The Contrapuntal Secrets of Steve Morse

Any analysis of Morse’s music will reveal plenty of advanced concepts and useful ideas that you can explore.
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In case you’ve been living in a cave for the past few decades, Steve Morse is a masterful guitarist who routinely displays outstanding musicianship dating back to his debut in the mid 1970s. His career highlights include being a founding member of the prog-instrumental group the Dixie Dregs, the release of numerous highly acclaimed solo albums, and high-profile gigs with legendary rock groups such as Deep Purple and Kansas. Any analysis of Morse’s music will reveal plenty of advanced concepts and useful ideas that you can explore, as his style employs some of the strongest components of music theory and composition, including a complete command of chord voicings, chord progressions, and voice leading. These three areas of music theory can be grouped together and related to the overall subject of contrapuntal motion, or the individual note movements between chords in a progression. There are four types of movement found in contrapuntal theory, all of which Morse routinely employs in his playing. They are:

Parallel Motion A chord progression or movement where the voices (notes) move in the same direction and maintain the same intervallic distance.

Similar Motion A progression or movement where the voices move in the same direction, but the intervallic distance between the notes changes.

Contrary Motion Voices move in opposite directions.

Oblique Motion One voice moves while another voice remains the same. This is also known as “droning.”

To begin, the first section demonstrates an overview of parallel motion using basic power chords and slash chords [Examples 1a and 1b], while Ex. 1c is similar to what Morse plays in Dregs classics such as “Punk Sandwich” and “Perpetual Reality.”


The next area of chord movement to explore involves the similar motion principle, and you can find a good example of this concept in Examples 2a and 2b. This features a very common sound found in traditional classical music, but you can also hear this idea in Morse’s music, including his fret-melting classically themed anthem “Tumeni Notes.”

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Contrary motion is found in the classical and jazz music that influenced Morse. The idea of arranging voices that move independently can be thought of as counterpoint, but we’re focusing on the individual note movement between the chords of a progression here. Analyze the note movements of the chord progression in Ex. 3a and you’ll find that several of the notes between the chords move in opposite directions as the progression unfolds, while Ex. 3b demonstrates how to turn this progression into a powerful rock rhythm.

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Next, let’s try our hand at droning, where a note or portion of a chord moves while one note remains constant. You can hear this type of movement in plenty of rock and metal, but you can also find it lurking in classical, jazz, blues, and country. Ex. 4a demonstrates oblique motion in action, and Ex. 4b is similar to the oblique movement found in classic Dregs tunes such as “Ice Cakes” and “Odyssey.”

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The final example in this lesson reveals yet another element found in Morse’s music: the use of open-voiced triads and arpeggios. Open-voiced triads feature a restructured spelling so the intervals and distance between the notes of a chord or arpeggio are more widely spaced than normal. This sound can also be found in the music of players such as Eric Johnson and John Petrucci.

Play through the voicings in Ex. 5a and then check out the mixture of contrapuntal movements in Ex. 5b. You’ll see that we’re beginning to combine the ideas that we’ve uncovered in this lesson, with this idea shifting from parallel to similar motion in the same phrase.

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Once you get a feel for arranging the notes of chords and arpeggios using a combination of these movements and concepts, you’ll be on your way to understanding how a genius-level musician such as Steve Morse writes music. In time, with a little patience and chord-expanding practice, you’ll discover how to apply these ideas into your own music. Good luck!