Dreamlike Tunes

Most composers have gotten the hang of how to express sadness and happiness with chords and melodies. How do you create a dreamy feel?

Guest Post from Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt In Music & Lyrics

Dreamlike Tunes

What Do Dreams Have in Common?

Dreams have a great deal of uncertainty to them. Whether they are bad or nice, they’re always a bit confusing and surrealist. That’s their common denominator and the ingredient just will want to pour into your music for giving it a dreamlike quality. There are quite a few ways of creating dreaminess, uncertainty and ambivalence in music. Here are two:

Choice of Key

Keys are based on diatonic scales. These scales are comprised of seven scale degrees. The degrees all have their individual characters, and combined they give a songwriter a plattform for reaching a specific sphere of emotional expressions. A major key is an excellent choice for a happy tune, a minor key might be the choice if you’re writing a sad song.

The predictability and stability of a key is to some degree tied to the fourth and (in particular) the fifth degree. In major and minor keys these scale degrees form perfect interval in combination with the root note. If one of them is altered, like in the lydian scale, a bit of instability and dreaminess is introduced. The song Dreams by Stevie Nicks, is a nice example of a song in a lydian key. Try lydian yourself! The scale degree setting lydian keys apart from major keys is the fourth (raised) degree.

If you don’t mind skipping the use of regular chords, the tricky locrian scale will become an option. With it’s lowered fifth scale degree it certainly qualifies as unstable and dreamlike. Try it! You’ll be doing what is called modal music now – modal music with a tinge of bad dreams.

Nature of Chord Progression

Using diatonic chords is the most common approach when putting together chord sequences. They fit nicely together and it’s easy to establish a sense of what chord is the tonal centre (the tonic) which in turn decide the character of the key. Using diatonic chords you can produce chord progressions with a sense of logic and predictability. This is not how you make dreamy music.

If you want to introduce moonlight and the feeling of being asleep with your eyes wide open, you should try the use of chords that do not create a sense of having a key. The song will perceived as unstable and without a harmonic point of reference. The listener will have nothing steady to hold on to – just like in a dream.

A common scheme is to use what is called chromatic mediants. Mediant chords (whether diatonic or chromatic) are placed a minor or a major third apart. Diatonic mediants share two notes and fit smoothly together, chromatic mediant however, share only one note, or no note at all. The verses in Kate Bush’s song Wuthering Heights is good example. In addition, chromatic mediants create a feeling of dissonance. The first chord lingers a while in your memory and the second chord brings in a note that rubs against one of the notes in the previous chord. Dissonance – where else can it be found? In your dreams!

Learn more

Read more about writing songs with diatonic chords, mediant chords and less common scales in the book Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt In Music & Lyrics.


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