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How do you make a theme villainous?

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I was curious how one can take a melody/theme villainous/darker/evil sounding. I love the idea of dark reprises and was curious how to go about this. I write electronic music and remix in a similar style (i'm quite eccentric). I have a few themes I want to do this with and would like pointers. 
I know things like occasional  tritones, minor keys, diminished chords, and accidentals are important but what else>?
One of the pieces I want to do a villainous remix of (not having much luck due to the upbeat and repetitive nature of the piece).


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Modes like the phrygian work well.

But one thing that will help you is chromatics and mode mixture. Specifically, chromatic mediant chord relationships.

What this means is the progression consists of two chords that are related by a third, and are of the same tonality. So like, A minor to F# minor. Or A minor to C minor. Gmaj to Eb Major (very common one in "space" themes).

This kinda thing is everywhere in film and game music. Observe, chords separated by a distance of a minor third/major sixth.

As for uses of a specific mode, here's the phrygian (3rd mode of the major scale) in action.

It's also the go to for heavy metal rhythms.

Combine the two methods and you'll get an extra evil result.

You're in luck because this Mario tune's intervals are already phrygian, but the backing harmony is not. So change it from major to minor, add some chromatics and go from there. For example, after the first few notes, when it jumps up to the root at the octave, play the next note a half step lower instead of jumping farther back down like it normally does, and I think you'll start to see the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

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10 hours ago, Ronald Poe said:

Thanks for the tips. I'm still curious about how to apply this to a piece but I guess I'll experiment. More tips would be appreciated.

There are a couple easy ways you can practice putting the mode into use with just the white keys on a piano.

I assume you play or can at least use a piano roll?

In the bass, use a synth pad to hold out a drone of a low E note. Then, over top, start noodling around to create a melody, but also start from an E note. Emphasize E, F, and D when you play. That'll give you the sound of the phrygian.

For the chromatic mediants, play an A minor chord with you left hand for one bar, then follow it with a C minor chord for 1 bar.

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So generally, there are two ways that I think of to make things villainous:

1. Slow harmonic rhythm (chords don't change rapidly), and a lot of tonally ambiguous melodies. Usually, this will involve a chord that drones on say F minor, then having the melody focus on D natural, E natural, G natural, and B natural. Essentially, the melody is in G major-ish, and the harmony is in F minor. But the starts and ends of phrases will be in F minor. A melody I would write would be...F-D-E-G-B-C-Ab-G. Something like that.

2. Building on the chromatic mediant idea, going from a minor chord to a 7th chord adds a sour, villain flavor. Example - C minor (C, Eb, G) moving to Ab7 (Ab, C, Eb, Gb) has a sour feel to it.

3. I lied. There are more than 2. Chromatic movement is beautiful for this. Start with a minor chord, then move parallel chromatically, such as C minor, B minor, Bb minor. OR C minor, B major, Bb major, A major.

The overarching idea I have when writing these things is to start with a very usual, tonal idea, then go against the tonal expectations in a deliberate and consistent way.

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  • 9 months later...

I apologize for the necrobump, but I've noticed there are a couple useful tips which hasn't been mentioned, yet. I'm gonna give my two cents, from the sound design department, but oriented to conventional music writing, both as to make available these tips for a broader public and as to not skew the thread off (plus I could be talking about dark ambient for hours :-P).

First, it is imperative to know which kind of evil you want to portray. What makes whoever (or whatever) you wanna portray evil in the first place? It's their nature? It's their intentions? It's clear and outright malicious? Or it's perhaps mysterious and machiavellian? What methods does them employ for their schemes? I know, all this sounds a little far-fetched. But the better you define your ideas, the better you can exploit them and craft them accordingly.

For mysterious characters, a primal and useful resource to accompany your preferred mode and/or chords is Vibrato. Examples in videogames are plenty, a pair of them are Scrap Brain Zone from the original Sonic, Inside the Caverns from Tiny Toon's adventures. Outside videogames, John Carpenter's music features vibrato in a way or another for many of his villains and/or "evil" situations.

If you want to incite anxiety, you could try using a fast paced stutter (or beats, if production is not your thing). It's good to mix it with contrasted slow paced chords or deep ambience. I don't remember good examples in videogame's soundtrack right now, but this piece should describe exactly what I mean (it starts at 0:15). It's not that broadly used for these purposes, but it's still effective. Perhaps Gill's theme from SFIII could be a good demonstration for the effect of a fast-paced instrument on top of a careful use of chords.

Silence is always a good resource to induce discomfort. Hellnight soundtrack relies heavily on silence between short patterns of music for their ambience (see this and this).


I know those are too basic and minor tips, but I believe sometimes that small info can make a difference - specially in a beginner.

Edited by Eidenlux
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