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Friday, January 23

Space Theme From Outer Space

I've put a bit of time recently into the question of how to write a space theme. This has led me to a couple of interesting places. Firstly, all John Williams soundtracks are using the same tricks. This is a phenomenal discovery which now makes me laugh when I hear his music. That said, I love John Williams' music - it's just I can see through the tricks. These are the tricks of "write a hollywood blockbuster epic score" and in fact, there's not exclusive to Mr Williams - he just writes largely in them.

For those interested, this most amazing YouTube clip about how to write an epic score was a good way to clarify what I'd already worked out.

The second place this journey has led me is into the world of sampled instruments. I'm using Acoustica Mixcraft as my sequencer and DAW of choice. This may not be the most featuresome DAW out there, but I know how to use it and it does a number of things very easily.

If you want your own private orchestra on your PC, then I can't recommend Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra enough. It's free and it sounds pretty good. It has its limitations, but I'm really happy with using it. The SFZ player I used to play its samples via the VSTi plugin to my DAW was Alchemy Player by Camel Audio. This does exactly what it says on the tin.

For those people wanting to pay money, it looks like the Kontakt software by Native Instruments is pretty good and there's a free Orchestra sounds set for it called Total Composure. The free version of Kontakt player cannot play the free Orchestra for more than a few minutes before it starts demanding upgrade fees. Shame.

So what are John Williams' tricks?

  • Fundamentally the song is orchestrated as though a brass band piece - lots of fanfares
  • The tune will switch instrument to keep you on your toes
  • Flutes will swoop
  • The rhythm section is bashing out messages in morse code
  • Strings will swell
  • The glockenspiel will sit at the top end of the track secretly emphasising bits of the tune it likes
  • The timpani will be busy
If you boiled every John Williams track down to a glockenspiel and timpani arrangement, you'd realise how much they add to the piece.

The side effect of writing music
The track I wrote - "Space theme from outer space" is based on a single repeating chord sequence. It goes round and round with different voicings and the use of a counter melody when things start to get dull. It was going well, but I couldn't work out how to end it, and it was stuck in a loop in my head. I usually get my own compositions stuck in my head, but this one was especially bad.

I found the answer tonight while finishing the piece. I could never find an ending because of the looping chord structure which modulate from C to Bb then Bb to Ab and then via a couple of chords back to C via its dominant chord - G. This progression could only loop me round again and again. Every time I thought of a musical variation, it took me back to the start.

This is a secret of a catchy song, the need of the end of the verse to give you the start of the verse again. See This Love by Maroon 5 if you want an example.

Tonight I discovered that the various modulations and key changes were flirting with a total key change of the piece from its initial key of C major into Eb major. A raise in key of a minor third. My trick to get back into the right key after the modulations was preventing the natural rise in key that the chords would have given me (or at least, it felt that way). When I let the tune actually change key, it brought itself to the exact climax I was looking for.

It ended with a crash of cymbals and a big grin.

Does anyone have an orchestra and a choir I can borrow? And a glockenspiel...


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