Fourth Species Counterpoint: working tension and release

Writing Fourth Species Counterpoint

Fourth Species
This species introduces the concept of syncopation and suspension. The second note of each measure is tied into the following measure, sometimes creating a dissonance with the next note of the cantus firmus, requiring resolution. What is at work is a retardation of the movement of next note, which becomes a dissonance that resolves into a consonance. Without the retardation, you would have a simple progression of consonances. The contrast can be seen in the following two examples.

The first four measures involve retardation, creating a suspension that resolves into a dissonance. The second four measures show it without the suspension.

The first example demonstrates a 4-3 suspension, while the second example shows a 2-1 suspension (or in this case, with the added octave, a 9-8), followed by a 7-6 suspension.

This species is essential training for musicians and composers, because here we begin to learn the art of controlled dissonance, which results in an ability to create tension and resolution within a piece of music. Without such tension, the music holds little interest to the listener, though of course with too much dissonance, it can become overwhelming and perhaps even impossible to listen to.  Notice the tension and resolution in these examples, especially in the measures where there is a continual sequence of dissonances falling into consonances.

Here is an example in Dorian:

Notice that when the cantus firmus is in the upper voice, the most common suspension, as shown in the second system, is a 2-3 suspension, where a second on the down beat resolves into a consonant third on the offbeat. Chains of 2-3 suspensions are very expressive!

Here is another example of fourth species counterpoint. It indicates how the voice on the downbeat is a preparation (P) and how the note that has been tied over the barline is the suspension (S). When the S is alone, it is a dissonant suspension, and when the S is in parenthesis, it is a consonant suspension.

Fourth Species Guidelines

For 2:1 fourth species counterpoint (involving suspensions and resolutions of dissonances)

  1. Dissonances may only appear on accented half notes—that is, they only appear on the downbeat of the measure. This is the complete opposite of second species, where the dissonance only appear on the offbeats, in the middle of the bar.

  2. The dissonances must be tied over from the previous measure. The note that is the tied note must have been a consonance on the previous beat. VERY IMPORTANT!

  3. The essense of this style is the sound of the consonant interval becoming a dissonant interval when the c.f. moves, and then resolving again into a consonant interval.

  4. NOTE: when the dissonances resolve, they should resolve into imperfect consonances—third and sixths—not perfect fifths or octaves.

  5. It follows then that when the counterpoint is in the upper voice, only the seventh and the fourth can be used as suspended dissonance. These resolve into sixths and thirds, respectively.

  6. It further follows that when the counterpoint is in the lower voice, only the second and ninth can serve as dissonances. The second then resolves into a third, and the 9th into a 10th. See examples above.

  7. In the exercises, look for opportunities to create a chain of suspensions and resolutions. This can be created when the c.f. is moving downward by step, as in the examples.

    1. These will occur easily when the c.f. is moving either upwards or downwards by step. See examples above.

Coda: Writing fourth species suspension chains, broken into steps

PLEASE LISTEN TO IT, so it's sound in your ears and not just notes on the page:

The final result will be a passage that includes some suspensions (i.e., in the fourth species) along with some normal second species counterpoint. Here's a classic example directly out of the Fux counterpoint book:

When the desceinding line appears in the upper voice, the normal suspension chain is seconds resolving to thirds, or ninths resolving to tenths:



As a general procedure, then, fourth species counterpoint trains you to become sensitive to the preparation, suspension and release of dissonant intervals.

If we placed the intervals used in such a procedure in a heirarchy, we would observe:

When the cantus firmus is in the bass:

It is most expressive to create 7-6 and 4-3 suspensions, since these dissonant intervals resolve into imperfect consonances.

9-8 suspensions are less expressive because the dissonant resolves into a bland octave, thus taking away much of its effect.

When the cantus firmus is in the upper voice:

It is most expressive to create 2-3 suspensions, since this is a resolution into a 'sweet' imperfect consonance.

You can also create 4-5 and 7-8 suspensions, but these are less expressive because of the resultion into perfect consonances.

Next: 2K Writing a Modal Canon

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