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One of the most frustrating positions to be in as a composer is when you’ve written a solid melody that you’re extremely proud of, accompanied by a chord progression that really excites you, but then you have no idea where to go next.
If you’re anything like me, you play what you’ve written over and over again on the piano in the hope that the next section of the track will magically just burst right out of your soul and into your fingertips. But alas, nothing happens. You get fixated on what you’ve already composed to the point that it’s beginning to sound stale, and the daunting idea of moving to a new section leaves you with a sense of defeat and discouragement.
Some call this “writer’s block,” but here’s the reality: you’ve already done the hard part! With a few easy compositional tricks and techniques, you can actually turn a three-note motif into a full multi-movement symphony — it’s been proven time and time again by Classical period heroes like Beethoven and Mozart.
Whether you’ve got a single instrumental part written and are looking to orchestrate it out for a larger ensemble, or you’ve got a really solid verse for your song and you’re in need of a pre-chorus modulation, you’re not alone in the struggle to make it work. Every composer and songwriter out there goes through these same issues.
A brief aside…
If you’re looking to improve how you “finish your musical sentences,” well we call that a cadence. And we just published a video about it on our YouTube channel.. It’s…pretty rad. Musicians, composers, and curiosity-junkies, check it out and subscribe if you like that sorta thing!
1. Borrow Chords From the Other Scales (Modal Interchange)
Let’s say that you decide that you want to write a piece that starts in the key of C major. The first thing to think about are the diatonic chords within this key that may be of use. Here is the diatonic harmonic progression (with sevenths) in C major:
- CMaj7 (IMaj7)
- Dmin7 (II-7)
- Emin7 (III-7)
- FMaj7 (IVMaj7)
- G7 (V7)
- Amin7 (VI-7)
- B half-diminished (VII-7♭5)
All of the notes in each of the above chords are diatonic to the key of C major because each chord consists of notes solely within the C major scale (C D E F G A B). There are no alterations such as adding sharps or flats, only natural notes within the assigned scale. You can use any of these chords in the key of C major if you want to write a diatonic progression.
If your song’s A section is comprised entirely of diatonic chords, then we may consider using more sophisticated, non-diatonic chords in the B section to create contrast. In order to create non-diatonic chords, we have to borrow notes from scales other than the C major scale. This is where things can get fun and experimental when composing; and the options are quite unlimited.
In order to create non-diatonic chords, we want to use a technique known as “modal interchange.” This technique allows us to borrow notes from various scales to build chords that are not necessarily in our home key, but sound perfectly natural when done creatively.
For example, in our key of C major, the III chord is an E minor seventh chord — a lovely sound, but what if decide to use an E♭ major seventh chord instead? The notes within an E♭Maj7 are: E♭, G, B♭, D. You can already see that the notes E♭ and B♭ are not diatonic to the key of C major, and are instead borrowed from a key containing all those notes, such as the E♭ major scale.
You could also choose to use an F minor seventh chord in the key of C major, as opposed to the diatonic FMaj7 chord. This chord is comprised of the notes F, A♭, C, and E♭. Again, the notes A♭ and E♭ are not diatonic to key of C major, so with the change of the mode, and the borrowed notes we’ve pulled into our progression (in this case, a major chord to a minor chord), this is an example of modal interchange.
(For more on this concept, check out instructor Ethan Hein’s explorations in his Creative Power of Advanced Harmony course on Soundfly).
Try experimenting with various chords outside your home key to compose your own progression with both diatonic and non-diatonic chords in order to create an interesting section in your piece. Here is an example of a four-chord progression using both diatonic and non-diatonic chords in C major:
- CMaj7 (IMaj7) [diatonic]
- E♭Maj7 (♭IIIMaj7) [non-diatonic]
- Dmin7 (II-7) [diatonic]
- B♭Maj7 (♭VIIMaj7) [non-diatonic]
+ Read more on Flypaper: How John Williams Implies Modality Within Diatonic Harmony in “Yoda’s Theme.”
2. Adding Countermelodies
It’s often advantageous not just to write one melody to create a memorable hook, but a countermelody that plays off the first and reinforces it. If not melodically, you can also think about using different voicings or inversions of the same chords in your progression to change the feel and avoid the melody sounding identical each time it comes around.
All of this is simply to create variation to support some of the repetitive structures in your song or piece, such as a refrain, hook, or top-line melody.
In pop music, it’s common to hear electric guitars play a single-note rhythmic ostinato throughout the verses to keep the dynamics low, before switching to full chordal positions in the chorus to thicken and intensify the section. This is common, but it doesn’t mean it can’t change. Perhaps your guitars can also mimic the main melody, or play a secondary melody as a “call and response” (more on that below).
Take a listen to the guitar part on Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.”
During the verses, we hear a single-note rhythmic ostinato occurring to keep the attention on the vocals. During the chorus, the guitar expands out and starts playing more chordal shapes, and even incorporates little unison hints of the vocal melody in this section; it reinforces the vocal melody even further.
Another method for composing a countermelody is to use a standard “call and response” between the main melody and a newly introduced instrument. “Pockets” of rests tend to exist between melodic phrases, which make great opportunities to incorporate a counter texture. It can either be a newly composed call and response or an identical mirroring effect of the same melody between different instruments.
Check out how the main theme operates against its countermelody in this motif written by Soundfly student, Dakota St. Laurent, during a mentorship session with me earlier this year:
Any time, there’s a “pocket” of space, the composer introduces an answer to their melodic question. You may also notice that the composer changes the instrumentation repeatedly with different voices taking over the main melody as the piece progresses. This can be very effective in keeping the listener interested, during the short piece.
3. Creating Variations
Variety is the spice of life! There are a few different tricks you can use to add variety to your composition specifically. Consider trying any of these methods:
- Transpose the whole short piece to the parallel minor or major key.
- Modulate to a related key. For example, if your verses are in E Major, you can modulate to B Major for the bridge or pre-chorus.
- Transpose certain measures up or down an interval of a fourth or a fifth. This is a great way to make a familiar motif sound different.
- Add a four- or eight-measure Intro or Outro before or after you establish your thematic material.
- Create a first and second ending while indicating that the rest of the form should be played twice.
- Build your arrangement in a sort of minimalist layered fashion. Start very simply and every four measures, develop the orchestration a bit more, so it flourishes over time.
4. Motivic Development
Once you’ve chosen your main motif, you can compose further by manipulating your existing theme in a way that is still recognizable to your original motivic idea. Here are some simple methods to do that:
- Retrograde: Play your motif backwards.
- Inversion: If you have a melody that starts with the note “C” and then moves to “D,” this would be an example of an ascending major-second interval. With an inversion, we will take the note “C” and then descend a major second interval which would give us the note “B♭.” The note “B♭” would now be inverted and considered as a dominant-seventh interval in relation to the note “C.”
- Retrograde Inversion: Play the melody backwards and inverted.
- Remove any notes: If your motif has a total of seven notes, try omitting any three of them and present them in a new section. In other words, deconstruct the motif and repurpose it any way you like.
- Transpose the motif to a different scale: An example of this might be going from natural minor to Phrygian mode.
So, as you can see, there’s a plethora of compositional tools that we can trust to help guide us out of a “compositional rut,” but it’s our responsibility as composers and creators to experiment with these concepts to familiarize ourselves with the endless possibilities.
These are all techniques available to us to use anytime, however we like; there are no definitive rules when it comes to composing and expressing oneself. Music is subjective — there is no right or wrong answer to any musical question, but understanding concepts such as these can help you write more efficiently and with more confidence.
Have you checked out Soundfly’s courses yet?
Continue your learning with hundreds of lessons by boundary-pushing, independent artists like Kimbra, Ryan Lott & Ian Chang (of Son Lux), Jlin, Elijah Fox, Kiefer, Com Truise, The Pocket Queen, and RJD2. And don’t forget to try out our intro course on Scoring for Film & TV.