Everyone loves a good chiptune these days and with the retro resurgence in games, it is hard not to see games that have a pixel-art-driven, 8bit aesthetic. When the original games that employed this ‘aesthetic’ were made, it wasn’t a stylistic consideration, it was game-dev’s using the technology of the day to its full potential. In terms of sound, the composers often had limited soundbanks, so techniques like counterpoint were used to make the soundtrack compelling. This blog will explain first and second species counterpoint and how the technique can be used to create chiptunes that are inline with the original pieces, created by our VG music icons.


There are many rules governing first species counterpoint, the first notable one is that it is note against note. When starting to compose in first species, modal counterpoint is recommended. Plenty of games use modes and our ears as modern listeners have become used to them. Modes are the perfect sound for conjuring the timeless adventure feeling, furthermore, the seven main modes all have their own unique sound that when employed in the right circumstance, can represent almost any human emotion and or time period.

Here is a list of important things to consider when beginning to write in first species.

  • Do not make a leap larger than a fifth, exceptions are a minor sixth or octave
  • Avoid successive leaps, unless they are making a triad, keep the range of this to an octave
  • Any leap greater than a fifth should be compensated by moving in the opposite direction
  • No voice should use movement that involves diminished 5th or augmented fourth intervals
  • Avoid repeating pitches, especially in the lower voice
  • If repeating a pitch in the upper voice, only do it three times max
  • Keep the parts within the range of a tenth from highest to lowest note

A few more rules include avoiding parallel movement of octaves and fifths and if using parallel 3rds or 6ths, keep it to a maximum of three movements. Another rule to mention is that you should start and end in unison or at the octave.

Using the above rules, let’s have a listen to an example.

First species, using the rules outlined

From viewing the piano roll, you will notice the rules of first species being followed. In the bass line, notice the leap of a fifth from the C to the G was followed by movement back down. There are no parallel fifths or octaves and any parallel movement from accepted intervals are kept to a maximum of three.

If you would like a comprehensive guide to composing in this style then I suggest checking out


Second species uses most of the rules of first species, the main difference is that in second species, one of the voices moves at twice the speed of the other. In the first species demonstration, the notes were both moving at quarter-note time values. For second species (in this demonstration) one will move at eight-note values and the other will move at quarter-note values.

Some additional rules include:

  • The unaccented notes of the melody can be either dissonant or consonant
  • Any dissonant notes must be approached and left by step and must not be on accented notes
Second species example
Second species example

When using three voices in second species counterpoint, one voice must be moving at twice the speed of the other two.


In the picture above, notice that the bottom two voices are the original first species counterpoint example and the top voice is a new melody that is the second species element.


We have seen how basic first and second species counterpoint works, now we need to make it sound like an 8bit game. To do this select some synths that have the desired sounds and make them trigger the MIDI sequence that you have created using the rules of counterpoint. Add some drums and take down the bit-depth and sample rate to make them sound retro. At this stage you should have a retro sounding chiptune that is 300 years in the making!

Thanks for reading and stay creative!

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