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Themes are one of the most important factors in the composing of music for film. Curiously, it’s not anything that is in every film. Sometimes - as well as the disclosure of music can be vital – the disclosure of a theme in it can be vital as well. In other cases the composer just chooses to work without obvious themes. Considering that I started with telling that it is one of the most important factors in the score, this might seem odd, but in fact, using all of the important factors is not necessarily necessary. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, contains no music at all. It is much more usual that the themes are disclosed than that all music is, but I want to defend my statement so far as to say that - with reservation for exceptions - being in a film, the themes become one of the most important factors in it. There are more than one kind of themes. What’s normally referred to is the short melody, written for one or a few characters, a place or for a film/-series - the leitmotif. The Star Wars Main Theme is one of, if not the most famous motif, and can easily measure up to Für Elise or Moonlight Sonata without any problem. The themes from Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are also very well-known, and it’s funny that I as a kid saw these three series as the ultimate films and during a period watched nothing else! The Pirates of the Caribbean motif is also one that many can recognise. I was given a lecture once, and the reader played a short piece of this soundtrack and as soon as the motif came, a recognising murmur rose among the audience. I don’t remember exactly what it was that he wanted to prove, but he pointed out that almost everybody knew what it was he had played. It’s worth mentioning that I could hear and suspect what was coming even before the melody started, and I think I was not alone, but I will get back to that later. As I stated above, the use of themes and leitmotifs, is not always necessary, but why choose to have it or not to have it? Some experts claim that themes are needless always, but could that be? The music’s main purpose is to enhance the feeling in the pictures that we see, but do not the themes have a purpose as well? If we take a look at the series I mentioned; Harry Potter, Star Wars, Pirates and the LOTR trilogy, they are all remembered much thanks to their themes, so as soon as you hear them play, you think of the movie. The same goes for Psycho and Jaws, where 2 seconds of the themes often are superfluous for the audience to detect them. Thus, the music, through the leitmotif, is also used to bring e.g. a person to mind, even if the person in question is not in the picture. When, for example, the captain in King Kong (1933) thinks about the main character Anne, Anne’s theme plays to let the audience know it without anybody needing to tell, as the viewers will think of her as well. The audience are tricked to think of Anne, and will thus believe that the captain does as well. John Williams made an extraordinary example of placing a theme right to lead the audience’s minds in one direction. When he scored Star Wars: episode I, he had the luck that the last three films already were made, so he knew that the young Anakin - for whom he composed a sweet innocent flutebased theme - would eventually become Darth Vader, and let strings slowly mix into the melody and end it with three dark tones, directly taken from the Imperial March, which is the Darth Vader’s theme.
However, although the motifs are perfect in this matter, and could very possibly have contributed many films greatness, filmmakers often choose not to have them in the film. When scoring The Golden Compass, Alexandre Desplat considered whether to use motifs or not, but decided to do as it is about a child, and as the journey that she is making would be easier to understand if there were themes for the different cultures she meets, and for her own development. Lyra, as her name is, has actually three different themes in the film for her childhood and innocence, for her journey and for her courage to stand up to those superior to her. In difference to this, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard chose to have a more consisting theme on the music, a certain style that goes through the whole film, when scoring Batman Begins. Therefore they do not make use of motifs the way I have written about above. This soundtrack contains melodies that recurrence through the film, but it focuses more on the through-all style. Probably they didn’t feel it was necessary to have motifs in it, and chose to let the whole universe of the film have one kind of music instead. It’s usual that films have such through-all styles along with the motifs. It makes it feel as the film hangs together all the way through. It’s especially good for film series like the aforementioned LOTR trilogy, for the films to feel connected. In the Harry Potter-films the lack of a going-through theme is probably a contributing factor to them being very secluded to each other. As I mentioned before, there is a special style like this in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, which is the reason to why I was able to detect it before the theme started that time during the lecture. In the same way, I recognised the music from Batman after hearing only one, albeit rather long, tone, because of the unique mix of instruments. When you create a style like this, it is most often made for the first film in the series. When the first Pirates was made, the sequels were not yet planned, likewise with Batman Begins. So, in order to score the sequels, the music will probably have to be expanded not to become a boring copy, but at the same time it will have to go along well with the original style. When The Lord of the Rings were made, of course all three films were planned, which could have made it easier, but that was an unusual occasion and the technique wasn’t really very different. As the adventure expands, already in the second half of the first film, the music changes, although keeping it’s spirit and uniqueness. When The Dark Knight, the sequel to Batman Begins, was being planned, Nolan said to H. Zimmer that really it was no need to do a very different score for this film, as the one for BB was so good already. Zimmer gave him a ”we’ll see”-look and started asking about the things that were new for this film. To the heroic yet emotional themes that he did reuse, he - along with Newton Howard - created a sort of piercing scratchy sound as theme for one character, and a smooth beautiful tune for another, which both worked perfectly with the rest of the music, though not being very alike at all. A film in which the score also develops a lot is the third Pirates of the Caribbean, At Worlds End it’s In this film the main characters are travelling much, exploring many other parts of their world, and this makes the music change a lot, but - as is the case also with previously mentioned The Golden Compass - it still manages to keep its own special style. So, maybe there is no greater need for a certain theme that goes through the whole film, as long as the music finds the core of the film and expresses it well. The music in the japanese anime series Death Note, mixes guitar-based band music, epic Gregorian chores, alien sounds and classic symphonic music in the soundtrack, and it still works quite well, odd as it may sound. That music often is used for different cultures and peoples may come very natural to you, but everyone might not think of it when scoring a movie. When John Williams e.g. composed the score for The Terminal he wanted to give the main character, Viktor Navorski, who is played by Tom Hanks, and who comes from a fictive land near Russia, a theme that sounded like it
came from Eastern Europe. The main theme is therefore played on clarinet, which is an instrument common among Eastern and Southern European peoples, and supported by cimbalom and accordion. Cimbalom comes from the neighbourhood of Hungary. Williams is also the composer of Memoirs of a Geisha, which has a very Japanese score. I have listened to a lot of Japanese music and I think it’s wonderful to hear that he has managed to write a score that both sound Japanese and keeps William’s personal style. Many of his fans will be able to hear who has written the music, but it is not at all damaging the Japanese feeling of it. Hans Zimmer composed a score for The Last Samurai, hat got much credits when he brought it to Japan, but which I think sounds a little too much like his usual scores. It has many Japanese melodies, but in general it doesn’t quite make it. Williams used strings like violins - often played solo - and harps to give an Asian sound. These instruments are very common in Japanese and Asian music, as well as piano. Joe Hisaishi - composer of films like Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke and recently awarded Departures - is often using these instruments. He is one of Japan’s most famous composers of film score and has worked with many of the greatest filmmakers in Japan. Many of Hayao Miyazaki’s (Spirited Away, Totoro, Mononoke) films have very Japanese themes, as films like Hana-Bi by Takeshi Kitano mixes Japanese and Western music styles. The piano is also very much used by Nobuo Uematsu, who has made all music in the Final Fantasy game series. In the movie Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children he uses solo piano in both calm flashback scenes and threatening semi-action scenes. (For the reader’s interest I can add that the film does not contain any leitmotif but the main theme of the games which is play once or twice, and that the score also mixes the piano tracks with fateful gregorian tracks, like those in Death Note, and with instrumental hard rock.) There is a lot more that can be told about film music, however the intensions of this article was not that everything about it should be told. Its purpose is to explain and sort out some basics in the composing of a film score, without making a too deep analysis. For deeper knowledge check out the book Filmmusik - det komponerade miraklet (2006), by Peter Bryngelsson, which has helped me in the writing of this text. It has also an excellent list of literature, in English, about this subject. Also - as I myself did - do check out the music itself on Youtube or Spotify or CD’s or downloaded mp3. That is really the best way of learning and learning to understand music. Hans Zimmer said that when he was composing for Samurai he tried to read a lot about Japanese music, but the more he read the less he felt he knew. I haven’t read a lot, but instead I have listened to it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I think I know more now than he thought he did back then. Yet, I’ll let him do the composing for now.
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