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.
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.
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.