Polyphony in Popular Music

American Pop Music from 1960s – 1980s

Across the nation, people of all ages danced to popular songs in Rock, Rhythm and Blues, and Country styles in the 1960s and the decades that followed.  The music was widely distributed by FM radio and on vinyl albums.  Bands were touring and appearing on television. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, and Beach Boys were among the more popular Rock groups.  Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and Loretta Lynn were becoming famous in the County Music world.  Charlie Pride was the first Black singer to play at the Grand Ole Opry, and became a star.  Ray Charles was a crossover figure in both Country and R&B.  Other popular R&B groups included The Temptations and the Supremes.  Elvis Presley appealed to a broad audience, and Bob Dylan along with Simon and Garfunkel were popular poets and folk musicians.  Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and Elton John were innovative singer-songwriters.

Popular music in these styles was guitar-centric, with a vertical approach that relied on strummed chords. This resulted in homophonic textures for most tunes.  Song writers often wrote the lyrics and placed chord symbols over them without any other form of notation.  This was so common that a style of notating chord symbols called the “Nashville Number System” was developed for country music.  Few popular artists were classically trained or able to read music.  Needless to say, the linear approach to music required for counterpoint was not prevalent.

However, there were a number of talented songwriters and performing groups in these genres that took a layered approach to their arrangements.  If we expand our definition of counterpoint to include repeated short sequences as independent melodies, which was a foundation for much Minimalist music, there are a number of songs that exhibit contrapuntal features.  As in Blues and Jazz styles, active bass lines, counterlines, and linear reductions of the harmony are common.  See the Materials section for examples.

Paul McCartney of the Beatles used a fingerpicking style in Blackbird that is an excellent example of creating lines from the harmony and inversions that provide a melodic background to the melody.

Many of McCartney’s songs were arranged by George Martin, who produced the Beatles, including For No One and Eleanor Rigby.  (1984 recording)

Stevie Wonder frequently took a layered, linear approach in arranging the accompaniment to his songs.  Some examples are I Wish, Superstition, and Boogie on Reggae Woman.  His beautiful ballad, You and I, exhibits counterlines on several levels.

The Temptations recorded a multi-layered arrangement of Papa Was a Rolling Stone.  Their music is representative of what was known as Rhythm and Blues (R&B).

Tower of Power created an extremely active, layered linear composition in the classic funk style, What is Hip?

Michael Jackson wrote Billie Jean with an ostinato bass line and multiple supporting parts.

Sting arranged his song Every Breath You Take to include a melodic guitar part throughout, with a small string section and a piano part that adds linear interest.

American Pop Music from the 1990s – Present

Rap and Hip-Hop styles became popular with samples and computer-based loops dominating the musical landscape.  Clearly designed to send a message or tell a story, often of repression or social inequity, the lyrics were cleverly woven around a strong bass/drum beat.  Like Rock and Roll was when it became popular initially, Hip-Hop remains protest music, primarily developed by Black poets and producers.  Some artists created music with layers of melodic lines using synthesized sounds in simple repeated patterns.  A few early pioneers of these genres who employed multiple lines and more than one vocal part are listed below.  See the Materials section for examples.

Nas and Puff Daddy collaborated in 1999 on Hate Me Now to create a rich texture and interactive vocal parts.  Also in 1999 Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Hittman teamed up to  deliver Forgot About DreThe Game and 50 Cent got together to produce Hate It or Love It in a similar fashion, released in 2005.  These examples show a layered approach by influential rap performers in collaborations representative of the style.

The concept of taking an existing song and remixing it with Hip-Hop tracks was also popular.  In 2011 JAY Z and Kanye West produced a mix of Otis, and layered new tracks on the old R&B song first sung by Otis Redding, Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.

John Legend became one of the most widely recognized popular singer/songwriters of his time.  While most of his music is presented in homophonic textures, he often layers melodic lines.  One example is Love Me Now, written in 2016.

In 2021 Beyoncé wrote and produced Mood 4 EVA, featuring JAY-Z, Childish Gambino, and Oumou Sangaré.  It is a multilayered collage in tribute to African royalty and to the good life for The Lion King accompaniment project.        

There are many more Hip-Hop and Rap artists who employed a strong bass/drum track, along with synthesized melodies or chord progressions in polyphonic layers.  They sang or spoke the lyrics over this foundation, often with other vocalists in a form of dialogue.  In addition to those mentioned above, some of the more influential artists in these genres include Snoop Dog, Tupac Shakur, Kendrik Lamar, Drake, Ludacris, and Lil Wayne.  Female artists such as Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, and Nicki Minaj are equally important.


McCartney:  Blackbird

Wonder:  I Wish

Wonder:  Superstition

Wonder:  Boogie on Reggae Woman

Wonder:  You and I

Jackson:  Billie Jean

Temptations:  Papa Was a Rolling Stone

Tower of Power:  What is Hip?

Sting:  Every Breath You Take

Nas:  Hate Me Now

Dre, Eminem, Hittman:  Forgot About Dre

The Game, 50 Cent:  Hate It or Love It

Jay Z, Kanye West:  Otis

Legend:  Love Me Now

Beyonce, featuring Jay Z, Gambino, Sangare:  Mood 4 Eva

Scroll to Top