What Is Contrary Motion in Music? (Practical Types Of Motion)

February 25, 2024
Contrary Motion In Music - Image of moving lights by Damon lam

Music is a universal language that everyone can understand, regardless of culture or background. However, music has many concepts that you’ll want to understand to enhance your performances, and the concept of contrary motion is an essential one to master.

A simple movement created by contrary motion can have a lot of impact and evoke intense emotion. In this article, you’ll learn what contrary motion is in music and how to use it in your compositions and solos so you have the tools you need to give unforgettable performances.

Let’s dive in.


If you’re short on time, watch my video that shows you my simple thought process that’ll allow you to immediately apply contrary motion into your bass playing.

YouTube video
How To Make Your Bass Melodies More Interesting (Contrary Motion)

The Basics of Contrary Motion

Contrary motion, sometimes referred to as counterpoint, is a musical term when two or more melodic or harmonic parts move in opposite directions.

It can happen in several ways, but the most common is when (two voices) one part moves up while the other moves down. This happens in jazz music all the time, where the melody is moving one way and the bass moves melodically another way. This can create some interesting harmonic effects when notes are passing and add a sense of movement to the music.

Minor 6th Diminished Scale In Contrary Motion
Minor 6th Diminished Scale In Contrary Motion

It can also occur when one part moves in one direction while the other moves in a different but opposite direction. For example, one part might move up and down while the other movements are in a stationary straight line. This movement creates a sense of tension or drama in the music and you’ll hear this a lot in contemporary music.

There’s a natural tension and release that occurs in the music when you apply contrary motion. You’ll particularly hear this technique used in a lot of classical music and jazz.

Reasons to Practice Scales In Contrary Motion

As a jazz musician, tonality is an important aspect of music. It gives a song its structure and allows the listener to follow along. Formal scales are essential to tonality, and contrary motion scales are a great way to practice them.

Contrary motion scales refer to scales played simultaneously in two different directions. So, for example, on the piano, you could play an ascending scale in your right hand while playing a descending scale in your left hand. It can be a bit of a challenge at first, but it’s a great way to get a feel for the notes on a scale and how they relate to each other.

This motion can also happen with a band, where the bassline moves in one direction, while the melody moves in a different direction.

Benefits of practicing scales in contrary motion

There are some benefits of practicing these opposing scales.

Here are 3 of them:

  1. It can help you better understand the structure of a scale. Playing the scale in both directions, you’ll see how notes fit together and how they create the overall sound. It can be helpful when you’re soloing or improvising, as you’ll better understand how to create interesting melodic lines.
  2. Practicing contrary motion scales can help improve your coordination and independence between your hands. It’s because you’re essentially playing two musical lines simultaneously, which can be difficult at first. But by practicing this regularly, you’ll be able to develop better coordination between your hands, which can lead to more fluidity and accuracy in your playing overall.
  3. Being able to hear two or more independent melodies moving in different directions is excellent training for developing your ear. This, in turn, helps you with your compositions, solos, and how you respond to other musicians when you’re improvising.

Comparing Motions Between Two Melodies

Contrary motion, also called contrapuntal, isn’t the only way to compare and contrast melodies. 

Comparing types of motion between two melodies can be a valuable tool for understanding music theory. In addition, you can use it to create exciting and unique-sounding pieces of music. 

Next, we’ll take a look at the primary ways to compare two different melodies.

Type of Motion #1: Contrary Motion

As already discussed, this is when the two parts move in opposite directions. One melody can go up and the other can go down.

This is a powerful tool for composers because it can create interest and tension in a piece of music. By both establishing expectation and then creating a surprise, you’re structuring your piece in a way that makes music pleasurable to people. It’s also helpful in creating visual appeal when two melodies get played simultaneously.

Classical composers, like Bach, used this type of motion often even in his four-part harmonies.

There are two main types of contrary motion: harmonic and melodic.  

  • Harmonic contrary motion happens when two notes move in opposite directions within a chord.
  • Melodic contrary motion happens when two notes move in opposite directions within a melody.

A soloist can create tension and release by moving in opposite directions, making for a more exciting solo.

Listen to how beautiful an example of contrary motion sounds when Barry Harris moves from a ii chord to a V chord.

YouTube video
Barry Harris 2-5 Movement using 6th Diminished Tritone Substitution

Type of Motion #2: Static Motion

In music, “static motion” occurs when two or more voicings are played repeatedly without any change to the voicing.

The lack of movement, when used wisely, can be an effective way to create tension with your solos and compositions.

Type of Motion #3: Parallel Motion

Parallel motion is a technique that’s used to start introducing a little bit more movement to the music. It’s when two or more voices simultaneously move in the same direction without ever deviating from each other. It can add a lot of depth and texture to your music when used correctly. It’s also great for adding interest and variety to your playing.

Jazz musicians often use parallel motion to create interesting harmonies. By simply using the same chord shape, and moving that shape using the top voice as the melody, parallel motion is created. This creates a modern sound and is also an easy way to reharmonize a song, changing the colors of the chords.

When distinct chord structures maintain a parallel movement, it may not seem like contrary motion. However, this technique is often used right before the voices deviate in motion, creating drama to the music.

Check this sound out over a blues sound.

YouTube video
Blues Harmonization Part 1 Parallel Movement

Type of Motion #4: Similar Motion

Similar motion can add a lot of energy and forward momentum to a piece of music. It’s for both formal and informal settings, depending on how you use it.

Just keep in mind that it is essential to use this tool wisely. You can use a similar motion to create genuinely stunning music pieces with some knowledge.

The way similar motion works is you have your voices move in the same direction, like in parallel motion. The difference is that the intervals that are used for each voicing can change.

Listen to how combining short and long voicings can create a beautiful sound.

YouTube video
Barry Harris short and long voicings: easy movement for stationary chords

Type of Motion #5: Oblique Motion

The term “oblique” refers to the movement that occurs when one voice remains static, while the other voice ascends or descends.

This type of movement commonly occurs in jazz with the use of a pedal tone. Either the upper or lower voice can be pedaled while other voices continue to move.

This creates a really nice effect when you want to add some tension to the music.

You can hear oblique motion along with other movements used in Keith Jarrett’s beautiful rendition of Danny Boy.

YouTube video
Keith Jarrett – Danny Boy (Londonderry Air)

The Takeaway

In jazz music, improvisation is essential, and knowing how to use contrary motion in music will help you make more exciting solos and write engaging compositions. It will bring a pleasing surprise to your performance and keep listeners on the edge of their seats.

Start small by inserting contrary motion to the endings of your phrases or during comping. Once your ear is able to hear these movements, work your way to applying these over extended phrases, lines, or chord progressions.

Want to discover more jazz theory like this?


Hi! I’m Posido Vega, a multi-passionate creative. I’m an artist, bass player, jazz theory enthusiast, children’s book author and illustrator, and SEO 😅.

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