MUSIC: Let’s move on to the mystical!

I have talked with you about joy and depression the last two weeks. Today I want to point out the last mood for now: Mystical. This one is nice and easy.  Harmonic minor is the western scale we associate with mysticism.  Why? It’s entirely because of the seventh.  You have a half step from the fifth to the sixth, then a minor third, then a half step from the seventh to the root.  Basically, half steps with minor thirds will always create a mystical sound.

To experiment, if you’re a guitar player, try this: Pick a fret, any fret.  For this example, let’s say the 5th fret.  On the lowest string, play the 5th and 6th fret, then on the next string, 4th and 5th, next string, play 3rd and 4th.  Play them in order, then play them in strange ways. You’ll get what I mean.  It sounds mystical because it is not a standard part of the western 12-tone system, even  though it is a part of it…. To get REALLY mystical, experiment with quarter tones.

Anyways, Jeff Loomis’ Cashmere Shiv does this kind of thing throughout.  The opening lick of Dream Theater’s Home also experiments with this.  A couple of other scales you can use are Hirajoshi and its modes.  There are a TON of others but, this is plenty for you to chew on.

Technique-wise, I wish I could say it’s as complicated as the prior two moods.  The truth is that most mystical-sounding music to the western ear is actually just traditional music in the Middle and Far East.  So, what do these instruments do?  Well, they slide and bend a lot.  You can give Nightwish’s Arabesque a listen if you’d like to hear some foreign instruments doing this, and also, the western instruments using the scalar technique I mentioned to support it.  If you’re a string musician, this is easy. If you’re a wind player, however, it involves lip and jaw manipulation.

For keyboardists who are on an instrument that doesn’t modulate, a similar effect could be achieved by gliding across the keys or playing the note your going from and the note you’re going to with some force and the notes in between kind of gingerly.  Beyond this, in the west we mostly accomplish the mystical by adding too much phaser, wah, chorus, and delay.  I’m hesitant to say this but, it’s sort of fair to say that the more overwhelming the tone and simple the melody, the more mystical the sound.

Now, here is something where it’s different from the other moods mentioned.  In the previous two moods, I didn’t address percussion because all of the things I mentioned were applicable to all instruments, and should, in fact, be applied to the percussion.  However, to get a mystical sound, the melodic instrument really needs to be at the forefront.  So, to accomplish this, the percussion needs to back off volume-wise when the melody comes in. More importantly, this is the most extreme case in percussion of simple is better.  Percussion in rock and metal generally drones with some fills every so often.  To really get a mystic sounding tune, you want to be willing to keep the same rhythm through verse, chorus, and bridge if necessary.  You only need to change your beat if the melody changes to imply a change of mood.

For example, playing a basic jungle beat under a melody reminiscent of tribal war is fine.  In the verse, and the chorus, and the bridge, potentially 3-4 minutes (or more), the implication of the melody is that we are going to war. So, the drums don’t necessarily need to change.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t but, I am saying you don’t need to, and you can often hesitate to change.  However, in the last verse, last chorus, or the outro, whenever the focus changes, it’s time to change.

In “Arabesque,” the percussion beat doesn’t change until about halfway through the piece, when the mood shifts dramatically from build-up to climax.  And even then, the change is small, simply shifting the second accent back a beat and moving from an African tribal beat to a more Arabic tribal rhythm.  In this song, you can really get a grasp for how percussion should follow melody.

So there you have it!  To recap: The main things that affect the mood of a piece are scale and progression, melodic movement, and stylizing techniques.  Good luck and happy playing! And if you want to know about any other mood, or playing techniques, don’t hesitate to send me a message via the contact form of via Facebook!