A beginner’s guide to counter-melodies

Writing counter-melodies is hard. Here are few tips to get you started.

Image for postPhoto by Jamille Queiroz

There are entire books on the subject of counter-melodies. Some composers spend years and years studying the subject. So where does a beginner without much background in music theory would even begin? I?ll try to explain how to write a counter-melody without using musical notation. This is what I came up with so far.

Here is the quick piece I wrote to go along with this article:

Some background

Whether in pop, rock, hip-hop, or classical music, a counter-melody is not specific to a genre. If you compose any kind of music, the chances are that you?ll need one at some point.

But is a counter-melody an obligatory part of a composition? Imagine you have a room that you want to turn into a home office. You place a desk, a chair, a desk lamp, and some drawers. It is now a functional office room. Hanging some pictures on the wall or adding a plant on your desk is not necessary but it will enhance your office. It will feel better and more personal. Well, that is precisely the same with a counter-melody.

What it is and some general rules

A counter-melody is a melody that complements the main melody in a piece of music. Although subordinate, it can also stand on its own. Here are some tips I gathered to write a counter-melody:

  1. Counter means opposite. It doesn?t mean different.
  2. The counter-melody and the melody (with harmony) should use the same scale.
  3. When played alone, the counter-melody sounds good.
  4. When played with the main melody, the counter-melody sounds good also.
  5. A counter-melody should not overlap with the main melody or the harmony. You can use a different octave, a different sounding instrument, or use a different rhythm, or all of these techniques.
  6. When the main melody rests, the counter-melody is active and vice-versa.

There is much, much more to it than this such as tonal inversions, using consonant intervals (3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th if you know what they are), and plenty of other things that you should know and use. But let?s try to not dwell on music theory too much. This is a beginner-friendly guide, and I am a beginner as well.

Let?s set the scene

I wrote a short melody using violins that we will use as an example. It uses the C minor scale. I used Logic Pro X Transposer MIDI effect to write it (take a look at this tutorial):

This is how the melody looks like on the piano roll in my DAW:

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Then, I added the harmony. A chord progression on the cellos and the root note of each chord played an octave lower by the basses:

If you need a quick step-by-step guide to writing harmony and chord progressions, I wrote one here. I used the same technique I explained in the mentioned guide. Here is what the piece looks like with both the melody and the harmony:

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Filling the spaces

Take a closer look at the piano roll with both the melody and the chord progression. Notice the following:

Image for postWow! Such empty!

These empty areas between the harmony and the melody that I highlighted in the picture above constitute the perfect home for our counter-melody to come.

To avoid the counter-melody clashing with the other elements, we should find an instrument that has a range that would fit within the empty spaces. As I know next to nothing when it comes to orchestration, I Google for ?instrument range?. I found that violas would work if we want to stay in the strings department and that french horns would work equally well if we are to move to brass. Let?s use the french horns.

Duplicating the melody

The first thing I usually do to help with choosing an instrument for the counter-melody is to copy the melody track on the new instrument track and then lower the notes by one octave (-12 semitones). This is how it looks like:

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And this is how it sounds:

Yep, let?s keep the french horns.

Tip: Why an octave lower and not higher? Because our ears will give more attention to higher pitched sounds. You don?t want your counter-melody to take the place of your main melody.

Let?s write, then

Now comes the actual writing of the counter-melody. For this part, I didn?t yet figure out a recipe. Maybe I will once I know a lot more about music theory but for the time being, here is what I tried:

Tonal inversionIf the main melody moves up a third, I tried taking down the counter-melody down a third. It didn?t work and didn?t sound good at all. I won?t make you listen to the example, it?s not worth it.

Bars inversionInverting the active and passive bars. In the example above, I took the notes in bar 2 and placed them in bar 1, and vice-versa. Didn?t work either although it somewhat sounded better than my previous attempt:

Actually, with a bit of fixing, like changing the position of the long notes, it could work:

Better but not great.

Jamming in the scaleThat?s the technique I finally used. I put the two first bars on a loop cycle to play them over and over, set the Transposer effect to the C minor scale, hit record, and played on my keyboard. About 20 takes later, here?s what I came up with:

The first two bars of the counter-melody alone:

Then together with the main melody:

And then with the main melody and the harmony:

Let?s see how this looks like:

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As you can see, when the melody is active, the counter-melody keeps quiet. Just one long note. When the main melody goes quiet, the counter-melody is active. More notes. As the main melody has a going up motion, the counter-melody has a going down motion. This works. Not stellar but it works.

I then continued with the same technique for the whole 8 bars:

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That produces the result you heard in the first audio clip in this article. That?s it for now but I?ll make sure to revisit the subject once I?ll have learned more about counter-melodies.

Happy composing!


Counter-melody is hard, and there?s only one way to get better at it: practice and keep learning the theory. So far, I use a lot of training wheels kind of tricks as I showed in this article. It allows me to get going quickly and keep learning.

In the end, the only sure and proven technique is to trust your ears.

I am on a journey to teach myself orchestral music composition. I write tutorials with my findings as well as tips and tricks about a wide variety of related subjects. Follow @TheNickEss on Twitter or TheNickEss on Facebook to know when I publish my next article. If you like this article and want to encourage me to write some more, please consider adding a few claps? !


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