I was once told by a fellow Composer that, “We
as Composers (for Media) are responsible for evoking emotions from the
listener and enhancing whatever it is they are watching. However, the
best music can stand on it’s own outside of the project it was composed
for.” I’d have to agree that this is a pretty accurate description
of most Media Composer’s goals and it seems that the greats in our
field fully realize and live up to this “definition”.
So why is it that so many of John William’s scores are easily memorable?
Why does Michael Giacchino’s score for “Up” fit so perfectly
and leave us humming as we leave the theater? How is it that only a single
8-bit “note” is needed to remind us of the Mario Brother’s
I won’t claim that I know the absolute “answers” to
these questions. However, through observation of fantastically memorable
theme music of the past, I hope to enlighten you with concepts and tendencies
shared by these great Composers so that you may use it to help shape the
future of creating Memorable Themes.
*Disclaimer: This article will only observe Memorable Themes
found in Western Music composed for Media.
**Disclaimer #2: This article also assumes that the majority
of people prefer listening to relatively simple, diatonic, and semi-predictable
music. The only reason this assumption is made, is so that we may better
understand and “cater” to the ear of the majority of the people
listening to our music... when we want to.
Arguably the most important part of the score, the Melody is what we’ll
be humming for days on end. However, the Melody “type” that’s
used is dependent on and varies stylistically. What may be an appropriate
Melody for one style may be absolutely confusing and ineffective in another.
With that said, there are some shared characteristics which are found
in most every Memorable Theme’s Melody.
A. “Singable”. As I mentioned above, certain
Melodies are more appropriate depending on context and style. However,
I’ve observed that the most memorable Melodies (which consequently
bridge the gap between musicians and non-musicians) are those that we
can easily reproduce with our voice. There are most definitely Melodies
that can be considered “instrumental,” so I recommend singing
all of your Melodies (or at least checking if they are able to be sung
easily after you’ve written it on your instrument). To demonstrate
my point, please attempt singing the two examples below. You may find
that both are musically interesting, but chances are high that Ex.1
is much easier to hear (in your head) and sing. Thus, the listener will
more quickly memorize and retain a Melody that is simple/easily able
to be sung.
B. The Arc. Most Formally trained composers took a
class in college that dealt with Counterpoint and/or the art of writing
single lines. So, essentially this is common knowledge, but as we all
know common knowledge isn’t always commonly used. What I mean
when I say “The Arc,” is that more often than not an interesting
and memorable Melody is one that has an arc-like shape to it. Also,
as a side note, I’ve observed that most Melodies have an ascending
arc and high point. The examples below demonstrate this concept in action.
Which one do you find more interesting (Or perhaps more importantly,
what do you believe the majority of people to find more interesting)…
the one with a semi-predictable direction/definite arc or the one that
seems to be static and moves nowhere? Now, this is not to say that having
a relatively simple melody that doesn’t move much of anywhere
isn’t effective. There are many things you can do to create interest
in your melody outside of the Arc… segue into the next point.
C. Unique Rhythm. Take away
the pitches of some of your favorite and most memorable Melodies (Jingle
Bells, Imperial March, etc.) and I can guarantee that you’ll still
recognize what it is. This is because of two main factors. First, the
melodic rhythm used is unique (aka. They aren’t just whole notes).
Secondly, the rhythmic pattern (usually 1 or 2 bars) is repeated over
and over again. Either with the same pitches or slightly changing the
pitches to match chord changes, but still hammering away with that repetitive
If the Melody was a beautiful castle, then the Harmony is the ground
it’s built upon. Further elaborating on this metaphor… if
your castle is the most regal thing to have ever been conceived, yet was
built in a swampy bog, than it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is
because it will eventually sink. So, Harmony (or if you like to think
of it as a chord progression “underneath” the Melody) is almost
as important as the Melody if not just as important. This is because the
Harmony will dictate the true “intention” and “mood”
of the Melody. Let’s observe what some of the greats have done in
**I realize that the metaphor above is more akin to Vertical thinking
and Classically trained Composers tend to think Horizontally.
A. Move towards a Goal. If you’ve a Melody that
contains some or all of the qualities I observed above, then chances
are high that it already has directional intention. Thus, coloring the
Melody with a strong chord progression should be relatively easy. However,
many of us (perhaps just to challenge ourselves) prefer to go “outside
of the box” and create unique chord progressions. While this is
never a “bad” thing, we must keep in mind that Themes are
most memorable when their Harmony has a strong direction and is slightly
predictable. To help support this point, please take a look at and play
through the examples below. I’ll be using one of the Melodies
from the last section and harmonizing it differently in each example.
One has strong directional movement, while the other just seems to
be “lost.” Which one appeals to you (or again, perhaps more
importantly which one would appeal more to the majority of people)?
B. Unique Voicings. Chances are high that most (if
not every) combination of the 12 pitches in our Western Music System
has already been played. So, if we take this knowledge and the understanding
that most people prefer harmony they are at least semi-familiar with
(triads, some 7ths), then we strive for the following (as many other
greats in our field have). Voice a relatively simple chord (or progression)
in a unique way. There are tons of possibilities, especially if we take
into consideration all of the instruments we have at our disposal.
C. In Melody, Out Harmony. As we observed in the “Melody”
section above, it’s best to write something that is easily sung
if you’d like for your Melody to be memorable. So, we ask ourselves…
what is easy to sing? For the majority of people listening to Western
music, the answer is “something diatonic”. So, if we follow
these “guidelines” and write a diatonic melody, then (for
our own sake as much as the listeners) we have room to explore with
the harmony. John Williams is well known for doing this, specifically
in his “Imperial March.” If you look at the Melody and analyze
the harmony, you’ll see that the Melody is relatively simple and
easy to sing, but it’s the harmony that really brings everything
to life and makes this piece unique.
These are but a few observations of a few different elements (Melody
& Harmony) used when Composing something for media. However, these
are also some of the most important observations that will directly and
immediately change the way your music is received, if they are integrated
into your creative process. If you would like to read about even more
Observations of Memorable Themes, then visit me at my website and tell
me where to send it!
Until then, I wish you all the best of luck and keep composing fellow
About the author: Kole Hicks is an Author,
Instructor, and most prominently an Audio Designer with a focus in Games.
He's had the pleasure of scoring mobile hits like 'Bag it!', has provided
audio for Indie PC titles like 'Kenshi' and 'Jeklynn Heights', and was nominated
for a 2012 GANG award for an article written exclusively for Shockwave-Sound.com
titled, "Mixing as Part of the Composing Process. Emotionally Evocative
Music & Visceral Sound Effects... Kole
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