In this week’s Passing Notes we look at a simple but powerful technique that can inject emotion and movement into a wide range of dance music.
Contrary motion describes opposite melodic trajectories taken by two musical lines. That is, one melody rises in pitch while, at the same time, another falls.
It’s a common technique employed by composers of classical music and it can be applied successfully to absolutely any style of dance music.
The most common use of contrary motion in electronic music is to create a contrast between a bassline and lead melody, but the same principle can be applied to any two melodic elements.
For a bit of historical context, let’s listen to one of the finest examples of contrary motion, taken from the third movement of Rachmaninov’s second symphony:
The progressions from 5:28 – 6:00, and 6:18 – 6:52 in particular contain two distinct melodic trajectories: the ascending violins and descending basses and low brass.
Although this example is probably more complex than anything we could slot into a typical dance track, it’s useful to see the potential this technique has in imparting emotion and direction in music.
Now, let’s look at a more contemporary example of the same technique in action: the string sample and bassline used by Burial in the track ‘Archangel’ from his 2007 album Untrue. (The sample is taken from Harry Gregson-Williams’ score for a cut scene in the video game Metal Gear Solid 2.)
Here’s how the string sample sounds in the track, with a transcribed piano roll below.
It’s the ascending pattern of the top melody line we’re most interested in here. The notes are highlighted in red: C, D, Eb, and Ab. These are notes 1, 2, 3 and 6 of an ascending C minor scale, and because of this it would often seem natural for the bass to follow an ascending pattern starting on the ‘tonic’ or root note of the scale, in this case C.
Below, is how the sample would sound with a similarly ascending bassline of C, D, Eb, F.
It’s a nice enough progression, but it’s all a bit predictable.
Below we can see how the bassline used by Burial, highlighted in blue, moves down the C minor scale, starting on Ab, then G, then F, while the melody on top moves upwards.
And here’s how it sounds:
The result introduces an element of tension as the two melodies work against each other, creating a much more interesting result than the obvious ascending bassline. The use of contrary motion in ‘Archangel’ contributes hugely to its emotion and movement.
Contrary motion is a simple musical technique that’s frequently overlooked in dance music. However, as seen in ‘Archangel’, it is one that can be hugely effective.