Counterpoint is the art of writing individual parts that have complete melodic independence from one another yet work in harmony and compliment each other perfectly. It is a skill that comes from an advanced understanding of harmony and an innate grasp of what will sound correct. If done with imagination and flair, counterpoint can completely transform any piece of music into something rich and complex.
Fortunately, there is no computer (as yet!) that can automatically write counterpoint – it is an art that comes from a human beings inspiration.
There have been many sessions that we have been asked to provide strings on where the string parts have been sustained in nature and harmonically slightly empty (often travelling in octaves or unison with little texture in the middle). This can be appropriate where the other instruments are busy in the track but often it’s inappropriate and doesn’t fully utilise the presence of live strings in the studio – there is a feeling that they could do so much more. In this context, counterpoint in the form of a skillful counter melody or an interesting, moving part can provide a special feeling adding climax and interest to the string parts. When a composer is completely reliant on a keyboard and therefore bases much of the writing on blocks of chords, then the strings never really come alive. It is the presence of the individual strands which make up a beautiful, flowing whole – rather like a tapestry with different threads and colours woven through it.
If a string arranger is considering writing a counter melody (whether above the tune or in the middle register to add detail underneath), they can start by playing around with the three notes of the triad in the existing chords (in the instance of a 7th chord, this may be 4 notes). Before long, a melody will start to unfold based on these notes and eventually the shape of the melody will emerge, often through passing notes which allow it to effortlessly travel from one chord to another in a smooth succession.
Here’s an example of a string arrangement I wrote for string quartet – based on the traditional Christmas tune ‘I Saw Three Ships’. Although many carol books suggested which chords to put with it, I was happier experimenting until it felt right.
As an example of a counter melody, at around 16 seconds in, the second violin begins a counter melody to the same rhythm as the first violin. At 29 seconds in, the viola and cello have the same motif, an octave lower whilst the upper strings have a pizzicato figure to add rhythm and life. All the lines sound pleasing when played individually. The rhythm and tune is moved around between different instruments to add interest whilst the pizzicato bridge section builds up in thickness as well as volume to add climax. At 1 minute, a new counter melody is introduced like another layer being added in the second violin, whilst violin 1 and cello are in octaves. At 1 minute 20, the tune from the second violin breaks into the first violin part to dominate the piece with the main theme becoming secondary but still discernible. At around 1 minute 40 seconds, a totally new melody emerges that now replaces the main melody all together, yet is it is still in the same style and fits the chords harmoniously. At 1 minute 56, a canon in four parts is begun where part of the theme is treated fugally, passing from one instrument to another but always overlapping and building up a busy counterpoint which ends with the cello repeating a two bar phrase. The distinctive rhythm is kept going from 2 minute 15 onwards in the cello part whilst the second violin gets the melody and the first violin has an intricate and showy folk type accompaniment – this builds up to a climax before the two violins have an identical one bar phrase in sequence and the whole piece ends with the rhythm played by the viola in an echo of the opening of the piece.
Generally writing or arranging for strings does not always have to be this busy or intricate (unless they are required to be a real focal point!) but when strings are required to stand up in their own right (without additional instruments in a track), they need to really come alive!