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What Happens When You Mess with the Keys of Iconic Movie Theme Songs?

Jurassic Park Star Wars X-Files Halloween theme song header

By Ian Gordon

As a self-taught musician, it can be difficult to find the terminology appropriate to describe musical concepts. I’ve always been a “how does this sound?” type of guy when working with others, as little I have to say translates appropriately to those who have formal musical backgrounds.

My relationship with music is a strange one: a relationship defined by intonations, shapes, patterns, and a whole lot of gut feeling. I’m forever a student, looking for new and interesting ways to develop my craft. The myriad ways music can touch people has always been of great interest to me, from the sentiment associated with the contents of dusty cassette drawers, to the atmosphere of small venues filled with enthusiastic audiences. I’m a proponent of both: a bedroom musician for as long as I can remember, with the occasional need to emerge from the shadows to front a rock band.

Recently though, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time experimenting with recomposing well known TV and movie themes, just to see what would happen. And, well, it seems a lot of things happen!

The Light Side

The experiments began rather by accident.

About 18 months ago, I was sitting at the piano, minding my own business, when my hands shifted to an A minor, and found myself playing Mark Snow’s “The X-Files” theme. Then, quite spontaneously, I shifted a couple of notes down towards C major, and there it was, “The X-Files Theme” in a major key!

The immediate reaction to this shift of tonality was laughter. If I recall correctly, my mum and brother were in the room, as well as my girlfriend, and the four of us reacted in the same way. Pure comedy, pure goofy drama. The shift of tonality from “dark” to “light” was simply hilarious.

From that moment, the idea of transposing keys really captured my imagination.

I took John Carpenter’s Halloween theme, and did the same thing. Immediately, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of relief, as though the near forty-year plight of Michael Myers had come to an end, his need to hack and slash his away across the continental United States quashed — all thanks to a simple change of key.

Then it occurred to me. Are we predisposed to react to major and minor keys in this way?

The power of music to influence our emotions is demonstrated wonderfully in the world of film. There’s a story regarding John Carpenter’s Halloween that’s particularly interesting. Upon completion of the film back in 1978, Carpenter premiered the film to a number of critics without a score. The feedback he received was that the film wasn’t scary. So, figuring the lack of score might have something to do with it, Carpenter went away and composed the now classic theme we all know and love. The second premiere scared critics half to death, all thanks to the addition of a well composed piece of music.

So naturally, transposing the key of a piece of music that was intended to unsettle into major yields the opposite effect — typically, relief or outright hilarity. Which brings me nicely to… the dark side. 

+ Read more on Flypaper: Remember every scale once and for all with “Cracking the Code of the Major Scale”!

The Dark Side

Consider John Williams’ timeless Jurassic Park theme. It’s such a wonderfully uplifting piece of music from start to finish, as it progresses from quiet grandeur to bombastic splendor. But, once again, if we make a few “minor” (excuse the pun) adjustments, Steven Spielberg’s beautiful vision of a sanctuary for dinosaurs becomes a depressing, sullen void of despair:

A similar thing happens when you apply the same treatment to Vangelis’ wonderfully epic Chariots of Fire theme. What once evoked visions of confident young athletes striding along golden sands, now evokes visions of fallen comrades, strewn across grey battlefields.

Whereas the switch from minor to major seems to induce a sense of relief or humor (or both), the opposite instils a sense of unease and uncertainty, driving us to doubt all we thought was right with the world. Super interesting!

+ From the archives: “Sounds of the Future: A Historical Primer on Synths in Sci-Fi Movies”

My Method

Typically, in order to transpose the key of a given piece of music, I first have to reproduce the piece. So for me, that means pulling up “The Walking Dead” theme on YouTube and recreating it note for note by ear. Once that task is complete, I have access to all the notes and can make adjustments using the editor in Cubase. Due to the lack of formal musical training, I don’t work with a view to transposing the song to a specific key, I simply adjust the notes until I succeed in making the switch from “dark” to “light,” or vice versa, whilst doing my best to retain the essence of the original piece.

Here’s a (lengthy) demonstration of the process:

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Interpreting Modulations

It would seem that regardless of how a piece of music modulates, if you can retain enough of its original character, you can prank listeners. The stronger the melody happens to be, the greater the effect.

This is particularly true when working with John Williams’ back catalogue. His ability to craft memorable melodies is unmatched in the world of film, and it is practically impossible to go through life without having heard at least one of his pieces.

One of my most successful experiments is my reinterpretation of Williams’ “The Imperial March” from Star Wars. Here, we have an iconic piece of music, associated with an iconic character within the filmic world of Star Wars. A few adjustments here and there turn it into something completely different (though I have to warn you, once you hear it, you may never be able to unhear it!):

Unfortunately, I seem to have ruined the original theme for one or two individuals, who now only think of this version of “The Imperial March” when they hear mention of it — the retention of melody is a strange thing. Though in this situation, the fact that it works so wonderfully in a number of different keys is testament to the strength of the melody and composition. The same can be said for most of Williams’ work.

The Future

As I continue to experiment with these concepts, I think the next logical step would be to incorporate the visual, to reunite the transposed themes with their intended scenes/sequences. Will the effect of the transposition be that much greater?

We will have to see…

I hope this article has inspired one or two of you to explore this concept. It’s a constant fascination, and I continue to be surprised by the results. Thanks for reading. If you have any questions, or just want to tell me how badly I’ve ruined your favorite movie theme, please leave a comment below!

Ian Gordon headshotIan Gordon is a writer, musician and voice actor, based in Manchester, England. When he’s not sitting at a piano with his head in the clouds, he’s trawling the web in search of classic horror fiction to narrate for his YouTube channel HorrorBabble, or compulsively planning multi-stop excursions overseas.

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  • Rob

    Absolutely brilliant!

  • John Hughes

    This answers the question that piano students sometimes ask “Why not compose all songs in the key of C Major?”.

  • John Venter

    I find it a little lame that a music sight would troll by saying Key when it is really the Mode that is the operative change.