The following guidelines affirm some basic aspects of how courtly and sacred art music moves from one moment to the next in the 18th-century. I have adapted all of these principles from Anton Reicha (Treatise on Melody: 1813), and Kent Kennan (Counterpoint: 1999).

1. Observe diatonic scale degree tendencies.

  • The least stable aspects of the major scale are the 4th and 7th scale-degree, because of their 1/2-step neighbor-relations to members of the tonic triad. Acknowledge their instability by complementing them with clear resolutions, usually fairly close to their occurrances.
  • In minor, the normal 6th scale-degree and raised leading tone are similarly unstable. None of these notes can be meaningful or graceful if it does not eventually find its way to the triadic note closest to it.
  • Chromatically modified notes (raised 6th in minor, raised 4th or lowered 7th in major) should likewise proceed clearly to the next note in the same direction (upward for raised notes, downward for lowered notes).

2. A step-skip (in the same direction) should be compensated.

  • “Compensation” means stepwise motion in the opposite direction of the the step-skip.
  • Compensation for skips and leaps of any kind is generally a good idea. In this special situation, however, it is practically mandatory in the style of Bach.
  • Step-skips should usually “arrive” at (i.e. the “skip” part lands at) a weak beat. This gives the compensation a greater sense of clarity of motion. When step-skips arrive on strong beats, their compensations will not be as effective.

3. Arpeggiation — two or more leaps in the same direction should always be treated carefully: the leaps must collectively form one harmony, and should usually be followed by a change in direction. Take care to create a good harmonic progression with arpeggios.

4. Sequences: any one of the above guidelines (or any rule, in fact) can lose its importance in a sequence.

  • If repetition is deliberate and clear, and reinforced by strong harmonic motion, then an unusual scale-degree motion, step-skip combination, or unfamiliar dissonance can become part of a larger pattern. Its coherence “stands in” (temporarily!) for the familiarity of the style.
  • Sequences depart from the norms of tonal progression, and consequently feel remote and unstable. (However, they are so common to us, that the instability is more a kind of mobile prettiness than any sort of longing or temporary discomfort associated with other instabilities.)and
  • They return to stability when they conclude with a cadence. In this sense, they are like large-scale resolutions of dissonance. Any of their unusual features, or remote harmonic statements, are balanced by the clarity of their motion toward an ultimate goal.


The following guidelines affirm some basic characteristics of complete melodic phrases in courtly and sacred art music in the 16th-through-18th centuries. Zarlino (Istitutioni Harmoniche: 1558), Reicha (Treatise on Melody: 1813), and Kennan (Counterpoint: 1999).

1. Use a good mixture of skips, steps, and leaps. Students of counterpoint tend to use stepwise motion as a fall-back plan when writing multi-voice textures, because it seems to guarantee coherence or deliberateness. In fact, a melody made of mostly steps will often seem aimless and arbitrary, because nothing distinguishes it in our memory; the notes can seem to blur into one another inarticulately.

2. Suggest a clear overall tonal progression.
Melodies should clearly inhabit a single key, or at most suggest a pair of closely related keys. Although cadences may be deceptive, a particular cadence should be imaginable with the melody even when no counterpoint or harmony sounds.

3. The melody should occupy a singable pitch range, appropriate to its length of time.

  • a. Complete statements in 18th-century music have a strong tendency to ranges around a 9th, 10th, or 11th.
  • b. A melody’s range should sound in good proportion to its length: a short phrase (2-3 mm) can seem well proportioned at about a 7th, a 16-bar melody can stretch as many as two octaves or more if the melody doesn’t seem to have left one range behind and forgotten it for another.

4. Reach, rhythmically, toward melodic goal notes, and strong beats. (Goal notes in this case are defined not only as the cadential endings of musical sentences, but a climax, an intermediary (pivotal subdominant) harmony before a cadence, the completion of a scalar ascent or descent, or the peak or trough of an arpeggio.)

  • Small note-values should be concentrated in weak beats of the measure, and reach toward strong beats.
  • Increase rhythmic activity leading up to goal notes.
  • Rhythmic activity should also be flowing easily on its way to a cadence.
  • Static, sparse rhythms have a place too: usually early in a melody, as the key is being established.

5. Use the whole range of the melody well, touching on all of its scale-degrees. If there is more than one “peak” in a melody, they peaks should be at different notes, so that one peak can have the feeling of leading to the other. Melodic goal notes tell their own story, just as do as the rhythms and gestures leading to those goals.


Two-part Writing

Guidelines for Two-part Writing

Adapted from C.P.E. Bach’s Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (tr. & ed. by William Mitchell; New York: Norton, 1949), and Kennan’s Counterpoint (4th ed.; London: Pearson, 1998)

1. PERFECT CONSONANCES between bass and treble should be

  • avoided on strong beats, except
  1. when both parts arpeggiate simultaneously, suggesting a larger number of voices
  2. at the beginning of the phrase, or at cadences
  3. when P4 is part of a “K64”; in this case the P4 is really an NCT, functioning as a dissonance
  4. other cases when P4 acts clearly as a dissonance (as in a suspension)
  • avoided in succession at any level of metric structure, except
  1. when both parts arpeggiate simultaneously, suggesting a larger number of voices
  2. at phrase endings, ONLY with conventional cadences involving P5-P8 or P8-P5
  3. at phrase beginnings and endings, when a clear feeling of announcement is the aim
  4. on the weak beats of successive bars or weak subdivisions of successive beats
  • approached by oblique or contrary motion, except
  1. when both parts arpeggiate simultaneously, suggesting a larger number of voices
  2. direct motion P5-P8 or P8-P5 is OK in conventional cadences
  3. in sequences only: on the weak beats of successive bars or weak subdivisions of successive beats
  • approached by stepwise motion in at least one part, except
  1. when both parts arpeggiate simultaneously, suggesting a larger number of voices
  2. in sequences only: on the weak beats of successive bars or weak subdivisions of successive beats

2. DISSONANCES between bass and treble should be

  • resolved by step, even if not right away
  • resolved to a note that clarifies the harmony, even if not right away
  • approached by oblique or contrary motion
  • one of the non-chord tone types: N (neighbor, including Camb. and Ch.), A (appogiatura), E (escape tone), P (passing tone), S (suspension), or R (retardation).

3. The majority of intervals formed between the bass and treble chord tones should be IMPERFECT CONSONANCES

4. Rhythmic and motivic considerations

  • Do not halt motion in both voices at the same time
  • Emphasize alternations in activity between complementary voices, so that one voice pauses or slows while another contains denser activity.
  • Make sure each phrase has a good balance of oblique, contrary, and parallel motion.
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle: Produce a texture with an overall stylistic unity by basing it on a small amount of material — take a single motive and make use of its rhythm repeatedly, rather than diversifying and varying the character.

Three Melodic Sketches

Due October 4: Three Melodic Sketches

After Reading pp 17-22 of Ellis Koss “The Melodic Phrase,” and the first two guidelines for “Note to Note Motion” in 18th-c music, draft three short melodic phrases. (Use Example 3-3 on p 20 as a model for the length and style.)

At least one of your drafts should be minor and at least one major; at least one in triple meter and at least one in duple, and make use of at least two different grouping types (Iambic, Dactylic, Trochaic).

Choose one of your drafts to re-write in a grand staff, and indicate a likely harmonic progression in the lower staff. Be prepared to discuss alternate harmonic interpretations of your draft.

Be sure to proof your work. Late assignments receive half credit; you may seek feedback on late work in office hours.


Listening 1: Bach BWV 997 and 1006

Listen to at least one movement of each example, attentively, twice. In your first listening, take notes on staff paper — what kinds of rhythm do you hear? What kinds of melodic contour? Try to write at least four rhythmic “motives,” as defined by Ellis Koss, and try to add specific pitch contour to at least two of them.

Ioana Gandrabur (guitar) plays performs (iv. & v.) Gigue & Double from J.S. Bach’s Suite in C minor for Lute, BWV 997 [score].

Luca Pianca performs (ii., iii., and iv.) Loure, ‘Gavotte & Rondeau’ and Minuet I from J.S. Bach’s Suite in E major for Lute, BWV 1006 [score]. 

For your second listening, follow along in the score (use a photocopy of a print from an online version). As you listen, mark cadences with a bracket, using a heavy pencil stroke for a strong conclusion, and a lighter touch when cadences seem “internal” or continuous.

How are the motives and the cadences related? Can you find examples of period or double-period structure? Are they parallel, or contrasting? Are there non-periodic sentences? If so, take a moment to recognize how a motive develops through the sentence.