Brilliant Accompaniment

For those who play or want to play accompaniment to other instrumentalists or to singing, here are some concepts to consider. There are two types of accompaniment discussed in this article: 1. When you accompany another musician, and 2. When you play a full arrangement on one instrument. On a single-line instrument (such as a flute), accompaniment must be from another instrument; while on an instrument where your two hands play separately (such as harp or piano), you play your own accompaniment  –  one hand plays melody while the other determines the nature of the piece. Mood, tempo and style are all determined by the accompaniment.

Much more than just a nice backdrop, accompaniment creates the mood, rhythm, and style of the piece, and is therefore the major determining factor of the presentation. Unfortunately, many musicians think anything added to themelody it is just enhancement. But listen closely to any professionally produced piece of music that contains accompaniment and you will hear how important it is.

Have you ever noticed, when you’re listening to, say, a good cover band (a band that plays popular songs), how the introduction is usually what an audience will recognize even before the song starts? One great example is “Layla” by Eric Clapton. Listen here (The intro stars at about 12 seconds into the video):

Or Loreena McKennitt here:  Those first bars of intro make it very clear, if you have ever heard it before, what song she’s about to sing.

Or Dougie McLean’s “Ready for the Storm” at

Although two of those examples include whole bands, the same can be true of any solo arrangement, such as Dougie’s solo guitar.

These musicians don’t just start right in with the melody; they use a strong introductory theme, which may also repeat between verses, and which does not reiterate the melody at all. They are a separate thing entirely – a second and equal voice.

An introduction could, on the other hand, be a section of the melody; not necessarily the beginning, but perhaps the chorus or the last line  –  the part that identifies the melody best. A good example would be if you were playing Silent Night, you could introduce it with the last phrase because that is so recognizable. Your intro will identify tune, key and tempo, and it’s like an appetizer before the entrée.

The introductory theme can also be repeated between verses, and/or in pauses between phrases.

Additionally, there are possibilities for countermelodies and/or parallel harmonies behind a melody.

Most often, for songs we’ve heard before, we choose to play whatever chordal backup or pattern we’ve heard and therefore expect to hear. For instance, in the tune “Greenleeves”, a harpist might play rolled chords on each strong beat, or a cellist might play continuo, to emulate what we think of as a lovely Tudor-era love song. But what if you gave it a tango-rhythm backup instead? Or a Paraguayan Galopa-style backup? You’d change the entire nature of the tune without having to change the notes of the melody. That is the power of accompaniment.

In an ensemble of similar instruments (such as a harp ensemble or a cello quartet), you will often use scored arrangements for each piece, but some ensembles play from one arrangement; in other words, everyone in unison. Sometimes that sounds lovely, but you can do more. You can break it up into parts, and you can even do that without having to transcribe each part. Let’s look, for instance, at a harp arrangement: it will have the right hand and the left hand parts (right hand is usually melody or treble clef, and left hand is usually accompaniment or bass clef). Let’s say the melody in the printed arrangement contains same-hand embellishment (ornaments and/or chords), and the accompaniment (other hand) consists of chords, counterpoint, single-note harmonies and/or rhythmic patterns. Rather than having everyone in the group play all of it, the basic melody can be played by one or more of the harpists, and the embellishments to the melody can be played by others. Or the beginners can play only the treble-clef notes that appear as the first beat in each measure, while the intermediates play the whole melody. For the beginners the accompaniment can be broken down into single notes (i.e. read the lowest notes only), or maybe just the chords that appear on the downbeat or the backbeat. The rest of the bass clef notes/chords/rhythms can be played by intermediates. Advanced players can play the full arrangement. Breaking it up this way produces a more “three-dimensional” effect.

If you are creating your own accompaniment to someone else’s playing, be sure that what you do enhances rather than distracts from what they are doing. Don’t get good playing mixed up with overdone playing; if you play well, you can also play with subtlety. Keep it tasteful and understated, unless and until there is a solo break for you; then you can shine. But remember that the rest of the time the primary focus is on the main performer, not on you. You’ll know you have succeeded when your part fits so seamlessly into theirs that people can hardly tell the two apart.

The same is true for session playing. If you are not the session leader and it’s not your turn for a solo, aim to blend in, not stand out. This is true especially for drummers. In many Irish sessions, for instance, the bodhran (drum) is commonly regarded with some disdain because too many players play it too loudly and unrelentingly. If you want to be appreciated, be subtle!

If you are a solo singer, your voice alone will not always carry you if your accompaniment is not all it can be. An instrument should be more than a prop. I cannot stress enough: learn to play your instrument well; don’t settle for “good enough”. Your instrumentation should be as good as your primary voice or it will detract rather than enhance.

There could be volumes written on accompaniment skills, but my point here is simply that there is so much that you can do to make an accompaniment interesting, enhancing, and tasteful. Treat it as equally important as the melody or voice, but don’t make it distracting. And most of all, enjoy your music and that of those with whom you play!