HOW DOES THE SONG GO?

By Nate Lapointe

The Counterpoint Never Stopped

Welcome to “How Does the Song Go?” A column dedicated to taking you deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than ever before. Last week we got pretty heavy with the music theory on “They Love Each Other,” examining how chromatic embellishment can help describe chord changes and create interesting and colorful melodies. Today I’m going to talk about counterpoint. and specifically how the Dead used it in the song “The Music Never Stopped” to create interesting and colorful melodies.

Counterpoint is the relationship between two or more melody lines that are played at the same time. These melodies are dependent on each other to create good-sounding harmonies, but also are independent in rhythm and contour. These melody lines are called voices, and a piece of music can have counterpoint among two, three, four, or more voices. (1)

From the beginning of the piece, you can hear how Weir’s guitar is playing on the front side of the beat and Lesh’s bass is responding to it by playing on the back side of the beat. In other words, Weir’s part is centered on beat one, then Lesh on beat two, Weir on three, Lesh on four. Weir rests on beat one, Lesh plays on two, then they come together on beat three. This is called rhythmic counterpoint. This is :04-:09 on the original recording. Have a listen:

Then at :09, Garcia comes in with a flurry of notes two octaves above where Weir is playing. He’s describing the chord changes using his melodic notes from the chord changes E E7 A/C# C. Weir’s vocal comes in and both guitar parts simplify, bouncing off one another. It’s particularly fun to listen to with headphones as Weir is on the left and Garcia is on the right channel.

The section that always fascinated me was the instrumental part that follows the lyric, everybody’s dancin.’ This is 1:08-1:17 on the original recording from above. The chords are:

F#mi/A Bmi7(b5) A/C# D#dim7 Dmi/F A/C# D7 E

Then the vocals come in with, come on children…
F#mi/A Bmi7(b5) A/C# D#dim7 D/E E

You can see the bass is ascending by whole steps A-B-C#-D#-F then jumps down to C# and up the scale to D and E. The top voice in Garcia’s part is descending in half steps F#-F-E-D#-D-C#-C-B. Try to ignore the sax solo for a moment and focus on Jerry’s part on the right channel, which is filled in of course by Weir’s chords is the chord progression written above, a rather unconventional one at that. Those of you with access to a piano or a guitar can play with 2-part counterpoint section by lining up the notes as such…

Garcia: F# F E D# D C# C B
Lesh: A B C# D# F C# D E

The lyrics take priority during the, come on children… section so Garcia’s guitar part is simplified to make room for the harmonized vocals. 

When performed live, the Dead generally did not have a sax player, so Garcia takes the lead line and Weir takes on the high counterpoint line similar to what Garcia played on the original studio recording. Weir’s top melody goes F#-F-E-A-A-A-A-G so lined up with Phil it would look like this…

Weir: F# F E A A A A G
Lesh: A B C# D# F C# D E

The departure he makes at the D#dim7 chord is just a re-voicing of the chord with an A note on top. Same with the Dmi/F, A on top. Same with the A/C# and D/E chords. Garcia’s note is just buried lower in Weir’s guitar voicing. The note that stands out as being different is the G natural on the E chord, resulting in an E7(#9), or as it’s known in guitar circles, the Hendrix chord. You can hear a live version from RFK ’91 here:

If you’re feeling lost or overwhelmed by the music theory explained here, that’s ok. This is all meant to create movement and emotion for the listener. Without these colorful and unique approaches to harmony, the Grateful Dead wouldn’t have been the Grateful Dead. Now go dance.

  1. https://hellomusictheory.com/learn/counterpoint/

Nate LaPointe is a member of Cubensis, SoCal’s premier Grateful Dead music experience. In addition, Nate has worked with many artists including Bobby Womack, Vince Welnick, and Selena Gomez. Nate currently resides in Redondo Beach, CA where he performs, teaches, and records music.