How SebastiAn Writes Dark Melodies
SebastiAn – once referred to as the “dark prince of Ed Banger Records” - seems to have fathered the label's mid-noughties sound. While some of his friends and followers have embraced and incorporated aspects of his style into their own music, none have quite matched the extent of his sinister aura.
When asked in an interview about the color of music, SebastiAn responds with a not-so-contemplative “black". What exactly leads to this "blackness" that characterizes SebastiAn's style? What gives it more edge than most other dance music? That's exactly what this article sets out to uncover.
We will first need to establish three key musical concepts to understand the underlying character of SebastiAn's sound: the tonic, scale degrees, and scales. These concepts will reveal all of the possible colors available in our sound palette, from which we can choose the darker ones.
First is the idea of tonic. In the music that we listen to, there are twelve individual notes:
However, in our system of music, not all of these notes are equal. There exists a hierarchy of stability that they all belong to. The note at the top of this hierarchy is the tonic: our note of most resolution.
Listen to this example and ask yourself: does it sound complete?
No? Okay, what about this?
Yes, there is a sense of finality now. What's happening here?
In the first example we heard the melody end on a note other than the tonic, leading to a sense of incompleteness. The second example, however, did end on the tonic. This is why we can breathe a sigh of relief once the second example plays its last note: the tonic is our note of most resolution.
Any of the twelve notes can serve as the tonic, although only one can at a single time. It’s not exactly important which specific note serves as the tonic; what’s important is that you simply have a tonic.
Most crucial to the topic at hand, the tonic also serves as our note of reference: the eleven other notes are defined by and get their sound due to their relationship to the tonic. With the tonic as our 1, we can derive the names of the remaining notes:
When notes are thought of in this way, relative to the tonic, we can refer to them as scale degrees. Each scale degree, being its own entity, has its own unique sound.
Now that we have all of our possible sounds laid out, it’s time to pick and choose from them. Think of it like a painter's palette: while he could have all of the colors of the rainbow available to him, perhaps the painting he's working on only calls for a specific selection. A painting of a forest during a dormant, snowy winter will use a much different and limited choice of colors than a forest in autumn whose leaves have begun to change.
The musical result is known as a scale: the collection of notes, out of the eleven others available, that we utilize in our musical palette. The tonic serves as the frame of our scale while the other notes that we choose fill it in.
The two most common scales are the major and minor scales.
The major scale is characteristically brighter while the minor scale is characteristically darker. Why is this? Let’s compare their scale degrees. While they share four scale degrees, they differ in three:
3 vs b3
6 vs b6
7 vs b7
Notice that these three all share the same base numeral relative to their respective note in the other scale. Scale degrees that share the same base numeral play similar roles to one another in a scale, and can generally be substituted for each other as a result.
However, each scale degree has its own unique sound, as we’ve heard. A scale degree that is ‘higher’ than another of the same numeral (like 6 compared to b6) is brighter, whereas a scale degree that is ‘lower’ than another of the same numeral (like b3 compared to 3) is darker. Basing a song in minor is a good step toward writing a darker melody. Consequently, the majority of SebastiAn’s oeuvre has its foundation in minor.
The minor scale is the darkest your standard songwriter will typically go, but it's not the darkest possible. There are two additional scale degrees that can be lowered: 2 and 5. Their lowered variants are the colors that SebastiAn taps into in order to create his characteristic sound.
The opening of Walkman is the perfect illustration of this.
Let's listen to a brighter version to hear how it would sound with our natural 2 and 5:
Now let's listen to how it appears in the actual song, with their lowered variants:
Later on, in the re-edited version of Walkman, we get a synth melody at 2:25 that also uses our two most recently lowered scale degrees.
Let's take a look at it in major, minor, and then finally as it appears in the actual track to hear how the progressively darker scale degrees affect the sound:
Walkman (Re-Edit) in major:
Walkman (Re-Edit) in minor:
The examples really speak for themselves. So much of the line's character that we know and love comes from its note palette.
Looking at more of his material on a larger scale, SebastiAn has a musical figure that he seems fond of that's used in a good amount of his material: 1 - b2 - 1.
More than half of the tracks off of his record A Fine Selection of Remixes incorporate it in some way, often appearing in the bassline. Here's some examples off of the album's first three songs:
SebastiAn - Intro
Revl9n - Walking Machine (SebastiAn Remix)
Daft Punk - Human After All (SebastiAn Remix)
SebastiAn is able to inject new life into the idea each time by changing up various aspects of the line such as its rhythm, timbre, length, and overall character.
Lastly, let's look at how SebastiAn re-imagines his beloved Embody to fit the tone of his gritty live show: the Primary Tour. The live rendition doesn't share much in common with the original version apart from using a segment of the vocal; SebastiAn takes a lot of liberty with the accompanying material to the point that he's created an entirely new instrumental, one with a much more perverse character.
SebastiAn gets right to work: 1 plays at the start to establish the tonic, and then he immediately leaps to the b5 for the next note. The remaining portion of the melody, b7 - 7, serves as a smooth maneuver back to the 1 that begins the line. This starts the pattern over again, letting SebastiAn repeat the melody indefinitely.
There's something worth noting about the use of 7 here: it instills more drama than it does brightness. 7's inclusion in an otherwise dark palette will do less to brighten it up than it will to add tension. This is due to its unwavering resolve to reach 1, as we heard at the beginning of the article.
That brings everything to a close. As a review, we learned:
1) how the tonic serves as our note of reference
2) how the tonic colors the eleven other notes of the scale to give us our sound palette
3) how SebastiAn uses the darker shades to create some of his characteristic melodies
As always, the best way to truly grasp these concepts is to play with them yourself. Here's a few exercises to aid understanding:
1) Keep your ear out for these dark scale degrees when listening to music. Make note of them as much as you can.
2) Take your favorite tunes and make them brighter or darker by changing the appropriate scale degrees. Listen to the result.
3) Write a little song intentionally incorporating these scale degrees.
Send me what you find/create on Twitter or via e-mail, I'd love to hear it!
I hope that our exploration together has shed a light on one of the many dimensions of SebastiAn's sound, and gives you a new perspective to appreciate his music from.
I'll be Tweeting additional content related to this article for the next few weeks as I work on the next segment in the series. You can find my Twitter here. Make sure to subscribe to the e-mail listing near the bottom of the site to get updates on when I make a new posting as well!
See you next time,