Common chords/progressions used in movie music?

What are some common chords and progressions that are used commonly in film music (more specifically, the music of John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Lalo Schifrin, etc.)? I hear many interesting progressions in many of my favorite film themes (as well as non-theme music in movies), but I have a hard time reproducing the chords/progressions on the piano.

So, what are the most common (besides I-IV-V, of course) chords/progressions?


Thanks for your response -- that's excellent. Also, do you know how composers like Jeremy Soule and John Williams come up with those "adventurous" sounding progressions, such as those used in Williams' "Journey to the Island" or Soule's themes for the videogame Azurik?

Also, do you know any of the "tricks" that are commonly used? For example, I have noticed that it is common to play a major chord in a particular scale, and play, on top of it, a natural 4th note of the scale. For example, in Bb major, play a Bb major chord in the left hand, and in the right hand, play an E natural, and then a D natural. You'll know what I'm talking about when you play it.

3 Answers

  • 1 decade ago
    Favorite Answer

    I can't possibly give a complete answer, but one type of progression that film music often makes use of is the third relation.

    Third relations are when a chord moves to another chord whose root is a major or minor third away from the first chord. The most simple type of third relation would be motion from I to III or I to VI (in the key of C major, a C major triad moving to an E minor triad and a C major triad moving to an A minor triad, respectively).

    Those are the most simple sounding third relations, but what you're interested in, and what occurs in movie music a lot, are more distant third relations. For instance, a C major triad moving to an E-flat major triad is an interesting third relation that you might find in a movie. Another example would be a C major triad moving to and E-major triad.

    In John William's score for the original Star Wars movies, the music for space battles relies a lot on third relations, with three trumpets going from an E-flat major triad to a C-major triad to an F-sharp major triad. These three triads are third-related, since from C to E-flat is a minor third and from E-flat to F-sharp is also a minor third.

    A related type of chord progression comes from the use of "modal mixture", which means using chords from the minor key in major or from the major key in minor. So the vi chord in C major would normally be an A minor triad, but instead, while in the key of C major, the film composer might borrow the VI chord from C minor, and A-flat major triad. If the composer moved from the tonic C major triad to the A-flat Major triad, that would also be one of the interesting third relations described above. So there is overlap between third relations and modal mixture.

    I hope that is helpful. I'm sure there are a lot of other interesting harmonies that film composers use, but what I described are some of the most common ways that film composers get the interesting progressions that you're hearing.


    Glad to be helpful.

    I listened to some of "Journey to the Island", and if I'm right about which passage you are considering adventurous (the part with the trumpets), I think I can help. The chord progression goes from B-flat major to C-major/B-flat, by which I mean that you have a C-major triad but you still have the note B-flat in the bass. From there the harmony goes to a G minor triad then F major, then E-flat major. So basically there's two thing going on: The first is that you're moving from the tonic triad to a Major II chord (which is unusual, because the II chord would usually be minor), while keeping the tonic note -- B-flat -- in the bass. Then the next thing is a vi-V-IV progression, moving from G minor to F major to E-flat major. That is kind of interesting, because it's more typical for the progression to go the other way (IV-V-vi). I think part of the noble, adventurous sound comes from the importance placed on the IV chord (E-flat major).

    Having said that though, I think the most interesting part harmonically is the motion from the B-flat major triad to C-major/B-flat. So maybe I should say that a lot of the chord progressions in movie music are essentially progressions between distantly related triads. Sometimes these progressions can be described as third-relations or mode mixture (and these are maybe the most common types), but sometimes not, as in the case of the progression from "Journey to the Island".

    As for "tricks", I'm not really sure what to say. There's many different tricks. The one you described, if you want to put a name to is, is making use of the "lydian mode", which essentially means that the fourth degree of the scale is being raised. It's a sound I like very much, and coincidentally I'm using exactly the "trick" you described in a piece of music that I'm writing. Other "tricks" might involve using fourth-based (quartal) harmony and melodic lines. So, for instance, the beginning of the star trek Next Generation intro music (if you know it) is a trumpet rising in perfect fourths from C to F to B-flat. That has a pretty adventurous sound, though I don't know how much that is a result of the fourths as it is of the use of the trumpet.

    I hope that was more helpful than it was confusing. I find it really very interesting to try to understand exactly what harmonies are responsible for the sounds I'm hearing, and I'm glad that there is someone else out there who shares that interest.

  • 6 years ago

    Another trick is to change a chord to minor that would be major in a certain key, or conversely, change a chord to major that would normally be minor in a certain key. While I would not really call the following a trick, raising the perfect fifth in a chord to be an augmented fifth can lead to nice effects if proper voice leading is followed. Likewise, lowering the fifth to a diminished fifth can be useful. Something similar can be done with the root of the chord, but of course, that changes the chord to some other chord and function completely.

  • Diane
    Lv 4
    5 years ago

    1 5 1..we use it alot in band

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