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.
I recently discovered this wonderful set of ebooks by Montreal composer and professor Alan Belkin. He’s got books on musical form, counterpoint, harmony and orchestration, as well as several other articles and essays. I’ve spent the most time with the orchestration book (since I’m currently orchestrating a symphonic piece for a March performance), and it’s excellent. I found it to be simple, straightforward, and full of great advice. Some of it is fairly common-sense and basic, but I never mind being reminded of the fundamentals, especially for something as complex as orchestration. The other books seem similarly well-written and instructional.
Incidentally, Belkin also authored the annotations to the online version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration, available at NorthernSounds.com.
Here’s the score for one of the most famous atonal pieces of all time with a cool, follow-along animation. For those not familiar with the piece it’s difficult listening, but I’ve always found it very beautiful in a weird way. And it’s a great primer in aleatoric music and unconventional scoring techniques.
Here’s an amusing, if long, video of British comedian Bill Bailey discussing the instruments of the orchestra. Along the way he talks about 70’s cop show music and plays the theremin and the alpine bells. It’s from 2008, so some of you may have already seen it, but it’s a funny and interesting watch if you’ve got an hour to kill. The orchestra is none other than the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the conductor is the multi-talented (and Oscar-winning) Anne Dudley.
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.
Here’s a great tutorial from composer Michael Patti and Cinesamples, wherein Mike creates an orchestral action cue in 8:57. He doesn’t mention what sample libraries he’s using, but I can only assume they’re all from Cinesamples since they’re sponsoring the video. The video is a lot of fun and highly educational to boot.
Edit: Patti does mention one of the libraries he’s using. The trumpets are from EastWest (I’d imagine from EastWest Symphonic Orchestra
). And for those curious about the octatonic scale (also called the diminished scale), there’s more info here.
Bobby Owsinski has a nice little exploration of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” in his Big Picture Production Blog. Sure, we’ve all heard the song a million times, but it’s really interesting structurally. And as Bobby points out, it has a surprisingly huge sound for such a sparse arrangement (only 7 instruments).
Being a total theory geek, I wish he’d evaluated the chords and music, but perhaps that’s something I’ll do in the near future. In the meantime, here’s Owsinski’s analysis.
The best way to make sure you get the most from your talent is to use it. So, write a piece of music every day. This doesn’t need to be extravagant or even complete, rather just put your first thoughts down on paper, HDD, disc, etc. Make composing part of your daily routine. Not everything you do will be “good”, but the exercise will yield some bits and pieces that you can later turn into something special.
Too many people believe they must be in a creative mood to compose. It’s infinitely easier to procrastinate than to just start working. I fall prey to this distraction occasionally myself. But I’ve learned to work through it. You can’t be seduced by this unfortunate behavior either. You must banish those “ifs” and “buts” and start writing. That’s the key. Just begin and see where it takes you.
When I first started writing orchestral music, I was a bit overwhelmed. There are so many instruments! How was I supposed to know what to do with all of them? I would write for the whole orchestra at once, in my sequencer, and gradually build a complicated mess. It turns out I was making things a lot harder for myself than they needed to be. The secret? Start with a sketch.
These days when I write an orchestral piece, I always write on piano first, and create a three-line sketch. The melody goes on top (you are writing a melody, right?), and the accompaniment goes on the other two staves. Using this method, it’s much easier to tell if you’re writing good music because you’re not distracted by all of the bells and whistles of a full orchestra. Writing on piano—using just melody and accompaniment—lets you hear your music for what it really is. You can instantly tell if its good or not, and you’re not overwhelmed by choices.
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.)