Creating Counter Melodies

I’m going to start off this post by being super nerdy and boring by pasting a definition of counter melody taken from Wikipedia -> A counter melody is a sequence of notes, perceived as a melody, written to be played simultaneously with a more prominent lead melody: a secondary melody played in counterpoint with the primary melody.

Now this definition has merit and is useful, but I know with a lot of music text (or any theoretical text for that matter ) it can be very dry and cause most people to glaze over and space out. I personally feel that is why so many people don’t care to really study text book music theory, as it can just flat out put you to sleep. This is really sad as the internet has made all this information so accessible. It also would greatly improve the songwriting and composing skills of so many people that could really use it.

In this post and all of my future posts, I’m going to try and take the material that I believe to be important and explain it in a way (and hopefully it’s perceived) to be  easy to read, follow, and implement. However, my posts are predisposed to the reader knowing basic music theory and orchestration, otherwise they won’t make sense.

Anyway, back to counter melodies. My simpler definition of a counter melody is: a contrary melody to the lead melody of a composition, that stands out on it’s own, yet doesn’t overshadow the main theme. The melody has to be contrary to the main theme or, it will fall into either parallel, similar, or oblique contrapuntal melodies, and it won’t stand out at all on it’s own.  Then you can’t distinguish it from the lead melody, rendering it not a counter melody.

Counter melodies are really important because they add a dimension to music, regardless of genre, that can interest a listener for multiple listens as they soak in all the layers. Too often a melody is supported solely by a harmony that just follows the melody. Now this can work well and is often all that is necessary, but it also can be very very monotonous and dull.

Counter melodies are most prominent in Classical, and Jazz and their offshoots, but it can be found in other genres as well. This article will focus on the classical side of composing counter melodies, but on a side note, here are just a couple examples of counter melodies in other genres.

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell -> Counter melodies can be heard going on between the strings, bass, and vocals throughout the song.

“November Rain” Guns N’ Roses  -> First verse, counter melodies can be heard between strings, flute, main vocals, and background vocals

“Happy” Pharrell Williams  -> During the breakdown after the 2nd chorus  there’s a countermelody between the lead vocals and background vocals.

“I hope you Dance” Lee Ann Womack -> During the chorus’s there’s a counter vocal melody to the lead melody.

Okay how do you compose a counter melody? A counter melody  is predicated on having a lead melody already, then it can easily be composed once you do. The most difficult part of creating any composition is just coming up with a lead melody.

Now if you’re reluctant to compose your own melody or want to just practice composing counter melodies, then get a lead sheet of a song with the melody and chord progression already written out. This will allow you to focus freely on composing counter melodies. Sometimes it’s more difficult to compose counter melodies for a lead melody you don’t care for. It’s good practice to try compose counter melodies for lead melodies you don’t like as it will improve your composing skills due to it’s complexity. It’s a good workout of your brain for sure.

For this example I’m using something I composed. Below is my melody that’s accompanied by my chosen piano chords.Up and Away Fl.png

Now I decided to orchestrate my melody for 4 woodwinds. I’m using Flute, Oboe, Clarinet in Bb and, Bass Clarinet. I’m not sure if this is worth stating, but you can choose any instrumentation you want when composing. Just keep in mind that it becomes a bit more difficult to get open and larger sounding harmonies and melodies if you only choose instruments with the exact same registers. You will be limited (depending on what you choose) to the bass note of the lowest tone your instruments can produce as well as the highest your highest registered instrument can produce.

Now the next step I took while composing for these 4 instruments was just adding a bass line to the  bass clarinet. You “can” have the bass play counter melodies, however that can be a bit tricky, because the bass notes dictate the overall harmony of the composition. It requires some practice to compose counter melodies in the bass that aren’t detracting from the harmony of the composition. Also it’s very easy to violate lower interval limits which can cause the piece to sound very muddy and nondescript. The harmonies can sound too clustered and compact.

For this piece I’m pretty much just following the roots of the chords in the bass clarinet.

Now comes the actual counter melody. Yes you can have multiple counter melodies in a composition. You have to be careful that the composition doesn’t become too busy and distracting. It takes a discerning ear to pull off multiple counter melodies, and really it should enhance the piece. Do not compose counter melodies just because you’re able to do it. Always ask your self when composing, is this making my piece sound better or worse?

Also 3 things to consider when composing a counter melody is:

  1. Does the counter melody support the harmony?
  2. Does the counter melody stand on it’s own?
  3. Does the counter melody over shadow or detract from the main theme?

I try to compose counter melodies that are rhythmically different from the main theme as it allows the listener to home in on the melodic line. A non technical way to also compose a counter melody is to have your main theme play on your computer on a loop while you either sing or play along different ideas that work independently but together with the theme. Basically use your inner voice to construct the idea.

Keep in mind that while you’re composing a counter melody, or any melody for that matter, you need to think about and embody the instrument that your composing the melody for. What I mean by that is, it’s not good composition when you compose a musical idea on one instrument and then transpose to another thinking that it will transfer flawlessly.

If you compose a piece of music on piano and then simply transfer the melodies and harmonies from that sketch to say woodwinds and brass without those instruments strengths and weaknesses in mind, then it won’t be great. Most woodwinds and some brass will genuinely dislike you (either secretly or vocally) if you compose in a key that’s not friendly to their instrument, or not take into consideration special obstacles they have to maneuver through, like a clarinet’s break.

Now I know many good musicians can easily traverse through whatever you throw at them, and some musicians even do that with a graceful disposition. However that still doesn’t make up for poor composition or thoughtlessness of an instruments best characteristics.  Approach your composing more like a good actor doing method work. Try to think like the player does by emulating how they think about how they play.

I’m not saying or implying that you need to learn to play every instrument known to man. Though it is a good idea to talk to as many different musicians about what’s best for them. Ask them how they approach different phrases and what’s comfortable and uncomfortable.

If you don’t have access to different instrumentalists or don’t feel comfortable talking to people you don’t know, then youtube is the next best thing. In fact you’ll want to supplement your interactive research with passive youtube viewings. The London Symphony Orchestra has free master class videos of every instrument from the best players in the world. Here is one on the cello. There are subsequent links to other instruments on the link’s page.

Okay here is my 1st counter melody and bass line posted below. I’ve decided to start with oboe and to compose just 1 counter melody.

Score 1.png

Now I personally liked the way the counter melody in the oboe line worked with the main flute theme, but you can hear that there’s a huge gap in harmony missing. I think what many instructors would be inclined to tell you is that the clarinet should double the melody. That may work in some other cases, but I found in this particular case supporting the counter melody not only supported the harmony a bit better, it enhanced the lead melody.

Score 2.png

Keep in mind that the ear hears the highest frequencies and the lowest frequencies the easiest. It’s very important that at the end of the day you trust what you hear. I am giving guidelines and certainly don’t want my guidelines to be rules. If you apply a technique that’s usually accepted as the correct way of composing and it doesn’t sound right to you, then change it. These are guidelines because they work most of the time and that’s worth mentioning.

Now in case you’re wondering why I chose 4 instruments, it’s because to my ear, and most composer’s, a 4 part harmony (S,A,T,B) is the minimal arrangement of a score that still gives the most complete depiction of a flushed out musical idea. It’s complete enough to expand into a larger score.

This in turn will help to develop other musical ideas in other choirs of the orchestra (or band or whatever is your element) leading to what I believe to be a more complete and interesting listen of your music.


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