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A Step-by-Step Approach to Conveying Ideas with Music

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One of the greatest things about music is it's ability to express feelings and ideas in a completely intangible way. Music can convey ideas as disparate as water, springtime, machinery, melancholy, and exuberance. When you're just starting out as a composer or songwriter, using instrumental music to express specific ideas can be a daunting and overwhelming task.

The purpose of this tutorial is to present a step-by-step process you can use to convey a non-musical idea in musical terms. It is by no means the only approach, and often times pure intuition is the best way to go, but it's a logical and easy way for a beginning composer or songwriter to get started.

I'll begin by briefly discussing the basic idea of program music, and then go on to the step-by-step process, followed by a few examples of putting the process into use.

Absolute vs. Program Music

When you're using music to try to convey a non-musical idea, you are essentially writing what is called "Program Music". In very generalized terms composers tend to break music into the two categories of Absolute Music and Program Music.

Absolute Music refers to music for it's own sake, such as a Brahms' Symphony no 4 in Em or Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. You're supposed to enjoy and appreciate the music for it's clever development of motives, intriguing harmonies, virtuosic performance, among other qualities. Absolute music exists for the music alone and any associations you make with other ideas are purely of your own doing and are not directly guided by the composer.

Program Music, on the other hand, is meant to express an idea outside of the music itself. Although it's been around as long as music itself, program music became especially popular in the Romantic era and is still extremely popular today. Many people don't even believe that a piece of music can be strictly "absolute" and that every composition expresses something. With program music the composer has a specific idea in mind of what outside associations the listener should make with the music.

Program Music Today

The most mainstream form of instrumental program music today is film music, in which the music is meant to express the feelings, motivations, characters, settings, time periods, or other ideas as attached to a particular scene in a film. A fast pace and driving rhythm might suggest the excitement and energy of a chase, or a swelling violin run might express an outburst of passion.

You do not have to be a film composer to want to express an idea musically. If you've written a song with sad lyrics, it would seem pretty logical that you'd want the music to feel sad as well (unless you're being purposefully contrarian or ironic). Understanding how to get more expressive meaning out of the music can bring a whole new dimension to your lyrics.

Step 1 - Know What You're Trying To Say

The first step is of course to decide what you want to convey. If you're scoring a scene in a film, this will probably be decided for you by the action on screen, but it's also up to you to decide what kind of spin to take on the drama. If the scene is sad is it a sadness based on loss or rejection? Being as specific as possible from the very beginning about the message you want in your music is essential. It will make the rest of the process much easer than just going in blind and hoping for the best.

Once you've defined what you want to say it's time to figure out how to say it. We do that by breaking the music down into the its building blocks.

Step 2 - Rhythm

As the "heartbeat" of your music, rhythm is the first element we'll be establishing. We can break rhythm down even further into tempo, meter and groove.


The tempo of a piece is a determining factor in how exciting it is. A fast pumping tempo is like a fast pumping heartbeat; it's full of adrenaline and excitement. Fast tempos are usually appropriate for action, such as a chase scene, or when something is happy and fun. Conversely a slow tempo is more relaxed and is associated with either more passionate feelings of romance or sorrow, or less certain feelings of suspense and fear.

A lack of tempo is an equally effective device, as it leads to a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty. A completely free tempo is best suited to feelings that are either free and flowing, or on edge and unpredictable.


Meter contributes to our sense of a piece both by it's actual feel but also by past associations. An upbeat 6/8 meter might make us think of Irish jigs, and therefore pirate music. Tuplet meters like 3/4 are often used for flying scenes because they have a sense of bounce and lift (consider the scores from "Up" or "Around the World in 80 Days"). 4/4 is a more straightforward and common.

Odd meters like 5/8 or 7/4 are often used for action scenes when you are supposed to feel the excitement of unpredictability.

When choosing a meter it is a good idea to consider what past associations your audience may unconsciously have. It's fine if your piece in 3/4 has a sense of Viennese Waltz to it, but only if you're consciously aware of it.


Similar to meter, the groove or beat of your piece comes with the burden of past associations. Certain rhythms can feel very "dance-like" even when that isn't what you are going for. An excess of syncopations can make your music feel like funk or jazz, or accidentally incorporating a clave might give your music a Latin flair.

Using a certain kind of rhythm or groove can be a very valuable tool when trying to establish a specific setting or time period. As we've been saying with the other elements, just be aware of what associations the beat you're using might suggest.

Step 3 - Harmony

So you've chosen a tempo and have a general idea of what the pulse will feel like. Next we consider the harmony.

With this in mind, our next step in deciding how to convey your ideas is to consider the harmony we want to use. To keep things simple we'll stick with traditional tonal harmony and not get into atonality, chromaticism, etc.

Even non-musicians seem to know that "a major chord is happy" and "a minor chord is sad". But we know that it gets much more nuanced and complex than that. Any chord going to any different chord has a unique sound and emotional weight to it. Every chord change has a varying degree of static motion, lift or depression.

Consider the following progression, C F G C:

Pretty stable, right? All of the chords are major, but none of them necessarily feels different or more emotionally charged than any other. But what about this one, again all major chords C F G A:

This time the chord A feels very bright and uplifting. There is an interesting phenomenon in which major chords that are borrowed from outside of the key feel more "major". At the same time, minor chords that are taken from outside the key feel more "minor".

To hear the effect of non-diatonic minor chords, consider this example C Em F:

If we change F to Fm we get an effect far more dramatic than you might have expected by changing a single pitch. C Em Fm:

The Fm somehow sounds much more "minor" than the Em because it is not from the key of C.

The first place to start is with what comes naturally. A positive emotion would probably be appropriately conveyed with a major key, a negative with a minor key. With this basic decision out of the way you can then get more interesting. I've found that the best way to do this is to play different chord progressions and take notes about how they feel. In the example below I'll go into more
detail about this.

Step 4 - Melody

Next in line is the melody, which makes up for a lot of the "character" of your music. A melody can be long winded and mournful, or bright and peppy. By going in the specific order of these steps, many characteristics of your melody will be determined based on the rhythmic and harmonic ideas you've already established.

The main considerations left for melody are how rhythmically active it is and what kind of range it covers. In general, melodies that cover a wide range and have many large leaps tend to feel more passionate, while melodies with smaller ranges and more stepwise motion have a more reserved and purposeful feel.

An important consideration is register, or how high or low your melody is. Very low melodies played by bassoons or basses can often have a lethargic and sluggish feel, while extremely high melodies may be shrill and thin. The instrumentation will affect this greatly, but it's important to be mindful of the effect a different register can have on the feeling and intensity of your lines.

Consider this short phrase for piano, which uses the exact same rhythm, harmony and melody but is played in a different register of the piano:



The higher version of the melody feels sweet and innocent while the lower version is much more commonplace.

Step 5 - Orchestration

Our last consideration is the orchestration, or what instruments you'll be using. The timbre's you use to express your ideas are extremely important from a standpoint of intensity and yet again in the area of outside associations.

Electric guitars, for example, tend to suggest youth or masculinity. A harmonica has implications of blues or the American South, and so on.

Intensity of timbre is also an important consideration. Here's a simple demonstartion of how the same exact notes can have a very different attitude. We have the same chord, same spacing, with three different sounds. Brass, strings, and a smooth pad:

All other elements equal, the difference in timbre has a massive effect on the attitude of the chord.

Example - Step 1 - Sorrow

This example comes from a cue I recently wrote for a feature film. The scene is a teenage boy confessing that he accidentally murdered someone. He is tormented with sorrow and regret.

Step 1 is to figure out what I'm trying to say. I want to convey a sense of sorrow as well as mourning, like his soul is crying out for redemption. Step by step I'll consider rhythm, harmony, melody and orchestration.

Example - Step 2 - Rhythm

The rhythm should be slow and longing. There is nothing exciting about sorrow, it's laborious and painful. After playing around with the metronome for a while I've settled on the extremely slow 42bpm.

I've also determined that a straightforward 4/4 is the way to go. To create a sense of longing I may use the occasional odd meter bar to add extra length, in essence creating a fermata hold, but in general we are just plugging ahead at 4/4 because there's no need to get fancy.

Example - Step 3 - Harmony

Next comes the harmony, which in this case will be one of the most determining factors in shaping the piece.

I want the piece to be sad, so it makes sense to start with a minor key. I arbitrarily chose the key of G minor, just because that's where my fingers landed on the piano first and it felt good. Although you will eventually develop a unique sense for every key, they can all be considered on reasonably equal ground at this stage.

So starting on a Gm chord, my next concern is to find a chord that comes after and feels sad. After some playing around, I found that I like the bass going from a G down to F. This whole step down has a nice depressed feel to it without being too dark or twisted.

With that in mind we can try a few different chord changes that go from Gm to a chord with F as a chord tone.

Gm to F:

Gm to Fm:

Gm to Dm/F:

Gm to Db/F:

Gm to Bb/F:

Gm to Bbm/F:

By playing through each one I can see how I feel about them. I think it's pretty obvious that going to any of the major chords (F, Db or Bb) is the wrong way to convey sadness. This leaves us with three choices for the minor chords.

Gm to Fm feels too medieval, Gm to Dm/F feels pretty good, while Gm to Bbm/F is too creepy. Gm to Dm/F it is. It's sad and regretful without being too mysterious.

Gm to Dm/F:

Now that I've come up with a "sad" progression I like, I want to add another one to my arsenal that is more dark and pained. Remember that this is about murder!

Following the same line of thinking as before, I like the way G up to Ab feels in the bass. It's contrasting to the previous progression but also much creepier.

Here are the options, using Ab as a chord tone in triads:

Gm to Ab:

Gm to Abm:

Gm to E/G#:

Gm to Fm/Ab:

Gm to Db/Ab:

Gm to Dbm/Ab:

Just like before, going to a major chord is the wrong approach so I will dismiss those altogether. Gm To Abm is very mysterious, Gm to Fm feels good but seems similar to the "sad" progression, and Gm to Db feels very sci-fi. Although it's unusual sounding, Gm to Abm is my favorite of the three for this instance.

Gm to Abm:

These two simple chord progressions are enough for me to move on to the next stage.

Example - Step 4 - Melody

The melody for this piece should be made up of mostly slow moving long notes. It's more of a moaning line than a singing line, so I imagine it being relatively simple.

Because we've already determined the harmony, the melody will basically fit on top of this. Counterpoint purists cover your ears, but I'm going to mimic the G to Ab idea in the melody, letting the G rub over the Abm chord for some tension. Note the F 16th note add a variation to the G to Abm idea, making it a little more interesting than what we have the bass.

I'll then use the common tone D over the Gm to Dm/F progression for a reserved sadness.

This will be the basic idea for the melody, which I'll develop as I develop the rest of the piece.

Example - Step 5 - Orchestration

The basic harmony will be covered by strings playing in their lower register, because to me that is a very rich, soft and tragic sound. I'll also add a smooth organ like pad to the sound to give it that sense of church-like sorrow. Also just to add interest and motion I'll add an arpeggiated line in the violas, doubled by harp to bring it out, and a simple rhythmic pulse in the vibes. I chose harp and vibraphone because they are soft colors that blend easily with the strings, but also have a coldness to their timbre.

Few instruments are as passionate and mournful as the human voice, so I'm going right for the jugular on this one and using a female vocal. I'll double her on the violins to add some support to the line.

Example - Filling out the piece

I've only come up with four bars of material, but I've managed to find the "sound" I'm looking for: sorrowful with a touch of regret for committing murder.

From here I can go on to complete the composition.

I wont go into the details of writing the introduction but just focus on two other important moments in the piece. Halfway through his confession, our character breaks down at his deepest sorrow, and we can use a few of tricks to make this more emotional. I'd like to take the basic idea we've been using and then launch it into a more passionate place. Then after only a few bars I want to back off and add a touch of disappointment as the scene comes to a close.

Rhythmically I think it makes sense for the piece to stay consistent, so I'm not going to make any drastic changes there. The same is true for the orchestration, I'm going to keep it consistent with the instruments we've already been using so far.

Harmonically we've so far been floating back and forth between Gm and a "sort of" dominant territory with what could be argued as fancy variations on D7 and Dm. Where we haven’t yet ventured is the subdominant, in this case Cm, so to go there would not only be a fresh sound but also feel like we are moving somewhere new.

After we enter the "new" subdominant territory, the next thing to set up is the disappointment, and the best way to achieve this is by establishing an expectation and then defying it. This is a technique I stole from Wagner (and you should too!) in which you use a common chord progression, causing people to expect a specific chord and then giving them a deceptive cadence instead as a way to keep the drama moving forward and to never appease the listener's satisfaction.

In this case I'll use the progression Cm/Eb Gm/D D7. This is essentially a very typical iv-V7-i progression.

Cm/Eb D7 Gm:

The Gm/D-D7 makes the i chord, Gm, feel even more inevitable.

Cm/Eb Gm/D D7 Gm:

But in this case I want to convey disappointment and loss. We do that by setting up the listener's expectation and then taking it away. In this cue instead of going to Gm I'll go to the very dark and sad D diminished.

Cm/Eb Gm/D D7 Dº:

Now we've got our harmony covered. We set up a greater emotional move into Cm and added the disappointment at the end. Now we need to do the same thing with the melody.

Right at our move to Cm, our passionate rise, is when we'll make an octave leap. So far our melody has not moved greater than a third, so an octave will feel very expansive. Plus it will be a richer register in the voice. And to add even more to the tension we'll leap up into a D, which is the 9th of the Cm chord, before descending into the chord tone C. This appoggiatura creates an even more passionate moment than simply jumping up to a C.

The rest of the melody will descend down stepwise as we surrender calmly into disappointment.

Here we have the final piece from beginning to end:


If you're new to composition it might seem like there is a lot going on here, but follow it through each step and you'll start to see that everything can be broken down into very simple ideas. By making sure that every element of your music stays true to your vision (rhythm, harmony, melody, orchestration), you can be confident that the music is expressing the idea you are trying to convey.

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