Melancholic Music

Jack Keough Updated by Jack Keough

Melancholic Music

Melancholic music evokes feelings of sadness and depression.  It is extremely common amongst the drama category of film and television.  In this article, I will go over several ways I approached evoking this feeling when writing the Melancholy set for Middy’s Film Music.  A few techniques that help bring about this feeling include tapping into a real memory of the emotion, harmonizing with minor and dissonant chords and using a slow tempo.

First, I start by thinking of a melancholic memory that I can recount. Then, while embracing this feeling, I begin to write.  The goal here is to truly feel the emotion you are aiming to portray sonically.  This helps with the way you physically approach playing your instrument.  It’s always surprising how emotionally transparent playing a musical instrument is!  Typically, whatever you are feeling in the moment translates quite directly into the music.  

Harmonically, I use diatonic chords from minor keys and chromatic chords containing a certain amount of dissonance.  Minor triads use an interval of a minor third from the root note to the third. This is a half step lower than the major third associated with the root and third used in major triads. This could be one of the reasons a minor chord could feel “depressed” in comparison to a major chord.  In addition, the context of their use within our western culture and many others plays a major role in how we are emotionally impacted by these chords.  Historically the use of minor chords portraying sadness and major chords representing happiness can be found all throughout film music.  For example, take a look at Melancholy_4 from the melancholy set of exercises in Middy’s Film Music.  Here is the progression: 

Dmin/A          Amin               G                         Gmin

We start off on a D minor chord with A in the bass. This transitions to A minor and subsequently lands on a chromatic chord within the key of D minor: the major four (V/bVII).  This use of chromaticism however, is not where the sadness lies.  The sadness comes when the newly introduced B natural falls to its diatonic state of Bb on the following harmonic shift to G minor(iv).  Where the G major chord provided a sense of hope, or that things were looking up, the G minor chord reinstates the melancholic feeling initially put in place by the home key of D minor.

Let's compare the use of minor chords to the use of the more dissonant clusters found in Melancholy_2.  The dissonance plays a huge role in the feeling of sadness here.  However, the dissonance also provides tension. This tension in the harmony can help tell the story of the tension one might feel inside when experiencing sadness.  Below is the standard notation for the progression. 


Lastly, tempo  can have a drastic effect on the emotional impact of a piece.  In general, faster tempos tend to feel brighter and happier. Conversely, slower tempos tend to feel down and melancholic.  Check out Melancholy_5 for example.  The hand drum and staccato strings help provide a sense of time and carry the piece along with contrastingly faster sixteenth note rhythms.  However, with a tempo of 54bpm, the main quarter note pulse drags the performer or listener through a world of sadness.  

We’d love to see your thoughts about the Middy’s melancholic music!  You can find more here

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