(musTh1) Species Counterpoint – Melodic Writing

Before one can compose multiple musical lines in combination, one must study what makes for good melodic writing. Melodic writing is technically considered “pre-species.”

This post outlines rules for proper melodic writing, and then provides some positive (“how-to”) guidelines for constructing good melodies. Make sure to read the whole post.


The rules that govern melodic writing are derived to guide you to writing interesting musical lines. I am rewording some of the rules from the book, and commenting on why the rules are important. The first five rules are the most important for understanding the basic concept of melody.

Melodies are diatonic to their mode. Chromatic alterations are only allowed for leading tones where needed (#^7 in dorian, phrygian, mixolydian, and aeolian), and step-wise ascents to the leading tone (#^6 – #^7).

Notes are rarely repeated. Repeating notes will take away from the movement and shape of the line.

Motion is mostly by steps. Step-wise motion is the basis for feeling that notes are connected into a line. While melodies with frequent leaps are more stylistically acceptable in contemporary concert music, and especially instrumental music, too many leaps will interfere in the perception of a melody as connected.

A melody should have a single focal point, or climax. The climax can be high (zenith) or low (nadir), with the melody generally building to the climax, and away from it. A single climax with a build up and let down provides a characteristic shape to the melody, and gives the melody a sense of motion (it goes somewhere and returns).

Melodies begin and end on tonic, with the ending tonic approached by step (#^7 – ^1 or ^2 – ^1).

The remaining rules provide more specific and stylistic guidelines.

Melodies should not outline tritones (specifically, the +4). Diminished fifths are ok. The melodic outline is derived from the notes where the melody changes direction. Tritone outlines create a perception of dissonance that should not be part of the melodic line.

Since melodies mostly move by step, it is understandable that leaps require extra attention (rules), mostly having to do with rules that help maintain a sense of line.

Leaps must not be by augmented or diminished intervals. Melodies usually don’t even leap by dissonant intervals (4ths and 7ths).

Leaps should not be larger than a P5. Large leaps destroy the sense of line. The only exceptions to this rule are leaps of a P8 and an ascending (only) m6.

Leaps need to be balanced with motion in the opposite direction either before or after the leap. Opening leaps of a Major 3rd are exceptions to this rule.

Large leaps (greater than a P5) will have balancing motion before AND after the leap.

Consecutive leaps must outline a major or minor triad, and have balancing motion before and after the set of leaps (like a large leap).

How to Write Good Melodies

It is easy to get caught up in the negative rules of counterpoint (“Don’t do…”) and lose track of what positive steps to take to write a melody. Keep the following ideas in mind when you try to write a melody, and then afterwards check your completed melody to make sure that it does not violate any of the dictates outlined above.

If the decision is not made for you, pick a mode and a clef to write your melody in. The mode will determine your starting and ending notes.

Melodies are usually eight to twelve notes long, with most in the nine to ten note range. Keeping that in mind will help guide your buildup and letdown to and from a climax. Climaxes usually happen about 2/3 into a melody, so that you have time to get back down (or up) to tonic.

Species counterpoint melodies usually do not stretch up or down an octave from their starting tonic, so climaxes are usually a fifth or sixth away from the starting point.

Good melodies will have several changes of direction, not just move up to a climax and then back down. Think about motion that rises then falls back some, but not all the way, as you build towards the climax. (or vice versa, if you melody moves down to a nadir.)

Since motion from the climax back to tonic usually involves fewer notes than the buildup to climax, it is ok to move without direction change towards the tonic. However, better melodies will generally include a combination of steps and a small leap if the direction doesn’t change.


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