Renaissance Counterpoint

Revision points

Remember, the ‘rules’ of 16th-century counterpoint are more about good and bad than right or wrong; you find most composers of the period compromising the usual rules at least occasionally.  A good exercise in this style needs to show that you understand the sort of melodic and harmonic style of the period, as well as avoiding ‘faulty’ progressions.

The best way to prepare for it is to study as much vocal polyphonic music from the period as possible – sing it, look at scores, play them through on the keyboard, and if possible listen to recordings.  

Here are some good and bad things in a Renaissance counterpoint exercise.



Mixture of perfect consonances, imperfect consonances and prepared dissonance Consecutive perfect consonances (unison, 5th and octave)

Correct use of suspensions (i.e. prepare on a weak beat, suspend on the strong beat and resolve downwards by step on the next weak beat).

Unaccented dissonant passing notes.


Unprepared dissonance.  The definition of a dissonance is a note that needs to resolve.  All 2nds and 7ths are dissonant.  All augmented and diminished intervals are dissonant.  Perfect 4ths with the bass are dissonant.  A perfect 4th between the upper 2 notes is OK as long as they are both consonant with the bass
Imitation (look out for where the 2 given parts imitate each other – almost certainly the third will also be imitative)  
Variety of texture – take your cue from the given material.  It may be imitative throughout, or there may be a mixture of imitation and homophony Homophony all the way through
Vocal melody moving mainly by step.  Occasional melodic leaps should be followed where possible by a stepwise movement in the opposite direction

Melodic leaps of: major 6th, (minor 6ths are OK, but not used very often), any kind of 7th, any augmented or diminished interval, anything bigger than an octave.

Several leaps in succession


Good word setting.  Stressed syllables of a word normally come on a strong beat.  The last few syllables of a line may be set melismatically (i.e. lots of notes per syllable) No attention given to word setting – melody doesn’t fit words, or words missed out.  Difficult to sing.
Simple, even rhythmic style, with occasional dotted rhythms or syncopation for variety.  Rhythmic style is consistent between all the parts

Too many jerky rhythms.

Rhythmic style of the added part doesn’t match the given material