Add Melodic Interest with a Countermelody

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Radiohead - Let DownA countermelody is a type of melody that not only harmonizes a main melody, but could, if needed, act as a melody on its own. You don’t see countermelodies used a lot in pop music, probably because it can take a fair bit of effort to make them work well. But when they do, countermelodies have the effect of adding an extra melodic dimension to your song, as well as giving you interesting lyrical possibilities.

First, how about a good example. “Scarborough Fair”, by Simon and Garfunkel, illustrates how countermelodies (hereafter called CM) work. You hear the CM starting in verse 2 (Melody: “Tell her to make me a cambric shirt / CM: “On the side of a hill in the deep forest green..”)

Another good example is the final verse “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature” by the Guess Who.

Most of the time, songwriters will incorporate the CM concept on a smaller scale, as a way of adding variety to an established harmonizing concept for the song. This usually happens toward the end, in the final verse and/or chorus. Think of the final chorus of “Invisible Touch” by Genesis. The vocal harmonies at the end of “No Surprises” by Radiohead (also the end of “Let Down” by the same group) use the CM concept, even if they aren’t actual melodies.

To use a CM, you don’t simply harmonize your melody. You create a new melody that works with the original melody. Generally, CMs use different lyrics. And because of the melodic interest of the line and the presentation of a different text, it gives the listener two things to concentrate on.

So it’s important to be careful how you use CMs, because done improperly, they can result in a noisy bit of melodic confusion. So here’s a step-by-step process for creating good CMs:

  1. Write out the original chord progression that you used to construct your melody.
  2. Construct a new melody that works well with the original melody. This new melody is your CM.
  3. Compare the rhythm of the melody and CM. At moments of rhythmic activity in the melody, allow the CM to use longer note values. At moments of less rhythmic activity in your melody, allow the CM to use shorter (quicker) note values.
  4. Record your original melody and chords, then play it back while singing your CM. You’ll discover that you may need to adjust notes in your CM to make them all work.
  5. For lyrics, allow the CM lyrics to comment on questions, situations or observations presented in the original text.

Step 3 above is a very important one. If you don’t allow one of your melodies to step back rhythmically while the other one is more active, you can wind up with a bit of a confusing mess. You avoid the mess by allowing the melody and CM to “take the spotlight” at different times.

It can take a bit of time to really get a CM to work. And don’t worry too much if, by itself, the CM is only moderately interesting. If you’ve got a good main melody, the CM should not need to demand the same kind of interest. But a relatively well-written CM can set your song above the rest and really make it stand out.

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  1. Check out: The Beatles “I’ve got a feeling” on the Let It be album. This is a truly “Lennon-McCartney” song because the song combines two unfinished song from each. For most of the song, these differing elements are played in sequence but in the final part – genius prevails – and John sings his chorus and Paul his at the same time in what seems to me to be perfect counter-melody.

  2. I always felt “Wanderlust” by Paul McCartney from ‘Tug of War’ was a beautiful example of the countermelody. Each of the two melodies gets its turn, and then they come together as the song reaches it’s conclusion. Classic songwriting.

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