Christmas Candles and Choir

Composing Your Own Descant Melody

Every year I have the best of intentions to write a post or two regarding writing holiday music, good and early so that songwriters can actually use the information! And then, usually due to my own busy schedule this time of year, I don’t get it done. But I thought I’d write this quick one that, even if it’s too late for this year’s Christmas season, might be useful for Christmas 2018! 😉

A descant melody is one which is sung in partnership with a song’s (typically a hymn’s) main melody, like this famous one: the descant melody for the final chorus of “The First Nowell“, written by British composer Sir David Willcocks. The descant is the upper harmony line sounding higher than the melody.

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Here are some basic elements that most descant melodies have in common:

  1. They typically happen during the final chorus, or the final verse in verse-only designs.
  2. They serve as a kind of harmony to the main melody.
  3. They extend the emotional reach of the chorus melody, giving a sense of finality to the final chorus.

That point #3 is an important one. Most song melodies, particularly hymn-like Christmas melodies, are structured to have a climactic high point near the end. And even in the absence of an obvious high point, we can hear the melody rising, then dipping lower for the final cadence:

Melodic shape of O Come All Ye Faithful

Audiences pick up that climactic high point and feel it. It usually happens anywhere from two-thirds of the way along the melody, or, as in “O Come All Ye Faithful” shown above, much closer to the end.

So we usually add a descant to the final verse/chorus as a way of adding an even higher emotional moment close to the end of the hymn.

The biggest problem that composers/songwriters have with composing descant melodies is that they often ignore the need for melodic structure. A descant melody works in deference to the main melody, but needs to also have an enticing shape. Without shape, you’ve just got a sequence of notes that may or may not sound good at all. How you know that you’ve written a good descant is that it sounds good as a melody all on its own.

Listen to Willcocks’ descant for the final verse of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and, as a listening exercise, try to ignore the main melody. You’ll see that it has all the hallmarks of great melodies:

  1. It uses repetition (either exact or approximate) as an important structural element. Some lines get repeated, changing slightly, helping us to remember it.
  2. It uses a combination of steps and leaps as it moves up and down, in much the same way a main melody does.
  3. It sometimes moves with the main melody, sometimes in the opposite direction.

Just as a main melody will have its climactic high point near the end, the descant will usually have its climactic high point similarly placed, though not always exactly at the same moment as the main melody.

To write a good descant, you need to listen to it carefully without the main melody, and determine for yourself if it operates (and behaves) as a melody should. The biggest problem I hear with newly composed descants is that they sound aimless, wandering about with no regard for shape or standard principles of melodic composition.

Remember to use lots of stepwise motion, lots of repeating figures, and place the climactic high point near the end. That’s all you should need to come up with a descant that works well.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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