At some point in their journey, nearly every single composer is possessed by the idea of I need to write a requiem, and it’s not hard to see why. I’ve personally never come across a requiem that I didn’t like. This genre is practically film music royalty when it comes to evoking goosebumps and existential thoughts.
The term “Requiem” technically refers to a specific setting and structure for music, but we won’t worry about that for now. Instead, this article is going to focus on teaching you how to compose dark, dramatic, and somber choral music (in the style of a requiem) for your next film project.
The secret to composing a requiem-style theme is to make sure your music contains four specific attributes:
It should be written in a minor key
It should use a few well-placed sus chords
It should have a slow-moving melody
It should use either counterpoint or part-writing to create the accompaniment.
Understanding how to implement these four elements, will help you compose music that is filled with the characteristic drama, despair, and existentialism that has long been associated with Requiems.
(Click here for a YouTube tutorial version of this article)
What Chord Progressions are Used for Writing a Requiem?
The first step to composing a requiem is to work with minor-key harmony and sus chords. I’ve already written a blog post on writing minor key chord progressions (which you can find here) so for now let’s focus on learning how to use sus Chords.
A sus chord is simply any chord, where you replace the third scale degree with either the 2nd or 4th. For example, an A minor triad consists of an A, C, and E. If we replace the ♮C in an A minor triad with a ♮D we get an Asus4 chord.
If we take the same A minor triad, but replace the ♮C with a ♮B we get an Asus2
These chords contain a tremendous amount of dissonance that feels right at home in a requiem. As you write your own music, you’re free to add a sus2 or sus4 anywhere you’d like. However, if you’re looking for some more specific instruction, you can use sus chords to help bridge the gap between chords that have no common tones. For example, let’s say I’m working with the following chord progression:
First things first, it’s important to understand that every single diatonic chord (chords taken from the same key) shares at least one note in common with every single other chord from the same key EXCEPT for the chords directly next to it (chords with roots a major/minor 2nd apart are considered ‘neighbors’)
For example, here’s a chart with every triad found in the A -natural minor scale, along with each of the notes they contain.
Notice how you can pick any two chords, and they’ll have at least one note in common UNLESS they happen to be neighbors. For example, C major has at least one note in common with every single chord, except that D minor and B diminished.
Any time you find two neighboring chords like this in a chord progression, you’ll have a prime opportunity for using sus chords! In these situations, a sus chord can be used to smooth out the chord progression by inserting a common tone between your two neighboring chords. This forced seamlessness tends to sound perfectly at home for writing requiems!
For example, in measures 1 and 2, we have an A-minor and G-major. Neither of these chords has any notes in common.
However, if I just shorten the G-major chord a little bit and insert a Gsus4, we now have a smooth connection where all neighboring chords have at least one note in common.
A-minor and Gsus4 both have a ♮C in common and Gsus4 and G-major both have G and D in common.
The same could be done between measures 6 & 7 as well as measures 7 & 8. As you compose your own requiem, you can try experimenting with different options to figure out where you’d like to use sus chords in your chord progression to create the kind of sound you’re looking for!
How Do You Write a Requiem Melody?
Once you have your chord progression figured out, the next step is to write a simple and slow-moving melody on top. This means you’ll want to make sure to use plenty of longer note values. You’ll also want to make sure there are a few spots where the melody holds long notes or even rests for a few beats, to allow some room for the other voices in your accompaniment to move around a bit (more on this soon!)
For this melody, I used something called period structure which is a super common and useful structure frequently found across most genres of music.
Period structure is a way of organizing motivic ideas to compose a melody that feels intrinsic and lyrical. The pattern is quite simple. Start with a single motivic idea, then introduce a completely new one, before restating the original motif, and finally end the whole thing with a simple cadence meant to help wrap the whole thing up.
As you write your melody, make sure to use plenty of longer note values. You want to make sure there are a few spots where the melody holds a long note or even rests for a few beats, to allow some room for the other voices to move underneath.
For this piece, once I finished writing my primary melody, I repeated the previous steps to compose a secondary melody. Then I copied and pasted the original melody so I could work with an A B A structure.
How Do You Write Accompaniment for a Requiem?
With our melodies all sketched out the next step is to arrange each section of your music so that we have a more interesting texture. In music, the word “texture” refers to the number and types of different layers in your music. One of the calling cards to a requiem is the use of complex and layered textures. Instead of working with a typical melody + chord progression, you’ll want to work with something much more like a series of different melodies layered on top of each other.
There are a few different ways we can do this, but the two most useful strategies are Part writing and Counterpoint. I’ve already written a separate blog post on counterpoint that you can check out here, so in this article, we’ll focus mostly on part writing!
Part writing is fairly simple. We’ll start with our melody, and then two or three chord tones underneath, like this: (chord tones = notes that appear in the chord beneath your melody)
Then we can look for opportunities to add embellishments to our chordal tones to make them sound more like miniature melodies. Two of the simplest and easiest strategies are to help bridge the gap between larger leaps by using something called a passing tone. Or to add a little neighbor tone embellishment when holding a longer note. The trick here is to try and avoid using more than one embellishment at a time to keep things simple.
For example, here I’ve used a passing tone (G) to bridge the gap between the F and A in the final two measures. I’ve also used a neighbor tone (D) to add a little flourish to the final measure by moving up and down by step from my C natural.
Part writing is the simplest strategy you’ll have available to you. However, if you’ve got the time counterpoint will be a much more powerful tool that can help take your music to the next level, so make sure you check it out. (Use this link to watch a YouTube tutorial on Part Writing)
For now, once you’ve finished sketching out the three sections using a combination of counterpoint and part writing, You’re ready for the final step, which is to orchestrate the whole thing.
How to Orchestrate a Requiem
The final step is to orchestrate your sketch. For a requiem, you’re free to use any instrumentation you’d like, but you’ll almost always want to include at least some form of choir.
When you’re writing for choir there are a ton of different things you need to keep in mind, but if you’re working with sound libraries like me, then the chief amongst these rules is to treat your choir like an orchestra!
You do not need to use every single voice constantly, just like you don’t need to use every instrument in the orchestra constantly. You can also move the melody around to different voices in the choir throughout your piece. Just because the sopranos tend to work with the melody most often, doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who can.
If you keep these two ideas in mind, then writing your arrangement should be relatively simple. Below you’ll find a link to the requiem I wrote for this post along with a few time stamps describing what each of my four choir voices is doing.
Section A | 0:00
Sopranos enter first with the melody
Altos join with some chordal tones and then move into a counterpoint line
The tenors enter next, with counterpoint
Finally the Basses join in with a simple bassline.
Section B | 0:31
Sopranos swap to a part-writing accompaniment, before returning to the melody a few measures later.
Altos switch from counterpoint to part writing.
The tenors introduce the new melody, before swapping to a part-writing accompaniment.
The basses drop out until the tenors return to an accompaniment role. This helped give the tenors a bit more focus since they were the lowest voices when singing the melody.
Section A’ | 1:04
Sopranos are performing the original melody again.
Altos and Tenors are both performing counterpoint.
Basses are on the bassline.
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Until next time, keep studying, keep working hard, and keep writing new music!