How to dramatically change the feeling of a song while keeping the melody largely the same? Let's say we have a happy, upbeat pop song and we want to turn it into a sad song (or vice versa). Is it generally possible? Does the feeling of a song depend more on the melody or the harmony?

If it can be done, are there any general rules or common patterns that we can follow? One who have time can explore the infinitely many ways, but general rules can serve as good start points and help those with little composing experience.

It would be nice if you can provide an example of two passages with the same melody but opposite or very different feelings, and briefly explain the structural differences of the two passages.

Clarification: Transposing the melody from major and its relative minor is too big of a change for me. If possible, I'd like to preserve the relative pitch of the notes in the melody (but perhaps radically change other stuffs such as the harmony).

  • 76 Trombones from The Music Man does this. Also several of the middle variations from Händel's chaconne in G major (HWV435). Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 23:47
  • Whoever is still interest after all this time, watch Goldie Hawn singing the same words about plums in two different scenes in The Duchess and The Dirtwater Fox. Commented May 13, 2020 at 22:25

9 Answers 9


There are some very simple ways to transform the mood of a song by slight alterations in the melody, harmony or both.

A transposition of the melody to the relative minor (ex. from C major to A minor) or to the parallel minor (ex. from C major to C minor) are both very simple ways to retain the melodic material, while drastically changing the sound.

There is a fun piece by Mozart, 12 Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, maman" KV 265 that exemplifies this concept. The melody is "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." On the eighth variation he transposes to the parallel minor. If you listen through all of the extra embellishments Mozart adds, you find the simple theme.

When using the relative minor, one could simply change the harmony and leave the melody completely intact. Take Amazing Grace for example. If you were playing the song in G major, one would generally harmonize with I, IV, and V (G major, C major, and D major) Instead, use the i, iv, and v in the appropriate places from the relative minor (E minor, A minor and B minor.)

Creative and clever writing can go a long way with what you are talking about. In general, if you keep the rhythmic and intervallic identity of the original melody in tact, you will reap positive results.

  • 1
    Thank you for the Mozart example. It's nice to listen to all those variations. However, I would consider the melody in the 8th variation a different (but related) melody from the original. Or perhaps my understanding of "melody" is different from the correct one.
    – netvope
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 3:08
  • 1
    I definitely understand your consideration. If you follow the original melody it leaps from C up to G, up to A and then walks down stepwise back to C. the four note passage at the beginning of the eight variation begins on C and ends in G in the next measure. If you follow the half notes after that you see the melody walking down from A back to C, as in the Theme. This keeps the rhythmic and intervallic identity of the original melody, but transposed to the parallel minor. I hope that makes a little more sense : )
    – Stephen
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 3:20

It surely can be done and it's largely used in, for example, games to signal mood changes to the listener while still conveying the original "idea" of the song.

Take as an example the soundtrack to Final Fantasy VI (Final Fantasy III in the USA). The main theme for Terra - one of the protagonists - is a strong yet melancholic song with emphasis on the catchy melody line. This line is explored in various moments trough the game like in Metamorphosis where the mood is dark and menacing or in Awakening where it is peaceful and soothing.

The interpretation for the moods of songs is my own but I think we can mostly agree. Now what makes this songs so different?

  • Percussion and Rhythm: The rhythmic sections are vastly different for each tune. In the first one we have "marching" drums, in the second just a slow kind of rock beat and in the third we have no percussion at all, just a slow dragged rhythm implied by the instruments, especially the strings. In my opinion this aspect is one of the most defining ones in the mood of the song. A "fuller" and faster (not a faster tempo, just a rhythm with more notes. I don't know if there's a better word to denote this) section makes a song happier and energetic, while a slower and more restrictive ones convey darker or calmer feelings.

  • Accompaniment: These songs share the same theme, but have wildly different accompaniments. In the first it's mostly some chords "marching" together with the rhythm. The second one is very complex and abuses the chromatic scale to create some tension while the melody line doesn't arrive. Finally, the third one uses the strings and some arpeggios to leave things "calm" and give some room to the melody line. I don't believe there's a rule of thumb here, you'll have to listen to songs that convey the feelings you want and pay attention to their accompaniment.

  • Instruments: As you can see, each song uses a different set of instruments, in games this is very common. In this area things get very subjective and maybe cultural, but it's obvious that just changing the instruments can lead to different moods. Once again, I recommend experimentation and study of different pieces that convey the feelings you want.

  • Modes: I can't pinpoint this in these three specific songs because I have not transcribed nor looked at scores for them, but exploring modes of the scales you're using can also be used to express different moods. By simply shifting the melody to another part of the scale you'll be effectively giving the listener a feeling that something is different, even though they'll think the song is mostly the same. People tend to regard Aeolian as sad, Ionian as happy, Locrian as evil and so on... but the again, subjectiveness is the name of the game. You'll have to study the modes and songs employing their variations to find the feelings you want. A suggestion for study is these two Super Mario World songs: Overworld and Castle. The theme is shared, but the notes and moods are slightly different.

To wrap it all up. There isn't a single set of rules to make these kind of change in songs, you'll have to listen, emulate, understand and study various songs. Most importantly, follow your feeling as a composer and don't be afraid to innovate and break the "rules" to get the songs the way you want.

  • Yea... I understand that there isn't a single set of rules to make these kind of change, but I'm looking for some of the more common ones that I can use to make the change without spending too much time. Thank you for your great answer.
    – netvope
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 3:02
  • Both your Super Mario World links point to the same tune. Actual link for Overworld would be youtube.com/watch?v=hMd5T_RlE_o but I'm not editing that in myself as I have a hard time recognizing the same theme in both :)
    – J B
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 10:37
  • "Instrumentation" could be broadened to include sound-design. Modifying some synth/filter/FX parameters is an easy way to dramatically modify the mood of a melody.
    – naught101
    Commented Dec 27, 2019 at 2:45

You have a great number of options. Some of them:

  1. Change the tempo (duh)
  2. Change rhythmic figures, add pauses, change note duration.
  3. Change time signature; classic examples are bringing a 4/4 piece in 3/4 or even 5/4.
  4. Work on the harmony: change voicings, add or remove notes. A seventh where there wasn't one (or vice versa) makes a big difference, and gives you additional control over the mood. Or just slap a minor chord where a major chord was. Cheap, but works.
  5. Change instruments, band composition, etc. Weird Al teaches us that an accordion can make everything happier.

These options can (and probably should) be combined.

Some examples that come to mind:

  • Dave Brubeck Quartet's Blue Rondo a la Turk
  • Tori Amos' cover of Slayer's “Raining Blood”.
  • A Perfect Circle's cover of John “Lennon's Imagine”.
  • Joey Ramone singing What a Wonderful World
  • Scissor Sisters' version of Pink Floyd's “Confortably Numb”
  • Two entire CDs: Paul Anka's “Rock swings” and Pat Boone's “In a metal mood: no more mr. nice guy” (warning: seriously cringe-inducing)
  • All the discography of the aforementioned Weird Al, Richard Cheese, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes
  • ...and last but not least, anything ever sung by William Shatner. Instant (unintended) comedy.

There are other transformations besides the shift to relative minor, but it begins to depend on what kind of melody you're dealing with.

If the melody covers only a short range of the scale, you can alter any notes it doesn't touch. Like if the melody only ranges over 1-2-3-4-5 of the scale, you can shift it to 4-5-6-7-8 of the ascending melodic minor (essentially, flattening the 6 and 7 the melody wasn't using anyway).

You can change the chord progression to the relative minor while keeping the melody the same. Try playing Twinkle-Twinkle- in C, but with a thunderous A-minor beneath it; change to F when the melody hits the high A; then E-minor, D-minor, G-7, A-minor for the turnaround. None of the melody notes have been altered, but their function in the scale is changed. And you can do this with any mode.

Stravinsky's orchestration of The Star-Spangled Banner would be a good example of how far-out you can take this. At any given moment it sounds euphonious, but the cadences are all weird.

There are also rhymic alterations. If your melody is in 3/4, you can strech it out to 4/4 by inserting a quarter-rest or lengthening one of the melody notes.

An example is the theme from Mission:Impossible. Originally in 5/4, they stretched it to 8/4 for the disco version when the first movie came out. All they had to do was stretch the rest in the melody and double the 3/8 figures in the rhythm. Poof! disco!


This can be acheived by tempo and style moderations. In the animated movie "Pinchcliffe Grand Prix" (original norwegian title: "Flåklypa Grand Prix") has example of this. The Theodore theme is occuring two times in different styles with same melody, but with different feels to it. First occurence is when Theodore plays it in a very melancolic way:

At the end in the same movie, the same theme is played in a very cheerful and light mode. The tempo is about doubled, and the notes are more light and bouncy. I'm sorry to say I didn't find an online sound track for this to show you...


Such thematic variation happens in most movies produced in the past fifty years. Just choose one that you like, turn off the distracting video, and listen. Darth Vader's theme changes every time. (This trick comes from film theorist Michel Chion.)

Of course, the granddaddy is Richard Wagner's four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung: fourteen hours of music comprised of dozens of interwoven 'leitmotifs.' Study that and you will be rewarded.


A couple of examples ..

If you compare Marilyn Manson's verison of "Sweet Dreams" with the original Eurythmycs version, you get a quite different feel for the same melody.

In The Feeling's "Fill my little world" there's a bit just towards the end where the lead vocal sings "that I'm passing you by" in a completely different style to the rest of the song. Most of the song sounds almost begging for attention, but that line is assertive and impatient.

There are some tricks that spring to mind but I'd hesitate to use the word "rules" as music consistently breaks them (causing much smiling !). So .. without changing the melody or key etc :

  • Rhythm : You can half the beat of a song, keeping the tempo the same, so the melody and timing remain the same (could see it as just the drums playing half speed) which gives a tune a more ploddy feel, and can make it sound sad or serious in the context of a happy tune.

  • Type of instrument : If you switch from strummy acoustic guitar to heavy distorted guitar, it'll sound angry. If you change to violins, it can sound sad (or it can sound elated - depends on the tune and octavtes used)

  • Vocal style : I think this is very powerful in asserting a mood. Happy-boppy chirpy singing (little straining/ reaching for a note, very in-tune) vs. moody mumblings can completely change the character of a song when all else remains the same

  • Timing : Not so much the time signature but the length of the notes, and how "lazy" they sound - whether you let them blend into each other (lazy/angry/enegrgetic) or perhaps stop them just before the next note starts (generally a bouncy, poppy sound) or something in between. A damped chuggy riff (I'm thinking of guitar) can sound quite "up" and happy, but the same thing played without damping can sound angry or care-free, whereas single notes with vibrato can sound baleful and sad.

  • Volume: Quietening down a song, emptying it of fullness (ie reducing the number of instruments) and singing it more gently can make it sound intimate and sad. There's a great example of that towards the end of Dire Straits' 'Romeo and Juliet' - last couple of verses.

  • Effects: If you remove some of the traditional 'pop' effects like exciters, compression, chorus etc on a vocal track, it sounds relatively flat and 'down' (because all those effects are intended to brighten and enhance a voice). Additional reverb can also make a smaller voice sound lonely in an empty space, or a more powerful voice sound eormous and imposing.

There are probably loads of other tricks! I'm looking forward to seeing what others post :-)


It can happen and it does happen. I think the main rule is what type of song are you trying to do. When the feeling of a song changes, it's more common in songs like in movies, theatrical, videogames... The song changes to go with the scene or story line.

What you can do by keeping the same melody is, let me give you an example. Lets say you have a melody in major C scale to have a happy feel and to get a change to sad or bad feel is you go to a minor C scale and keep the same melody but substitute the major note from the minor note. I hope my example helps out


I wouldn't say it is a matter of feeling but the PURE ESSENCE of the melody.

I realized of the key role of harmony over the feel of the lead melodies because Julia's song vocal melody by Beatles starts with something like 20 "G" notes over the C-Am-Em progression. Try to sing it to somebody else without pronuncing the lyrics and without these leaning harmony to see whether he recognises it xD

Yet you'd never say you are singing a monotone. Because the sign of the song is the harmony behind those notes, and it is stucked in your head forever once you listened. If the background chords where different, you can appreciate in this song easily that it would be completly another new song.

It happens more than often. Perhaps modal songs are easy to be identifiable and less dependant of the harmony when sung alone, specially if they have minor harmonic or modal mixture, as they somewhat draw a bit the harmony vertically through the line (greensleeves for instance)

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