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I'm imagining this situation:

  • A melody is played by a voice (by a "voice" I mean an instrument or an actual human voice).
  • The same melody or a very similar melody is played by another voice, with a very different speed and very different timbre.

What is this called? If it doesn't have a name, what musicians explored doing it?

Here's some examples I have in mind:

  • Yume Nikki Ending by Kikiyama, Aphehad's remix (from 0:44). It feels to me like the human voice is singing a slower version of the main melody. Wyl Ayres' remix (1:53 - 2:46) is also relevant.
  • Aquarium - Rock'n'Roll Is Dead (first 21 seconds). Both the higher-pitched voice (0:00 - 0:02) and the lower-pitched voice (0:01 - 0:04) play a fainting melody, with different speeds and timbres. By the way, what I perceive as different voices here is probably caused by the same string instrument, but it doesn't matter.
  • Rush - Losing It (first 24 seconds). It begins with a faster voice, then after 0:05 adds a slower voice (the violin). But they play something similar.
  • Tiger Hifi - King of my Castle (48 seconds). The song starts with a dull echoing voice, then after 0:33 adds another voice. The second voice is slower. But they play the same melody.
  • Piknik - Be Forever (first 30 seconds). There's a weird effect added to the violin which I perceive as the second voice. Caveat: the voices can be said to play the melody at the same speed, but one of the voices is slower overall (has a slower fade-out).

The examples above are very obscure and some of them are potentially wrong. That's because I extremely rarely find anything similar to what I've described at the start of the post. I'm scrapping the very bottom of the barrel. That's probably because I'm very inexperienced in music.

Relevant concepts

There's a concept of doubling (a relevant question from where I took the examples below), e.g. using the vocal.

  • Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (2:36 - 2:46). Kurt Cobain sings "hey" to match something the guitar plays. But he doesn't sing the guitar's melody with a different speed.
  • Jimi Hendrix - Crosstown Traffic. Jimi Hendrix sings the guitar's melody with "doo doo doo...". But he doesn't sing it with a different speed.

So either I'm looking for a specific kind of "doubling" or "doubling" is the wrong concept for describing what I'm looking for.

I've also heard (from this video by Woochia, 1:53) that "fractal music" may involve playing the same melody at different speeds. But in Woochia's example different versions of the melody are not differentiated by timbre.

I also searched examples of fugue. But didn't find examples where the voices are given very different timbres.

And as I understand, harmony is more or less just means "multiple sounds together" (where one of the sounds is more important than the other), so it's too vague of a term.

P.S.: Here's a bit of subjectivity. It's not necessary for the question, but may be important for context. First, when I listen to music I focus on the intersection of timbre and melody. Second, I can associate emotions even with very short musical segments (I assume most people do the same). So when I hear a musical segment which has very connected (e.g. playing the same melody), but very contrasting (because of the speed and timbre) voices, I experience it like some exotic combination of contradictory emotions. Like some super-condensed, super-stimulating experience. It's like uncanny valley, but much stronger and much more positive. That's why I remember such music even if it lasts just a dozen of seconds.

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    Not enough time to write a fully-fledged answer but look up the term heterophony.
    – nuggethead
    Mar 5 at 12:43
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    also augmentation and diminution Mar 5 at 13:07
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    Short version of my answer: There isn't going to be any one word that encapsulates all this, and certain words are relevant to certain contexts. (E.g. augmentation and diminution are mostly in the contexts of fugues or similar contrapuntal writing; in the toolbox along with inversion and retrograde.) Sometimes a phenomenon is best described in whatever ordinary words describe it well. Mar 5 at 15:19
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    You might be interested in the Missa prolationum. Mar 5 at 21:12
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    "But didn't find examples where the voices are given very different timbres": they're out there, though. Look at Beethoven's ninth, or any orchestral or choral/orchestral fugue where voices are played in different sections of the orchestra. The Credo of Bach's Mass in B minor comes to mind.
    – phoog
    Mar 6 at 18:48

3 Answers 3

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Imitation is the broad, general term to describe when one voice plays some melodic idea and then another voice plays that melodic idea again. But there are several additional terms to specify the details of how that imitation happens. There isn't a need to list all of that terminology here, a counterpoint textbook will cover it.

If some rhythm is played and used again but at either with faster of slower note values, while maintaining the same relative proportion of note durations, usually it's done by doubling or halving note values, it is called rhythmic diminution or augmentation.

When I listen to the examples in your question I don't really hear imitation, at least not sustained imitation. A few of the example had very brief segments of melody, something you might call a motif, repeated by imitation. I didn't hear any rhythmic diminution or augmentation. But those device can be difficult to hear and are often clear from reading a score.

With no large scale imitation at play in the examples it would probably be better to just use the broad term "counterpoint" to describe the interaction of the different melodic parts. Two terms come to mind regarding one part moving fast relative to another slow part. Species counterpoint as taught by Fux has five categories and each category is based on the rhythmic relation of the voices. Species 2, 3, and 5 are specifically about counterpoint parts moving faster than the other parts.

The second term is melisma, and while the proper use of that term is about vocal music and the relation of rhythm to syllables of sung text, in a multi-voice setting a melismatic line often has a florid rhythm which moves faster than other harmonizing lines. Melisma has a strong connotation of a fast melodic part moving against some other slower part.

I don't know a term that involves both imitation and contrasting timbre, but there is an idea that comes close. Antiphony is when instrumental groups alternate in a type of call and response meant to contrast the groups spatially or timbrally. Antiphony does not necessarily involve imitation but it can.

Ritornello is somewhat related to the idea of antiphony but it involves the contrast of a solo instrument or small instrumental group against a full orchestra in the concerto form. Often the ritornello repeats a melodic idea so that hearing it, for example, first in the orchestra then again from the soloist provides a definite timbral contrast. That type of melodic repetition isn't imitation in the contrapuntal sense.

I would not be too concerned about applying a term about contrasting timbre for the music examples you gave. While I did hear a few brief occurrences of imitation nothing gave me the sense that contrasting timbre was integral those passages. If similar passages had occurred between similar instruments, two voices or two guitar, for example, I would not think that an important difference than contrasting instruments. Mostly it seems like a kind of brief, imitation between whatever happens to be the instrumentation of the particular bands.

When you bring up the "uncanny valley" idea (an idea I only know about regarding human-like robots) I think you are suggesting something like a psychedelic or swirling feeling. Echo and reverberation are often used to create that mood, and as they involve time delay there is a relation to contrapuntal imitation. But another music device that I think creates a swirling, ping-pong echo type of feel is hocketing, which is a quick alternating between separate voices. It isn't an imitation technique but a way to use opposing voices. It isn't timbral contrast per se, but you are meant to perceive two distinct voices or vocal groups, and there is at least some timbral difference between the voices involved. IMO, it's an "uncanny" musical effect involving multiple voices.

Finally, I want to add that while I tried to think of music theory terms that match the details in your question, I personally hesitate to use most of them when describing rock music, the music styles in your examples. It is not that I think music theory is anti-rock, far from it, but some of these terms apply to specific historic genres of music. For example, "melisma" makes me think of ancient church music. While melisma might be technically applicable to something like modern R&B singing "riffs and runs" seems to be the contemporary term in use.

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  • Looks like a great answer! What kind of imitation do you think is present in the examples, how could we call it? I naively called it "playing the same melody", but I've been told it's wrong. Mar 7 at 7:52
  • The short bits I heard would be called simply "imitation". If an imitative melody occurs, and there is no change to the original melody, there is no need for additional labels. If the imitation happens in a different octave, you can say "imitation at the octave", but it's generally assumed "imitation" with no other description, is happening at the unison or octave. I didn't hear any changes in the few bits of imitation in the examples. Mar 7 at 18:32
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    Given that the consensus of responses says there really isn't large scale imitation in the examples, I think the term you want to use is just "counterpoint." Regarding the different speeds of the melodies, I will make an addition to my answer. Mar 7 at 19:40
  • I've updated my description of the examples in the chat. Do you think it's more correct now? Anyway, I accept your answer. Mar 8 at 6:23
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Depending on which is the "main" voice, it may be called, "imitation by diminution" or "imitation by augmentation." This was quite popular in the 1300s to 1600s (and used later) in "puzzle" canons.

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    I think Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, Mvmt. 2 fits the examples in the OP. I've always thought its "return of the scherzo proper" (at 2:31 in this recording) involved a lot of diminution.
    – Dekkadeci
    Mar 6 at 5:50
  • @Dekkadeci, at least 20 seconds (from 2:31) are extremely close to what I'm talking about. Or 100% close. Mar 6 at 8:48
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Having listened to the examples, I think the only answer that wraps it all up is: "No, there's no one term that's useful here. And yes, your response to these musical similarities is meaningful. But to be able to talk about it more concretely, keep enhancing your skills at listening to and describing music."

I'm afraid that only the Woochia example does what you describe. In all the other examples, the two voices aren't playing the same sequences of notes, just something similar in spirit. So let's discard these examples and talk about the idea instead.

So when I hear a musical segment which has very connected (e.g. playing the same melody), but very contrasting (because of the speed and timbre) voices, I experience it like some exotic combination of contradictory emotions. Like some super-condensed, super-stimulating experience. It's like uncanny valley, but much stronger and much more positive. That's why I remember such music even if it lasts just a dozen of seconds.

There's no particular word for that "Aha!" moment of recognizing "This is the same material that I heard before!" But it's very powerful, and in fact maybe there's no word for it because it's so fundamental to so much music. The power of recognition is significant; it's the same thing that makes a comedian's "callback" work, in which they make a joke early on, and then merely mentioning it later in the routine gets a big laugh. Perhaps there's no word for "using music that was used earlier" because it's so common. In fact, there's not much music that just goes all the way through using new material all the time ("through-composed"). A lot of music has verses and choruses that repeat. Even if there's a structure that less obviously repeats, there are "themes" or "motifs" that recur, like the four-note opening of Beethoven's 5th; they "recur" so dang much that he pretty much builds a whole movement out of them.

Wagner's operas used these "motifs" to symbolize plot points or characters, and John Williams popularized the same approach with the Star Wars soundtracks, so merely quoting a motif can give the listener an "aha moment" that says something about the plot.

When musical material is repeated immediately by another voice, the word "imitation" can be helpful. This is a very broad word that covers lots of uses. For instance, in "Spring" from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," three violins imitate birds (literally "imitate," as in do impressions) and repeat their own and each others' material, though not always in the same patterns:

Or "imitation" can describe a much stricter process, like the way canons and rounds are created, each voice doing the same thing but a bit later. Many such genres have names involving words for hunting or chasing, as one voice "chases" after another. Some late-renaissance choral music was "polychoral," in which there would be two choirs, on either side of a church, working together or in imitation, "in stereo." Many works play with "echo" effects, like this one in which Biagio Marini says to have two extra violinists hidden off stage:

One genre built on repetition is the chaconne. Bach has a famous one for solo violin which includes some of the most powerful "aha moments" of recognition for me. It's a hefty solo, with a length worthy of prog rock; the performer here brings it in at a shorter run time than In A Gadda Da Vida only by playing it faster than most, more the speed it's supposed to go:

The whole chaconne is built by just repeating the same chords over and over and building "variations" on them, but the opening material comes back in the middle (5:27) and at the end. And immediately after the middle statement, we get the same theme, transformed from a minor key into major. After "everything we've been through" to get to that point, it's a moment of profound transmutation. Chris Thile in this video loses some of the setup by starting right from that apotheosis, but he has something of the "aha":

These terms so far don't concern differences in instrumentation or timbre, as you're focused on. There aren't a lot of words for changes in timbre; sometimes it gets overlooked in analysis. But it's used often, as a composer might have different instruments imitate each other (Beethoven's 5th, above, is full of it). Broad words like "tone color" or "orchestration" are relevant, but you pretty much just have to describe what happens, like "around 3:30 the strings and winds alternate, taking turns sounding the same tentative chord repeatedly."

A number of artists or works play with the notion of giving the same material to the human voice and to an instrument, sometimes simultaneously. The whole notion of scat singing came from vocals imitating instrumental idioms, and there are a number of jazz guitarists who like to double a played line with simultaneous scatting:

In Different Trains, Steve Reich took snippets of recorded speech and mapped the vocal intonation to musical pitches, then gave these melodic lines to instruments to imitate.

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    Also: for the idea of slowing a melody down and stretching it out, see the medieval practice of taking an existing song, stretching it wayyyyyy out, and using it as one of the voices in a multi-voice work: youtu.be/WSsutCu8PIo?t=276 . Also, read about John Cage's "As Slow as Possible"—making news just a month or so ago for changing a note! Mar 5 at 23:59
  • Will accept your answer if a better one doesn't appear. But I'd like to discuss my examples for a bit too. Could there be anything simple and objective about the way voices relate in them? "Losing It" starts with fast-changing sounds; then adds a violin which becomes similarly fast-changing. I listened to Tiger Hifi on different speeds and it seems that each voice plays a melody with a slower and a faster half (not sure). In "Rock'n'Roll Is Dead" it seems like both voices play a couple of notes before fading out. So could there be any patterns in the structure of melodies? Mar 6 at 8:01
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    "that "Aha!" moment of recognizing 'This is the same material that I heard before!'": this reminds me of the first time I heard Cary John Franklin's moody, modern "Coming from Evening Church," and realizing only at the moment of the final cadence that one of the parts had been singing, very slowly and without words, the Tallis Canon. (Just one part sings the tune, though; it isn't presented as a canon.) Somehow the realization reaches back in time and the memory of what has just happened suddenly undergoes some sort of phase shift.
    – phoog
    Mar 6 at 9:20
  • @FlowyPoosh Yeah, I'd love to get into it in the chat room, which is better for discussion than comments. (And yes, there are plenty of other ways to find similarities between two sets of material other than having the same notes in the same order!) Mar 6 at 14:13

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