How to Write a Mysterious Melody
Using the Chromatic Scale
The epitome of a mysterious and magical melody is the Harry Potter theme (titled “Prologue” on the soundtrack album) by legendary film composer, John Williams.
This melody is overflowing with mystery and magic for a few reasons, all of which you’ll learn in this PDF, but the main reason is: chromaticism. That’s just the fancy word for using notes that are not in the scale. While this technique is (sadly) rare in popular music, it’s common in classical and soundtrack music.
However, John Williams elevates his chromaticism in the Harry Potter theme with an additional technique, which you’ll also learn in this tutorial. For now though, it’s sufficient to know that the chromaticism found in this melody is not your average run-of-the-mill chromaticism, this is very special.
Whatever genre you make music in*, if you want to learn how to convey mystery and magic through a melody, you can learn everything you need to know from John Williams. So, inspired by the Harry Potter theme, in this PDF you’ll learn our 6-step method for writing mysterious melodies. But first… Tea!
*Like all the Hack Music Theory teachings, the method in this tutorial will work in any genre.
Step 1. Diatonic
First things first. Before we can play notes that are not in the scale, we need a scale. Remember though, no matter what scale you’re using, you can always add chromatic notes to your melody. And by the way, another word for chromatic is non-diatonic (notes in the key are diatonic, notes outside the key are non-diatonic).
So, while the Harry Potter theme is rooted in the natural minor scale, after you’ve worked through this PDF, you can follow the method again but in another scale/mode. For this example, though, we’ll be using the E natural minor scale:
E Natural Minor Scale
Set your DAW’s time signature to 3|8 and the tempo to about 90 BPM. As the original recording was played by an orchestra (not a computer), the tempo varies a lot due to the musicians’ expressive performance. After you’ve written your melody, revisit your tempo and try some faster or slower BPMs to see if that better suits your specific melody.
Next, create a 16-bar loop on your melody track. That sounds like a super long melody, but it’s not really, because each bar is only three 1/8 notes long. So the length of this melody will be the equivalent of six bars of 4|4.
Regarding the virtual instrument to load up on this track. John Williams uses a celesta, which is a beautiful instrument, but rather rare. If you don’t have a celesta in your library, as we don’t, then you can use a vibraphone, which is what we used. Or you can use a vintage organ, an electric piano, or even a regular piano. Obviously the more mysterious (i.e. the less common) your instrument, the more mysterious your final music will sound, so try to at least find something unusual.
Step 2. Chromatic
Walls have ears, so please make sure nobody’s listening in, because we’re about to talk about those mysterious and magical chromatic notes. Shhh…
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Multi award-winning college lecturer