so I've been reading about film scoring and how the composers typically use non-diatonic chord progressions (M3, m3 and tritone), for example C major to E-major and C major to E-flat major; to evoke certain emotions pretty consistently.

I really want to know how/why this works, and more importantly, if there is some system or framework that tells me how to compose with this in the context of an entire song because the song may have a lot of diatonic parts too. Basically, how does it all interact and fit together as a whole?

I am betting there's some classic books on this subject. I haven't read Schoenberg yet because I think that goes to one end of the extreme and presents 12-tone system, which is not what I'm looking for (I think).

  • 1
    Not a book (which is why this is a comment), but various YouTube videos by a guy called Rick Beato might be of interest. Here's one about John Williams: youtube.com/watch?v=xZtvm3DEQzY.
    – endorph
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 0:58
  • I've already watched those. He doesn't explain the theory, he just identifies chords. And how does it affect adjacent diatonic chords etc. For example, I don't think randomly inserting a non-diatonic progression into an otherwise diatonic song (star wars throne room)would work unless you got lucky or knew exactly what you were doing. Thus I think there has to be some kind system out there known to music theorists Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 1:10
  • Cool, it was more a starting place than an actual answer. I'm sure someone will be able to point you in the right direction.
    – endorph
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 1:25
  • I found Neo-riemannian theory after some surfing around. It might be a lead, i'm not sure Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 2:02
  • This is a lot older than "film scoring." William Byrd was already doing this in the 1590s, not the 1990s. And Beethoven was rather fond of it as well. But neither of them wrote anything theoretical about it AFAIK.
    – user19146
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 10:48

1 Answer 1


All of the progression examples you gave in your questions are chromatic mediant relationships. The lord of the rings theme is chalked full of them. A minor third chain would give you i biii #iv vi. Seeing this it is apparent that a tritone progression with both chords in minor also maintains a chromatic mediant relation. More on this can be found in the last chapter before the introduction to post tonal theory in the latest edition of the text book - Tonal Harmony: with and introduction to post-tonal theory. It also explains the smoothest voice leading approaches and how to harmonize chromatic lines. You might really enjoy omnibus chromatic harmonization which can generate the above progression with smooth voice leading using only chromatic scale movement. That chapter helped Wagner make way more sense to me.

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