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Much Ado About Music:
A Musical Study of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing is a film adapted, scored, and directed by Joss
Whedon based on the play written by William Shakespeare. The film was made
(mainly) over a 12-day period during Whedon’s vacation between production and
post-production of The Avengers in October 2011, and later released in 2012. Rather
than take a break from working, Whedon and his wife, Kai Cole, decided to film a
Shakespeare play in their own house with their actor friends. The story is mainly
about Beatrice and Benedick, two former lovers who now scorn one another so
much that it is clear they are actually still in love with one another. The secondary
story is that of Hero and Claudio, two young lovers whose love becomes disrupted
when Hero is accused of unfaithfulness.
The score of the film was also written by Joss Whedon. His previous
composition credits include Once More With Feeling—a musical episode of Buffy The
Vampire Slayer—and the Internet musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. Having not
been formally schooled in music theory, he has taught himself everything. Since
Whedon is not well versed in music, film composer Deborah Lurie was the score’s
producer. Because this film was not funded by a big-budget company—the set being
Whedon’s own home and the actors wearing their own clothes—Whedon also wrote
the score out of necessity, because he had no money to hire someone else. Along
with the film, the music was much anticipated by fans.
The film begins with a “morning after” scene of Benedick and Beatrice of the
past with clothes on the floor. The music does not begin until after Benedick leaves
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the room and Beatrice, still in bed, turns over to look at the closed door, clearly
upset. It first consists of a single high C reverberating into nothingness, followed by
a second C twelve seconds later when the camera cuts to a wide shot of the room.
The music, based on a major C scale, continues on strings, woodwinds, and the piano
as the camera cuts to present-day scenes of daily life inside and around Leonato’s
home. As Leonato begins to speak a minute later, the music ends. As Whedon has
stated on the director’s commentary, he tried not to be intrusive with the music, as
the film is Shakespeare and “the words are the music.” This trend begins right here
at the beginning with the first lines of the film, as this is Shakespeare, most people
have difficulty understanding the language and thus understanding the plot. This
introductory scene allows the audience to become more familiar with the language,
and so the lack of non-diagetic music is helpful.
As this scene ends and Benedick, Claudio, and others arrive, the music begins
again in a very similar fashion but with the addition of an oboe. The music is all very
lighthearted. As Hero, Leonato’s daughter, arrives to meet the newcomers, a new
song begins with a sustained chord of strings followed by a simple and slower
melody on the piano. The theme gives the feeling of femininity and love, as she is
seen from the love-goggles of Claudio. Benedick and Beatrice then begin bickering
with one another and the music fades to nothingness—as Whedon continually
explains on the director’s commentary, he has trouble talking while these actors
speak with one another, and he likewise has trouble augmenting their acting with
music because their emotions more than speak for themselves.
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The music does not begin again until Don John and Conrade are talking with
each other about their conspiratorial plans. Whedon continually explains this film as
a noir, and this music fits as well: a slow, jazzy tune mainly consisting of a
saxophone, bass, and piano, Don John and Conrade are quickly set up as the villains,
as if the handcuffs they previously wore did not tip off the audience.
The next scene begins the “party scene” and begins the first of the diagetic
music. “Sigh No More,” scored and performed by Jed Whedon and his wife Maurissa
Tancharoen, includes the original text written by Shakespeare. A slow and jazzy
piece to match the calm party atmosphere, the lyrics match the scene as well: “Sigh
no more, ladies, sigh no more” because “the fraud of men was ever so,” as Don Pedro
pretends to be Claudio to win Hero over.
The next scene after the party is again a “morning after” scene, though in this
case the morning after a large party of regrets. After Don John has told Claudio that
Don Pedro wanted Hero for himself, the music develops into a somber oboe solo.
When Benedick comes on the scene, however, the music changes to playful and
somewhat lighthearted tune, a variation of the love theme and gulling theme that we
have yet to hear in full. As Benedick turns back to the house and goes inside, the
second bit of diagetic music occurs as Don Pedro plays the guitar. The scene
continues with Benedick lengthily “not talking” about Beatrice, accompanied by no
music. As Benedick walks out of the room past Beatrice, a new and slow song plays
featuring an oboe and piano to accompany Beatrice’s melancholy memories of their
past love. Quickly the mood of the scene changes, however, when Beatrice brings
Claudio and Hero’s love to the forefront, and a slow and loving piano piece
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accompanied by chords on strings begins. This piece begins tentatively as Claudio
professes his love for Hero, but builds when they finally kiss.
Beatrice then leaves, and the conspiring begins. First, Leonato, Don Pedro,
Claudio, and Hero conspire to get Benedick and Beatrice to love one another, calling
themselves “the only love gods.” The music here, mainly strings, becomes playful
and bouncy, just as the conspirators are playful in their plans and they take a drink
together. The scene ends with Don John spying through the window having learned
that Claudio and Hero are to wed. Borachio and he now conspire as well—underlaid
by a minor tune of the bassoon or contrabassoon playing long notes accompanied by
a suspenseful repetition of two piano notes, similar to the theme of Jaws. Later,
when Don John tells Claudio of “Hero’s” disloyalty, a similar villainous theme
returns.
The next section of the film is “the gulling,” as Benedick and Beatrice are
fooled by their friends into thinking they love one another. This first occurs when
Benedick—outside of the house—listens to Leonato, Don Pedro, and Claudio—
inside the house—talk of how Beatrice is afraid to speak of her affections. The music
is full of freeflow & jazzy pizzicato strings, as Benedick rolls around on the ground
outside to hide. When Beatrice likewise listens to Hero and Ursula as they talk of
how Benedick loves her, the music is more hide-and-seek as she finds herself hiding
beneath the table. Her music is still pizzicato strings, but a bit more tentative and
questioning. This theme then morphs into the love theme, which the audience hears
for the first time. The love theme consists of flowing strings and the piano based on
the major scale. As Whedon said here in the commentary, he did not want to be
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intrusive with the music, as Beatrice’s reaction to the knowledge is more intimate
and romantic than Benedick’s, as he becomes all “proclaimy” and she gets more
personal.
In the next main scene of the film, Borachio tells Conrade how he had wooed
Margaret in Hero’s chamber. In addition to this being a sad time for Claudio—as he
believes Margaret to be Hero—Margaret is clearly upset at her actions, which is
reflected in the melancholy music. Whedon explained in his commentary, he “put an
oboe solo in because her pain causes oboe.”
The next scene begins the wedding preparations with an upbeat and
anticipatory theme, as though the music were unaware of the previous night’s
apparent misdoings. When Hero and the maids mention that Benedick will soon be
there, Beatrice begins to fix her hair, and the music suddenly conveys the wedding
and Beatrice’s love all at once. This soon segues to a ominous, noir-ish, buffoonish
cop theme for Dogberry and Verges, which Whedon said proved to be the easiest
part of the score. At the wedding, once Hero’s apparent misdoings are out in the
open, the music becomes solemn, again with the oboe, as Hero must now pretend to
be dead because her lover believes she was unfaithful.
Just after this scene, Beatrice and Benedick speak about what has just
transpired and ultimately profess their love for one another. The music here begins
with a tentative piano tune similar to the love theme. Just as they kiss, the music has
an abrupt change from “we’re in love” to “kill Claudio,” because Hero has been
wronged. As the scene becomes full of anger and reaches Beatrice’s “If I were a man”
monologue, the music stops, again because Whedon could not see how music could
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possibly add to the acting and the natural music of speech. The music then creeps in
at the end of the scene once Beatrice has finished her tirade against men, solemn
again with the oboe, but this time it is mixed with the love theme as Benedick
promises to kill Claudio for Beatrice.
The next scene contains no music, as Dogberry interrogates Borachio and
Conrade, but soon after Benedick goes to confront and kill Claudio. This scene is
accompanied by suspenseful strings that contain slow crescendos with every note.
The music seems a bit villainous, whether because Benedick plans to commit
murder or because Claudio and Don Pedro have become villains in Benedick’s eyes,
it is unclear. In the next scene the audience and Hero see Hero’s funeral. In the
original text, Claudio sings a mourning tune, “Heavily,” however in this film it is sung
by Maurissa Tancharoen. The song is solemn, as “For the which with songs of woe/
Round about her tomb they go.”
Just after the funeral, the audience sees Benedick on the “balcony” and begins
to sing, badly, of how the god of love has been helping him, until a dog begins to bark
at this awful singing. Beatrice soon joins him on the balcony, and though she has just
said she will not kiss him (for he has not yet killed Claudio) she kisses him anyway,
and their love theme returns.
Then there comes the time in which Claudio is to be wed with “another
Hero,” and Claudio sees that Hero had not died after all. The music is loving and
joyous—music fit for an epic love story, as Much Ado is. The music stops and then
continues for Benedick and Beatrice to finally profess their love for one another in
the company of others. At this point in the director’s commentary, Whedon stated
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that he did variations of a C minor scale, which he found to be a very easy and
effective technique especially as he’s not well versed in music theory.
The film ends with one more song written by Jed Whedon, as the characters
have yet another party, this time for the two weddings. The music the actors were
dancing to was actually “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones, so the music for the film is
in the same upbeat tempo. The music then segues to a slower song titled “Last
Dance,” as the camera rolls away to find Benedick and Beatrice together in the
center of the action, in their own happy world.
Overall, the music does not overpower the acting. Rather, it augments—but
not too much—the story, especially at times that would otherwise be silent. At times
like these, the music moves the story along and sets the overall mood of the film.
The music contributes to one’s enjoyment of the film—myself included—and helps
the film rival others’ renditions of Much Ado, such as Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film.
The film’s music may not live up to the great film scores of old—Whedon said it
himself that he is not the most well-versed in music—but the simplicity and
effectiveness of his score clearly shows that one does not have to be the most
brilliant composer to be effective at evoking emotions. That being said, Much Ado
About Nothing is certainly worthy of inclusion in the “Whedonverse,” a category that
can only expand for the better.