How To Compose Pirate Music - The Composition Process

It’s time to embrace your inner pirate!

 When Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean first dropped, people around the world were mesmerized by the sense of time and place the film’s score created.

But what exactly makes pirate music sound, well, like pirate music? In this article, we’ll take a look at the types of instruments and composition techniques that make pirate so unique and identifiable.

Understanding the composition process

Music is in the air

Consider the typical Western style of composition –the melody (the top line), lyrics (the bottom line) and perhaps some instruments or vocals (the middle lines) that add richness and color to the composition.

To create a wonderful chord or melody, we employ the same basic elements in various combinations –here’s what I mean:


All of the notes have to be grouped together in some kind of orderly way. I will cover this more in the section on orchestration, but, for the sake of illustration, imagine that your melody is to be in the key of G and that it starts on G and has a natural 5th (F#).

Then, like so:

\ start - F# F# C/G/G

Just like you can’t write C without writing F# and G without writing G#, if you start on F# you have to be prepared to write out F## and C#. Similarly, if you start on G you have to be prepared to write out G# (or G#) and G.

Then the next thing we have to do is try and break everything up in some kind of logical way –this is called order.

\ order - G F# G# G# G#

What if we’re actually starting on C and then want to move to G? That sounds like a logical sequence.

\ order - G F# G# G# G#

Now let’s go back to the first example with the melody starting on F#, still in the key of G.

\ start - F# F# C/G/G/G

And you might expect F# is still the fifth and the same order would apply again. But it doesn’t. If we look at the start of the melody from the top (above) we will see that G# is the sixth note (which is the 5th from the top of the scale). If we then look at the fifth of C, it would be the same thing.

Therefore the sequence for the fifth of C is as follows:

\ fifth of C - F# F# C/G/G/G

What’s interesting to note here is that we are not using a scale, but simply playing on the notes as it is written. So, when composing you will have to get used to playing on the natural minor scale to get the same effect!

Composition technique – Farfisa organs

Music that Relieves Stress

For the most part, we use the same standard Western techniques when we compose western pieces –take a breath and break up the melody into smaller sections, arrange them in some kind of logical order, start on a key of the piece and order them.

If we wanted to write a piece like the Pirates of the Caribbean music, the piece’s first variation would start in G and then move through G, F# and then C. But what if we wanted to write a piece more on the African beat than on the Western beat?

Most people are familiar with the original organ, a type of piano-like keyboard instrument that played many different scales and patterns.

But for our purposes, this video from Google Books explains how the Farfisa organ works:

As you can see, the Farfisa organ has 4 octaves of note A# and 4 octaves of note A#. The Farfisa organ plays three different scales in a row, the D A#, the B# and the A#.

That’s not to say that the D A# is three times the A#. Rather, this has to do with the doubling of notes as you move from one octave to the next. Let’s take a look at the scale that is being played when the melody is played in the key of C.

You can see that D# is three times the A#.

If we move from the D# down to A# and then back up to D#, we are getting the same scale as if the first A# was played three times instead of once! So the scale will be A#, D#, C#, D# and C#.

But what happens if we move a C# down a scale? The answer is that it will still sound like the same scale, but it will take you from A# to C# instead of from C# to A#.

For the D#, when you move from the A# down to the D#, you get a scale that is like A#, but only plays two notes down.

\ D# - G A# /

You will notice that as you move from the D# to G, this time the pattern plays two notes down, instead of one.

\ D# - G A# /

Moving up a scale is quite different. Let’s look at the A# scale in the key of G. As you move from A# to G, this time the pattern plays two notes up, instead of one.

\ A# - C G# /

So the Farfisa organ has a scale of A#, A#, A, A, B, B, B, C, C, G. But as you look at the notes that are played on these notes, they are all grouped together, not sequentially.

Elegant man playing piano

For example, a scale of Bb and C will play A, Bb, C, B, and C in the same order as G, but it will not play Bb, Cb, Cb, and Cb in the same order as the G above it.

The result of this is that instead of having a sequence, each Bb will sound like a note in the Bb scale, and instead of having a sequence of B, C and G, they will all sound like the notes in the C scale. In fact, if you play a D scale in the key of C, you will still hear the D scale, but it will sound like G, C and G.

So the Farfisa Organ does have a scale, and you can move through it from A to G to C, but the order in which the notes are played is completely different.

That’s why the Farfisa music isn’t supposed to sound like it is moving from one scale to another. It’s supposed to sound like it’s always playing the same scale, the one that it has already set up.

The first thing you should learn is that if you have more than two octaves of notes in a scale, it’s called polyphony. You will get what is called a pentatonic scale, which is made up of five notes, if you have more than two octaves of notes.

It’s really a coincidence that five notes make up a pentatonic scale, but the reason we use five notes in a pentatonic scale is to give our chord progressions a little more weight.

Instead of saying, “Hi, I’m playing a chord that is five notes long,” we can say, “Hi, I’m playing a chord that is five notes long with the first five notes being flat.”

There is no other key that I know of where you can write that kind of chord progression, other than a chromatic scale.

As you know, a chord is composed of five notes. So if you have two notes you play on each of the five notes, you get two notes that add up to the total, which in most music is known as a flat. But we can take five notes, and play them flat, which is five flat notes.

So we can write that chord progression as such:

\ C - F A - E G

When you write this, you need to remember that you are not writing the words “Hi, I’m playing a chord that is five notes long with the first five notes being flat.” Instead, you are saying, “Hi, I’m playing a chord that is five flat notes with the first five notes being flat.”


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