How to Write a Suspenseful Melody
using Bitonality, AKA playing in two keys simultaneously
The dictionary definition of suspenseful is “causing a feeling of excitement or nervousness because you are waiting for something to happen”.
That perfectly describes the intro of “Tubular Bells - Pt. I” by Mike Oldfield. It’s easy to hear why The Exorcist (1973) director William Friedkin chose this music for his film. Recall that classic scene where Chris starts walking home alone as the “Tubular Bells” intro begins. Eeek! Talk about “waiting for something to happen”.
If you wanna make music that keeps people listening because they need to know what happens next, then knowing how to create suspense is essential. Mike Oldfield has given us a masterclass with this music. So, inspired by “Tubular Bells”, here’s our 4-step method for writing a suspenseful melody. But first… Tea!
Step 1. Odd
One of the first things we notice about the intro of “Tubular Bells - Pt. I” is that it’s in an odd time signature. If you count along with that piano part in the intro, you’ll count 15 beats. So, change your DAW’s time signature to 15|4 and set the tempo to 150 BPM.
On closer analyses of the piano part (i.e. where its melody repeats), it becomes apparent that the time signature is actually one bar of 7|4 followed by two bars of 4|4. But as that adds up to 15|4, we’ll just go with that to keep things simpler.
Next, create a one-bar loop of 15|4 on your piano track, with the grid on 1/8 notes. We’re gonna start by writing a rhythm on E (the root), using only 1/8 notes and 1/8 rests. You can do whatever you want, but don’t play more than two notes in a row. Also, only make your rhythm seven 1/4 notes long, i.e. one bar of 7|4.
7|4 rhythm (on E)
Step 2. Pitch
Now it’s time to turn this rhythm into a melody! For the rest of the tutorial, please buy the PDF. Supporting our work helps us to keep teaching. Thank you :)
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Multi award-winning college lecturer