Music: What is This Vocal Technique Called?

In church yesterday Mrs. HeyHomie and I (and the rest of the congregation of course) sang a song where the men sang one part and the women sang the other part, at the same time. The parts had different words and different melodies, but formed a synergy that was really pretty.

       **Men**                  **Women**
I will sing to                    He is Lord of Lords
And worship                   He is King of Kings
The King who                 He is Mighty God
Is worthy                       Lord of everything
I will love and                He's the loving God
Adore him                      He's the Great I Am
And I will bow down      He's the Prince of Peace
Before Him                     Who is the Lamb.

What is this technique called? I’ve heard it before - It’s used in Godspell.

Mrs. HeyHomie suggested Counterpoint, but I think counterpoint is for when the lines have similar melodies. For instance, Jean Valjean and Javert sing in counterpoint in Les Miserables, and their lines have almost identical melodies and meter.

Anyway, any musicians wanna help a Doper out here?

It’s called a motet. Originally, the lower voice would have been very simple, but as it became more popular, the composers would set two completely different pieces of music against each other (in more modern usage, from The Music Man, you’ve got 76 Trombones/Goodnight, My Someone).

I’ve usually heard it referred to as a double chorus. It’s a standard ingredient of just about any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

The question’s been answered, but just to expound a bit… Counterpoint usually does not involve similar melodies. I mean, there are thematic similarities, of course, but the two melody lines can pretty much stand by themselves as separate melodies. Listen to any Bach for oodles and oodles of counterpoint examples.

Especially within choral music and hymns, a high part that follows a different melody and different words is often called the descant. I have sung two pieces in the motet style, and while one of them followed the more Baroque form Ethilrist pointed out, the other had only the most basic layering of voices.

The composer of that piece (with a Master’s in music theory, for whatever that’s worth – I am heavily biased toward his opinion since he was also my director) explained that a motet is any piece for which the words are already widely known; the word “motet” is derived from the French “mot” (word) and can be used to mean any piece set to existing words.

This page has the lyrics and music of a typical Gilbert & Sullivan double chorus – in this case, from H.M.S. Pinafore.

  1. The men’s chorus sings melody A
  2. The women’s chorus sings melody B
  3. The men and women’s choruses sing back and forth to eachother in a sort of mass dialogue, using melodies C-F
  4. The men’s and women’s chorus return to melody A/B, but sung simultaneously.

There may be some name for this other than “double chorus”, but I’m not familiar with it.

I certainly wouldn’t call it a motet - although perhaps I’d go with ‘motet-style’. Another crucial point about motets is that their origins were as liturgical music.

The generic adjectives are ‘bitextual’/‘polytextual’ - these can refer to anything, not restricted to the genres and techniques already named.

And counterpoint specifically refers to melody, not text (you could have multiple texts following a single melody if you wanted).


Now I have to dig out my analysis books which are somewhere in boxes in the garage… gaaaah! It’s going to bug me all day, you know.

I’d be reluctant to call it a motet or a “double chorus”, since double chorus work does not necessarily imply two different “melody lines” in the work. For example, Bach’s St Matthew Passion requires a double chorus - it’s in 8 (sometimes 9) parts, same for Handel’s Israel in Egypt…

There’s a word for this, I know there is.

I will let you know if I find my good ol’ analysis texts :wink:

Nitpick: The motet in The Music Man was Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You. There was a charming medley of 76/Goodnight, in a later scene, but only one person was singing at a time.

Warren Zevon has made great use of the descant in his music. “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” has the following descant:

 ** Zevon                Backup Singers**
Roland          Time, time, time
the             For another peaceful war
headless        Time stands still for Roland
Thompson       'Till he evens up the score.

And in “Empty Handed Heart” he sings a chorus while Linda Ronstadt sings the descant:

Then I've thrown down diamonds in the sand    
Then I've thrown down diamonds in the sand 
Then I've thrown down diamonds in the sand 
Then I've thrown down diamonds in the sand 

Remember when we used to watch the sun set in the sea 
You said you'd always be in love with me 
All through the night, we danced and sang
Made love in the morning while the church bells rang