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.
►Songwriting & Producing PDF:
If you’re working along in your DAW, please note that the piano in this video is a quarter of a semitone detuned to match Thom’s piano. Also, if you’re in a hurry, you can jump straight to the lesson at 2:28, but then you’ll miss my funny Thom Yorke story haha!
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!
Hack Music Theory is the pioneering notation-free method for making great music. Taught by award-winning music lecturer Ray Harmony, and his protégé (and wife) Kate Harmony, from their studio in Vancouver BC, Canada. Ray is the author of critically-acclaimed book series “Hack Music Theory”, and has made music with Serj Tankian (System of a Down), Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree), Ihsahn (Emperor), Kool Keith (Ultramagnetic MCs), Madchild (Swollen Members), and many more. Kate has the highest grade distinction in Popular Music Theory from the London College of Music, and is the only person on the planet who’s been trained by Ray to teach his Hack Music Theory method! While these Hack Music Theory YouTube lessons teach music theory for producers and DAW users, they are designed to accommodate all music makers (songwriters, guitarists, etc.) and all genres, from Electronic Music to R&B, Pop to Hip-Hop, Reggae to Rock, EDM/Dance to Metal (and yes, we djefinitely Djent!).
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Photo of Thom Yorke by Raph_PH (RadioheadMontreal170718-18)
[CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons