Music 160 - Counterpoint Guide




Counterpoint is the art of combining melodic lines. This involves consideration of the individual melodies and attention to their interaction as they unfold together through time.

General: This music should be singable. That is, the range, rhythms, intervals and so forth should be comfortable for a regular person to sing. Many of the specific features described below are to help you re-create a musical style that evolved from vocal singing and became part the basic language for Western tonal art music, both vocal and instrumental. For the time being, imagine everything you write is for a group of average (sometimes mediocre; definitely not exceptional) singers (maybe from the 18th Century). Below are guidelines to write the kind of music they like to sing. Be creative, but within the boundaries of their musical tastes and abilities. Write music they'll like (for a while), and I'm sure you will learn something valuable to carry over to the music you like.


Contour: The melodic line should have a sense of direction; that it is 'going somewhere' rather than remaining static or meandering aimlessly. Typically, the shape of the melody should be
interesting, but clear and simple, with a single focal point, the highest note of the melody.

Range: The range for an individual melody should lie approximately within the span of an octave (from its lowest to highest notes). Each voice part (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) has a fixed tessitura of approximately an octave-and-a-half, within which the melody should lie. (see Kostka/Payne p.82).

Key: Stay within one key. Use only the diatonic notes of a single major or minor scale. Do not use chromatic tones.

Melodic Intervals: Use mostly stepwise motion (minor and major 2nds) from note to note, with leaps (minor 3rds and larger) used to create melodic interest.Leaps of 3rds, perfect 4ths, and perfect 5ths are common in both directions (up and down).
Ascending leaps of 6ths are common; descending are not. Octave leaps are possible but not common. Avoid all augmented intervals, 7ths, and any leaps larger than a perfect 8ve.

Diminished intervals may be used if the melody changes direction by step immediately after the diminished interval (e.g., B FØ E).

A leap larger than a P4 should be approached and left in the direction opposite the large leap (e.g., G AØ D F).

Two consecutive leaps in the same direction should outline a major or minor triad (e.g., A C# F#).

Tendency tones:   Ti almost always must resolve upwards to Do.


Harmonic Intervals: This refers to the vertical intervals between simultaneous notes in different lines (as opposed to melodic intervals between adjacent notes in a single line). Intervals are not all treated the same. Different intervals create different effects, and therefore must be employed in different ways. Harmonic intervals were historically classified as either consonant and dissonant intervals. In the style in which we are studying, they are as follows:
        Consonant                                           Dissonant
Perfect cons.: P1, P8, P5               2nds, 7ths, P4
diatonic 3rds & 6ths                         all augmented & diminished intervals

Compound intervals (those larger than an octave) are classified and treated the same as the the corresponding interval that is less than an octave. For example, a perfect 12th (P8 + P5) is considered a type of perfect 5th.

Motion between lines: When two independent melodic lines are combined, they create motion in relation to one another. There are four types of motion (see also Kostka/Payne, p.84):

Contrary Motion: lines move in opposite directions (one up, the other down). This is best type of motion to ensure that the melodic lines remain independent. However, contrary motion between consecutive perfect consonances (e.g., P5-P5) is not allowed.

Oblique Motion: one line stays steady (i.e., a repeated note or a tie) and the other line moves up or down.

Similar Motion: both lines move in the same direction (both up or both down) but not by the same amount (e.g., one line goes down a perfect 4th, the other line goes down a major 6th). Similar stepwise motion should not exceed three stepwise intervals. Also, similar motion from any interval to a perfect consonance (e.g., m6-P8) is usually not allowed. This is sometimes called direct or hidden motion.

Parallel Motion: both lines move in the same direction by the same amount (e.g., both lines ascend by 3rds). Parallel motion between perfect consonances is not allowed (e.g., parallel 8ves or 5ths).


We will begin with two-part duets between soprano and bass. Sometimes you will be given a pre-existing melody (called a cantus firmus) for one of the parts and you will compose an accompanying counterpoint in a 1:1 rhythmic ratio. This means that for every note in the cantus firmus there should be one (and only one) note in the counterpoint, and vice versa. In addition to stylistic features described above, the following characteristics also apply:

Only consonant harmonic intervals are allowed. In other words, no dissonant harmonic intervals are allowed.

The bass should begin and end on DO. The soprano most commonly begins on either DO or SO, and always ends on DO. Occasionally (not often) the soprano opens on MI (in major) or MÉ (in minor). To restate this intervallically, each phrase may begin with a unison, octave, or perfect 5th (or occasionally a 3rd); each phrase ends with either an octave or unison.

Within the phrase, harmonic 3rds and 6ths should predominate. Perfect consonances (especially octaves and unisons) are generally saved for the opening and closing of the phrase and therefore are not very common within the phrase.

The distance between the soprano and bass rarely exceeds a 12th. At the other extreme, a unison is perfectly acceptable, but the voices should not cross. That is, the bass should not be above the soprano.


This is an elaboration of 1:1 counterpoint, with two eighth-notes in the counterpoint for each quarter-note in the cantus firmus. In general, all of the stylistic guidelines for 1:1 counterpoint still apply. In addition:

Dissonant harmonic intervals are allowed on off-beat eighth notes only, and only if approached and followed by stepwise melodic motion.

Consonant harmonic intervals are allowed on beats and off-beats (and may be approached or followed by steps or leaps).

Avoid parallel, contrary, and hidden, octaves and fifths between consective beats AND between an off-beat and the next immediate beat.


School of Music, Western Michigan University,
Kalamazoo, MI 49008-3831 Revised: 16 September 1997