How to Write Haunting Arpeggios
using parallel keys and borrowed chords
Danny Elfman’s theme song for the Netflix show Wednesday (officially called “Wednesday Main Titles” on the soundtrack album) is utterly brilliant! It’s just over one minute, but the amount of creative theory it contains is thoroughly impressive.
One of the most unusual sections is at 21 seconds into the track. It’s a crazy creative chord progression, played as triplet arpeggios. The section is so haunting and unsettling, because he slides through three different keys in the space of four bars. This leaves the listener feeling disorientated, as their subconscious is trying to figure out if it did actually hear a key change or if it just imagined that. You know the feeling, right? Maybe that was just a shadow at the window, and that noise was probably (hopefully) just a branch knocking against the house. Hmmm…
On that note, go and check that all your doors are locked and your windows are closed. Then, turn off your lights, put on your headphones, and let’s make some spooky music! So, inspired by the Wednesday theme song, here’s our 4-step method for writing haunting arpeggios like Danny Elfman. But first… Tea!
Step 1. Chords
There’s two stages to this method. First you’ll write a haunting chord progression (Steps 1 & 2), then you’ll turn that into arpeggios (Step 3). As a bonus, we’ve included a section on how to write a haunting bass line for your arpeggios (Step 4). By the way, Stage 2 is super quick and easy, but Stage 1 will take some time. Okay let’s get to work, cos these arpeggios aren’t gonna write themselves - they’re haunting arpeggios, not haunted arpeggios!
Set your tempo to 98 BPM, then create four bars of 4|4. You can just use a piano sound for now, then after you’ve finished writing, you can play around with some different sounds. Next, change your grid to 1/8 note triplets. If you want your whole song to be in this triplet feel, though, then you can use the 12|8 time signature. We’re using triplets because the opening section of Wednesday is in 4|4. It switches to 1/8 note triplets after 21 seconds, when this arpeggio section begins.
Now that you’re all set up, it’s time to grab some paper and a pen. Yep, we’re going old-school in Step 1. An arpeggio is simply a chord played one note at a time. So, before we get to our arpeggios, we obviously need to write a chord progression.
Here is Danny Elfman’s progression: Dm → F♯m → C♯m → Bm → Dm
A surface-level analysis of that progression reveals that he’s only using minor chords. That’s a great hack all on its own, because a progression made up exclusively of minor chords will sound seriously dark, as you’re never giving your listener a break from the somber nature of minor chords. Now, if you do a deep analysis, you’ll discover something far more remarkable. The progression is in the key of D minor, so what do you notice about its chords?
D natural minor scale
Our deep analysis doesn’t even get past the second chord before we discover that Danny Elfman has officially left the key! There’s no F♯ in D minor. So, the second chord in this progression is a non-diatonic chord, i.e. a chord that’s not in the key. On we go to the third chord. Oh, he’s done it again! There’s no C♯ in D minor either. And on to the fourth chord. Same again! There’s no B in D minor. What?!
So, sandwiched between two root chords that start and finish the progression, he has three non-diatonic chords. That’s obviously not normal. In fact, it’s so unusual that it takes us back to the drawing board, because if the root chord is the only chord that’s in the key, then is the key really D minor or did we get it wrong?
No we didn’t. The key is D minor, but each of those three non-diatonic chords is from a different key. A parallel key! A parallel key is just the fancy term for a key (i.e. scale/mode) that has the same root note. And when you play a chord from a parallel key, it’s called a borrowed chord. In this example, D natural minor and D major are parallel. D Lydian is also parallel, which is another key Danny Elfman uses in his progression.
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Multi award-winning college lecturer