Forgive the wordplay, I’m an English nerd at heart.

Welcome back to the series! Last week we talked about stepping out of your comfort zone and taking a look at the context of what else is going on in the pieces we write. It requires some mental arithmetic for sure, but it can help us grasp what’s really happening. Now, before I start this one, I want you to imagine something for me:

A light marching snare roll. Violins quietly trilling along with the march, as if they were whispering a warning. Cymbal crashes at the end of each bar, almost like it’s announcing someone’s arrival. There’s an ominous yet regal feeling throughout, then…


That’s right, we’re talking about sheep this time around!

Shepherding Your Listeners

We aren’t actually talking about sheep, but, y’know, in the interest of going with the “theme” of that… well, you get the idea. Theme is the focus this week, and theme should almost always be a big focus for you when writing your music as well. I preface that with almost because not everything necessarily needs a theme, which we’ll discuss at the end here.

I put Vader’s theme up there and used it as an example because it is one of the most instantly recognizable pieces in the history of cinematic music. When John Williams wrote this song back in the late 1970’s, it would serve as part of the identity of one of the most iconic movie villains of all time. It also reminds listeners of perhaps the most well-loved science fiction movie in the history of cinema as an art form.

The theme also adds to the depth of Darth Vader as a character in addition to the atmosphere of the movie as a whole whenever Vader appears on screen. Yet… the piece is anything but overly complicated.

The Rise of the Worms

… Earworms, guys. Not earthworms.

You want your pieces to be catchy! As a proof of concept, follow me here for a second. I’m willing to bet that most of you have a television somewhere where you live. And, if you don’t, I’m willing to bet that you interact with a television at some point during your day almost every day. Unless you’re on some kind of archaeological dig, you probably have. So: what comes on TV that will almost always have a theme?


Jingles work because they are themes at their purest form, and I kind of hate them for that reason. I never thought I would have something that would only charitably be called a “song” stuck in my head… when it was a phone number. Or a jingle about a carpeting company. But I begrudgingly – and uncontrollably – will sing along whenever I hear that damn “800-588-2300, Empiiiiiire! Today.”

And of course, sitcoms and drama shows are another good example of TV programming with memorable music, but commercial jingles just work so well that, frankly, it borders on being offensive at times.

And that’s what we want. We want to be memorable. We want our songs to be earworms. We want to be offensively good at creating memorable music. If you can get someone to wake up a day later and have your song just stuck in their heads, then you’ve accomplished your goal.

Sell It

I know, we don’t write commercial jingles. We write songs. And there is a massive difference, of course, but the principles are the same: you want to really sell your songs. Furthermore… to sell something, you’ve gotta be able to understand it and digest it.

Keep things simple, in other words.

Themes can’t be overly complicated or self-indulgent. For a modern example of an artist that really nails themes, take a look at Plini. I was at a show in New York where he played with some incredible artists, and in addition to being one of the most relaxed players I’ve ever seen, he held it all down by producing some of the most incredibly memorable melodies that stuck in my head even after his set ended.

I’ll be doing a full-on case study of one of his songs in a later article, but take a listen to “Away” here. The riff that the bass plays appears throughout the song, and it establishes the overall mood. It’s funky, yet relaxing. It’s one of those wonderful songs where you can play it and really just chill.

It’s still doing a lot of legwork though.

Everything builds based off of that riff: the drums mirror it, and the guitar adds texture. This speaks back to the last article as well, (What? Continuity? What’s that?) because everyone takes a step back and focuses not on themselves but on the bass, and on working to complement the bass, which is the main force that drives the theme.

More importantly, though, if anyone asks you how the song goes, you’d start singing that bass line… you’d start singing the theme. That’s the genius of “Away,” they sell it so well and right at the beginning.

… It’s not Required, Though

Just as previously mentioned, sometimes it’s okay to not have a theme in your music. It’s not a huge drawback to write music that doesn’t have a distinct melody for listeners to follow: it’s a positive thing to have one, but you don’t need one.

It’s just as important to mention non-examples.

Keeping your music memorable is what you want, and you can have things be catchy without having a theme. In the interest of removing ourselves entirely from the context of melody and harmony, rhythm can play a role here! The most sampled drum beat in the world is the Amen Break, for example. It’s immediately recognizable and it’s appeared in… probably every genre of music out there, but it isn’t a theme. It’s just a fun beat.

Similarly, taking another look back at Meshuggah, their song “Bleed is memorable not through any kind of lyrical melody. Instead, it’s memorable because it has that wonderful “HOLY HELL HOW DO NONE OF THESE PEOPLE HAVE CARPAL TUNNEL I DIDN’T REALIZE PEOPLE COULD DO THIS KIND OF STUFF” kind of quality.

Identity in the Song

Simply put, themes can be the song’s signature. They can be the moments where you establish the identity of the piece and tell your listener “This is what I’m about.” Not every song needs a theme, but including them in your music is both fun and helpful, because it can really make your works all the more memorable.


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This article written by  Nico Madden.

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