Just finished a track for your game but sounds bland? Added more stuff on top but sounds cluttered? The other guy does the same thing you do but his track sounds amazing? It’s not your skills! It’s understanding countermelodies.
Countermelodies are incredibly useful for writing complex music properly. Arguably, good counterpoint separates the amateurs from the pros as its range of use is nearly limitless. The video game music sphere is no different, although it can be confusing and time-consuming to learn if you lack music theory and composition.
Honestly, even with that, a proper understanding of counter point and counter melody is a study of itself. This is why I came up with 4 simple methods you can use in your music RIGHT NOW! No music theory required.
Open up that music project or write a quick melody and follow along!
What is Counterpoint and Countermelody?
The general definition of counterpoint or countermelody is a second (or multiple) melodies layered on top of the primary melody. The names’ difference is a bit more confusing depending on what musical background.
Both terms are trying to accomplish the same goal which is to pad out (or beef up) the elements in their music.
“Counterpoint” is the more studious term within the orchestral/jazz community, the classically trained, and the music theory nerds. I won’t go into the history but the TL:DR is that a second melody would be used to harmonically pad out the chord progressions while simultaneously sounding like its own voice (very useful if you’re working with a small number of instruments). For example, if you were to turn off your main melody, the second would still sound like another melody while simultaneously sounding different.
“Countermelody,” I’ve noticed, is the term used by most electronic musicians and beat producers. A slight distinction is that they more-so use countermelody to fill in gaps in their track elements. Mainly for getting rid of dead-air or using/omitting countermelodies in individual sections of the song. We’ll use this term going forward.
Video game music uses a mixture of these two terms (leaning predominantly towards counterpoint). Countermelody should NOT be overused or too prominent. There should be no question in the listener’s mind about the melody.
Experienced composers and orchestrators know how to create a “single voice” out of multiple voices. Most of the music from Studio MDHR’s CupHead are good examples.
“High Sea Hi-Jinx” – CupHead
Though the Brass sounds like it’s all over the place, you can still follow the melody it presets. The countermelody meshes into a primary theme.
The Four Methods
Regardless of your musical background, countermelody is something you’ll want to play around with, especially if you’re interested in video game music. Here are 4 fundamentals concepts to help get you started:
The displacement of a phrase from your main melody.
2. Intervallic Parallels
Doubling your melody up or down a few steps
3. Rhythmic Contrast
Opposing note lengths against your melody.
4. Call and Response
A short melodic drum-like fill.
Most countermelody is a variation, combination, or layering of these four methods. Examples are from pre-existing game music, custom made music, and some royalty-free tracks i’ve made.
This is exactly what it sounds like. This is merely the displacement of the main melody on another line/instrument. The echo’s usual execution is playing the same melody on a new instrument when the first melody stops playing or is holding a note.
“Playful Banter” – Fantasy RPG Piano Pack
The Violin starts off the melody, then the Flute “echoes” it.
If you happen to have a classical ear, this concept is prevalent among the great trailblazing composers and orchestrators.
TRY IT: Copy your melody onto another line (or instrument). Shift the new melody over to taste or to fill up space. Combine with Tips for best effect.
The countermelody (blue) is shifted 2 beats over.
The countermelody (blue) is now shifted 1 beat over.
a. You can get some variations out of this by changing your start and/or end note of the countermelody.
Green notes denotes the changes from the original counter melody. Only the start and end notes of the two phrases were adjusted.
This will naturally force you to adjust the notes the middle.
The gray notes are the previous countermelody. The start/end notes are connected better through adjusting the notes in between.
b. Another common use to fill out the frequency spectrum is to play the counter melody on a higher/lower instrument.
The countermelody is now played on a higher instrument (bells) and shifted over by one and a half beats.
c. Experiment with the countermelody by cutting it off early or extending it by delaying how fast you get to the phrase’s end note.
“GBA Cheese Land” – Mario Kart 8
The baritone saxophone plays the melody. The Alto saxophonist echoes only part of it and goes into a jazz lick. Electric Piano in the background also echos the baritone sax after the alto sax.
Simple displacement of your melody can open the door to new musical ideas while still maintaining cohesion within the track. This is actually a powerful Melodic Development tool. Gravity Rush’s Old Nowa makes great use of the concept!
“Old Town” – Gravity Rush
The melody (or leitmotif) starts with clarinet then is quickly echoed by the recorder and lead strings.
Though the overall song starts with echoing, it creatively weaves in the other countermelody methods discussed in this article.
Genshin Impact’s Liyue Habor theme is an excellent example of echoing as well. The main melody is in the higher strings, but two beats after, the lower strings echo the melody. It too follows the next method we’ll discuss.
“Liyue Harbor” – Genshin Impact
Violins play a run-up scale that is quickly echoed in the Cellos. Next passage, 1st and 2nd Violins are split and are now using Intervallic Parallel.
2. Intervallic Parallel
Love video game music? You’ve heard this MANY times! If you’re familiar with the music theory term “interval,” this is just shifting the melody up/down either a 3rd, 4th, or even a 5th layered on your main melody.
If you’re not familiar with “interval” but understand the principle of scales/keys within a project, shift the melody up/down 2 notes within the scale and play it over top of your melody.
This is a critical distinction from echoing. While echoing can be compared to two friends alternating the same talking point, Intervallic Parallel is compared to two friends walking together holding hands.
“Adrift in Autumn” – RPG Towny Music Pack
Melody starts on Flute then Oboe accompanies playing a countermelody shifted downwards from the Flute.
Still lost? Let’s just try it.
TRY IT: Copy your melody onto another line/instrument. Shift your copied melody up/down four or five times and adjust any notes that don’t sound good upon playback (should only be a few notes).
a. You don’t have to use this for the whole phrase. Try omitting or adding in specific parts of the melody.
Square 1 opens with melody. Square 2 then plays WITH Square 1 shifted below (first half of the second bar) then shifted above (last four notes).
b. If you happen to be writing 8-bit or chiptune, this is a common, almost expected form of countermelody. As mentioned in the definition, the countermelody in this context is to help define the chords in your progression while helping the piece sound more full and/or interesting.
“World 1-1” – Super Mario Bros
The high square outlines the melody. Notice how the 2nd square plays together with the melody to fill in the chords’ gaps between the Triangle (Bass) and high square.
c. If you decide to stack your countermelody higher than your main melody, it’s best to turn the volume/velocity down on the countermelody. Our brains interpret higher melodies as the superior voice.
The last four notes (Green) have been turned down, better revealing the main melody.
You’ll find that this is very common in various other music styles as well.
3. Rhythmic Contrast
Again, pretty simple. If your melody plays long slow held notes, your countermelody should play fast and short. This method’s crux is to make sure your counterpoint isn’t completely occupying the same note range as the main melody.
“Windmill Isle” – Sonic Unleashed
The Melody (Violin) is playing at a medium pace and contrasts with the Accordion holding and sustaining notes. Halfway through, this dynamic swaps a little bit. You can hear traces of Intervallic Parallel as well.
“Main/Title Theme” – Legend of Zelda, Wind Waker
The countermelody is in the Bagpipes playing in the background. Again, the rhythm here is contrasting the fast, almost arpeggio-like melody from the Recorder.
This method is very beginner-friendly when it comes to counterpoint writing as this alone can improve your music while opening your ears to new ideas.
The Choirs (countermelody) rhythm plays off the Oboe’s rhythm (melody).
TRY IT: Determine whether you have a fast/short melody or a slow/long melody. Go bar by bar and create a contrasting melody with it.
a. Try copying a very short piece of your melody/phrase, stretch it out, shift it up/down or shrink it and duplicate it. Adjust notes to match.
For this, I copied my melody to a new instrument and selected the notes I wanted to stretch.
Though stretched, it creates a kind of echoing effect.
b. Using contrasting ADSR curves will significantly affect the clarity of this as well. If not familiar with the term, Imaging a Xylophone and a Trumpet playing one note. The Trumpet can naturally hold the note while a Xylophone can’t (very short sound). A Synth can hold a note forever (if programmed to), but a Guitar decays over time. Depending on the combination, you’ll notice that more space opens up, allowing you to utilize other forms of countermelody.
Though the bells are playing the same line as before, the instrument’s natural Decay completely changes the weight of the piece. It feels more empty.
4. Call and Response
The “Call and Response” (also referenced as “Question and Answer”) is the idea of playing a fresh new melody, fill, or rift, right when your melody is ending its phrase. In a sense, you can consider it a variation of Echoing. Rather than copying the melody, you’re building a short “response” to the main melody’s “call.” Think of this as a short drum fill.
“Galactic Venture, 3rd variation” – Fan Made OST
The Piccolo plays the melody then a combination of Cello and Violin plays little fills to “fill in” the space in-between the Piccolo.
TRY IT: Find a spot where your main melody is holding and create a short fill.
a. As mentioned, try using different ADSR instrumental curves.
b. If you’re comfortable with chords, make sure your countermelody is ending on a different note than your primary melody note while complimenting the chord.
Food for Though
At this point, you should have gotten some practice with writing countermelody. However, the real fun comes from exploring the combinations! Let’s go through some examples.
A common idea is to start the song with just the melody and no countermelody to establish frame and structure. To build tension or interest, lightly introduce a countermelody upon repeating your main melody. Final Fantasy XIII’s Blinded by Light is an excellent example of this in regards to building tension. Its melody opens with Low Brass then immediately uses Rhythmic Contrast in the Strings once the melody cycles back.
“Blinded by Light” – Final Fantasy XIII
If you listen further into the chorus, the countermelody switches primarily to intervallic Parallels (Violins). Then, layered with another Rhythmic contrast on high strings.
“Blinded by Light” – Final Fantasy XIII
The song is continuously using simple variations of countermelodies (and other tricks) to increase tension and interest. Think in terms of “delayed gratification”.
A complex combination/layering of countermelodies comes from the famous Green Hill Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog. The entire original song is laced in them! Specifically, it primarily utilizes Rhythmic Contrast (lower than the main melody) and later adds another layer of Rhythmic contrast to the main melody (higher string-like synth). The Call and Response is heard as well.
“Green Hill Zone” – Sonic The Hedgehog
You may have noticed that most examples actually merge countermelody methods. Some examples start with Rhythmic Contrast then immediately go into Echoing or Call and Response when the melody holds/breaks. Another possibility is using Intervallic Parallels on the Echo/Call and Response countermelody!
Lastly, you can use any of these methods to help transition or pass along melodies between instruments (like in the first audio example of CupHead). This is actually how “Playful Banter” is composed as it only utilizes three instruments.
“Playful Banter” – Fantasy RPG Piano Pack
I hope you’ve gotten a sense of how useful countermelodies can be in improving your music. Many combinations can be made but it doesn’t stop there! These methods can also be combined with various Melodic Development tools and techniques!
For example, leitmotifs (highly popular in video game music) can be combined into each other using these methods. The final movement from “The Wind Waker Symphonic Movement” performed by The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony is a beautiful example of this combing the Wind Waker Theme (Solo Violin) and Aryll’s Theme (Horns).
“The Wind Waker Symphonic Movement” – The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony
You now have some musical ideas to play with when writing. If you want more, be sure to hop on my email list below so you’ll be notified when I write more articles, release new royalty-free music, and other products.