Have you ever heard a song where multiple lyrics are sung at the same time and you wanted to know what that technique is called? Maybe you want to compose a song with that style. In today’s article, we’ll discuss the terms used to define this music method and then look at some modern examples.
What’s It Called When Two People Sing Different Lyrics At the Same Time?
When two vocalists sing different lyrics at the same time, it’s almost always a form of polyphony called counterpoint; melodically speaking, that is. There is no specific term in songwriting for two sets of lyrics being sung at the same time, although this is called dual dialogue in script-writing or play-writing.
This is usually not an example of canon, which is a slightly different type of polyphony we’ll talk about later.
Counterpoint of this format is often found in mashups, which is a common technique for sampling or covering songs. We’ll also go over mashup in more detail.
How Do The Lyrics and Melodies Interact?
The exact definition of this music technique depends on how the lyrics and the music relate to each other. The singers may use the same melody but with different lyrics, or vice versa.
But, in most the examples that I’ve encountered, the vocals will usually perform different melodies and different lyrics. In that situation, we are dealing with counterpoint. Here’s a quick breakdown depending on how the melodies and lyrics interact:
- Same lyrics, different melodies: polyphonic counterpoint, usually in the form of vocal harmonies
- Different lyrics, different melodies: also counterpoint, but usually not harmonizing
- Same lyrics, same melodies: monophony
- Different lyrics, same melodies: a more confusing monophony
Before we dive further into canons and mashups, let’s define polyphony and counterpoint so you can understand how they work…and how to use them in your own music.
What is Polyphony?
Polyphony is simply music with more than one melody. It’s different than homophony, which is a melody being supported by chords. For music to be polyphonic, there should be two or more melody lines that are independent (they could be played alone and still be a full tune) but still blend with each other.
In basic terms, here is the different between the most common forms of musical texture:
- Monophony – one melody by itself (you singing your fav song in the shower alone)
- Homophony – a melody but with chord accompaniment (you singing but while playing guitar chords with it)
- Polyphony – two or more melodies together (you and your friend singing different songs at the same time)
What is Counterpoint?
Counterpoint is a form of polyphony where two or more melodies play together AND they are different melodies. As opposed to the same melody playing at different times, which we’ll get to in the next section.
The melodies may carry the same weight in the song, or one overpower the other. Either way, both tunes could stand on their own yet also work well while playing together.
In most situations the melodies will share the same music key and stay in the same tempo. However, that doesn’t mean you have to do that! If you wanted to, then you could make one voice sing in the main key of the song and have a contrasting tune in another key for the second voice.
Why Is This Not A Canon or Round?
When researching this topic, I came across several well-intentioned answers on internet forums and social media that claimed this type of polyphony is a canon or a round. But, if you actually look at the definitions of these terms, that is incorrect.
A canon (also called a round) specifically refers to a musical piece where the same melody is played by multiple voices but start at different times. This is very similar to a fugue found in Renaissance music.
A prime example of this technique is the children’s song “Row Row Row Your Boat”. You can hear that each voice is singing the same lyrics and the same melody, but they start in different bars.
But most examples of different lyrics being sung together involve different melodies and lack the offset found in canons. So the term canon does not accurately describe the polyphony we’re trying to identify.
What is a Music Mashup?
A mashup is a form of musical collage where multiple songs are paired together to form a new work. There are a few ways this technique is employed, with the most common being:
- Overlapping melodies from two different songs,
- Putting the melody of one song over the backing track of another,
- Taking the verses from one song and pairing them with the chorus of another
In all of these situations, you’ll need several other musical factors to line up to make the end result sound coherent and consonant. Both songs should ideally share the same:
- Music key,
- Tempo, and
- Timing (i.e. they should both be in 4/4, etc.)
Even if the original songs were not in the same key and tempo, they would normally be transposed to the same key (or perhaps even to parallel keys if you’re feeling adventurous).
A select number of mashups involve two different vocal lines from two different songs being overlaid, and are therefore prime examples of counterpoint.
Examples of Counterpoint in Popular Music
Before we finish our review of the topic, let’s look at some examples of counterpoint melodies that can be found in modern popular music. A few that I know from my own listening preferences include:
- “You Know How I Do” by Taking Back Sunday (at the bridge and outro starting around 2:07 min mark)
- “Lowest Part is Free” by Archers of Loaf (in the verses starting at 0:28)
- “Feeling This” by Blink-182 (in the outro starting around 2:30)
Examples of Mashups That Use Counterpoint
Lastly, here are some examples of mashups that involve contrapuntal melodies:
- “Just The Way You Are”/”Just A Dream” from the movie Pitch Perfect
- “When It Rains” / “If It’s Not With You” by Dodie
- “Take On Me/When I Come Around” by Axis of Awesome (around the 3:05 mark)
When a song involves two sets of lyrics being sung at the same time, it’s usually a case of melodic counterpoint. There is no set term to define simultaneous lyrics being sung together, although this is called dual dialogue in other forms of writing.
This is a more advanced composition technique that requires some finesse. The two melodies for the two sets of lyrics still need to blend together. This usually means you’ll have to sync up of the rhythm and keys of both tunes.
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