This is the first in a three part series and it’s the one that i mentioned was keeping me busy lately. I was hesitant to put up this first part before they were all finished, but i think putting it up will light a fire under my ass to get the others done. I hope you enjoy reading as much as i’ve enjoyed writing!
This is something that i’ve wanted to tackle for sometime now, as anybody who knows me or reads my blog regularly knows that (when notably used) i mention the musical score in my reviews and how it might affect the film and my viewing of it. I do it because it’s something very unique to my viewing experience and good and bad music will affect it tremendously, for example it’s one of the reasons why i dislike The Hobbit films.
But how does one go about gaining an appreciation of musical scores without an understanding of musical theory? Admittedly that question stopped my initial attempts at trying to look beyond the obvious visceral thrills that music can provide a film. As i haven’t been able to read sheet music since my days in Elementary school, and i admittedly don’t know a lot about the greater subject and nuances of musical theory.
But god dammit that’s not good enough for me, i want to know the music’s purpose. I believe there’s a reason why people know the theme for The History of the Ring or the Theme of the Force off the top of their heads. There’s a reason why the Theme of the Phoenix resonated with me when i first watched X3 and how i can still appreciate it now. Artists the like of Howard Shore and John Williams are story tellers in their own right, and most stories worth telling have morals or messages. Therefore it is my belief that a musical score may have something more than just visceral or textural thrills to convey in film.
Where to start though? Books like the superb The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films by Doug Adams, helped open my eyes to the extra layers of thematic content, character development, embellishment of setting, and the emotional impact that a score can have when properly utilised. I highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the Lord of the Rings.
However the depth of the subject matter is daunting. The book itself is almost 400 pages of exhaustive explanations, and the insight it gives to Howard Shore’s monumental work can be a bit overwhelming at times. As a result it doesn’t act like a quick guide to understanding how music is used successfully in a narrative film.
Which brings us to the subject of these next few posts. I believe i have come to a relatively simple way to help in the process of gaining a deeper understanding of how music is used in movies.
Anyone wanting to understand a musical score should watch (or rather listen) for these three key principles:
With the use of these three principles i feel that any viewer who can take the time to watch a movie, have a good pair of headphones, and access to a rewind button can over read into their favorite films just like i do.
I will go into all three in depth however, i feel the best place to start with naturally is:
When a musical theme is introduced it is perhaps the single biggest clue as to the artist’s intent of use. As proper placement and identification of its use will make the next two principles much easier to discern. To use narrative terms it is the inciting event of the leitmotif, and can give you the viewer a place to start in your understanding of the theme’s purpose.
As the name implies Introduction covers when a theme or piece of music is first introduced to the audience. As a composer and/or musical editor who acts with purpose will put specific leitmotifs in specific places to enhance thematic or emotional content. As leitmotif’s can be used as either themes for characters, places, or events. A viewer who wants to understand why a certain piece of music is playing should ask questions such as:
- Is this the first time i’ve heard this leitmotif?
- Does it come when we first see a character’s face?
- Or is it when some topic is being discussed?
The Introduction is the simplest and generally the most straightforward of the principles to apply, lets look at some examples.
One of the most obvious examples of a character theme being introduced that i can think of off the top of my head is Luke’s Theme from Star Wars: A New Hope. I choose this theme as it and the other examples i will cite from A New Hope are very easily verified by you the reader. As chances are you have a copy of it lying around (i have a couple and i’m not even a fan of the movie) and can easily follow along with me.
Luke’s Theme is first heard not when we first see the character (unlike Leia’s Theme) at 00:17:06, instead it is first heard when his aunt calls out for Luke at 00:17:15 thus identifying and naming the theme. The introduction of Luke’s theme is important as it tells the audience that this is someone we should pay attention to as he’s important to the story (unlike his uncle).
Character themes like Luke’s are by and large the easiest to spot, as they can generally appear when a character is introduced on screen. conceptual themes are a bit harder to nail down; Leia’s Theme is introduced at 00:05:06 upon revealing the owner of the hands that insert the disk into R2-D2. Which marks it as a straightforward character theme, tied to her appearances (or mentions) within the narrative.
However interestingly enough her theme directly follows the introduction of the Theme of the Force at 00:04:55 as she places the disk. This is an extremely innocuous way to introduce an iconic and important piece of music, and admittedly the introduction of the theme doesn’t do enough to tell the audience what it might mean until it is Reinforced. However reinforcement will be discussed in length in the next section.
The Duelists offers a very straightforward introduction to the central leitmotif of the film, as the melody is first heard at 00:00:19 during the title screen of the movie. This is also the same for the Star Wars Theme (i’m not linking it everyone knows it) making its first appearance in every film with the title of the series being flashed on the screen.
I feel this wraps up the first principle, as once again the introduction of a leitmotif is a very straightforward affair. I also can’t explore the concept in more depth as that leads into the remaining two principles of Reinforcement and Development. I highly suggest you grab a movie and explore how themes are introduced in it for yourself, you might be surprised by what you hear.