Improvising a Countermelody

For some reason, one of the most blissful experiences in music is to perform a satisfying countermelody, or additional melody that differs from, and enriches, the main melody. Countermelodies, also sometimes known as “harmony lines,” can feel sophisticated and beautiful.

There are different approaches to countermelodies. In one approach, the improviser seeks to “complement” the main melody, filling in with short notes when the main melody is “sitting” on long ones and “getting out of the way” with longer notes when the main melody is moving more quickly. Here, however, we’ll focus on a simpler method, which we call “parallel.” This approach to countermelody will create a sweetness or richness around a main melody while not distracting from it. In this method, we create a harmony line that is generally a third above or below the original melody.

Activity: Improvise a parallel countermelody

Goal: Develop instincts for how to harmonize a melody.

Before you start: You’ll need a melody to harmonize with, and optionally an accompaniment/chord progression to clearly define chords. The original melody can be improvised by someone else, read by someone else from a notated melody in a sight-reading anthology, or played from a pop song recording (as long as there isn’t already a countermelody)—or you may have additional ideas. You may choose to harmonize either vocally or on another instrument, although there’s something particularly delightful about vocalizing a countermelody (especially if the original is also vocal).


  1. Consider the notes a third above and a third below the first note of the main melody. (Make sure to use major or minor thirds as necessary to stay within the scale.) Choose which one you think will sound better based either on your hearing and instinct or on your knowledge of which notes will work best in the harmony. If either will work, you can either choose arbitrarily or consider the third above/third below for the next note or two in the melody. (Note: we are talking about thirds here, but if the main melody is in a different octave from your countermelody, you may end up a sixth or tenth away instead.)
  2. Once you’ve chosen “third above” or “third below,” you’re ready to perform your countermelody! Play or have someone play the original; simply follow the contour (up/down motions) of the main melody yourself, remaining a third above or a third below, using the same rhythms as the melody.
  3. Occasionally it may sound better to be a fourth or (even less common) a second away from the main melody. Usually this is because that note is in the appropriate chord while the third away from the main melody is not. You may be able to use your instincts or your knowledge of chord progressions to choose when to do this; if not, parallel thirds usually sound fine even when they don’t technically fit.
  4. Finally, to make your countermelody even a little more sophisticated, you could choose occasionally to differ slightly from the rhythm of the main melody, either delaying a note slightly or rushing to it early.


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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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