues remain some of the prime examples of well-executed counterpoint. Listen to Bach's Two-Part Invention No. 8 in F major, BWV 779 and follow along with the animation that depicts how the two lines (played by the pianists right and left hands) work together and against one another, point against point, note against note.

Counterpoint may date back to Renaissance, but it is still an important skill for today's composers to have in their musician's toolkit. Composers who lack an understanding of counterpoint often have issues writing polyphonic (music with many voices) that listeners can comprehend. Being able to clearly compose lines that function well indepdently as well as together is essential for your listeners to follow your music, understand what you are saying or what feelings you wish to share with it, and most importantly, appreciate it—and even enjoy it! Understanding counterpoint is not just important for composers, but it is important that singers and instrumentalists against how it works to perform counterpunctal pieces most effectively. Understanding how the music you are performing was constructed helps you as a singer and player better express the meaning behind the work and communicate in the musical language.

Consonance and Dissonance

Western art music is often described as the tension between consonance and dissonance. Consonance from Latin consonantia "sounding together," meaning that two or more sounds resonate well together. Dissonance from Latin dissonantia "disagreeing in sound" meaning that two or more sounds do not resonate together well. To put it dramatically, if two sounds are consonant, they are in peacetime, and there is no fight or tension between them that needs to be resolved. And, sounds that are dissonant are battling it our sonically and need to find their way to resolution...or else!

Consonances in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4
Consonances in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4
Dissonance in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4
Dissonance in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4

Consonant Intervals are further divided in perfect and imperfect consonances. A perfect consonance is an unison (the same pitch), a fourth, a fifth or an octave and an imperfect is a third or sixth.

Perfect Intervals in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4
Perfect Intervals in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4

Imperfect Intervals in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4
Imperfect Intervals in relation to the pitch middle "C" or C4

Harmonies that are constructed of only consonant intervals considered to be “stable" chords. They do not feel like they “need to go somewhere;” they do not contain tension that requires resolution. While harmonies that contain dissonant intervals may sound unpleasant to Western ears, and we may feel that they are “guiding us somewhere sonically,” that they need to be resolved. Traditionally, music that does not contain dissonance may sound uninteresting or even boring to Western ears. Also, music that is full of dissonances may sound ugly or angry to us. However, as the the 20th century, these ideas began to changes and some composers began to create music that did not follow this pattern of tension and release. However, for our purposes, we are referring to music from the common practice period where tension and release was the basis of Western melodic and harmonic language.

In popular music language, this is why dominant seven or V7 resolves to tonic or I traditionally. In C major, G7 (g dominant seven) resolves to C major. In typical voice leading, the F or seventh in the G7 chord sounds as if it wants to resolve down by step to E which is the third in C major.

V7 to I in C major
V7 to I in C major

The Origin of Species...of Counterpoint

The counterpoint of Renaissance composers such as Palestrina and Dufay was referred to as the ancient style or Stile antico in Italian. Listen to a beautiful example of this style in the video above, Palestrina's "Kyrie" from the Missa Papae Marcelli [Pope Marcellus Mass]. As counterpoint continued to develop in the early Baroque period after the style of these Renaissance composers, it became known as the Prima pratica, Italian for "'first practice."This style of counterpoint was codified by Italian composer and music theorist, Gioseffo Zarlino (1517 – Feb. 4, 1590). Zarlino was the first to theorize the primacy of triadic harmony or chords over simple intervals. As counterpoint continued to evolve, Claudio Monteverdi (baptized May 15, 1567 – Nov. 29. 1643), a composer who bridged the Renaissance into the Baroque, began to refer to the style of music he composed as the Seconda pratica, Italian for "second practice" (or Stile moderno) for the more modern variation of counterpoint. This Baroque style of counterpoint is what we are going to practice composing in our exercises.

In 1725, Austrian music teacher, music theorist, and composer Johann Joseph Fux (c. 1660 – Feb. 13, 1741) published his book, Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus). Parnassus is a mountain in Greece. So, we are musically stepping up the mountain of counterpoint. This is reflected in the common arch shape of cantus firmi. He described five types of counterpoint which he called “species."

Species is from Latin meaning "appearance, form, beauty," which originated with the Latin word specere "to look." So similarly to how when scientists looked at the animal world they sought to categorize and divide them into species, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, to compare, contrast, and better understand them, music theorists divided counterpoint into "species" to better understand as well.

Johann Joseph Fux
Johann Joseph Fux

The Five Species of Counterpoint

  1. Note against note; 1:1

  2. Two notes against one; 2:1

  3. Four notes against one; 4:1

  4. Notes offset against each other (as suspensions);

  5. All the first four species together, as "florid" counterpoint.

The fugue below is from Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum and is an example of a counterpunctal compositional form called a fugue. A fugue is a type of contrapuntal composition in which a short melody (called "the subject") is introduced by one part and successively taken up by the another part (called "the answer"). These two ideas are developed further as the pieces goes on.

We will explain the species and how to compose them further in the post. For now, listen to the Fux example below, and notice how the notes of the three voices work against one another. Do you notice areas which the harmonies create tension and where that tension is released or resolved?

Start With A Strong Foundation– Composing a Cantus Firmus

Counterpunctal genius Dufay composed music for the consecration of Florence's great cathedral.
Counterpunctal genius Dufay composed music for the consecration of Florence's great cathedral.

All five species of counterpoint begin with a single line of music, called the cantus firmus. Cantus firmus (plural Cantus Firmi) is Latin for “fixed song.” It is pre-existing melody. In early examples, it was a plainchant melody or even the melody of popular song. It is the foundation on which a polyphonic composition is built.

In the videos below, there are two listening examples. They are both compositions by French Renaissance composer Guillaume Dufay (1397 – Nov. 27, 1474). Dufay was considered one of the leading composers in Europe during his lifetime and composed the music for the dedication of the dome of the Florence Cathedral [pictured above]. The first, Dufay's Se la face ay pale is a French chanson, or secular song, written in three-part counterpoint. Dufay took the melody of this piece, the middle voice and used it as the cantus firmus in his sacred work, Missa Se la face ay pale. Can you hear and/or see where Dufay used the material from the secular song in the mass? Which voice is in it? How is it changed?

What Makes a Cantus Firmus?

  • Usually eight to 16 notes long

  • In early examples, arhythmic, all whole notes or a set rhythm pattern is used–no rhythmic variation. Sometimes, it is often at half-speed.

  • Begin and end on the first note of the scale, the tonic, “do

  • Approach final tonic by step, usually “re-do,” occasionally “ti-do

  • Consonant intervals between notes

  • Usually with in the octave, rarely up to 10th

  • One single climatic high note in the melody

  • Generally creates a melodic curve or arch-shape from tonic up to the high note climax and back

  • Mostly steps

  • No motivic development

  • Any large leaps (fourth or larger) are followed by a step in opposite direction

  • Usually no consecutive leaps

  • The leading tone (seventh scale degree) progresses to the tonic

  • In minor keys, if the leading tone appears, it will be in the second to last bar, and in melodic minor, the raised submediant is only used when progressing to that ending leading tone.

Cantus Firmus Example 1 in C major

Pitches: C D E G A F E D C
Pitches in Major Scale Degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1

Cantus Firmus Example 2 in D minor

Pitches: D F E A G F E D
Pitches in Minor Scale Degrees 1, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Types of Motion in Music

Note: Skips and steps for consonant intervals in musical motion ignore designations such minor and major. For example, E to F and F to G are both considered steps even though one is a half-step or minor second apart (E to F) and the other is a whole-step or major second apart (F to G). A skip is an interval of a third, whether major or minor because we are simply skipping one scale degree in between. A leap is a jump between pitches that is larger than a third, so it is a perfect fourth or larger.

  • Parallel motion - a specific type of similar motion and occurs when both voices move in the same direction by the same interval—both up by step, or both down by a third. In our example above, the blue lines show that the top voice and the lower voice are both moving by the same skip or step. In this case, it is a step.

  • Oblique motion - one voice stays the same and the other voice moves up or down by step or leap.

  • Contrary motion - the two voices move in opposite direction to each other by step or leap.

  • Similar motion - both voices move in the same (or “similar”) direction—both up (by step or leap) or both down (by step or leap); similar motion is also called “direct” motion

Guidelines for Counterpoint Exercises

General Guidelines for Common Practice Counterpoint

  • The counterpoint must begin and end on a perfect consonance, usually octave or unison but other consonants sometimes are used as well.

  • Contrary motion is most prevalent, but oblique motion and parallel motion are also common.

  • Perfect consonances must be approached by oblique or contrary motion.

  • Imperfect consonances may be approached by any type of motion.

  • The interval of a tenth should not be exceeded between two adjacent parts unless by necessity.

  • Build from the bass, upward.

  • Avoid parallel fourths, fifths, octaves, and unisons.

  • The cantus firmus may appear in an upper or lower voice.

  • In ternary meters, meters which are felt in groupings of three rather than binary meters which are felt in groupings of two, second species is (2:1 in binary meters) is 3:1 and third species (4:1 in binary meters) is 6:1.

Guidelines Specific to Our Exercises

  • All exercises will be in common time. However, there are historic examples in triple meter as well.

  • All exercises will be for two voices.

  • In first species, write note-against-note counterpoint in whole notes.

  • In second species, write two half notes against a cantus firmus in whole notes. You can begin your counterpoint on the first or third beat of the measures.

  • In third species, write four quarter notes against a cantus firmus in whole notes.

  • In fourth species, write suspensions, offset notes, against a cantus firmus in whole notes.

  • Finally, in fifth species, combine all four of the previous species against a a cantus firmus in whole notes.

Example of First Species Counterpoint

In this example, Cantus Firmus example 1 in C major appears in the lower voice. In first species, it is written note against note.

Example of Second Species Counterpoint

In this example, Cantus Firmus example 2 in D minor appears in the upper voice. Notice how second species counterpoint is two notes against one in the cantus firmus.

Example of Third Species Counterpoint

In this example, Cantus Firmus example 2 is transposed from D minor to G minor and appears in the upper voice. Notice how in third species counterpoint, it is written as four notes against one note in the cantus firmus.

Example of Fourth Species Counterpoint

In this example, Cantus Firmus example 1 is transposed from C major to E major and appears in the lower voice. In fourth species counterpoint, non-chord tones called "suspensions" and "retardations" are used. These suspensions are offset, meaning that while one note in one voice holds the other sounds. Suspensions are resolved from a dissonance to a consonance by a step downward. Retardations are resolved from a dissonance to a consonance by a step upwards. In our example, the suspensions are denoted by "sus," and the one retardation, by "ret."

Example of Fifth Species Counterpoint

In this example, Cantus Firmus example 2 appears in the lower voice. In fourth species counterpoint, all the previous four species together. It sometimes called "florid" counterpoint. In this example, the non-chord tones are labelled. "Ant" stands for anticipation, which is a non-chord tone that will occur immediately before a change of harmony and "anticipate" the new harmony. "Pt" stands for passing tone. A passing tone is a non-chord tone prepared by a chord tone a step above it or below it and resolved by continuing in the same direction by step to the next chord tone. Retardations and suspensions from the fourth species counterpoint are used in this example as well as oblique, parallel, contrary, and similar motion.


Further Reading

Fux, Johann Joseph. Gradus Ad Parnassum.

Kennan, Kent. Counterpoint Based on Eighteenth-Century Practice. New Jersey, N. J: Prentice Hall, 1999.

“Composing a Cantus Firmus.” Open Music Theory. Accessed August 10, 2021.

Hutchinson, Robert. “Music Theory for the 21st-Century Classroom.” Species Counterpoint. Accessed August 10, 2021.


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.