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.”
Tired of using the same old chords in your cues? Modal interchange (also called borrowed chords) is a great technique to add variety and interest into your chord progressions. It’s an idea borrowed from jazz, but I guarantee you’ve heard it in hundreds of pop songs and film scores as well. You’ve probably even used it yourself without realizing it.
Modal interchange combines two rather simple principles. The first is the harmonized major scale. Simply put, that’s a fancy name for taking the notes of the major scale and building triads or sevenths on top of each one using notes diatonic to the scale. In C major, you end up with CMaj7, Dmin7, Emin7, FMaj7, G7, Amin7, and Bmin7b5.
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.
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.