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Observations on Memorable Themes

(And how we can use this Knowledge in our Music)

By: Kole

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 theme?

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.

I. Melody

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.

Example 1

Example 2

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.

Example 3

Example 4

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 rhythmic “hook.”


II. Harmony

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 the past.

**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.

Example 5

Example 6

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 artists!


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 titled, "Mixing as Part of the Composing Process. Emotionally Evocative Music & Visceral Sound Effects... Kole Audio Solutions.
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