Just over a year ago I was posting notes I sent my high school students in 2014 while we were taking the free online class called Write Like Mozart. My Master’s in Composition studies took over my life, and I did not finish composing the last two postings of my notes. A reader alerted me that the course is being offered again starting next week (April 11, 2016). That there exists at least one reader interested in these notes inspires me to complete my postings on this subject!
My first post for Write Like Mozart Week 5 covered chromatic chord substitutions. This is the second post on Write Like Mozart Week 5 Notes, and here I cover Professor Edwards’ discussion of two-part counterpoint.
Write Like Mozart gives a reasonable yet rough introduction to writing two-part counterpoint that can be useful in composing. It should not be considered a substitute for a serious study in counterpoint along the traditional lines of Fux
or more modern options. Also, working with a mentor is invaluable for a source of keen criticism and motivation to reach a high standard. However, Professor Edwards offers useful strategies that can help even an experienced counterpoint artist identify options.
Probably some of the most important points our professor made in this lesson has to do with keeping the melody interesting. This is key. It is not easy to craft a melody that has both direction and coherence when constrained to a predefined harmonic progression or to an existing cantus firmus.
Here are some hints on crafting 1:1 counterpoint:
- Once you’ve identified the harmony suggested by the bass line, write the names of all the chord tones in your harmony ABOVE your music. This gives a quick reference to what notes you’re allowed to use at any one point.
- You may want to start and end on the tonic for a complete phrase, but this may not be your criteria in the middle of piece. A question phrase, for instance, would likely not end on the tonic.
- Think about melodic shape. Always have a direction in mind that is either moving up or down for a length of time.
- Have a goal point. Where is the most exciting point of the phrase? The piece?
- If your highest point is to be towards the end of the piece, avoid hitting it too soon.
- Definitely avoid what Professor Edwards calls “turbulence” – a great term that I think I will steal from him. With turbulence, there is constant motion but no sense of moving anywhere.
- Avoid straight scales in a single direction for a long time. This is as boring as turbulence!
When moving to 2:1 counterpoint, you will find great opportunity for fun: non-chord tones!
- Know the list of permissible non-chord tones (see Week 3 Notes). It is a very generous list, and each of the possibilities will create a reasonable option.
- Keep in mind the rules of shape for the 1:1 counterpoint. E.g., avoid hitting the high note before you want to! Avoid adding turbulence. Etc.
- Check your voice leading rules: no parallel 5ths, 8ves, direct 5ths and 8ves, and illegal melodic steps (augmented 2nds, tritones, etc.)
- Watch your rules of leaps: If you leap more than a 3rd, and you are not arpeggiating, step out of the leap, usually in the opposite direction.
When moving to mixed note values, all of the existing rules above still apply, but you’re free to do more:
- Look for opportunities to play with motivic elements. This will add coherence to the work.
- Try the RULE OF TWO (see Week 4 notes)
- Double check your voice leading rules
Finally, consider that what you will learn in writing the counterpoint for these assignments is a skill useful in almost any style of composing. While the guidelines offered here are specific to the Write Like Mozart course, the approach to writing counterpoint practiced here can be applied to just about any style. This is because the strategy of solving a counterpoint puzzle remains fairly constant. While the “rules” for consonance, dissonance, harmonic motion, and melodic shape will be different, the skill set required to identify and choose from the options fitting within any set of boundaries is remarkably similar.
Two-part counterpoint writing is a GREAT way to whip up a melodic line for a solo instrument to be accompanied by the piano. You will be applying these skills in your final project. Good luck!
This is the eighth post in this series.