Hollywood Chords – The most popular film music composition technique


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This is an excerpt lesson from the [STUDY PACK] TWO CHORD STRUCTURE – 3RDS APART & PRACTICAL APPLICATION 2. Complete editions of video lessons, music scores (PDF), score analysis (PDF), and HD music examples used in this lesson can be viewed here.


Here, we explore creating evocative music by moving back and forth between two chords, or what we call a two-chord structure. If you are an entry-level musician, a basic knowledge of chords and intervals should be sufficient to get started. Many great musical ideas result from simple combinations of major and minor chords. You may be surprised by how versatile these two-chord structures can be.

Moving the harmony by a 3rd (in either direction) is a popular compositional tool in cinematic and video game composition. In this section, we explore a new series of structures that feature chords separated by an interval of a 3rd. If two major (or minor) chords are a 3rd apart, they always share one note in common (see Fig. H). This shared note helps connect one chord to the next, resulting in a smooth transition.

You may notice this progression sounds very familiar as you listen to the following examples. This type of structure appears in everything from concert music to dance music.

Hollywood Chords
Fig. H Two Triads a Maj & min 3rd Apart with a Common Tone

💡 Tips) Chromatic Mediant

A “chromatic mediant” is the formal term for the relationship we describe in this section – two major chords (or minor chords) spaced 3rds apart and sharing one common tone.The term “mediant” refers to the interval of a 3rd between the chords. In Western music theory, the mediant is the third note of a scale (in the same way that the tonic is the first note of a scale). The term “chromatic” describes the half-step alteration(s). In Fig. H, the second chord of each example features an altered (natural) note.

Musical Examples with Chords a 3rd Apart

– Howard Shore, the ‘Fellowship’ leitmotif from “The Ring Goes South,” from the movie  The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Howard Shore, “The Council of Elrond Assembles / Aníron (feat. Enya),” from the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

– Danny Elfman, “Spider-man Main Title,” from the movie Spider-Man (2002)

Jerry Goldsmith, “Ilia’s Theme,” Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Danny Elfman, “Clown Attack,” Batman (1989)

Yasunori Mitsuda, “Black Omen,” Chrono Trigger (1995)

Major chords that move by 3rds often result in bright, bold chord progressions that create rich tonal imagery. Inevitably, this structure uses non-diatonic notes, or notes “outside” of a given key. By contrast, diatonic notes are within the key.

Consider the two major chords DMaj and B♭Maj in Fig. I. The distance between them is a major 3rd. The first chord suggests the key of D Major, simply because it is the first chord we hear. The common tone (D) allows for a smooth transition between the two chords. However, the second chord challenges our expectations with its B♭ and F. These non-diatonic notes (outside the anticipated key of D Major) sound new and refreshing.

Fig. I Two Major Triads Placed a Major 3rd Apart

This structure combines a stable transition with novel, non-diatonic notes, which is potent for anyone who wishes to write music with a dramatic flair. Composers often use these sorts of progressions to create a heroic or triumphant effect. In the following examples (Ex. 2-6-A & Ex. 2-6-B), we build on these two chords to create a short piece.

Major Chords 3rds Apart Ⅰ

In Ex. 2-6-A, we link together a series of two-chord structures on piano to create a chord progression. Some of the harmonies are inverted (so the lowest note of the chord is not always the root). However, the root of each chord is always a 3rd away from the previous one: from D, to B♭, to G, back to B♭, and finally back to D. The direction of the root movement is indicated above each measure.

Hollywood Chords
Ex. 2-6-A

The top note of each harmony happens to be D, which is a chord tone of DMaj, B♭Maj, and GMaj. It functions as a common tone that connects all three harmonies. We made the artistic choice to voice the chords in a way to keep this common tone at the top. In doing so, we guide the listener’s ear through the changes and smoothly transition from one harmony to the next.

Although the piano part is pretty minimal (whole notes), we hope you begin to hear the chord progression’s grand, almost regal quality. Each chord sounds a bit surprising compared to the previous one (due to non-diatonic notes), yet none of the chords sound jarring (due to the common tone). Let us try adapting this piece for instruments with more sustaining power than piano.

Major Chords 3rds Apart Ⅱ: Harmonic Embellishment for Horns

Ex. 2-6-B uses a section of horns to expand on our piece. Orchestral composers often employ the rich timbre of the brass to convey heroism and infuse energy into a passage.

Hollywood Chords
Ex. 2-6-B

Although the chord progression remains the same, we changed the voicing of the chords. A new melody emerges from the top notes, slightly modifying the harmony from time to time. For instance, the treble clef A from m. 1 carries over into m. 2, where it briefly changes the B♭ chord into B♭Maj7 (A is the 7th of the chord). Subtle nuances like this add sophistication to the harmony. The melody generally descends, from A in m. 1, to G in m. 2 (❶), to F in m. 4, and finally to D in m. 5. 

In measure 4, the inner voice D steps down to C(❷), turning the harmony into a suspended chord (B♭sus2/F). In these final two beats, none of the horns play D. In a sense, we save the note D for the m. 5 resolution to D Major, resulting in a more deliberate and conclusive ending.

In the upcoming lessons, we’ll explore writing an orchestral piece that draws upon the same two-chord structure. Additionally, we will analyze the profound emotional impact achievable through the use of ‘minor chords 3rds apart.’ Moreover, we will explore the integration of these chord structures in actual orchestral music compositions.

Major Chords 3rds Apart for Orchestra

This is an excerpt lesson taken from [Study Pack] Two Chord Structure – 3rds apart. Full video lessons, PDF scores, and MP3 audio files on this topic can be found here:  Creating Mood Instantly with Two-Chord Structures.