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 experienced composers.

The rules may be divided into an number of categories according to their purposes. These categories are discussed below.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 Basse Dance.
  5. 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 canon.
  6. 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 ones.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

Onward to: Chapter 9: The Rules Regarding the Placement of Consonances and Dissonances.

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