Suspense, High Tension: Minor Chords a Half-Step Apart – Pt.1

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Create Suspense Using Two Chords

This is an excerpt lesson taken from Behind the Score. Full video lessons, PDF scores, and MP3 audio files on this topic can be found here: Creating Mood Instantly with Two-Chord Structures

Click here to access the music scores (PDF) and audio files used in this article.


Our first structure consists of two chords separated by a half-step (also called a semitone or a minor 2nd interval). A half-step may be a small distance, but this subtle shift between the chords can greatly impact the listener. Let us consider the two chords in Fig. A, E minor, and F minor.


Fig. A

 

Tips) Defining the Distance Between Chords
When we talk about the distance between two chords, we refer to the interval between their chord tones (particularly their roots). The root notes (E and F) of the two chords in Fig. A are a half-step apart. The other corresponding chord tones are also a half-step apart (G and A♭, and B and C, respectively). Since neither chord in this structure shares any common notes, the change in harmony is clear and striking.


On their own, these two chords might sound a bit stiff and underwhelming. However, once we use them to create a bass line, some rhythm, a melody, and so forth, the personality of this two-chord structure emerges. To our ears, this pair of chords evoke a dark and somewhat gothic quality.
The following examples use this Em-Fm structure as a foundation. Let us take a look at how we develop each one into a short piece.

 

Ex. 2-1-A Minor Chords Min. 2nd Apart Ⅰ


Ex. 2-1-A is a piece written for solo piano at a moderate tempo. In measure 1, we hear an arpeggio pattern in the bass, creating rhythm and spelling out an Em harmony (E-B-E-G). The harmony shifts back and forth between Em and Fm, but this method of arpeggiating generally continues throughout.

The melody in the treble clef is written mostly in octaves or sixths for harmonic support, though we tend to perceive the uppermost note as the audible melody. It mainly centers around chord tones. However, we use a few embellishing tones to add tension, like the F♯ (passing tone) in m. 2, and the G (neighbor tone) in m. 4. In measure 6, the passing tone A♯ (❶) is a non-chord tone that resolves up to chord tone B by a half-step. We also used a few embellishing tones in the bass. These small additions help enhance the tension and mystery of the piece.

Notice the sense of surprise at each chord change (measures 3, 5, and 7). Our two-chord structure guides these changes in harmony. The lack of common tones between Em and Fm sounds unexpected, which is useful for creating a piece in this genre. In addition, the absence of any major harmonies may contribute to the sense of gloominess.

Tips) The Power of Half-Steps
Composer John Williams used half-steps very prominently in his score for the film Jaws (1975). The iconic main theme is based upon two notes a half-step apart. These mere half-steps serve as an ominous motif throughout the film, warning the audience of the danger of the shark lurking in the water.

This is an excerpt lesson taken from Behind the Score. Full video lessons, PDF scores, and MP3 audio files on this topic can be found here: Creating Mood Instantly with Two-Chord Structures

Click here to access the music scores (PDF) and audio files used in this article.