Countermelody: A Nice Alternative to Simple Backing Vocals

When you listen to verse 2 of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair/Canticle, you’re hearing the main melody, but you’re also hearing, in addition to some simple backing vocals,  a secondary melody in the background.

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That secondary melody, called a countermelody, is a really nice addition to backing vocals. And they’ll work as a nice replacement or alternative to vocal harmonies. But if you decide to go this route — using a countermelody instead of more standard vocal harmonies — there are some guidelines you should follow.

  1. Know your main melody inside-out. In particular, you’ll want to get as familiar as you can with the rhythm of your main melody. Where is it most rhythmically active? Where does it rhythmically relax? (The main melody of “Scarborough Fair” has its more active rhythms near the beginning of each line, ending with a longer “rhythm-less” note.)
  2. Write a countermelody that works with your chord progression. This is obvious: you need your countermelody to play nicely with your chords.
  3. Sing and record your melody, and then record your new countermelody. Listen carefully to both melodies together. Just because they both work with your chords doesn’t mean there won’t be moments you’ll need to fix as you put the melody and countermelody together.
  4. Consider the rhythmic treatment of your main melody when working out the rhythms of your countermelody. This means that when your main melody is active, you’ll want the countermelody to be comprised of longer notes that don’t get in the way. When the main melody is rhythmically static, you’ll want the countermelody to step up and draw the listeners’ attention. (In Scarborough Fair, the countermelody becomes most active when the main melody sits on a long note.)
  5. Don’t allow a countermelody to upstage the main melody. When you sing your countermelody, it’s OK if it seems as though it might lack a little bit of prominence. It’s never meant to draw attention completely away from the song’s main tune.
  6. Use countermelodies sparingly. Yes, it’s a nice alternative to simple backing vocals, but it’s very distinctive, and therefore a technique that can become trite very quickly if used too often.
  7. Consider using a countermelody’s lyric in a clever partnership with the main melody’s lyric. This gets to the issue of why you might use a countermelody at all. It can allow you to create a second line that offers a kind of commentary to the main lyric.

In addition to the Simon & Garfunkel example, the ending of Radiohead’s “Let Down” shows how a countermelody can add a layer of power to a song. You’ll hear a nice rudimentary example of countermelody in The Beatles’ “Help!”, as well as toward the end of McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs.”

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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