Chapter 8: The Rules of Counterpoint.
The art of counterpoint lays forth a series of orderly rules about how
one voice may sing against another in order to make a good symphony.
If these rules are followed, then the result is destined to sound
harmonious, although the use of these rules does not ensure that the
composition will be a work of brilliance. Great composers (such as
Josquin) may break these rules for deliberate effect, but they do so
only at great risk. Beginning composers are well advised to pay
strict attention to the rules and the example of other more
The rules may be divided into an number of categories according to
their purposes. These categories are discussed below.
- Placement of consonances and dissonances.
Dissonances must be placed with care or else the composition will
sound harsh and unpleasing. Yet if there are no dissonances, the
composition will sound too sweat and cloying. The next chapter
describes the rules regarding the placement of dissonances.
- Placement of Perfect consonances. Using perfect
consonances too freely will cause the listener to perceive fewer
voices than are actually singing, as if there were more than one
musician to a part. Or else, the listener will perceive a cadence
where none was intended. Chapter 10 describes the rules for the
placement of perfect consonances.
- Special rules for the Fourth and Tritone. The
diatessaron is reguarded as a dissonance in two voice texture.
In three or more voice texture, the diatessaron can be made
consonant by the use of other intervals. The tritone on the
other hand, is more dissonant than the other intervals and musicians
often use musica ficta to correct it. Chapter 11 gives the
rules for both these special cases.
- Cadences are the sound at the end of a phrase or
composition. Chapter 12 treats the matter of interior
cadences---cadences at the end of phrases. Chapter 13 treats a
special problem with the final cadence in the reconstruction of the
- Contrary Motion---two voices moving in opposite
direction---is preferable to similar motion---two voices
moving in the same direction. Oblique motion---one voice
steady while the other moves---is preferable to similar motion but not
contrary motion. However, this rule may be sacrificed for purposes of
making a sweater harmony or melody, or to allow imitation by a strict
- Variety---It is preferable to use a variety of
motifs and other musical devices rather than repeat the same one.
Longer compositions are expected to have more variety than shorter
- All voices must sing sweetly and make a smooth
melody. Modern writers ( e.g., Jeppesen and Gauldin) make
much this rule, but the long and the short of it is that a singer must
be able to sing the part with ease, or an instrumentalist play it
naturally. Tinctoris prefers motion by seconds, but says that this
must be subordinate to the beauty of the melody.
- Imitations, Canons and Fugues. These devices show
off the cleverness and skill of the musician and were frequently used
by the leading composers of the age. It was particularly common for
each part, excepting the cantus firmus, to enter imitatively after a
cadence. A fugue is a composition in which one part is
entirely imitative [in modern times this would be called a
cannon]. Usually one part of a fugue was unwritten and described
by a cannon or rules such as to be played a twelfth
higher at half speed; there were special marks to indicate the
starting and stopping points of canonic voices.
The last four rules are mostly a matter of a trained ear. A composer
who knows what a good melody sounds like will be better able to write
one. I therefore recommend to anyone who would wish to write good
counterpoint to listen and read the works of the masters and let them
be their guide. I will say no more about these rules.
The other rules deserve to be described in greater detail. The
following chapters provide that description.
Chapter 9: The Rules Regarding the Placement of
Consonances and Dissonances.
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