Counterpoint: A Fundamental Technique for Music Composition

If you want to learn more about the history and theory of polyphonic music, consider writing your own cantus firmus composition. A cantus firmus is a pre-existing melody that forms the basis of a polyphonic composition. It is usually a plainchant excerpt or a popular song sung by one voice, often the tenor, while other voices weave around it with different rhythms and melodies. A cantus firmus can have symbolic or musical significance and can be used to create unity and coherence in a complex musical texture. Some examples of composers who used cantus firmus technique are Dufay, Josquin, Palestrina and Bach.


One of the most critical parts of counterpoint is learning to internalize the music you hear. You should first aim to audiate the cantus firmus. Once you can clearly hear the music in your mind's ear, you can begin to add the second line. In this way, you should continually develop your ability to hear additional voices as you progress. 

In this blog post, we will give you some tips and guidelines on how to write a cantus firmus composition in four steps:

1. Create a cantus firmus. Traditionally, a cantus firmus should follow basic melodic motion rules described in the video below. However, you can use any melody you like as long as it is simple, clear and singable. You can also use a fragment of a longer melody or modify it slightly to suit your needs. Some sources of cantus firmus melodies are Gregorian chants, folk songs, hymns, nursery rhymes or even pop songs. Ensure that your cantus firmus has a definite beginning and end and follows the rules of tonality and modality.

2. Write the first voice. The first voice is usually the highest voice in the texture, also called the discantus or superius. The first voice should create a harmonious counterpoint with the cantus firmus, following consonance, dissonance, motion, and cadence rules. You can use different intervals, such as thirds, sixths, octaves or fifths, to create harmony with the cantus firmus. You can also use different rhythms, such as syncopation, imitation or augmentation, to create variety and contrast with the cantus firmus. Generally, in the simplest counterpoint style, you should only use consonant intervals and avoid moving in direct motion into a perfect consonance. 

3. Write the second voice. The second voice is usually the lowest voice in the texture, and it is also called the bassus or contratenor. The second voice should support the harmony and structure of the composition, following the rules of chord progression and voice leading. You can use different chords, such as triads, seventh chords or inversions, to create harmony with the cantus firmus and the first voice. You can also use different melodic patterns, such as scales, arpeggios or leaps, to create movement and interest in the bass line.

4. Write the third voice (optional). The third voice is usually the middle voice in the texture, also called the altus or medius. The third voice should fill in the gaps and enrich the harmony of the composition, following the rules of balance and independence. You can use different techniques, such as parallel motion, contrary motion or oblique motion, to create harmony with the cantus firmus and the other voices. You can also use different embellishments, such as passing tones, neighbor tones or suspensions, to create tension and resolution in the melody.

To learn how to compose a counterpoint step-by-step, you should begin with our Counterpoint series. These videos take you through the voice-leading requirements and show you examples of how you can create your own counterpoint. Writing a cantus firmus composition is a great way to learn more about music history and theory and express yourself through music.


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