My name is Terry Yount. This is my first question on your site. A little bit about me: I decided I would like to learn to chord an acoustic guitar, primarily to play classic country music for relaxation. I also wanted to understand the basis and structure of music, especially chords. I began to study music theory on my own. So I have a basic understanding of melody, lyrics, harmony and so forth.

This is my question: When listening to music, I have often noticed that the melody (notes) that the musicians are playing and the melody (lyrics) that the singer is singing do not match note for note. In other words, the melodic contour of the accompaniment does not match the melodic contour of the lyrics. The accompaniment is not dissonant, it is melodic and pleasing; It just doesn't match the lyrics. Does this form of accompaniment have a name?

  • At its most basic, this is simply harmony. – Matthew Read Dec 25 '16 at 22:00

Perhaps you're referring to the idea of countermelody? There can be many melodies in a song, playing at the same time. One (usually) is the primary one, but the accompaniment often has other melodies floating around, which are often called countermelodies.

It's important that the countermelodies don't get on the way of the primary melody, to avoid sounding dissonant or distracting.


It can, and does, but it depends on the exact nature of the accompaniment, and many times the best terminology is exactly what you've used already ... "accompaniment".

For example, there's counterpoint, which Wikipedia currently defines as "the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent (polyphony) yet independent in rhythm and contour". This generally means there are two melodies going on at the same time, complementary to each other. Compare the term "countermelody", which is related.

Here's an example that appears to be a transcription of a two-part invention by J.S. Bach: image from tutsplus.com ... I can personally attest that this is Bach (therefore in PD) or a bad imitation thereof ..

This is counterpoint; you can see that the lower/"left hand" voice plays something similar to the upper/"right hand" voice just a couple of beats later than the upper voice ... almost an "echo".

But counterpoint is generally considered to be a classical technique, although you could, I suppose, argue that it's still used today when "trading licks", or especially by background vocalists. Compare to this also the "call & response" concept which came to us from African music via "Negro Spirituals" and slave work songs in the early USA.

Much more often than "counterpoint" (or polyphony) we will hear a "chordal" accompaniment, which might have several words to describe it, as well. Most often, melody will move or change pitches more frequently than the accompaniment, in which case the music is said to have a "slower harmonic rhythm".

Here is a piece of music, easily playable on piano, that would demonstrate "chordal accompaniment". Note that the pianist's left hand would play half note chords (Gm and F) while the right plays the melody: Simple piano music from "MUS 2170" found at tripod.com

Of course, this is all really a simplified set of examples. The accompaniment for this last example could be played in an arpeggiated style, or with the "Alberti bass", or any number of variations ... and that's just on the piano.

Add in the complexity of a band or orchestra, and you can get really complex pretty quickly.

Here's a transcription of the Beatles opening to "All My Lovin'": Copy of out-of-print transcription of Beatles' song from Tredwell's Music (UK).

Perhaps you can see Paul on bass guitar, playing a "walking" bass line of all quarter notes (on each beat), Ringo playing a "swing rock" pattern, and the 2nd guitarist (I'll presume it was George) playing triplet chords (that is, 3 strummed chords on each beat of the song, or strumming three times faster than Paul was).

And here's the opening page of the last movement (not the more famous first movement) of Beethoven's 5th symphony:

Beethoven 5th Symphony, 4th Mvt., from wmich.edu

Perhaps you can observe "chordal accompaniment", but with winds playing long (half) notes, high strings playing staccato notes, and lower strings playing a repeating pulse of eighth notes.

What you've really discovered here is often called "texture", and there are, usually, 3 musical textures:

  1. Monophony (that is one instrument/voice producing one line of music; one note at a time).

  2. Homophony (a melodic line of music accompanied by multiple notes of lesser importance than the melody).

  3. Polyphony (of which counterpoint is the major example), two or more simultaneously melodic structures occurring more or less simultaneously.

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    Thank you for your answer, Kevin_Kinsey. It was quite in depth and I learned a great deal from it. However the music that I listened to that spawned the question was less sophisticated. The music in question was today's version of country music. – Terry Yount Oct 27 '16 at 20:50
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    It would apply, nonetheless, see particularly the Beatles example. All pop music (country included) is primarily homophonic in texture. There are variations in rhythm, obviously. I've written some at Quora also, and the answer to "How do I learn to play keyboard in a band" might shed some additional light if you've got the time to read another of my tomes ;-) quora.com/How-do-I-learn-to-play-keyboard-in-a-band/answer/… – Kevin_Kinsey Oct 27 '16 at 22:12

You've had some very detailed answers. Here's a simple one. If everyone played the tune, there wouldn't BE an 'accompaniment'. There'd just be everyone playing the tune!

Singer or soloist has the tune. Bass has the bass line. Others might strum chords, play a sustained counter-melody, echo certain parts of the tune, sing 'Doo-wop's... Playing something different to the tune is called accompanying it, supporting it, backing it. And it's what normally happens.

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