Learn how Thom Yorke (Radiohead) writes a chord progression by mixing the Dorian mode with the Aeolian mode, then giving it a twist - as heard in "Suspirium" from the Suspiria film soundtrack.
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The two main elements that make “Suspirium” stand out, are its haunting chords and hypnotic rhythm. The haunting chord progression is created by mixing the Dorian mode with the Aeolian mode, and then using all major chords other than the root chord, which is obviously a minor (but even that minor root chord is eventually turned into a major). And all these major chords appearing from two minor modes create a suspiciously uplifting atmosphere, which you know cannot be trusted! Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the hypnotic repetition of the rhythm gently but persistently opens up your subconscious (like ghostly rhythmic water drops).
Step 1: Time
Thom’s opening words in this song are “This is a waltz”, so it goes without saying that he’s using triple time here. So set your time signature to 3/4, and your tempo to 151 BPM.
Step 2: Mode
As you now know, Thom is mainly using the Dorian mode in this song, and his root is C♯. So, your chord options are: C♯m, D♯m, Emaj, F♯maj, G♯m, A♯dim, Bmaj. And by the way, if you need help writing a chord progression in the Dorian mode, we’ve got a super simple step-by-step starter guide for you.
Step 3: Chords
Start on the root chord, C♯m, which anchors you into that minor atmosphere, but then, chose only major chords for the rest of your chord progression. But, somewhere in the middle, return to the root chord, just so your listeners don’t get lost. Then lastly, change all your block chords into arpeggios, by simply playing them one note at a time.
Step 4: Haunt
The most noticeable way Thom haunts his chord progression, is by changing the root chord, C♯m, to a C♯maj at the end (this hack is a Radiohead favourite). And then to make it even more haunty, he plays the C♯maj for twice as long as any other chord. And the repercussion of this is a very unusual 18-bar chord progression, instead of a predictable 16 bars. Right, next up, you wanna borrow the ♭VImaj from the C♯ Aeolian mode, which is an Amaj chord. Then lastly, be sure to use an add9 somewhere as well, to add that dreamlike quality. We did that in a few places, one of them being the root chord in the middle of our progression. And remember, you make an add9 chord by simply adding a 2 to your triad.
Step 5: Bass
Finally, copy and paste your piano arpeggios into another track, which is gonna be your left-hand part. Then, move the low 3s in all the chords down to roots, which will create a beautiful harmony. And if you want, you can do the same for a few of the high notes, too. Then when you’re done with your left-hand part, just move it down an octave. And with that, you’re done!
So, now that you’ve got one section down, how do you write a new section for it, and then, how do you transition between those two sections? Great questions, and if this is something you need help with, then check out our cutting-edge online apprenticeship course, where you’ll literally learn every step of the music making process, and most importantly, you’ll learn how to finish your songs! Also, please note that we intentionally wrote our example to be very similar to Thom Yorke, but we did that for the sake of this lesson. So, instead of copying Thom, please explore how you can use this hack creatively with your own musical personality, so it sounds like you! Alright, that’s it! We really hope this video has inspired and empowered you, and if it has, please drop us a comment on YouTube. We love hearing from you! Thanks for joining the Hack Music Theory revolution, and we’ll see you next week!
Kate & Ray Harmony (AKA Revolution Harmony)
Music Teachers & Producers in Vancouver BC, Canada
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