Nostalgic music is one of the most popular genres for young composers today. Between Vapor Wave, Lo-fi, and Anime OSTs, many young composers are finding inspiration in their favorite nostalgic albums and soundtracks.
If you want your music to sound nostalgic, you’ll need to focus on at least two main strategies. The first is to use emotionally ambiguous chords like the 7th and 9th chords. The second is to limit the amount of energy in your music by using a moderate tempo and relatively slower note values.
These strategies work because they help send conflicting signals on whether your music should sound happy or sad. This ambiguous mix of emotions is what helps create that nostalgic sound that is so popular in film music, lo-fi beats, anime, etc.
(if you'd like to watch a YouTube Tutorial version of this blog I've posted one here)
How to Write Nostalgic Chord Progressions
The type of harmony you use while writing music is one of the most powerful and easily understood tools that you have for manipulating emotion in your music. Chords can have a powerful impact on something called valence, or the degree to which an emotion feels positive/negative.
Simple chords like triads have very powerful and reliable associations with them. Major triads are bright and happy. Minor triads are dark and moody.
These associations are deeply ingrained in Western culture and are used extensively in nearly every piece of happy or sad music ever written. In fact, these associations are so powerful, that breaking away from them can be difficult and tedious (have you ever tried writing a happy/exciting theme using mostly minor chords? Not an easy task!)
7th chords and 9th chords work really well for nostalgic-sounding music because they take advantage of these time-tested associations and use them to send conflicting information to your listeners.
You can think of most 7th chords as a combination of major and minor triads. For example, if look a little closer at a Cmaj7 chord, we notice that it technically contains all the notes for both a C major triad and an E minor triad.
This combination of traditionally bright and dark sounds merges to create a much more ambiguous and nostalgic sound. The same thing happens with minor 7th chords!
If we look at A-7 we’ll notice that it contains all of the notes for both an A minor triad and a C major triad, once again combining a traditionally bright sound with a traditionally dark sound.
These conflicting messages are at the core of most nostalgic-sounding music. If we revisit the same chord progressions from earlier but change each of the triads into 7th chords, you’ll notice an immediate change in their overall mood.
9th chords take this concept and push it even further. For example, a Cmaj7(9) chord contains all of the notes needed for a C major triad, an E minor Triad, and a G major triad!
Since there are so many different notes in this chord it helps obfuscate the tonal center of the chord, which results in an even more ambiguous sound.
As a word of caution, not every chord in a major or minor key should have a 9th added to it. So when in doubt, stick to mostly 7th chords if you’re trying to write nostalgic music. However, this is a helpful video if you’re interested in learning more about extended chords and how to use them.
So to summarize this section, one of the best strategies you can use to immediately make your own music sound more nostalgic is to focus on using major7 and minor7 chords in your chord progressions! When possible, you can also sprinkle in a few 9th chords as well. It doesn’t matter if you’re working with a major or minor key, but personally, I like the sound of a minor key better for these types of pieces. (Many Studio Ghibli pieces are written in the key of C minor)
How to Control the Energy in Your Music
Once you’ve gotten the hang of using 7th and 9th chords in your music, the next thing we need to address is the amount of energy you’re writing into your music.
7th and 9th chords are immensely powerful strategies for creating ambiguous and nostalgic music, but they’re also highly associated with jazz, and if your music contains too much energy then you’ll end up accidentally bypassing the nostalgic window for your music and overshooting into a much jazzier feel. Fortunately avoiding this issue is relatively simple and straightforward
There are many things that can impact the energy of your music, but the two that we’ll focus on for now are tempo and note lengths.
If you want your music to feel nostalgic or ambiguous, you’ll want to focus on a slow to moderate tempo. Usually staying around 70-100 bpm will do the trick. You can go slower, but any faster and you’ll start to hurt the mood of your music.
You’ll also want to focus on using slower note lengths whenever possible. Nostalgia isn’t exactly a high-energy or intense emotion, so you’ll want to avoid using excessive amounts of 16th notes. Instead your melody and accompanimental material should focus on mostly quarter notes or longer. You’re welcome to use 8th notes as well, but try not to overdo it (the 8th note should never be the most common note in your music if you’re trying to create a nostalgic vibe).
As I said, these strategies are simple and straightforward, but that just makes them all the more powerful. As long as you keep them in mind while writing your music, they help create the type of vibe you’re looking for.
How to Write Nostalgic Sounding Melodies
The last thing we need to do is simply finish the melody. For this, I’ll need to write a strong motif for my first two measures. Once again, I already have both a blog post and a video that go in-depth on this topic, so for now let’s suffice to say that after a little bit of time, I came up with this idea for my motif!
Now that I have the motif figured out, it’s a simple matter of using a reliable musical structure to build my motif into a melody, for example, period structure.
Period structure is a simple and straightforward pattern that you can find in nearly half of all pieces of music written for the past 300 years, the other half is mostly written with something called sentence structure. Structures like these are simply what make some ideas sound “musical” to an audience. You can almost think of them as being musical grammar. Is it always necessary? No, but it sure helps your audience make sense of what they’re listening to.
For period structure I start with my original motif, then I write a second, new motif for the next two bars then I can repeat my original motif, this time with a little bit of variation (if needed to fit over new chords), before ending the entire thing with a simple cadence. (The cadence doesn’t need to be fancy or overly interesting, it just needs to be a simple way of ending the phrase.)
Writing nostalgic-sounding music doesn’t need to be difficult. It really just comes down to a few simple strategies:
Tempo & Rhythm:
Use a slower tempo (no faster than 70-100 bpm)
Focus on mostly longer note values (avoid too many 16th notes or shorter ones)
Use a minor key
Focus on 7th chords and the occasional 9th
Start with a strong motif
Use a reliable structure like period structure to flesh out your motif into a melody.