A Structural Examination of Tonality, Vocabulary, Texture,
Sonorities, and Time Organization in Western Art Music



Chapter 12. Transition to the Common Practice Period

Chapter 13. Roman Numeral Analysis
Chapter 14. Tonic and Dominant


Species counterpoint fundamentally describes Western music prior to the year 1600, and now it is time to begin studying music of the Common Practice Period (1600-1900). There are significant changes in the music of this new era.

16th century music looks like this:

Common Practice Period music looks like this:

Note the stem directions. Since there are two voices on each line of the grand staff, the soprano and tenor stems always point up, and the alto and bass stems always point down.

12.2 LINES

Procedures that define good lines remain fundamentally the same, but are applied primarily to the soprano and bass lines. These outer voices remain independent and individual lines, with a good contour. Features that shape lines that are still important:

The alto and tenor lines, however, become quite flat, with a low melodic profile of many repeated notes, and serve the purpose to bind the outer voices together.

As stated in three-voice counterpoint, the distance between upper voices (soprano-alto and alto-tenor) should be an octave or less. The distance between the bass and tenor can be larger, usually no more than a 12th.

Learn more about line problems in minor keys


Procedures that define good counterpoint (commonly called PART WRITING in the context of 4-voice homophonic textures) remain fundamentally the same, and they can be simplified into the following four rules:

  1. Complete sonorities:
    Use a complete triad (or tetrad); each member of a sonority is called a CHORD TONE.

  2. Proper doubling:
    Since there are four voices, triads require one chord tone to be doubled.

  3. Perfect consonances:

  4. Unstable chord tones:
    Unstable chord tones (also called active tones) must resolve to a chord tone in the next new sonority, in the same voice. At this point in time, the only unstable chord tone is the leading tone; many more will be presented soon. On occasion, the resolution can be delayed by staying on the same pitch, but ultimately must still resolve properly.

Observe how the example below follows these four steps:

Learn more about part writing

Learn more about the vertical rules of part writing

Learn more about the horizontal rules of part writing


The concept of voice leading can also be seen in the process of FIGURATION, generally as an accompaniment style. One of the most common figurations is the ALBERTI BASS. In the example below, the Alberti bass in the left hand presents the chord tones of the bass, tenor, and alto parts; the bass is the lowest of each group of four, the tenor is the middle, and the alto is the highest. While it might appear that the figuration presents a single leaping line, in reality, the voices are hidden in the texture.

Examples of other types of figuration:


In the chapters about species counterpoint, the most basic embellishment types (also known as NON-CHORD TONES or NON-HARMONIC TONES) were introduced:

The move into the Common Practice Period, especially in the development of instrumental music, reveals three more categories of non-chord tones:

  1. Incomplete neighbors (IN)

    The context of a complete neighbor tone is a figure that steps from a chord tone and returns to the same chord tone. The incomplete neighbor tone refers to the absence of either the first or last chord tone.

    There are four types of incomplete neighbors:

  2. Pedals or pedalpoints (Ped)

    PEDALS (also called PEDALPOINTS) originated in organ music; a performer would hold down a foot pedal through several harmonic changes. The context of a pedal must begin as a chord tone, and must end as a chord tone as well, but throughout a passage may be dissonant. It may be sustained or reiterated any number of times.

  3. Retardation (Ret)

    RETARDATIONS are upside-down suspensions. Like suspensions, they must be prepared as a chord tone, suspended, and resolved to a chord tone, but the note being suspended is an unstable pitch that must resolve up, such as a leading tone. Suspensions always resolve down by step, retardations always resolve up by step.

    Learn more about non-chord tones (aka non-harmonic tones)



Analyze the intervals between each pair of voices, and circle and label all non-chord tones, for the following:


Add bass, tenor, and alto lines to this soprano:

To prepare this writing assignment properly, use the notation guidelines appendix, located at Basic Principles of Music Notation, Semester I.

Links to chapters in this unit:
Chapter 13. Roman Numeral Analysis
Chapter 14. Tonic and Dominant


Link to next unit: DIATONIC PROCEDURES II: Expanding the Phrase

Copyright 2008-2009 by Phillip Magnuson.

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