How did the theme go from C Lydian to B Lydian to E Lydian to C Lydian to Db Lydian?

How did they (modulate) transit? How did those transitions "work" and sound good? Etc.?

Any tips?


You might almost say they didn't "work" in terms of sounding good as much as those transitions help make the music sound whimsical. It's not like they fit inside some sacred rules of harmony as much as they broke the rules in a certain way that makes that theme effective in setting the tone for the show.

Also the main motive is repeated (more or less) in each "key" so that keeps things connected as opposed to just randomly jumping all over the place.

  • you have any tips on how they modulated modes?
    – Izu Izzy
    Apr 10 '15 at 18:00
  • 3
    Seems to be a lot of what a music theory professor I once had called, "crash and go". Apr 10 '15 at 18:19

I agree to @ToddWilcox: The simpson theme broke all "sacred" rules, plus, it seems that the composer WANTED to create a LYDIAN theme.

Since the lydian mode is rather unusual for untrained ears, he repeated the theme in multiple keys in order to fix the lydian sound.

And by the way: If you see Db as the subV of G (Db is a tritonus below G), then in fact you have two descending fifths: B->E and G->C !

However, in contrast to traditional harmonics, everything is lydian here. So in fact, you have a sort of traditional harmonics, but it is made "weird" by using the lydian mode all over.

  • thank you so much . what chords where the chords used to help modulate between the scales? like the pivot chord? or is this similar to how to modulate in a fugue ? like a modulating sequence descending 5ths sequence with a lydian chord progression? im still a little confused
    – Izu Izzy
    Apr 20 '15 at 3:48

The Answer; or, TL;DR

  1. The Whole-Tone Scale is the structural glue that holds together the Simpsons's Theme.

  2. The Main Theme is fundamentally in Major, but avoids scale degree 4 in favor of #4, which serves as a chromatic lower neighbor to 5 and lends cohesiveness to the whole-tone glue. A true Lydian piece would avoid 5-1 relationships, which detract from the Lydian sound and reinforce Major.

Supporting Analysis

The "Main Theme" rests on a tritone bass.

T:Theme from "The Simpsons"
T:Main Theme
V:V1 clef=treble
V:V2 clef=bass middle=D
%%score {V1 | V2}
[V:V1]c3 e z ^f z a | g3 e z c z A | ^F^F^FG
[V:V2][Cc] z z [^F,^F] z2 z2 | [Cc] z z [^F,^F] z2 z2 | [Cc] z z [^F,^F]

The "interludes" between verses are transpositions of an augmented sixth chord (Fr+6), which can be found in the whole-tone scale:

X: 1
T: Theme from "The Simpsons"
T: Model Interlude
K: none
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
%%score {V1 | V2}
V:V1 clef=treble
V:V2 clef=bass middle=D
[V:V1] z [CE^F^A][CE^F^A] z [CE^F^A][CE^F^A] z [CE^F^A]|[CE^F^A] z [CE^F^A][CE^F^A] z [CE^F^A]z[CE^F^A] :|]
[V:V2] [C,C] z z [^F,,^F,] z z [C,C] z | z [^F,,^F,] z z [C,C] z  [^F,,^F,] z  :|]

The sequences modulating and/or establishing new pitch centers either emphasize the major third...

X: 1
T: Theme from "The Simpsons"
T: Modulation #1
K: none
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
z"_+"^F^F^F "_*"G"_+"^A-A2 | "_*"B2

...or are whole-tone based.

X: 1
T: Theme from "The Simpsons"
T: Modulation #2
K: none
M: 4/4
L: 1/16
"_5"c_B_A_G _B_A_G_F ^G^FED ^FEDC | "_1"F4

How it all works

NOTE: This is based on the below recording, which is easier to hear, since there are no added sound effects as in the Season One Theme.

  • [0:00] Introduction
  • [0:44] Begin in C Major
  • [0:52] Modulation #1: to B Major (reinforced by Modulation #2)
  • [1:04] Modulation #2: to E Major (with whole-tone scales and tritone relationships throughout). Note that while in E Major, the #4 at the end of the theme never resolves to 5. Rather, it remains and is decorated with tritones and whole-tone scales outlining tritones.
  • [1:27] Modulation #2 (variation): to C Major
  • [1:38] Direct modulation to B Major (here the orchestration makes use of the saxophone "interruption" to simply resume in B major without an explicit transition).
  • [1:46] Modulation #3: again to C Major (not notated here, but this transition is accomplished in part by using a variation on a segment of the main theme: F-F#-B-A, containing three whole-tone-scale-related pitches. This allows for the re-establishment of B as leading tone rather than tonic.
  • [1:54] Modulation #4: to Eb Major (again not notated here, the violins merge two whole-tone scales by outlining C-D-E-F#-(G-A)-A#/Bb-A-G-F-Eb).
  • [2:01] Modulation #2: To Db Major

Reference recording

"THE SIMPSONS by Danny Elfman [Hollywood in Vienna 2017]"

THE SIMPSONS composed by Danny Elfman, conducted by John Mauceri, performed by the ORF Radio-Symphonie­orchester Wien with the Philharmonia Chor Wien at Hollywood in Vienna 2017

  • There seems to be very, very little to justify your headline tl;dr claim that "The Whole-Tone Scale is the structural glue that holds together the Simpsons's Theme". Would you care to expand on this?
    – Judy N.
    Oct 24 '20 at 10:08
  • (i.e. in any diatonic mode you will always find most intervals are whole tones and sometimes they aren't! You seem to be saying "look! here is something that is mostly whole-tones but some of them aren't. We call this "the whole tone scale"" (which of course we don't))
    – Judy N.
    Oct 24 '20 at 10:10
  • Just to expand further: if (as seems right to me and as has been ventured in other answers) I made the claim that "the theme itself is the structural glue that holds the piece together", and the theme is very, very clearly not whole-tone, how do you handle this?
    – Judy N.
    Oct 24 '20 at 10:16
  • The strongest whole tone passages are the transitions; maybe this is what you mean by glue but I see them as incidental embelleshments, given that the whole-tone scale is not emphasised in the body of the piece. The chord in the Model Interlude is C7#11, i.e. it is bII7 of B major.
    – Judy N.
    Oct 24 '20 at 10:26
  • 1
    @JudyN. Your objections are understandable. The analysis relies in part on how the elements of the music sound in context, which emphasize intervals that occur within whole-tone scales. Every modulation in the piece is accomplished by way of tritones, major thirds, and whole-tone scales -- they "glue together" modulations of the otherwise-major main theme. That said, this is also an excellent example of the truism that analysis itself is subjective and interpretive.
    – Aaron
    Oct 24 '20 at 10:45

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