A Survey of Music Theory for the College Classroom: Diatonic Harmony

Second and Fourth Species Counterpoint

Second Species – Passing Tones and Neighbor Tones

Second species counterpoint exploits consonant skips, passing tones, and neighbor tones. Think of it as a method of “activating” the texture of a simple first species (1:1 or note vs. note) contrapuntal texture. The practices governing adding melodies to existing bass lines and bass lines to existing melodies are still in operation. Additionally, voice leading conventions such as the avoidance of parallel fifths/octaves, direct fifths/octaves and so forth are still to be observed.

We will confine our second species counterpoint exercises to the adding of a melody to an existing tonal bass line and will adapt the traditional rules of second species counterpoint to this purpose. The general guidelines for writing second species (2:1) counterpoint are as follows:

  • Continue to use the rules and traditions for first species counterpoint but with an eye toward creating opportunities for passing tones and neighbor tones.
  • Continue to follow the guidelines illustrated in the first species counterpoint instructions with respect to the types of motion (contrary, similar, oblique, and parallel) and phrase beginnings and endings.
  • Begin by analyzing the bass line to see what chords can harmonize it. The bass notes can be either the roots or thirds of triads. Do not use second inversion triads or seventh chords.
  • On the offbeats, incorporate consonant (chordal) skips (skips from one chord tone to another), passing tones, and neighbor tones.
  • Passing tones should be used between melody notes that are separated by a third.
  • Neighbor tones should be used between repeated melody notes.
  • Treat the P4 as a dissonance – use it only as a passing or neighbor tone on offbeats.
  • Avoid the common part-writing errors that are illustrated in this text.
  • Write the counterpoint in eighth notes against a cantus firmus in quarter notes.

This is an example of second species counterpoint in which a melody was added to an existing bass line. The passing tones and neighbor tones are analyzed, as are the intervals from beat to beat. Note the chordal skips that occur in each measure. These add variety to the melody and can also be used to assist in setting up further opportunities for adding passing and neighbor tones.

example of second species counterpoint

Fourth Species (Syncopated) – Suspensions

Fourth species or syncopated counterpoint involves the same two voice textures we have worked with in our earlier counterpoint exercises. Consonant skips may be used when needed to set the stage for suspensions and passing and neighbor tones may be freely used. In fourth species counterpoint we should confine ourselves to writing 4-3, 7-6, 9-8, 6-5 consonant suspensions, and 2-3 bass suspensions.

When one voice – for our purposes either the soprano or bass – features a stepwise descending line, it is possible to write a chain of suspensions in the other part. For example, a note-against-note series of descending parallel thirds or sixths can be made into a “chain” of 4-3 or 7-6 suspensions, respectively. Chains of suspensions are an important feature of the music of the Baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli.

The first example contains 9-8, 7-6, and 4-3 suspensions as well as several consonant skips. Also note the chain of 7-6 suspensions found in measure two of the example.

fourth species example

The next example demonstrates several 2-3 bass suspensions. As with the more common upper voice suspensions, it is especially useful to suspend notes that resolve to the leading tone of the key.

bass suspensions example

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