Writing Counterpoint for Exams: Renaissance Style

This article is intended for students who need to add one or two contrapuntal parts to a given melody in the modal style, as is often required for Renaissance Counterpoint papers in undergraduate music degrees. It is hoped that it will also be of some use to anyone who wishes to gain some understanding of the processes involved in completing a modal contrapuntal texture. (Discussion of the processes involved in completing a tonal contrapuntal melody will be the topic of another article).

Typically it is the first year of an undergraduate music degree which deals with modal counterpoint. In this way students gain an understanding of the many techniques involved in writing contrapuntal textures; many of which can be transferred to the writing of tonal counterpoint.

So what is modal counterpoint? An in-depth discussion of all aspects of this question are beyond the scope of the present article, however, a brief outline of some of the more important points are given below. Further information on topics will be given as they are introduced through the article, or by clicking on any highlighted words or phrases.

Modal counterpoint refers to the style of counterpoint written by composers of the Renaissance period (c.1400-1600). At that time music was essentially written in what we would now term the modes of C major, or their transposed equivalents. Originally only the modes with finals on D, E, F and G were used, with C and A being added in 1547. The mode on B was not used at all (the modes of this period are sometimes referred to as the ecclesiastical modes as their use was predominantly for church music). The organisation of music into the types of progressions, cadences, keys, modulations etc which we are familiar with was not part of the Renaissance sound world. Accidentals outside the mode were typically only introduced at cadences, to raise the leading note if required, or B flat was used to correct the tritone. A large part of Renaissance sacred music is vocal, and it is invariably a vocal setting which is required from the university student. The student is also expected to set the latin text, so an understanding of the type of rules associated with this is required.

The type of question asked usually requires the completion of a given opening. Either the student is given an opening of two or three bars from which they must add additional parts and set the remaining text, or, they are given a complete part, which is usually between10-14 bars, and are expected to add one or two additional parts to this. The later question is the type we will consider here. For the following excerpt,



the question may be: Add two imitative parts either above, below, or either side of the given part. The question may also remind the student to include any necessary cadences and require them to choose the types of voices involved. Based on the typical ranges of the most common choral voice parts (shown below), the given part could either be for alto or tenor.

Voice ranges

The given part sits comfortably in both of these vocal ranges while not being too near the extremities of either. It should to be remembered that prolonged writing at the extremities of a voice’s range should be avoided as this is difficult and taxing for most singers. For the purposes of this article we will be assigning the given part to the altos and adding another alto and soprano part above.


A translation of the text will also typically be included:


Jubilate Deo  omnis terra

shout to God  all the earth


Now that we have decided on our voices we need to determine what mode the given part is in. For these questions typically the easiest way to establish the mode is to look at the final note of the given part: in this case it is a D, meaning we are using the Dorian mode. The raised leading note at the final cadence (C sharp) also confirms this.

At this stage it is often a good idea to sketch in the cadence/s, which will give you some idea of where your voices are heading. Knowing the cadential destinations of the voice parts can be helpful when creating their melodic outlines. It can also be helpful at internal cadences, where a note other than the final is often used. Determining where cadences should go can often be confusing; the end of the excerpt is an obvious place. But where else? Typically, a cadence will be found at the end of a line of text, and with this in mind an internal cadence can be included at the end of the word terra in bar 7.

With this style of counterpoint common cadential formulas were used and decorated by most composers. The final cadence can be sketched in as follows

End cadence

As is typical of cadential formulas, the leading note is delayed by the inclusion of a suspension – in this case it is a 2-3 suspension. At the final cadence the given part includes the leading note, and as the given part is the lowest voice of our texture this determined the type of suspension needed: a lower voice suspension. In bar 7 the suspension is clearly not part of the given alto melody and so must be included in one of the upper voices. A possible option is

Internal cad

Here, we’ve created a 7-6 suspension. Notice, that because the given part ends on an A note, with the syllable ra, the cadence is on A with a raised G sharp as the leading note. As was mentioned above, internal cadences were often made on notes different to the mode’s final. In the case of the Dorian mode these were often on A or F, and less commonly, G. At this stage it is not necessary to set the words to our cadential formulas as they may be elaborated as we progress.

Now that the cadences are sketched in it is a good idea to start with the opening of the work. As with the cadences, the given part contains the clues as to how we should proceed.

Imitation was used extensively by the composers of the Renaissance and should be used whenever possible. In our hypothetical question we are asked to add two imitative parts, but even if this wasn’t explicitly stated imitation should still be used. Often, with a bit of trial and error, we can find on what notes to begin the other voices of our opening. Typically, successive voices will begin at the interval of a fifth, fourth, octave or unison, away from the given opening. It is possible to also begin at different intervals to these but the key point is: if imitation is going to work it should do so relatively easily. Also, when trialling which intervals to use remember that: if the first voice enters on a strong beat, all other voices must enter on a strong beat, and if the first voice enters on a weak beat then so too should all other voices. This is true any time voices are restating the same idea, such as the opening or after internal cadences.

Against our given opening we can start the soprano on the A note, a fifth above our given part


Notice: the same melodic shape of the given part is preserved for as long as possible – here the clash of a second between the D half note in the given part, bar 4, and the soprano part’s E means that the E whole note in the soprano part has been curtailed by a rest. Use exact imitation with the given part for as long as possible, a note may be curtailed or an interval altered slightly, however, if it means that the voice will work better with the existing part/s. With imitative textures it is the rhythm which is more important than exact intervallic repetition. Notice that the text of the given alto is copied exactly in the soprano part.

We can now sketch in the other alto part


Like the soprano’s opening, the alto’s entry must be curtailed to fit with the given part, in this case it stops at the G whole note in bar 5. Again, the text is copied exactly from the given alto’s melody.

Notice, in the opening bars some voice crossing occurs between the added parts. This is permissible but is not encouraged for long periods.

With the opening now sketched in we should look for other places where imitative entries, or reentries, will be used. The most likely place for this is after internal cadences where the voices will each resume after the cadence has occurred. The melodic ideas for the imitative reentries should once again come from the given part. In our example, the stepwise ascent in the given part (bar 8) with the words omnis, provides a likely candidate. If we begin the same melodic idea on the fourth half-note beat of bar 7, in the second alto part, we see that it works well with the given alto’s melody.

Reentry alto

As with imitative openings, the imitating voice copies the text of the given part and also the type of beat (weak or strong), on which the given part’s imitation commences. Notice that the soprano part and the given alto part both continue to sound while the added alto begins; dove-tailing of phrases such as this was also the norm in Renaissance contrapuntal textures.

Duplicating this stepwise melody again in the soprano is very difficult without creating consecutives with the other two voices. One possible solution to this is to invert the melody while retaining the rhythm of the three half notes followed by the dotted half note so that the listener will still hear the imitation (as mentioned previously, it is the rhythm which is the most important aspect of imitation).

SAA reentry

With the opening imitation, the imitative reentries after the internal cadence, and the cadences all sketched in, we can see that it has reduced the amount of ‘free’ counterpoint left to compose. Also, by sketching in the beginnings and endings of our phrases we get an idea of the shape our melodies will likely take. For example, in the soprano part, bars 4-6, we are probably going to have to get some height in the melody so to avoid the added alto’s range, and also so that we can approach the A note of the cadence. By contrast, the added alto is probably going to remain in its present range, between the soprano and given alto.

Opand inter cad


A possible solution for these bars is

Complete first phrase

The potential clash on the last half note beat of bar 4 in the soprano part, is avoided by the addition of an F half note. In bar 6 the soprano’s melody takes its rhythm from the initial bar of the opening melodies, while in bar 5 the rhythmic idea is the same as the given part’s rhythm in bar 4; the soprano part also copies the text setting of this bar. Rests preceding an entry can draw attention to a part, but in this style of music rests are only used on strong beats (this is the reason why the added alto’s cadential D half note has now been extended to a whole note). The free counterpoint of the added alto fits between the soprano and given alto parts and includes a suspension between bars 5-6. The text has also been added for the cadence. Remember: if one voice finishes a phrase of text at a cadence, all must finish the phrase – in this example, all voices end on the syllable ra, albeit at different times.

With the first phrase complete we can fill in the remaining parts for the second phrase. Before we do this, the added alto’s reentry after the internal cadence sounds a bit bare at the beginning of bar 8 as both other parts are resting. The soprano’s cadential A can be tied over to give support to the reentry and reinforce the dovetail.

Sopextended cadence

Because the given part’s melody uses black notes in the second phrase so too should our added parts. A sketch of the soprano’s remaining bars is as follows

Sop to end

Notice the idea of preceding an entry with a rest is used again in bar 10. The soprano enters on a C note after the rest, as it also did in bar 5. The tied half note, two quarter note rhythmic idea is also the same as used in bars 8-9. Repeating these idea helps create a sense of cohesion within the piece. The words om-nis-ter-ra have been repeated in the soprano part even when they aren’t in the given alto. This is a matter of choice, but in this instance it allows the reuse of the reentry idea discussed above.

The added alto part may now be sketched in

Alto to end

The soprano’s rhythmic idea is used by the added alto in bars 9-10. This once again adds cohesion to the piece but by also preempting the soprano’s entry in bar 10, there is a feeling of imitation between the two parts, even though rhythmically the ideas are staggered.

We now have a complete work


Some notes on text setting:

  • Always follow the text of the given part when setting voices imitatively
  • Never put a rest in the middle of a word or complete sentence
  • If possible, the same syllables should not be sung at the same time in different voices
  • After a black note, or group of black notes, the first white note cannot carry a syllable (see bars 9 and 11 in the soprano part). In these examples the syllable ter is always at least a white note away from the preceding black note/s.
  • This is vocal music so always insure that your melodies are singable – intervals such as the major and minor sevenths, major sixths, and all augmented and diminished intervals were considered difficult to sing.
  • Typically, after a voice leaps, it will continue in the opposite direction to the leap.


Some general notes:

  • Accidentals, except B flat, should only be used at cadences to raise the leading note.
  • Always insure at least one voice is singing. As there was generally no instrumental accompaniment to these works, if all voices stop, the piece stops.
  • The added alto part uses a curtailed cadential formula in bars 6-7. This allows the next phrase, which the added alto begins, to start while the cadence is still sounding. In bar 7, rather than continuing on to sing a C note the added alto completes its phrase, and text, on the D so that it may rest on beat three and reenter on beat four. This insures a smooth transition between phrases, and also, no loss of sound.

Here is a selection of some of the many great books which deal with this topic:

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