Recycle: Recurring Themes and Reharmonization

Hi everyone, back for another round of music talk! I wanted to share with you a little bit about how I go about writing music for large scale works. Unlike a single song that stands alone, large scale works (such as films, albums, and television series) call for multiple pieces of music threaded together to make the storytelling experience what we, as an audience, take in. Since these projects call for range while maintaining continuity and cohesion, one technique that I rely on is having themes that recur and help solidify a particular character, event, or location. In general, music relies on repetition to strengthen its presence and significance.

Now, going back to the excerpt I shared with you guys last time, the seeds of a recurring theme were already planted. Below is a snippet of the melody from last time:

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Melody A (one time through)

Here is a snippet of the melody in the boss battle that happens later in the song:

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 6.11.34 PM

Melody B (first part, one time through)

See (and hear) anything similar? There are two significant structural motifs that make up the meat and bones of this theme. The first is the scalar run you hear at the beginning of each, then the two sequential rhythmic jumps you hear following it. Here they are pointed out:

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 6.15.33 PM

Melody A with identifiable motifs

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 6.11.34 PM

Melody B with similar motifs

The scale motif is even reflected in both melodies practically note for note! If that’s not recurring, I don’t know what is.

“But Larry,” you might ask, “isn’t just rehashing familiar tunes going to be boring?” WELL. A composer has ways of spicing up recurring material by varying other elements of the music around it. We’ve pointed out how they’re similar. Now let’s see how they’re in fact different:

  • Time Signature: The first melody is in 4/4, while the second is in 3/4. Whoa. Totally different feel!
  • Rhythmic speed and displacementYou may notice that Melody B is twice the speed as Melody A (motivic eighth notes are sixteenths). It’s also worth pointing out that the scale motif actually starts Melody B on a pickup, creating a more “rolling” feel, while Melody A feels more square since it begins on a downbeat with a note that holds and waits for the scale. The difference in placement is key.
  • Reharmonization: Harmony plays a huge role in how we hear a melody because it gives context. CONTEXT is SUPER IMPORTANT. Temporally, this can mean where you are in the song’s unfolding: what chords precede the current moment, what chords succeed the current moment, and how long you hold the chord of the current moment. Given that the linearity of time plays a big role, what tonal color you establish earlier in the song sets the stage for how different chords afterwards will sound in contrast. You can hear for yourself how different the two melodies sound with their respective underlying harmony:
    • Melody A with Harmony
    • Melody B with Harmony

From a cognitive science perspective, what we find interesting and pleasingly exciting is a blend of the familiar with the unexpected. If something is too familiar we are desensitized and lack attention. If something is too jarringly unknown it can startle and pull us out of the moment.

Now with all that out of the way, here’s another excerpt of the demo level’s musical journey, the first boss battle. Currently it’s in a frankenstein state of being slowly transformed out of its piano sketch outline into real instruments we’d like to use. A fresh percussion layer and a pumping bass definitely give it a new feel (#contextissuperimportant)! Please bear with us!



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