Wikipedia says the definition of counter-melody is “a sequence of notes, perceived as a melody, written to be simultaneously with a more prominent lead. Typically a counter-melody performs a subordinate role, and is heard in a texture consisting of a melody plus accompaniment.”
What does all of that mean? Basically, a counter-melody is exactly what it sounds like: it's a secondary melody that is meant to “counter” the primary melody. It generally follows a totally different rhythm and contour (shape) than the primary melody, so that it stands out in the texture. A lot of the classic game tunes feature a “melody & accompaniment” form, like in Zelda II's “Palace Theme.”
The strength of using a counter-melody in video game music is that it adds variation to a repeated melody. Let's face it, most video game music HAS to be able to loop endlessly, right? A counter-melody is a great way to prevent the theme from getting old. A counter-melody can make the original melody sound way more interesting, by highlighting the differences between the two.
Before we look at Banjo-Tooie's “Atlantis,” one of this week's new transcriptions, let's bounce back to a piece I posted a while ago, “The Bunnies” from Super Mario Galaxy. This is a freaking PERFECT EXAMPLE of how counter-melody works, and in a really lovely, mystical way.
First, take a look at about half of the primary melody of The Bunnies.
Now let's jump ahead in the piece:
It's pretty cool how much a simple counter-melody can add, isn't it? Let's look at some more examples. First, “Atlantis” from Banjo-Tooie. Primary melody:
Now the high flute has a supporting role, the low flute is the primary. It all happens in the span of just a few seconds and the result is seamless, each melody-line weaving in and out of the other (Like fish swimming in the ocean, OH SNAP!)
One more example! This is from a personal favorite tune of mine, “Forest Frenzy” from Donkey Kong Country. Take a listen to the entire song here, see if you can pick out the counter-melody just by listening.
That's a lot of information to digest, but hopefully you get the idea of all the different ways a counter-melody can function. To finish this ginormous post off, I want to quote a very famous poem by William Carlos William. “It is a principle of music / to repeat the theme. Repeat / and repeat again, / as the pace mounts.” This is more true than ever in video game music, a medium that requires musical looping for the player to have freedom to play at his/her own pace. It is how composers vary the theme, to make it different each time we hear it, that enables us as listeners to not become bored with the same thing over and over again. The video game world has a history steeped in extremely strong melodies—melodies so catchy that you can hear it literally a thousand times and not get bored—but as the hardware grew, so did the capabilities of the composers to create music with more variation. I mean, what was the average length of the typical video game song in the 80's, like one or two minutes? Now we have composers creating much longer pieces with more depth in the music that supports the melody; and that's how we get pieces with beautiful use of counter-melody like “The Bunnies,” “Atlantis” and countless other examples in video game music.
Here are some more pieces of video game music with counter-melody...can you spot those moments just by listening? Can you find more examples in video game music that I haven't listed here? I'd love to hear them!
New Super Mario Bros. Wii - Staff Roll
Legend of Zelda: Windwaker - Staff Roll
Ar-tonelico - Singing Hill
Star Fox - Main Titles
Enjoy this week's transcriptions of Atlantis and Grunty Industries from Banjo-Tooie! More on the way!