Description of Course Goals and Curriculum
MUS205, Species Counterpoint, is intended to provide students with a thorough introduction to and understanding of 16th-century counterpoint. Emphasis is placed on analysis and composition. Students begin by studying the principles of line and voice-leading that informed 16th-century counterpoint compositions. As the course progresses, they are asked to replicate these principles in their own compositions. Composers Palestrina and, to a lesser extent, William Byrd serve as students’ primary musical points of reference, while Robert Gauldin’s “16th Century Counterpoint,” serves as students’ technical point of reference, explaining and depicting the structures, theory, and principles that underlie this musical style.
The first half of the semester is spent studying two-part counterpoint (students compose and submit a two-part mass movement for their midterm). The second half of the semester covers three and four-part counterpoint (the course culminates in a final project in which students compose a four voice mass movement). As students work their way up to four-part counterpoint, principles such as the construction and treatment of lines, voice-leading, cadences, imitation, intervals, parallels, parody technique, and invertible counterpoint are covered, among others. Course material is cumulative--a thorough understanding of line and voice-leading are needed to master two-part counterpoint, a thorough understanding of two-part counterpoint, cadences, intervals, parallels, and imitation is needed to master three-part counterpoint, and students must master three-part counterpoint before approaching four-part. Due to the cumulative nature of the course, students should be prepared to put work in on the front end of the course, and to set aside time for constant review of the principles of counterpoint.
This course is intended for students who want to deepen their understanding of Western music theory, as 16th-century counterpoint forms the basis of the Western musical canon (a topic further explored in MUS205’s subsequent class, MUS206: Tonal Syntax). Students entering with no prior knowledge of counterpoint can expect to exit the class with a thorough understanding of the principles of counterpoint, having analyzed several masses by Palestrina and Byrd, and having composed their own movements.
Learning From Classroom Instruction
MUS205 consists of two weekly 50-minute lectures, and two weekly 50-minute precepts. Lectures often began by listening to a movement from a mass and briefly discussing its features. Classwide mistakes from the previous week’s assignment were then discussed, and questions regarding previously covered material were addressed. Professor Lovett would then instruct students to sight read a movement from a mass. After singing (and listening to a professional recording of) the piece, he would then proceed to discuss its compositional features which would coincide with the topic of the day (such as suspensions, cadences, structure, treatment of black and white notes, etc).
The first precept of the week was intended to help students address any gaps in understanding. Professor Lovett would hand back students’ assignments from the previous week. After assigning students a task related to the material that was currently being covered in lecture (ex. instructing students to write out different cadences, to construct a point of imitation, or giving students a handout to analyze), he would come around to each student and review their assignment with them, providing detailed and specific feedback. He would also survey how students were fairing on the assigned task, providing feedback and pointers, while still allowing students to work at their own pace. As precept neared its end, the class would come back together to discuss how they did on the assigned task, what was difficult, what was not, and Professor Lovett would answer any questions or concerns.
The second precept of the week was analytical. Students would work their way through a mass movement with Professor Lovett, analyzing its underlying structure, and relating its compositional techniques back to what they had previously studied.
To succeed in this course, it is useful to take notes about the compositional framework of a mass movement as it is discussed in lecture or in precept. It is also important to note that lectures build off of the material covered in the assigned readings from Gauldin’s textbook. While this material is restated and reviewed in lecture, it will be easier to keep up if the readings are thoroughly completed beforehand and if students come to class prepared with questions of concepts they didn’t quite grasp. Students should engage with the individual activities and tasks assigned in precept, and should not be afraid or hesitant to ask for help if needed. Professor Lovett truly wants students to succeed, and carefully evaluates a student’s progress over the course of the class.
Learning For and From Assignments
Assignments are biweekly, and are marked on a scale from 1-7. (Don’t worry--these numbers do not correlate to an actual grade!) Receiving a 4 means that a student is where he/she is expected to be--he/she is keeping up with the material, and has submitted good work. A 5 means that a student has submitted a great piece of work; a 6 means the work is excellent; and a 7 indicates that this work was lost and is actually a legitimate 16th-century composition! (For those who are curious, it is rare to receive a 5 or above.) A 3 or below indicates that a student should contact either Professor Lovett or his preceptor to attend office hours.
This scoring rubric is intended to both help the professor and the student assess the student’s progress over the course of the semester. It is also intended to take away the stress of completing counterpoint assignments, as 16th-century counterpoint consists of a slew of compositional rules and techniques that must be followed. A student’s course grade is calculated by considering both their progress over the course of these biweekly assignments, as well as their midterm and final project.
For the midterm project, students are asked to write a two-part mass movement. The final project is similarly a composition assignment, with students being asked to compose a four-part mass movement. Professor Lovett not only reviews the principles and structure of these movements themselves with students, but instructs students on how to structure their time when completing these assignments. It is important to start assignments early. All writing is rewriting. This holds especially true for the composition of counterpoint. It is likely that as you compose and adjust one voice in your piece, you will inevitably have to adjust another. Due to the strict nature of 16th-century counterpoint, corrections often create mistakes elsewhere in your compositions. Make sure you have time to check your assignment, let it sit, and to come back to it again. As you read through Gauldin’s textbook, create a list of rules of principles that you should check your compositions for (ex. changing directions after leaps, intervals that ought to be avoided, which beats passing tones can and can’t fall on, etc.), and refer back to this list before beginning and while checking a piece. Scan for different errors and principles separately (ex. check for parallels the first time reading through your work, then look for problematic intervals, then look at the cadences, then look at the independence of the lines, etc). Have a strategic way of approaching a composition--it helps to pencil in your cadences and points of imitation, and then to fill in the rest. Make sure to follow Professor Lovett’s guidelines for how to approach the midterm and final--they are designed to help complete the assignment efficiently and effectively. Perhaps most importantly, remind yourself that you are writing music. Composing counterpoint can sometimes seem like following a checklist of rules. It will be more enjoyable and rewarding if you remind yourself that you are composing real music. Sure, there are rules, but remember that these rules were written to explain the compositions of 16th-century counterpoint composers, and are in place to assist you in achieving the musical aesthetic of the time.
Office hours: Set up an appointment with Professor Lovett or his preceptor. They are always willing to find time not only to review the material, but to look over your compositions and assignments and give you general feedback and pointers before you submit them.
Youtube: Listen to as much Palestrina as you can find. (There’s an almost 7 hour compilation of his music on Youtube, among others.) Part of the difficulty of learning counterpoint is that you’re learning a different musical aesthetic--one that is linearly as opposed to vertically (harmonically) based, which we aren’t accustomed to hearing. The more you listen to 16th-century counterpoint and grow accustomed to the sound, the easier it will be to write in that style.
Robert Gauldin “16th-Century Counterpoint”: This textbook truly provides you with all the information you need to succeed in this course. It breaks down the concepts of counterpoint and introduces you to the form slowly--starting with a discussion of melody, voice-leading, and line, before it delves into the layering of those concepts. It provides examples of concepts and thorough explanations of counterpoint. Read and reread this textbook. Take notes. Make lists of the rules it establishes and introduces and use these as you compose and analyze compositions.
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection
MUS205, Species Counterpoint, can seem like a niche, and rather trivial topic. However, this course will broaden students’ understandings of the Western musical canon and its theoretical foundation. This course is rather intensive. 16th-century counterpoint is a different musical aesthetic--it is based on the concept of line and not functional harmony. At the same time, this course is incredibly rewarding. Professor Lovett is truly passionate about the subject, and carefully monitors and assesses a student’s progress, giving them detailed, thorough feedback in an attempt to ensure that they succeed. Students can enter with no prior experience with counterpoint, and exit having written two mass movements.