Some songwriters have so much skill that they can create multiple polyphonic melody lines that do their own thing yet fit together simultaneously. This is what we call a counter melody.
While most songs focus on one main melody at a time for a song section, a counter melody introduced while the main melody is going can make for some musical magic when done correctly.
Think of it as a musical partner or companion to the main melody. While the main melody takes the spotlight, the counter melody dances alongside, enriching the overall texture and adding depth to the musical composition.
Counter melodies often have their own distinct melodic characteristics, rhythm, and contour. They can enhance the emotional impact of a piece by evoking different moods, providing harmonization, or creating a sense of tension and release.
You may have encountered counter melodies in various musical genres, from classical compositions to pop songs. They can be found in instrumental music, vocal harmonies, or even in the interplay between different instruments.
Listening to a counter melody can be quite fascinating. It's like discovering a hidden layer within the music, as if two melodies are engaging in a delightful musical conversation.
Polyphonic music textures have two different musical ideas going on at the same time. On the other hand, monophonic phrases follow one melody, although it can be in the form of a chord.
For example, choirs singing the same words and the same rhythms but with harmony are singing in a monophonic style.
A choir that is singing while a soloist is leading with adlibs that follow different words and rhythms is an example of polyphony.
Check out my post on 10 fun songwriting exercises to get your ideas flowing.
A counter melody is a form of polyphony, while harmony is a form of monophony. This is because, with harmonies, one dominant melodic vocal or instrumental part is accompanied by chords.
Think of choirs where sopranos often get the melody of the song while the other parts have to fill in with harmonies.
While harmony parts can be great to sing, play, or hear, the use of counter-melody allows you to harmonize in certain places and have two different melodies going at the same time that complement each other well.
As you can imagine, this takes a lot more skill than it would take to create a harmonious line. You have to make sure that your counter melodies don't clash together.
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Counterpoint is often used interchangeably with the term counter melody. While this can often be a good practice, counterpoint dives way further deep into methods of polyphony than simpler counter-melody ideas that are presented in modern music.
I'll briefly go over how deep it can get with a few examples.
A challenging method of counterpoint that I absolutely love is called fugue writing. In this style of counterpoint, a composer will have recurring melodic themes hidden throughout counter melodies that all develop into interweaving vocal parts of three or more.
My favorite fugue is written by Mozart in his popular "Requiem".
One simpler method of counterpoint is to sing in a round with a group of people. For example, the most popular song sung in a round is "Row, Row, Row Your Boat".
When you sing this with a group of people, you notice that some parts counter each other well and even have elements of harmony that allow all the sections to blend together. This is a form of what is referred to as imitation counterpoint.
These are also two terms that are often used interchangeably, but if you want to get technical, they aren't quite the same thing.
Polyphony generally refers to music consisting of two or more distinct melodic lines. On the other hand, counterpoint refers to the compositional technique involved in the handling of these melodic lines.
A lot of people like to explain counterpoint with sheet music or graphs from DAWs (digital audio workstations), but I want to keep it simple and go for audio samples when it comes to examples of counter melody.
One standout example for me is found in the insanely popular song "We Don't Talk About Bruno" from the musical Encanto.
The examples of counter melody start at around 2:23, with the verse featuring Dolores and Isabela, but then it goes full force with many melodies overlapping each other at the end of the song.
What beautiful chaos this is! I was so shocked when I first heard it in the theatre because counter melody with four or more parts is a big risk to take, especially for a Disney musical. Needless to say, the risk paid off big time.
Not to toot my own horn, but I've also taken a stab at a challenging counter-melody composition featured on my first album release from 2013 called "Reminiscent".
In this specific track, toward the end, I decided to take a few elements from earlier song sections and have them compete with each other in a cool moment similar to the one in "We Don't Talk About Bruno".
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A good counterpoint melody will be able to stand strong on its own. If you took out the main melody, would the counter melody sound more like random adlibs or fills instead of a cool line that someone would want to hum in their heads?
It can be hard trying to write even one melody, but you will likely come across a few melodies, and some that even mix well together as long as they all follow the chord progression.
You'd be surprised at what would go together in a melodic line when you layer ideas on top of each other.
When coming up with a counter-melody line, try to go for a rhythmic phrase that will do the opposite of what the main melody is doing at that point in time. This way, both melodies can coexist without clashing or sounding too much like a monophonic texture.
You also can make lyrical lines that counter and complement each other as well. While one line is singing about one thing, the counter melody could finish the phrase or maybe question the phrase.
You want the lyrics to still make sense in the phrase together, even if they don't present the same exact ideas.
For a good counter melody, you will notice that some sections are in perfect harmony with the lead melodic line.
That is because the composer or songwriter had a plan in place for the ranges of each melodic line to counter or follow each other without sounding chromatic or dissonant.
Although, some composers are aiming for a dissonant sound in some forms of advanced counterpoint writing.
Don't be afraid to put a break or a pause in your counter-melody line to compliment the lead line. In the same way, don't be afraid to fill in a break in the lead melodic line with activity in your counter melody.
This way, there is no pressure for both of your melodic lines to be always doing something to match through every single phrase. You have creative freedom here!
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