How to Write a Modulating Melody • Music Theory from John Carpenter "Halloween Theme"


How to Write a Modulating Melody
using a series of direct key changes



John Carpenter’s “Halloween Theme” is one of the most recognizable pieces of music in the horror film genre. And that’s not just because the movie is so famous, it’s because the music is massively attention-grabbing due to all its original ideas.


One of the many creative techniques he uses is modulating (i.e. changing key) in the middle of his melody. That’s completely crazy! To put it in context. Most music nowadays doesn’t even modulate at all. In other words, the whole song (verse, chorus, and everything else) is all in the same key. How mind-numbingly boring!


So, when Mr Carpenter changes key halfway through his “Halloween” melody, it grabs your full, undivided attention, as it’s unlike anything you’ve heard before. It goes without saying that this technique can be used in any genre, and wherever you use it, heads are gonna turn, because nothing grabs attention like a mid-melody modulation. And that’s not even the only modulation he does, there’s a lot more!


Without further ado. Inspired by the “Halloween Theme”, here’s our 7-step method for writing modulating melodies like John Carpenter. But first… Tea!



Step 1. Repetition


In our research for this tutorial, we found a video of John Carpenter talking about his “Halloween Theme” being in 5|4. However, because of the way he groups his piano part, the time signature is actually 10|8. And yes, they’re obviously the exact same length: five 1/4 notes = ten 1/8 notes. But, when you listen to the original you can clearly hear the 10|8 grouping: two groups of three 1/8 notes, followed by two groups of two 1/8 notes.


MIDI for John Carpenter’s “Halloween Theme” piano part (right-hand):

First group of three 1/8 notes highlighted (beats 1, 2, 3)



Second group of three 1/8 notes highlighted (beats 4, 5, 6)



First group of two 1/8 notes highlighted (beats 7, 8)



Second group of two 1/8 notes highlighted (beats 9, 10)



If the piano part was in 5|4, there would be five groups of two 1/8 notes, like this:

Example of what piano part would look like if time signature was 5|4 and not 10|8

(first note of each group of two 1/8 notes highlighted)



To complicate things, though, the drums play a four-on-the-floor style pattern, except it’s actually five-on-the-floor due to the length of each bar:

“Halloween Theme” drum beat plays a kick (highlighted) on each 1/4 note beat



With the drums accenting every 1/4 note beat, it’s clear that they’re in 5|4. So, when we take the drums into account, we realise there’s actually a polymeter here (i.e. two time signature playing simultaneously): the drums are playing in 5|4 while the piano is playing in 10|8. Very cool! But seeing as Mr Carpenter considers the whole thing to be in 5|4, we’ll go with that too, just to keep it nice and simple.


So, load up a piano track, then create a four-bar loop in 5|4, with your grid on 1/8 notes. Set your DAW’s tempo to 136 BPM. There’s actually two different versions of the “Halloween Theme”, the original one from 1978 and the remake from 2018. They’re both in the same tempo (and keys), and they’re pretty much the same, other than one relatively big difference that we’ll talk about in Step 4.


Right, let’s get down to the music making! We’re gonna start by writing the right-hand part of our piano. This part is super simple. As you can see in the MIDI screenshots above of the original version, John Carpenter only uses three notes: the 1 (F♯), 5 (C♯), and ♭6 (D). The original starts in the key of F♯ minor, but we’ll use A minor to keep things simple, as that’s just all the white notes from A to A.


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Lastly, are you new to music theory? Or are you experienced, but you want a refresher? Then download our FREE BOOK (link opens in new tab). It only takes 30 minutes to read, then you’ll have a solid theory foundation that you can instantly apply to your songwriting and producing. Enjoy!

Ray Harmony
Multi award-winning college lecturer