Contrapuntal melody


Audio: contrapuntal melody (0:10)

Contrapuntal melody
Figure: contrapuntal melody

contrapuntal melody plays two sung melodies in sequence in first species counterpoint in the key of E phrygian. The contrapuntal melody figure shows the score. The melodies are the same as first species counterpoint except they are sung sequentially not simultaneously.

Contrapuntal melody focusses on the horizontal dimension of counterpoint, the melody.

The three principles underpinning the construction of a melody in counterpoint are singability, order and variety:

  1. Singability is a rather vague concept at best. In practice, it means that the span of a single melody should not exceed the vocal range of a typical singer, typically, an interval of no more than a tenth.
  2. Order refers to melodic motion. The preferred motion in a melody is by step. A leap of up to a fifth is OK. A large leap of more than a fifth is generally to be avoided because it is perceived as difficult to sing. There are exceptions, and an occasional upward leap of a minor sixth or an octave can be used.
  3. Variety means using all the notes in a scale and avoiding a repeat note.

Lots of additional rules about melody have been added over the years to reflect the practical experiences of singers, musicians and writers of counterpoint. Many contemporary guides to counterpoint are essentially long lists of things to do and things not to do with a melody. Fux does not clutter his guide with these rules so we will follow suit: if it is singable, ordered and varied, it is a contrapuntal melody.

One of the melodies in species counterpoint is called the cantus firmus or fixed melody. The other is called the counterpoint melody, or simply, the counterpoint. The student of species counterpoint is normally given a fixed melody in advance and asked to write the counterpoint melody so that it contrasts with the fixed melody. Counterpoint melody can be written above or below the pitch of the fixed melody. You can download a pre-written fixed melody from the internet or you can write it yourself.

The melody is short, around 8 to 16 notes on average.

All the notes have the same value.

The fixed melody starts on the tonic. The counterpoint starts on the tonic, fifth or octave if it is above the fixed melody, and the tonic or octave if it is below.

Both melodies end on the tonic. The penultimate interval, the one before the end, is a minor third or a major sixth. This means sharpening the seventh degree of the minor, dorian and mixolydian scales. For example, a contrapuntal melody in D dorian will end C#E-DD or EC#-DD.

There is no repeat note in the fixed melody. A repeat note is allowed once in the counterpoint melody.

A tritone within a melody is forbidden. The prohibition applies to two consecutive notes and also to a series of notes whose start and end notes form a tritone. Thankfully, a tritone can occur within a longer sequence of notes. For example, the melody B-F is not OK because it is a tritone. The melody B-C-D-E-F is not OK either because its start and end notes form a tritone, whereas the melody A-B-C-D-E-F is OK, even though it still contains a tritone.

Melodies are in the same key and any key can be used. In practice, all the modes are used except the locrian, because it is the only mode that contains a tritone above the tonic, and the tritone is prohibited in counterpoint.

Traditionally, the student of species counterpoint is taught to write counterpoint in one mode then encouraged to repeat the process again in another mode. The aim is not to learn any new techniques but to become familiar with the modes. You can try this approach if you wish.