Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Beginner
Intermediate
Advanced
15:43

Learning Focus
  • Chords
  • Composition
Music Style
  • Contemporary
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Have you ever listened to film music and suspected that film composers play by a different set of music theory rules? If you have, you’re right! Much of the suspense music that you hear in modern film and video game soundtracks does not use chord progressions associated with traditional harmony. So how do Hollywood film composers like John Williams, Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer come up with these cinematic chord progressions? In today’s Quick Tip, Cinematic Chords—The Ultimate Guide, Jonny May demonstrates a simple compositional technique for creating epic sounding chord progressions on piano. You’ll learn:

Whether you want to create music that’s majestic, suspenseful, haunting or heroic, this lesson’s for you!

Intro to Cinematic Chords

Just like writers and directors, film composers are primarily storytellers. As you already know, many good stories contain an element of surprise. For this reason, Hollywood composers favor harmonic sequences that are less predictable than traditional diatonic chord progressions. This aspect of harmonic unpredictability evokes a sense of fantasy or other-worldliness. For example, we often characterize cinematic chord progressions using adjectives such as “magical, majestic, journeying, ominous or epic.” Generally speaking, diatonic chord progressions don’t accomplish this sound.

Examples of Cinematic Chords

The soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, scored by Howard Shore, earned the Canadian composer three Academy Awards, two Golden Globes and four Grammy Awards. Shore’s work on these films contains brilliant examples of many modern film composition techniques, including what we have described earlier as cinematic chords. Consider, for example, the following embedded clip of the first 38 seconds of “The Sword That Was Broken” from The Fellowship of the Ring.

“The Sword That Was Broken”

Howard Shore (2001)

Let’s examine the chord progression that Howard Shore uses in “The Sword That Was Broken.” The demonstration below uses an orchestral synth patch in which the crescendos are accomplished by means of an expression pedal.Example of Cinematic Chords

Looking at this cinematic chord progression from a harmonic perspective, what key would you say that we’re in? A minor? A major? For example, where does the F minor chord come from in measure 2? The presence of the note A♭ in this F minor chord rules out A minor as a tonal center according to traditional harmony. While modal interchange can be used to introduce chords with various altered tones, the one tone that is never altered via modal interchange is the tonic.

The latter four measures are also challenging to analyze harmonically. It appears that A major fits as a tonal center if you consider the presence of F♮ in measures 6 and 7 as a chromatic alteration from the parallel minor. However, if you listen to Howard Shore’s melody in measures 4-7, you’ll hear a minor 6th over the A major chord and the F major chord. This means that we’re not dealing with the Ionian mode that we normally associate with a major key. Measures 4–5 are more like A harmonic major (A–B–C♯–D–E–F♮–G♯), whereas measures 6–7 sound like F harmonic major (F–G–A–B♭–C–D♭–E)Harmonic major, of course, is an example of a hybrid scale.

While this excerpt is not exactly atonal (lacking tonal structure or hierarchy), it doesn’t conform to traditional methods of tonal analysis. In fact, this is what today’s lesson is all about. With the simple tricks in today’s lesson, you’ll be able to create captivating film music with cinematic chords that sound amazing.

Film Composer Theory

How do film composers come up such provocative chord progressions? Examples like Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings excerpt above demonstrate that they don’t always follow the standard rules of music theory. But does that mean that this example lacks the presence of any guiding tonal principles?

Actually, there is a perfectly logical explanation for how Howard Shore connects these chords from such distantly related keys. The following closed-voicing score reduction of “The Sword That Was Broken” illustrates the tonal principles behind this cinematic score.

Common Tone Chord Progression

Take a look at the colored notes in the example above. As you can see, these chord progressions use common tones to connect otherwise distantly related chords. But why does this work?

A Lesson on Cinematic Chords from Wheel of Fortune

If you are old even to remember the television game show Wheel of Fortune, you might remember a puzzle category called “Before and After.” This unique category juxtaposed two unrelated concepts that were nonetheless combined specifically because the last word of the first phrase also began the first word of the second phrase. Examples of Before and After puzzles include “Michael Jackson Mississippi” or “Alexander the Great Balls of Fire.” When solving the puzzle, the contestants would state the linking word twice to demonstrate the intelligible parts that comprised the whole—for example, “Michael Jackson, Jackson Mississippi” or “Alexander the Great, Great Balls of Fire.”

The Before and After word puzzle category shows that our brains have an incredible capacity to process and create meaning from seemingly random, unrelated ideas. In fact, our ears can do the same thing! The use of common tones in cinematic chord progressions function exactly the same way as the linking word in a Before and After word puzzle. In fact, the arranging technique of using common tones to connect non-diatonic chords is not unique to the film genre. To see how jazz musicians apply this concept, check out our Quick Tip on 7 Beautiful Endings for Jazz Tunes.

The Music Theory of Cinematic Chords

The characteristic cinematic chords sound that forms the subject of this lesson did not originate with modern film. In fact, this type of chromaticism is common in music of the late 19th century. For example, similar chromatic movement can be heard in French composer Gabriel Fauré’s (1845–1924) Requiem, “Agnus Dei.” The first five main chords in the embedded  excerpt are A♭→C♭→G♭→A→E. In this progression, each chord is connected to the previous chord by one common tone. In addition, the first two pairs of chords (A♭→C♭ and G♭→A) have a special relationship which we call chromatic mediants.

Requiem, “Agnus Dei”

Gabriel Fauré (1888)

What are Chromatic Mediants?

Chromatic mediants describes the relationship between two chords whose roots are a major 3rd or minor 3rd apart, and share one common tone. Additionally, chromatic mediants do not belong to the same key. For example, the chromatic mediants for a C major triad are E major, E♭ major, A♭ major and A major. The chords E minor and A minor are excluded from this list because they are the diatonic mediants, sharing two common tones with C major. Furthermore, the chords E♭ minor and A♭ minor represent the category of double chromatic mediants because they do not share any common tones with C major.

All Mediants for C Major (C–E–G):
  • Diatonic Mediants (2 common tones)
    • E minor: EG–B  [ⅲ]
    • A minor: A–CE  [ⅵ]
  • Chromatic Mediants (1 common tone)
    • E major: E–G♯–B  [Ⅲ]
    • E♭ major: E♭–G–B♭  [♭Ⅲ]
    • A♭ major: A♭–C–E♭  [♭Ⅵ]
    • A major: A–C♯–E  [Ⅵ]
  • Double Chromatic Mediants (0 common tones)
    • E♭ minor: E♭–G♭–B♭  [♭ⅲ]
    • A♭ minor: A♭–C♭–E♭  [♭ⅵ]
All Mediants for C Minor (C–E♭–G):
  • Diatonic Mediants (2 common tones)
    • E♭ major: E♭G–B♭  [Ⅲ]
    • A♭ major: A♭–CE♭  [Ⅵ]
  • Chromatic Mediants (1 common tone)
    • E minor: E–G–B  [♯ⅲ]
    • E♭ minor: E♭–G♭–B♭  [ⅲ]
    • A♭ minor: A♭–C♭–E♭  [ⅵ]
    • A minor: A–C–E  [♯ⅵ]
  • Double Chromatic Mediants (0 common tones)
    • E major: E–G♯–B  [♯Ⅲ]
    • A major: A–C♯–E  [♯Ⅵ]

Now that we have defined and examined the music theory of chromatic mediants, take a moment to look again at Howard Shore’s cinematic chords from “The Sword That Was Broken.” Do you see the chromatic mediant relationships? The excerpt we examined uses two pairs of chromatic mediants—A minor and F minor, and A major and F major.

“In the late 19th century, root movement by chromatic 3rds is often used to create frequent changes of key, to cause delay in reaching the tonic, or to obscure the progress of the harmonic movement leading to the ultimate tonic cadence.”

—Robert W. Ottman, Music Educator and Author

3 Techniques for Epic Cinematic Chords

Whether you prefer to understand cinematic chords from the practical example of Wheel of Fortune or from the music theory definition of chromatic mediants, you can easily create this sound using Jonny’s 3 techniques from today’s lesson sheet. The complete lesson sheet PDF is downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, members can easily change the key of the lesson sheet examples using our Smart Sheet Music.

#1: Major–Major Cinematic Chords

The first technique from today’s lesson sheet demonstrates how to create cinematic chord progressions with major chords using common tones. This technique has a magical sound. Let’s take a listen to this progression, and then we’ll examine how it works.

Example of Major-Major Cinematic Progression

Cinematic Chords Technique 1

To understand how this example works, let’s look at a harmonic sketch of this progression.

Harmonic Sketch

Cinematic Chords Technique 1 harmonic sketch

As you can see from the outline above, each chord change is connected by a common tone. In addition, the chord pairs F→D♭  and D♭→E are chromatic mediants.

You can create your own magical cinematic chord progressions using the following 3 steps:

  1. Start on a major chord.
  2. Invert the chord up or down.
  3. Use the top note as a common tone to switch to another major chord.

When completing step 3, there will be more than one chord choice. For example, when moving from F/A in measure one, Jonny connected the common tone F to a D♭ major chord. He could have also chosen B♭ major. However, F major and B♭ major are diatonically related. Jonny’s choice of D♭ major creates chromatic movement that is more commonly associated with movie and gaming music.

It’s really that simple! Once you have a harmonic sketch, the final step is to create a pianistic arrangement. For example, Jonny uses a flowing Root–5th-10th pattern in the left hand and interval rocking in the right hand.

What is Interval Rocking?

Interval rocking is an arranging technique that extends a chord over time by alternating between two different intervals within a 4-note voicing. To use this technique with triads, simply double one note. Next, assign each note a voice number from one to four starting from the top. Then, create interval pairs by grouping the odd voices and even voices together. Finally, alternate between the interval pairs for the duration of the chord.

Interval Rocking Technique for Piano

Next, we’ll consider technique #2 from today’s lesson sheet which uses minor cinematic chords.

#2: Minor–Minor Cinematic Chords

We can also create stirring cinematic progressions by using common tones to connect minor chords. Minor-minor cinematic chord pairs have a dark, haunting sound. Let’s take a listen.

Example of Minor-Minor Cinematic Progression

Cinematic Chords Technique 2

As you can hear, the minor-minor pairing has a much darker effect. Let’s look at the harmonic sketch for this progression.

Harmonic Sketch

Cinematic Chords Technique 2 harmonic sketch

Just like our first example, each chord change is connected by a common tone. In this progression, the pairs Dm→B♭m, B♭m→C♯m and C♯m→Am are all chromatic mediants.

You can create your own dark cinematic chord progressions using the following 3 steps:

  1. Start on a minor chord.
  2. Invert the chord up or down.
  3. Use the top note as a common tone to switch to another minor chord.

Next, let’s examine technique #3 from today’s lesson sheet which creates cinematic chord progressions by combining major and minor chords.

#3: Minor–Major Cinematic Chords

We can create additional cinematic chord progressions by mixing major and minor chords. The follow example uses minor-major chord pairs that sound dreamy, mysterious or adventurous. This example is set in 12/8 meter with 16th notes in the right hand—an interesting rhythmic effect that heightens the emotional grip of this progression.

Example of Minor-Major Cinematic Progression

Cinematic Chords Technique 3

Now, let’s examine a harmonic sketch to see how this progression works.

Harmonic Sketch

Technique 3 outline

Jonny follows a similar process as in our early examples, except that he alternates between minor and major chords. In the example above, the chord pairs Dm→B♭, B♭→Gm and Gm→E♭ are all diatonic mediants. As we discussed early, diatonic mediants share 2 common tones. The sketch above highlights the top note that was used in forming the progression. Can you see the other common tones?

You can create your own minor-major cinematic chord progressions using the following 3 steps:

  1. Start on a minor chord.
  2. Invert the chord up or down.
  3. Use the top note as a common tone to switch between major and minor chords.

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve complete today’s lesson on Cinematic Chords—The Ultimate Guide. In this lesson, you’ve learned some of the top compositional tools that professional composers using when writing for film, television and video games.

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following related resources:

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

 

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Ottman, Robert W. Advanced Harmony : Theory and Practice. 4th ed. Prentice-Hall 1992, p 333.


Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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