Writing Countermelody

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by FretGrinder, Jan 30, 2002.

  1. I *dig* a good countermelody, whetever the instrument - i think a lot of the best music IMHO happens when each instrument complements the others perfectly, so that they all add up to way more than the sum of their parts.

    The basslines I am most proud of do this, and nail the rhythmic function (I'd like to think at least) while moving around the guitars ... I wanna do this more. Note that by countermelody i dont mean complexity - just keeping on the 5th instead of the root qualifies for example (advice when to do this?)

    So - how can i get better at writing countermelodies? I'm prepared to accept shouts of "theory!!", but hopefully something a little more focused .. I'm getting (back) into theory a little now but lack direction a little, don't relate it very well to what i play unless it happens automatically .. also any recommended listening will we gladly accepted, anything else you can think to add .. cheers all.
  2. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    This is a pretty complex subject to cover even in music school where teacher and student know a lot about each other. Over the net, it becomes nearly impossible when there is this little information to go by...perhaps you could post again and provide info about your current level of understanding of traditional theory (or any kind of theory, for that matter).
  3. very basic I'm afraid. I know a few scales, about thirds, fifths etc, and how to put a few chords together (unless they're diminished or otherwise perverted). I learn things now and then and then forget them.

    i know that some intervals sound nice and others sound nasty, and i can even play them :) ... I can improvise predictably enough in a few scales, and I know a few finger excercises.

    apart from that .. ok new question (old one remains on) ... As a self-taught bass guitarist who's been going for about 4-5 years and wants to put some work in and get a lot better quickly (mostly at the writing / musicality side, I'm happy with technique, etc) and has no interest in playing jazz, should I:

    1) get bass lessons and hope theory & tuition helps
    2) get piano lessons (I really wanna learn it and get some use out of this expensive keyboard i bought for said purpose) and hope for musical osmosis
    3) keep trying it on my own, thus preserving all my precious originality and saving money for precious beer
    4) learn to play jazz even though i dont like it because it will do so much for my musicality
    5) join the foreign legion
    6) lern to play like FlEidY ... ahh ... sorry, couldn't help it. I actually thought his sound was the best thing about the band ... but ... i don't like the band
  4. I think you've got these suggestions ranked in the correct order, although saving money for precious beer is always a noble cause.;)

    The best way to learn more about counter melody is to go face to face with a bass player who has a lot of experience with it, i.e.: a teacher.

    I also think taking piano lessons would help a lot because piano pieces often have counter melodies within themselves and any time you learn a new intrument, you can apply what you know to the bass. It's all about becoming a better musician.
  5. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I would go with this one! ;)

    Actually I saw a drummer who works at the local music shop, in the the Jazz club one night and started talking to him. I was surprised as this guy is really good and has played on tours with rock bands in the US and has played loads of sessions.

    Anyway he explained that he didn't realy like Jazz but was looking to improve his drumming and musical skills. So he had signed up with a highly recommended (expensive) drum teacher - but the first thing he told him was to listen to Jazz drummers and play Jazz. So he had come along to
    the club to see the particular drummer who was there that night and he was very impressed!

    He then explained how we was going to set up a small Jazz group and asked me to play with him; but I'm afraid I "bottled out" as he is an awesome drummer and was worried about showing myself up - this was a few years ago - I would jump at the chance now! :(
  6. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    The LAST thing you should ever do is try to learn to play Jazz if you don't like it. There are plenty of other styles of music to choose from, and all use the same 12 notes. For your own sake, study whatever kind of music floats your boat. There is always as much to be learned in one's own back yard as there is in the neighbor's.

    Good luck.
  7. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I'm not so sure about that! I think that you can learn a lot of lessons about music from just playing some Jazz tunes, but that some other forms of music can teach you very little. I find playing Jazz to be the most fun and motivating way to learn about music theory - I tried all the others and gave up! ;)

    I also think that Jazz is a very broad church and there is something for everyone - so when I was playing in rock bands I though of "Jazz" as "trad" in the UK - with banjos, straight 4 to the floor rhythms and tooting clarinet over everything. I hard Weather Report though and never looked back. ;)

    My girlfriend say she doesn't like Jazz, but when I have put on albums like Horace Silver's "Song for my Father " or Miles' "Kind of Blue" she says "Well if all Jazz was like this, then I definitely would like it! " ;)
  8. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I understand what you're saying, and while I agree that jazz has many lessons to offer you that other types of music do not, I still feel strongly that anyone studying music should study the music they love (if we're talking about music school, this is a different issue), and progress from there.

    I learned this lesson many times the hard way, and will try never to make the same mistake again, either as a student or a teacher. For me, the bottm line is that when it comes to issues like motivation, dedication and focus in the practice room, there is a huge difference between "Labor" and "Labor of Love". My experience with students has been that if you let them study the music they love, they work harder, learn faster, and generally move on to more complex/diverse forms more quickly than if you try to cram YOUR musical tastes down their throats. I remember a time when I thought that jazz was kind of lame, so I studied other things. When the time came that jazz started to appeal to me esthetically, I was ready and willing to embrace it wholeheartedly - something I would not have been able to do a few years earlier.

  9. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    You're probably right on this - if I think hard there were times when I didn't like Jazz or understand it - both came comparatively late and together!

    I think there is a case that Jazz does need "active" listening and appreciation, which is not good for building a large fanbase - but they are loyal once you get them hooked!

    I suppose, I followed the music I liked without ever learning anything and regret not studying theory earlier as I feel there were many wasted years that I could have used more profitably.
  10. I'm starting to think about learning a bit of jazz and funk to give myself a broader pallette. I don't mind some Jazz, and I would by no means denounce it as a genre (that would be too sweeping a statement). I think what i like the most about jazz (& funk) is people bringing wafts of it into other music, and I think I'd like to be happily capable of that too one day.

    I'm leaning towards lessons - which i think may have been a foregone conclusion. A keyboard class of 10 weekly 1 hr lessons with a group of beginners at the Australian Institute of Music is coming up, and I'm signed up for more info .. also having a lesson this saturday at a bass shop, to scope the teacher out and give me something to work on for awhile. I think I'll take the occasional kind of bass lesson, and try to fit in the regular kind of keyboard / piano lesson, at least until I'm able to take it further myself.

    Thanks for all the discussion guys. I think jazz is one of those things I'll get around to exploring later in life perhaps, like flossing every day and living in debit. Right now I'm neither particularly exposed to it nor finished listening to what I'm listening to. Hopefully I won't regret this ... but I'd be much more interested in learning to play classical pieces - either on the piano, or cello pieces transposed for bass.

    Another thing which would be awesome to have is a looping device - a boomerang or RC-20. Or I could use my 4-track more and try to compose countermelodies to "track 1" .. or teach myself to sing and play at the same time :eek:

    Any more ideas?
  11. Brad Barker

    Brad Barker Supporting Member

    Apr 13, 2001
    berkeley, ca
    my input:

    when writing a countermelody (i'm assuming that you play with other musicians, if you don't this post is really pointless), listen to the part you when to counter-melodicize (making up words is an oft overlooked pasttime). then, imagine a part that would work both with and against the part (against in the sense that you aren't simply playing the same part). try to play this, or at least approximate it.

    this is difficult enough. especially for people like me who haven't the best musical "ears" (we can't really convert what we hum or imagine into audible, played music very easily).
  12. So glad that someone brought this thread back to topic - how to write countermelody. Although this goal remains elusive, it remains relevant. More suggestions please, especially from jazzers who remember what it was like to be a beginner.
    Which brings me to my contribution. Intelligently studying jazz can never be a waste of time. Lessons abound if you only remain open to them. If there are aspects of jazz that intimidate you, you are not alone, nor are you unjustified. A lot of what is called jazz is intended to put you off; distance you from the musician. To overcome this it can be helpful to remember that jazz is less a style of music than something you do in music. When thought of that way, a live classical symphony, or serious funk, or a folk singing acapella group can have jazz. But study it. You can never have too many tools in your belt.
  13. Jim Carr

    Jim Carr Dr. Jim Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 21, 2006
    Denton, TX or Kailua, HI
    fEARful Kool-Aid dispensing liberal academic and card-carrying union member Musicians Local 72-147
    "Counter melody" is too vague a term to mean much, IMHO.

    Why? Because there is a little something called counterpoint (polyphony). That topic, while one of the toughest aspects of formal music study, actually defines most of western music from a theoretical and historical point of view, and is the essential element for the practice of most styles of composition. It is the study/practice of creating two or more musical lines that work together to create a "whole greater than the sum of its parts."

    So do you mean create better bass lines or create counterpoint?

    Counterpoint has existed since before major/minor tonality and evolved along with all western styles, up to and including Jazz. The reason it is so rarely thought relevant to most rock, funk, blues, pop, metal etc., is that countrapuntally speaking they are for the most part very simple.

    To put it another way, defining counter melody as a useful musical term, IMHO simply yields the topic counterpoint.

    In order to study counterpoint effectively (as opposed to simply creating interesting basslines for most styles where the electric bass is dominant), you will need a lot of musical skills. In fact, you need all of them: ear training, sight-singing, harmony, analysis, notation, instrumentation, piano, etc.

    Furthermore, a broad and deep experience listening to (and ideally performing) a lot of polyphonic music is essential. I don't mean just different 30 sub-genres of 20th/21st century popular music, I mean all of it, from the 11th century up to until now: Perotin, DeVitry, Machaut, Dufay, Binchois, Josguin, Palestrina, Tallis, Byrd, Lassus, Willaert, Monteverdi, Corelli, Scarlatti, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel, Berg, Bartok, Webern, Varese, Davidovsky, etc., etc.

    So back to your question (How can i get better at writing counter melodies?)--I don't think you really meant you want to learn counterpoint, I think you meant: How do I create better bass lines that have a linear shape that is not simply an ostinato (repeated pattern)?

    Answer: become a better bass player and more trained musician.

    Practice, take bass lessons, perform with others a lot, listen to a lot more music outside of your comfort zone, learn piano, harmony, and become familiar with the classic recordings of the bass greats of Jazz (upright and electric). I am stating the obvious here, but it is worth saying it: Jazz in general has a far more linear, independent, and melodic bass line than more Rock-related styles. The masters of Jazz bass teach a us a lot about playing melodic and expressive MUSIC, not just about bass lines, IMHO.

    That is probably what brings many electric bassists to learn upright, but please, no flames. I love electric bass and just about every genre of popular music ever created, but there are real differences in sophistication/complexity (not worth, skill, or beauty) between styles. Collective improvisation and some Pop music can be highly polyphonic if its harmonic vocabulary is large enough to permit it. Early '20s New Orleans-style Jazz and '50s Bebop come to mind, as does some of the work of Beatles. All IMHO.
  14. BassChuck


    Nov 15, 2005
    As others have noted the concept of 'countermelody' is fairly complex. But my .02 is that really the analysis of countermelody is complex, and for that you do need a good bit of theory and all kinds of other things that people have learned.... and therefore count as important.

    In actual practice what I would suggest is to record the music as best you can without any bass part. Find a quiet place and play that recording while you sing what you think is a good countermelody. After you have that clearly in mind, learn your part on bass.

    IMHO you should keep two things in mind:
    1.) that the whole deal of 'music theory' came into being for analysis and understanding how music was composed (as opposed to how music will be composed).

    2.) All musicians come to their own understanding of music from personal experience and study. There are many, many different paths. It's interesting to learn how other musicians come to their understanding, but in the end, we all have to make that trip ourselves. More knowledge makes for an easier trip... but you have to do it on your own.