5 Steps to Writing an Effective Countermelody

A countermelody gives the listener two melodies at once, and considerably boosts melodic interest. Here’s how to write one.

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CountermelodyA countermelody is a second melody that is sung or played at the same time as the main one. It’s not a very commonly-used compositional device, but can be an extremely effective way of boosting song energy. A great example of countermelody in the pop song genre is Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”, as well as during the ending chorus of Genesis’ No. 1 hit “Invisible Touch”, from their 1986 album of the same name. A countermelody will provide harmonic support for the main melody, but it differs from a simple harmony line by virtue of the fact that it can and should be able to stand on its own as a viable melody.

Normal vocal harmonies usually lack the distinctive characteristic of melodic line. When you write a countermelody, however, you’re giving the audience two melodies at the same time. Having said that, it’s normal for the countermelody to sound somewhat “subordinate” and background to the main melody.

Simon & Garfunkel’s use of countermelody in “Scarborough Fair/ Canticle” has the countermelody appearing relatively early in the song. But in pop songs, it’s more likely that the countermelody will be used toward the end of the song, as a way of increasing song energy. The ending of Radiohead’s “No Surprises” from “OK Computer” uses the countermelody technique of composition.

A countermelody can be created once song is finished, if you’re looking to add melodic interest and song energy. Let’s say you want to add a countermelody to the repeat of your final choruses. Here’s a step-by-step procedure to follow:

  1. Write out chorus chord progression.
  2. Write a new melody that both works with the chord progression and the original chorus melody.
  3. Adjust the countermelody’s rhythm to complement the rhythm of the main melody. This step is crucial to making a countermelody work well. Here’s the basic rule: where the chorus melody is rhythmically active, allow the countermelody to be less active (i.e., use longer note durations). Where the chorus melody is rhythmically slower, allow the countermelody to become more active (i.e., use shorter, quicker note durations). That way, one melody stays out of the way of the other. If the chorus melody holds a long note, this is especially a spot where you want the countermelody to step forward a bit with a more active moment.
  4. Record the main chorus melody and chords, then play it back while singing the countermelody. This is where you keep adjusting the countermelody to work with the chorus. As the countermelody keeps improving, try singing the countermelody by itself; remember, it needs to sound like a viable melody on its own, even if its main job is to act as background to the main melody.
  5. Create lyrics for the countermelody that partner well with the main chorus melody’s lyrics. You want to create lyrics for your countermelody that keep referring to thoughts and imagery you used in the main lyric. That way, the countermelody’s link to the main chorus melody is further enhanced.

It’s possible to create more than one countermelody so that you have three, or even more, melodies happening simultaneously. The finale of Act 1 of the musical Les Miserables (“One Day More”) is a great example of this.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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