Following up on my last post about sad music, here’s a great article from the Wall Street Journal about some of the musical secrets behind Adele’s Grammy-winning smash hit “Someone Like You.” Emotionally intense music, whether happy or sad, releases massive amounts of dopamine in the pleasure centers of our brains, acting like a drug and making us yearn for another dose. Intensely sad music behaves just like happy music in this sense—it causes physiological reactions in our brain that keep us coming back for more.
The article also details a couple of musical tricks that help to intensify the emotion, including the humble appoggiatura. In a study 20 years ago, the psychologist John Sloboda found this seemingly minor accent present in 18 out of 20 (unnamed) tear-jerkers. As the song’s co-writer Dan Wilson told Minnesota Public Radio, neither he nor Adele knew what an appoggiatura was when they were working on “Someone Like You.” They used it instinctively. As Wilson said, “Hey, if I had a scientific method for making a heartbreaking hit, I would do it every day… But it’s not so easy.”
Writing music for a dialog-heavy scene is one of the trickier aspects of film scoring. It’s not too difficult if you’re just writing a simple pad or drone, but often the music needs to be more detailed than that.
As we all know, in a movie dialog is king. Rightfully so, since that’s where most of the story lies. It may be a pain, but as film composers it’s our job to stay out of the way. Writing a melody on top of dialog usually means your music will be mixed so low you can barely hear it. Keeping the music in the gaps between lines is still the safest approach, but here’s a little trick for those times when that’s impossible:
I’m gonna get all classic rock on y’all again. Expanding on Bobby Owsinski’s analysis of Led Zeppelin’s iconic “Stairway To Heaven” from November, I decided to geek out about the theory behind the tune in a little more detail. I realize it’s a rock song and not a film score, but there are some interesting and educational things to learn from the unusual way it’s crafted. In this post I’m also borrowing from and adapting Spy Tunes excellent piece, “How ‘Stairway To Heaven’ Used Modal Scales to Reach the Top.”
Despite “Stairway’s” eight-minute length, it’s relatively simple under the hood. Most of the melody uses just six notes (and their octave equivalents), and there are only five basic chords in the song. Structurally it has four main sections, two of which are related, and one is nothing more than a brief interlude. The apparent intricacy of the tune comes from its use of slash chords, modal interchange, the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic development throughout the song, and of course the remarkable musicianship of the band.
As film composers, we’re often called upon to create novel sounds. Genres like sci-fi and fantasy often require unique and unfamiliar music to effectively conjure up alien atmospheres or magical lands. There are a number of ways to achieve these effects—exotic instruments, bizarre synthesized sounds and unusual combinations of effects often work. But sometimes it’s best to conjure the unexpected musically rather than with orchestration or production. Here’s a neat trick to create interesting scales using tetrachords.
A tetrachord is a series of four notes, usually arranged within the space of a fourth (true tetrachords as developed by the ancient Greeks spanned a perfect fourth, but for our purposes augmented or diminished fourths work just as well, if not better). An easy way to think if them is as half of a standard seven-note scale. The pitches C-D-E-F form what’s called a major tetrachord, which also happens to be the bottom half of a C major scale. The pitches G-A-Bb-C form a minor tetrachord—the bottom half of a G minor scale. Put the two together and you get a C Mixolydian scale.
It may seem like melody writing is a gift, something you either have or your don’t, but it’s really not. There are guidelines you can follow that will help you in your quest for catchier themes. Here are just a few.
Make it singable
This is by far the most important principle. The reason great melodies are so memorable is because we can sing them. Great melodies are simple, and simple is singable. (Note that I said simple, not plain or dull. A great melody has to be interesting, but if it’s too complex people won’t be able to sing it and thus it won’t be as memorable.)
It seems that the art of melody writing has been forgotten in some circles. I’ve heard a number of film and TV scores in the last few years that feature huge percussion beds under whole-note string and brass chords, but not a shred of melody. Don’t get me wrong, these cues usually sound great—full and rich and super high-fidelity—but nobody’s walking around humming them. They’re all surface and no substance.
I’ll admit, I’m a bit old-school when it comes to film scores. I love Bernard Herrmann, John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. And there are plenty of more recent composers on my iPod as well: Michael Giacchino, Howard Shore, Thomas Newman and Patrick Doyle, to name just a few. Sure, these composers all write modern-sounding scores, but they also write great melodies, and melodies are what really gets people’s blood going.