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Polyphony - Simultaneous Melodies

By bagginz - Posted on 20 July 2011


I have a question on leads. On your track "Keys to the Innerverse", before the break at 4:35, you have multiple melodies playing at the same time. When ever I try this, it just sounds like garbage.
All the melodies are fighting with each other, but when you do it, it sounds great. Can you give me some pointers? I've have some knowledge of music theory, but just can't get the feeling right. A finger in the right direction would be great!

Bill says:

First off, credit where credit's due, Key to the Innerverse was very much a a co-written track. Props to the Laughing Buddha himself: Jez Van Kampen.

 At that time, Jez and I were living out of each other's pockets musically and financially and practically living in the studio and out partying in London when we weren't.  So the track was born from that environment. And like all successful collaborations I like to think the result was greater than the sum of the parts. So; that said...


Not an easy question to answer as it involves:

1. Choice of sounds 

2. Mixing levels

3. Music composition skills

Number 3 - music composition - is often the area where most people can come unstuck for various reasons. Mainly perhaps because music composition takes time and experimentation to get right as well as requiring at least some degree of understanding of the technical aspects of traditional music harmony.

I'll concentrate on the music composition aspect for now.

First, a definition: Polyphonic - from the Greek: poly = many and phonic = voices.

So, when it comes to composing different melodic parts in a piece of music that are to play simultaneously, the parts need to relate to each other, otherwise you'll just get complete cacophony.

Leaving aside for the moment that an ugly cacophonous mess is the effect that you're after, the possible ways for the musical parts to relate to each other are:

  • Rhythmically
  • Harmonically
  • Melodically

or various combinations of the three.


There are also various degrees of sophistication. Some examples:

A simple example would be  two parts playing exactly the same melody superimposed upon each other, i.e. two parts on different instruments, synths or sounds playing together in unison.

A bit more complex would be parallel parts which would be the second part playing a simple harmony against the original line (e.g in octaves, fifths etc.)

Moving futher up in complexity, a simultaneous line, rhythmically the same but playing different notes.

More complex still, when you create a different melody altogether which has different notes and different rhythmic values, but is still related to the original.

When combined with the pallette of different available timbres, the possibilities become endless *

Also something to bear in mind is that modern dance music is primarily rhythmically and timbrally focussed. Consequently the sounds are very texturally rich, so the kind of harmonic complexity that sounds wonderful when played by a symphony orchestra and it's range of instuments with comparatively static timbres, will just not sound good if simply transposed to modern synth patches with their already texturally-rich evolving synth sounds dripping with fx.

In other words, use harmony (playing different notes against each other) sparingly.

A little harmony added as a spice can really create something, unusual and interesting and can provide that emotionally evocative thang, but too much and you risk a crashing the tune into a veritable fromage fest. Take if from me ;)

My own experiments with harmony in particular have been a mixed bag, with some results a lot more successful than others. The results of others which may at times have veered a little too close the edge of fromage for some people, at least within smelling distance let's say...

On the other hand I tend to favour taking risks in my musical endevours rather than "doing what everyone else does"  - especially in a genre supposedly experimental in nature. In fact I actively encourage you to do the same both as a way to create a sound that is unique to you and because risk is an integral part of innovation.

But before I get completely sidetracked into the subject of risk in creativity, here's four good tips to make your musical parts relate to each other:

1. Number one would be stick to one scale. At least per section. Perhaps obvious, but if all melodies
are derived from a common scale it will help make the end result sound more integrated as well as lessen the chance of clashing notes. (addresses the melodic and harmonic aspects)

2. Another very good tip is to learn how to open two (or more) melodic parts at the same time in a midi editor. You can see the different parts superimposed upon each other. This can really help as you can check visually what is playing against what at any give time. (addresses the harmonic aspect)

3.  Make sure that any emphasized notes which are playing at the same time either harmonize or are in unison/octaves. (again, addresses the harmonic aspect)

4. Another would be to look at the time aspect of the melodies. (addresses the rhythmic aspect)

Taking "Key to the Innerverse" for an example, the main melody is based around dotted whole and half notes lengths. That is to say that the notes in the tune, sustain over 6 beats and 2 beats ( 6 and 2 kick drum beats) - quite long durations.  The other main melodic motif which playes simultaneously is derived from 16th/eighth notes - much shorter and contrasting durations. 

Because these both are built from different rhythmic subdivisions (1/4, 1/8, 1/16 = subdivisions) and happen over different time durations, one part fits over the other quite happily, giving the impression of different layers/dimensions moving at different times.  And as they are also derived from the same scale, they are also related melodically.  Further, the simultaneously playing notes harmonise, so they're also related harmonically.

So, different parts but sharing common source elements makes them melodically, harmonically and rhythmically related.

In my view this is the nub of it.  It's this relatedness that you can design into your different parts that allows different melodic parts to co-exist simultaneously in a piece of music, talking to each other without the result sounding as you say "like garbage"

Have fun with it.

Billy Cosmosis



* For an example of total mastery of Polyphonic music look to the fugues of JS Bach. Mindbogglingly long, evolving and harmonically interacting lines at a level of such complexity that's difficult to imagine how he did it without having at least 3 brains...