Composers' Forum

Music Composers Unite!


Yes! It's the return of my blog posts and their awful puns for titles... I can never resist them! Recently I'd been investigating some orchestral scores from favourite composers and realised that some of my favourite sounds and devices were achieved by using the harmonic minor scale as a resource but in a non-traditional way. Eventually I felt I had enough material to dedicate an entire blog post to it. Hopefully this will be fun for everyone.


The Basics

Ok I should give a very quick run down as to why this scale exists. To be as succinct as possible, it creates a leading tone in a minor key to create a strong cadence when moving from the V chord to the root. In layman's terms it means the chord built on the V is now dominant instead of minor. This is the traditional usage of the scale.


A harmonic minor is A B C D E F G# A where the G# is the new leading tone. In traditional writing the interval of the augmented 2nd between F and G# was generally avoided and the melodic minor scale was used.


I'm being exceptionally brief here because we're not going to be dealing with this usage of the harmonic minor. We're looking at other ideas which are derived from this scale.


It's worth quickly looking at the triads and seventh chords generated from each note of the scale: -


i chord - minor triad, minor/major seventh chord

ii chord - diminished triad, half diminished seventh chord

III chord - augmented triad, major seventh sharp five chord

iv* chord - minor triad, minor seventh chord

V chord - major triad, dominant seventh chord

VI* chord - major triad, major seventh chord

vii chord - diminished triad, diminished seventh chord


* the VI chord has also a #2 note which can be reharmonised as a b3. The iv chord has a #4 which can be used as a b5. More on this below.


John Williams' Sound of the Exotic

Ok we might as well go in with the big one here. John Williams often uses the harmonic minor scale when he needs to give a flavour of an exotic locale.


A common way he uses this is to start with an isolated (i.e. non-functional) major chord. However instead of using the major scale he will use the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale (commonly called the Phrygian dominant or Phrygian major mode). This is spelled 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7. The tension notes (b2 and b6) really add an unexpected and exotic sound - in comparison to traditional Western music.


For instance he may begin with a chord such as D and then while keeping the D bass note he'll move the upper notes to Cm. Generally this feels quite unexpected and brings in the Eb note which adds that tension. Alternating between D and Cm/D is a useful way to maintain tension.


Also there is the chance for some unusual harmonic interplay. For instance in a cue from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Williams starts with the trumpets playing a D chord. He then brings in a line in the lower brass that eventually coalesces into an Eb major chord below the D chord. Later the lower triad is reharmonised as Eb minor (with D above). This is due to the VI chord having a #2 which can be used as a b3 note.



Science Fiction and Fantasy Wonder Moments

I've already covered this in another blog so I won't spend too long on this but using the Phrygian dominant we can add the b6 note to the major triad. This device is very heavily used for moments of wonder in either science fiction or fantasy. It's been heavily used by James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith in Star Trek, John Williams in Star Wars, Basil Pouldedouris in Starship Troopers and Howard Shore in Lord of the Rings (and probably many, many more places). The b6 note effectively acts as a tension note wishing to resolve back into the 5th. I've even used this device in my sci-fi horror music on my main page.



Suggesting Bitonality

I've already mentioned that the iv and VI chords have some unusual properties where notes can be reharmonised to change the triads on these roots. A great example of this would be the 'history of the ring theme' from Lord of the Rings. The main melodic idea sounds as though it would fit over Am however it plays over Fm. Initially this feels like a bitonal idea however further investigation shows that this entire idea is contained within the A harmonic minor scale. In the lower register, the G# note is rewritten as Ab to allow for the F minor chord. It then slips sidewards into the E major chord where the Ab is once more written as G#.

Similarly, John Williams will often use devices like this in his more dissonant moments (such as action music) where the overall harmony will include both the major 3rd and the #9/b3rd (although usually in different registers).



In Summary

As with most of my blog posts,  I'm really just throwing out my findings, particularly with reference to devices used in film score. Hopefully this will encourage other people to pass back their thoughts and other interesting findings. I hope people find this useful!





Views: 1439


You need to be a member of Composers' Forum to add comments!

Join Composers' Forum

Comment by James Semple on September 28, 2011 at 4:06am

Oh another interesting chord (which I used in a composition last night) is a major triad with a bII in the bass, again derived from the Phrygian dominant.


For instance C major with Db in the bass. This makes for an excellent shock chord.

Comment by James Semple on September 27, 2011 at 3:39am

Oh and I completely forgot to mention uses within the spy film genre!


Where would James Bond be without his minor/major9 chord? Spelled 1 b3 5 7 9, again this is derived from the harmonic minor scale.


Also I've noticed that the scores to the Bourne trilogy (John Powell) and Salt (James Newton Howard) both frequently add interest by dipping into the harmonic minor scale during that relentless - but admittedly iconic - string ostinati.

Sign up info

Read before you sign up to find out what the requirements are!


© 2021   Created by Gav Brown.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service