The Film Music Chord Change

Yep, that's a bold title no doubt about it. I apologise upfront to all the composers who will find this very basic stuff but this was a real discovery for me.

I've been writing rock and pop music for many years now. I've been a fan of film music for far longer... probably dating back to the first time I saw Star Wars.

Anyway, 2 years ago I was sitting at the keyboard and playing around on a strings patch when I suddenly played a chord change that I'd just never really focused on before.

The first change was a simple Em to Cm. That was it. As soon as I heard it I realised that this was the big soundtrack sound that I'd become used to. The E melody note moving to Eb with the smooth voice leading underneath and that shared G note.

This quickly led me on to moving major triads in thirds and again hearing this delightful chromatic relationship between the two chords. My news theme uses this technique, starting in A major, moving to C major and then back to A major again.

I then began using these sounds as forms of cadence or suspension. Keeping C in the bass I would move between C and Ab major. In this manner, Ab major functions as an altered V chord (G7b9#5sus4 perhaps?) or a suspension on the I chord (Cm#5).

Anyway, eventually I decided to start looking deeper into this change and realised that I was using Chromatic Mediants ... Apparently they were used significantly in the Romantic Period and were a popular device of Jerry Goldsmith. I guess this is why they sound like film music to me.

Well, this was a big revelation to me and helped me unlock a lot of chord progressions used in films ... I think the main Fellowship theme from LotR is I -> bIII -> I (it might be I - v - I but I haven't listened to it in a while).

Of course this was a while back now and at the moment I'm exploring how much polytonality pervades film music...

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  • While its fine to admire Bach ( as do I ) or any other composer ( Bartok, Stravinsky et al ), one must keep in mind this in film the composers job is to SUPPORT the drama without drawing undue attention to itself -except in situations wher the director has deliberately chosen to let the msuic "carry" the scene. This can be a mixed blessing because often there is a directorial problem : no dialog to carry the story forward, no cover shots to help the editor, or possibly just some awkward acting, and the director is hoping some music will bridge the awkward moment, but leaving the composer little emotional impetus to "be in " the scene.
  • Good comments Jay, and food for thought. Just to be clear, I was being more specific using the word "drama" than depicting a story as music. I had more in mind the actual process of matching music to edited footage, which is a more restrictive medium in which to work.
  • I am a Bach fan, too. However, I think that it isn't simply fashion that has dictated a move away from definite tonal anchor points in film music. I've heard it said that the reason it works so well to be deliberately ambiguous and constant shifting is that this echoes the development of the on-screen drama. It's a rare thing indeed to score a film whose action happens to fit a classical musical form: drama is organic and hard to pin down, and I think modern film music is in part reflecting that aspect.
  • This thread is an absolutly great read. Thanks guys!
  • It was if they read this blog......

    Modern film scores are terrible, say composer
  • Neils comment on the influence of the dreaded "temp track" has often been a problem of composers for many years . In a few cases, it does aid the composer in understanding what the director wants the score to be doing, but unfortunately in most cases, it's something pulled out by the editor that HE and the director like because of it's pacing with the visuals or some emotional reason. This obviously in many cases puts the composers own musical viewpoint in handcuffs-creating the too -often problem of being urged to just "copy" the temp.( unless he's a very persuasive saleman /advocate of his own approach. One trick that helps if you can manage it is to get them to kill all the audio but the dialog and sfx while discussing the cue.

    What makes this situation even worse is that many editors only have a small stash of the "usual susupects" temp cues they draw from. If I hear another scene temped with "Carmina Burana" or "Orinoco Flow", I think I'd tear whats left of my hairout :)
  • Fantastic posting guys!!

    Would be good to start a few more like this!!

    I am with you James, I have come from a rock/blues/metal background in terms of theory and then went on to study 4 point harmonies etc. I do find that there is a lot of similarity in modern film music, I would suggest that this is due to directors wanting a certain 'mood' to be created and that has been linked to temp tracks etc, therefore the same progressions are used to create the same mood.

    Interestingly I found that the soundtrack for 'There will be blood' was the first in a long time to break with tradition, very effectively too I thought!

    Look forward to more posts!!

  • Sorry, meant Curt, not Chris, in the post above.

    I also recommend the new Film Music book by Jack Smalley.
  • Thanks Curt. More than anything, I think it has been the harmony that has attracted me to film music. I know 'film music' encompasses a huge range but what I consider classic scoring (from Korngold to Goldsmith and Williams and even Elfman's early works) seems to have quite a distinctive harmonic language.

    To be honest, pulling apart the techniques used in Star Wars: A New Hope would be enough to cover everything. The opening scene (after the crawl) includes plenty of tricks with polytonal Chromatic Mediants.

    Chris, if you haven't got the book On The Track, I highly recommend that you take a look at it. It's a fantastic reference.
    This domain may be for sale!
  • Thanks everyone for the tips and comments here: I've found them most interesting. I've printed them all off and I'm away to my keyboard immediately! :)
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