Ideas and resources for music education.

Film Themes – i IV VI V

The topic of ‘Film Music’ is always popular with my students. At all levels, students enjoy working with sound and image to create particular effects. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been experimenting with how I teach ‘leitmotif’ writing, or the ‘superhero theme’.

In the past, I’ve tended to stick to ‘just write fifths and use brass instruments’, hoping this would yield good results from students. Sometimes it did, but I’m not sure my teaching had much to do with it. I think I’ve hit on a formula that works, which you might consider adapting for your classes.

I was inspired by this video on superhero clichés, from YouTuber 8-bit Music Theory. As he discussed ‘stock’ chord progressions that recur in superhero themes, I played through them at the piano. I was struck by how the harmonic movement alone evoked modern superheroes like Spider-man and the Avengers. My thinking was that if I could teach students this progression, it might provide more fertile ground on which they could compose superhero melodies.

To introduce the concept I presented four themes as case studies, to ‘prove’ that ‘all superhero themes sound the same’. I even made a meme to hammer-home my point.

It’s all on this mini-site here.

One-by-one, we worked through the themes, playing the melodies and chords, and we discovered that they all used a combination of chords i (minor), IV (major), VI (major), and V (major). For the older students, we discussed how the major IV chord doesn’t ‘belong’ to the minor key, and that it should be minor, and how the ‘rule-breaking’ creates this evocative sound.

Students ended up with an annotated PDF, which looks a bit like this:


We then set up a four or eight bar chord progression, using these chords as a model. This harmonic progression really helped students find melodies that ‘worked’ as superhero themes.

There are other aspects of the video that were helpful, such as the ostinato textures (though I think this video is even more perfect for teaching ostinato in film), or the melodic shapes, but it was the harmonic structure that I feel has really improved my teaching of leitmotif writing.

Whether you go full-on roman numerals in your teaching, or just give students a chordal palette (or a complete progression), I am confident this approach will make your students’ themes more musical, and give them a ‘boost’ if they are composing for film.

Thanks for reading.