whole book



whole book
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
No copyright is intended on the musical examples transcribed. Copyright rests with the composers of
the music, all of whom are credited
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.2 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Film / TV music analysed in vol.1
Goldfinger (John Barry)
Signs (James Newton Howard)
Star Trek TMP (Jerry Goldsmith)
The Big Country (Jerome Moross)
The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein)
JFK (John Williams)
The Day after Tomorrow (Harald Klosser and Thomas Wander)
Independence Day (David Arnold)
Back to the Future 3 (Alan Silvestri)
The West Wing (WG Walden)
Jurassic Park & Star Wars (John Williams)
Dallas (Jerrold Immel)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone - Main Theme & Diagon Ally (John Williams)
The English Patient (Gabriel Yared)
Atonement (Dario Marianelli)
Catch me if you can (John Williams)
Knowing (Marco Beltrami)
The Village & Sixth Sense (James Newton Howard)
Panic Room (Howard Shore)
The Reaping (John Frizzell)
Wolf (Ennio Morricone)
Passengers (Edward Shearmur)
The Dark Knight & Batman Begins (Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard)
The Island (Steve Jablonsky)
Spiderman 2 (Danny Elfmann)
King Kong (James Newton Howard).
World Trade Centre (Craig Armstrong)
American Beauty (Thomas Newman)
Road to Perdition (Thomas Newman)
The Descent and Insomnia (David Julyan)
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (Ryuichi Sakamoto)
2012 (Harald Kloser & Thomas Wander)
Crimson Tide, The Rock, Pearl Harbour, The Da Vinci Code & The Ring (Hans Zimmer)
Hopilola (Sigur Ros)
Unbreakable, Signs, The Village and Outbreak (James Newton Howard)
A Beautiful Mind (James Horner)
The Butterfly Effect (Michael Suby)
28 Days Later (John Murphy)
The Firm (Dave Grusin)
Jaws (John Williams)
The Day After Tomorrow (Harald Klosser & Thomas Wander)
Contact (Alan Silvestri)
Aliens (James Horner)
King Kong (James Newton Howard)
The Long Good Friday (Francis Monkman)
Pearl Harbour and Angels & Demons (Hans Zimmer)
Chaplin, Out of Africa, Dancing with Wolves (John Barry)
Defence of the Realm (Richard Harvey)
Black Beauty (Dennis King)
Coronation Street (Eric Spear)
The Avengers (Laurie Johnson)
Tomorrow’s World (1980s) (Paul Hart)
Mr Benn (Don Warren) Father Ted (Neil Hannon)
The Simpsons (Danny Elfman)
The Life and Times of David Lloyd George (Ennio Morricone)
The Sweeney (Harry South) Tales of the Unexpected, Man in a Suitcase & Dr. Who (Ron Grainer)
The Persuaders (John Barry)
Kojak (Billy Goldenberg)
Ironside (Quincy Jones)
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.2 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Starsky & Hutch (Tom Scott)
The Streets of San Francisco (Pat Williams)
The Professionals (Laurie Johnson)
Hill Street Blues (Mike Post)
Harry’ Game (Ciarán Brennan and Pól Brennan)
Emmerdale Farm (Tony Hatch)
The X Files (Mark Snow)
Soap (George Aliceson Tipton)
Brookside (Dave Roylance)
EastEnders (Simon May)
Bouquet of Barbed Wire (Dennis Farnon)
Owen MD (Johnny Pearson)
The Odd Couple (Neil Hefti)
Match of the Day (Barry Stoller)
Dynasty (Bill Conti)
Blake’s 7 (Dudley Simpson)
Thriller (Laurie Johnson)
Keeping up Appearances (Nick Ingham)
Red Dwarf (Howard Goodall)
Poirot (Christopher Gunning)
ER (James Newton Howard)
Zen (Adrian Johnston)
24 (Sean Callery)
Waking the Dead (Paul Hart)
Spooks (Jennie Musket)
Torchwood (Ben Foster and Murray Gold)
Survivors (Edmund Butt)
Six Feet Under (Thomas Newman)
Band of Brothers (Michael Kamen)
Police Squad (Ira Newborn)
This Is Your Life (Laurie Johnson)
Vincent (Rob Lane)
Sherlock (Michael Price and David Arnold)
Rubicon (Peter Nashell)
Walking with Dinosaurs (Ben Bartlett)
Batman (Neil Hefti)
Click (Kevin Leavy)
Who wants to be a Millionaire? (Keith Strachan and Mathew Strachan)
Frost (John Hiseman and Barbara Thompson)
Golapogas Documentary (Paul Leonard Morgan)
The Onedin Line (Aram Ilyich Khachaturian)
GBH (Richard Harvey and Elvis Costello)
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.2 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
1) WHAT IS MUSIC? (8,908)
This chapter addresses some of the main intellectual and practical issues surrounding the whole area
of how music is understood, rationalised, perceived and composed. The chapter looks at many
underlying issues, including academia and how the taught history of music over the years (as
opposed to the actual history of music) has shaped our understanding of music.
This chapter addresses the area of music theory; it does so firstly by running through basic theory and
then introducing a more modern way of interpreting and analysing theory and its applications and use
in context of composition. It looks at how we can use music theory, notation, chord symbols and
harmonic knowledge to develop a deeper understanding of music, particularly in film. The chapter
looks at harmonic sequences and structures, analysing commonalities and patterns, drawing
conclusions to help students understand the music they listen to and the music they compose.
Music analysed includes: Goldfinger (John Barry), Signs (James Newton Howard) Star Trek TMP
(Jerry Goldsmith)
Do composers think or do they merely ‘do’? This is one of many issues posed by this chapter. We
study the opinions and thoughts of some of the great thinkers and look at whether music can
communicate ‘meaning’, what we mean by ‘meaning’ and if so, how this can be achieved. Is meaning
in music derived purely from an individual’s interpretation, as many of the great composers and
musicologists have suggested in the past, or can common emotions, perceptions and, ultimately
‘meanings’ be derived and applied in a more general sense, to all? The book also examines the
power of ‘musical conventions’ and how these have shaped our understanding of films and even the
telling of history through film.
Music analysed includes The Big Country (Jerome Moross), The Magnificent Seven (Elmer
Bernstein), JFK (John Williams), The Day after Tomorrow (Harald Klosser and Thomas Wander),
Independence Day (David Arnold), Back to the Future 3 (Alan Silvestri), The West Wing (WG
Walden), Jurassic Park & Star Wars (John Williams), Dallas (Jerrold Immel)
This chapter deals with modern and traditional techniques of using harmony, architecture, structure
and placement to extort specific emotions. The chapter addresses a combination of fairly simple
observations regarding how harmonies work to create mood and feeling through to more complex and
deeper types of analysis. Central to the study, as always, is how music communicates its meaning
and how that meaning works in the film.
Music analysed includes Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone - Main Theme & Diagon Ally (John
Williams) The English Patient (Gabriel Yared) Atonement (Dario Marianelli) Catch me if you can (John
Williams) Knowing (Marco Beltrami) The Village & Sixth Sense (James Newton Howard) Panic Room
(Howard Shore) The Reaping (John Frizzell) Wolf (Ennio Morricone) Passengers (Edward Shearmur)
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
This chapter looks at how film music ‘communicates’, how composers define themselves and develop
a distinctive voice. The chapter addresses similarities between specific film themes and to what
degree the structure of music itself determines what works and what doesn’t. Central to any serious
study about if, how and why music creates a sense of meaning within the listener is the issue of how it
communicates - how the musical characteristics can communicate, almost literally. This chapter
addresses these issues.
Music analysed: The Dark Knight & Batman Begins (music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton
Howard), The Island (Music by Steve Jablonsky), and Spiderman 2 (Music by Danny Elfmann). King
Kong (James Newton Howard).
In this chapter various approaches to film music composition are addressed, all of which share the
virtues of subtlety, intricacy and nuance. It looks at how composers make subtle shifts and manipulate
what is ‘expected’ by the listener in order to illicit music which communicates emotionally. The chapter
addresses some important areas such as how and why music which is understated, subtle or blurred
communicates so vividly.
The music analysed in this chapter will be from World Trade Centre (Craig Armstrong), American
Beauty, (Thomas Newman) Road to Perdition, (Thomas Newman) The Descent and Insomnia, (David
Julyan) Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, (Ryuichi Sakamoto) 2012 (Harald Kloser & Thomas Wander)
Crimson Tide, The Rock, Pearl Harbour, The Da Vinci Code & The Ring (Hans Zimmer) Hopilola
(Sigur Ros) Unbreakable, Signs, The Village and Outbreak (James Newton Howard) A Beautiful Mind
(James Horner) The Butterfly Effect (Michael Suby) 28 Days Later (John Murphy) The Firm (Dave
Grusin) Jaws (John Williams)
This chapter looks at how we ‘hear’ music – what is surface level hearing and what represents a
deeper aural experience. The chapter explains that what we ‘listen to’ is a combination of the music
(the notes, harmonies) the intervallic context (by which I mean what each note represents as an
interval of the chord it is part of) which we don’t ‘hear’ but listen to. It discusses musical devices and
structures which are so strong, so popular, so ingrained or so communicative that we all respond to
Music analysed: Gladiator (Hans Zimmer) The Day After Tomorrow (Harald Klosser & Thomas
Wander) Contact (Alan Silvestri) Aliens (James Horner) King Kong (James Newton Howard) The
Long Good Friday (Francis Monkman) Pearl Harbour and Angels & Demons (Hans Zimmer) Chaplin,
Out of Africa, Dancing with Wolves (John Barry) Defence of the Realm (Richard Harvey)
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
As a contextual and historical precursor to a later chapter on contemporary television themes and
incidental music for drama and documentary, this chapter looks back to some of the most notable
themes of the past four decades. The reason for this is to recognise structural commonalities,
harmonic tricks (which are still relevant today) and stylistic approaches which have spanned decades
and which are still in use today. We look at famous, defining themes which have become ingrained in
popular culture and are often as famous as the shows they accompany
Music Analysed: Black Beauty (Dennis King) Coronation Street (Eric Spear) The Avengers (Laurie
Johnson) Tomorrow’s World (1980s) (Paul Hart) Mr Benn (Don Warren) Father Ted (Neil Hannon)
The Simpsons (Danny Elfman) The Life and Times of David Lloyd George (Ennio Morricone) The
Sweeney (Harry South) Tales of the Unexpected, Man in a Suitcase & Dr. Who (Ron Grainer) The
Persuaders (John Barry) Kojak (Billy Goldenberg) Ironside (Quincy Jones) Starsky & Hutch (Tom
Scott) The Streets of San Francisco (Pat Williams) The Professionals (Laurie Johnson) Hill Street
Blues (Mike Post) Harry’ Game (Ciarán Brennan and Pól Brennan) Emmerdale Farm (Tony Hatch)
The X Files (Mark Snow) Soap (George Aliceson Tipton) Brookside (Dave Roylance) EastEnders
(Simon May) Bouquet of Barbed Wire (Dennis Farnon) Owen MD (Johnny Pearson) The Odd Couple
(Neil Hefti) Match of the Day (Barry Stoller) Dynasty (Bill Conti) Blake’s 7(Dudley Simpson) Thriller
(Laurie Johnson) Keeping up Appearances (Nick Ingham) Red Dwarf (Howard Goodall) Poirot
(Christopher Gunning) ER (James Newton Howard) Zen (Adrian Johnston)
This chapter examines some notable and iconic music to accompany television shows, dramas and
documentaries which all possess the ability to communicate and articulate the meaning of the
narrative and images imaginatively and successfully. How the music ‘works’ with the images, the story
and the narrative is discussed at length.
Music analysed includes: 24 (Sean Callery) Waking the Dead (Paul Hart) Spooks (Jennie Musket)
Torchwood (Ben Foster and Murray Gold) Survivors (Edmund Butt) Six Feet Under (Thomas
Newman) Band of Brothers (Michael Kamen) Police Squad (Ira Newborn) This Is Your Life (Laurie
Johnson) Vincent (Rob Lane) Sherlock (Michael Price and David Arnold) Rubicon (Peter Nashell)
Walking with Dinosaurs (Ben Bartlett) Batman (Neil Hefti) Click (Kevin Leavy) Who wants to be a
Millionaire? (Keith Strachan and Mathew Strachan) Frost (John Hiseman and Barbara Thompson)
Golapogas Documentary (Paul Leonard Morgan) The Onedin Line (Aram Ilyich Khachaturian) GBH
(Richard Harvey and Elvis Costello)
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
This is s purely contextual chapters which address fundamental issues about how film score
composers function. Issues discussed will include:
How do we make music fit the picture?
Placement, Architecture and Economy
How do film composers manage to
turn it round so quickly?
Tips and tricks
Transition between time and place
The main reason the audience knows more
than the characters is because of music.
Sampled versus the real thing
When does drama become melodrama?
Number crunching
When music is overcooked
Relying on the click
Orchestrating over the din
Common mistakes
Scoring around dialogue
Stylistic cohesion
Audience concentration and the role of music
Practicality and pragmatism
Whose point of view do you play?
Composer as storyteller
How to stimulate your intuition
Aural logo and sonic signature
Music and Image
Composing as frozen improvisation
Classical Film Scoring
The hand of history
How should film music be heard?
Featuring numerous quotes from composers and other industry professionals, the chapter deals in
part about the way composers address the issues of writing to screen and navigating the many and
varied approaches. This chapter works as a general over-arching accompaniment to most of the other
chapters in the book
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
How does music communicate meaning?
When everything is said and done, what matters to any composer or scholar of music for the moving image,
is how does music convey the emotion of the images, the narrative, the story? Central to any study of these
fundamental issues is the need to understand how music itself functions; how does music create feelings
and emotions and convey meaning? What kind of meaning does music convey? If we understand why
music creates emotion or evokes feeling we can find out how certain music ‘works’ in certain filmic
circumstances and environments; we can learn to appreciate and understand how the vastness of musical
structure and the seemingly limitless characteristics it possesses, actually communicate when applied to the
moving image.
This book will analyse and study hundreds of transcriptions of film and TV music; it will investigate how
music interacts with the narrative structure of film and will debate and discuss many musical, technical,
aesthetic, contextual, historical and abstract issues and areas of interest and importance. But above all, the
central theme of ‘how music communicates’ in film represents the core of what this book is about.
Understanding how we listen to music and why we respond in certain ways is vitally important in learning
how to compose. Understanding how and why people respond to music’s structures and traditions and its
complex labyrinth of possibilities enables us to successfully engage with music as listeners, critics, scholars
and composers.
Music for the moving image is not ‘normal’ music
Music for the moving image is unique because unlike ‘normal’ music, which is usually (but not
exclusively) propelled by musical, artistic, egotistical and, mostly commercial considerations, music for the
moving image does not always encompass the same pressures. It is essentially driven by visual elements,
literary considerations and narrative structure. It does not neccasarily have to function as ‘commercial
music’ or even ‘music’ in the usual sense of the terms. It is not necessarily meant to be an extension of the
composer’s ego in that the composer does not dictate the emotional needs of the music; he or she responds
to the film’s needs. What a composer would like to write from a purely musical perspective is a secondary
consideration to the central need for music which provides an identifiable and noticeable function and
thereby works for the greater good of the film experience. Brian Eno said, “Film music has a very
interesting identity which makes it compositionally different from other pieces of music, which is that the
main part of it is missing... film music is there to support an action.” This is an important point - that film
music’s job is not supposed to be to provide an identity of its own but to support another identity. A
composer for the moving image is not primarily driven by the need for the music to ‘entertain’ but instead
for the music to serve a greater endeavour whose job is to entertain and enlighten. Indeed if music is
composed primarily to entertain and stand out, it may not always work as film music because it will
undermine or diminish the film itself or the meaning of the film.
Film music is not just listened to; it is watched
People do not just ‘listen’ to film music, they listen while they watch; music for the moving image is
usually not primarily enjoyed purely as music and therefore doesn’t theoretically have the normal burden of
commercial expectation. Listeners of music for the moving image rationalise and interpret in a visual
environment and context where belief in reality is suspended temporarily. The picture therefore is part of
the music. There is, inevitably, a debate amongst film score scholars as to whether film music ought to be
able to function as stand-alone music. Certainly many directors would welcome the further stylistic
commodification of film music and the undoubted commercial opportunities this would bring. But in some
respects we have to be careful what we wish for; if we end up with every movie spawning a stand-alone
soundtrack of music which is commercially attractive in its own right then we may risk the creation of
music to film being less about sculpturing music which weaves itself effortlessly into the film’s narrative,
and more about simply providing two hours’ worth of music whose only redeeming feature is that it
penetrates the labyrinth of dialogue and sound design enough to be noticed.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
If film music happens to work as stand-alone music, fine, but if that is its primary function then it ceases to
be film music and instead simply becomes music put to film, which is an entirely different thing.
I can remember when I first became interested in music for the moving image, listening to film music
independent of its film and thinking it sounded different to how it had sounded when I saw the film. I can
remember wondering if the soundtrack album was recorded by a different orchestra and wondering if
maybe the mix was different. It just didn’t sound the same. I eventually realised years later when I began
composing for the moving image, that the picture and sound design is such a big part of our perception of
the music that essentially in a very real sense it is part of the music. Our aural perception and memory of
the music is a product of the film experience first and foremost.
The ‘function’ of film music is film music
Ultimately the way film music is rationalised is linked to how obviously the function of the music works; in
other words how well the composer reads the situation and applies music which functions and works in a
specific way to affect the viewer’s perception of a scene. What the music ‘is’ as music and what it ‘sounds
like’ is obviously important, but what the music is doing, e.g. its function, is often what distinguishes it. If
composers decide what they want the music to achieve, this will be its ‘function’ and in the final analysis,
how the music functions will be how it is remembered. What the music contains ‘musically’ is a subtly
different thing. If you think back to your favourite film music moments, what was great about the moment
is how well the music worked with the scene or how well it interpreted the narrative. John Williams’
famous and iconic cue from Jaws works principally because it capitalises on your fear of what is likely to
happen. Thus the function was good; the idea of that particular approach, that decision, to play the film in
that way, is what makes us think of it as ‘great music’. The music was effective but the underlying idea, the
concept, was outstanding.
What music brings to the narrative, to the pictures, to the movie, is subtly different to what it actually is as
music. We hear it as music but we listen to it in context of what job it is doing; what ‘function’ it’s
providing. This is why sometimes when we listen to film music without the film it loses some of its
meaning; what it has lost when listened to independent of the film is its function; why it exists. There is no
convincing definition of ‘great’ film music just as there will never be a definition of great music. There are
no right ways or wrong ways to write music or film music. There is only history. All we have to go on is
what has been proven to work; this in turn can act as a springboard for our own imagination and as a
template through which we can begin to find our own voice. Music is never composed in a vacuum. There
is never truly a blank slate. As composers we cannot help but be influenced. We cannot literally ‘un-know’
what we already know. Even the most original-sounding music owes some of identity to the past. Its partial
adherence to tradition or recognised structure is what creates the platform for its elements of originality.
Does good film music have to be something people can hum?
A film score you come out of the cinema humming need not necessarily be effective film music simply
because you remember the melody. Many modern films latch on to a specific theme or idea and reuse it
time and time again to try and establish an aural calling card; a musical thematic identity. But it can
sometimes be ‘overcooked’ and thus cliché. People did not come out of the cinema humming Bernard
Herrmann’s music to Psycho but people remembered it and still do fifty years later. Effective film music is
not necessarily something we remember as music. We remember the experience more than anything. Music
is arguably more useful and successful when what is remembered is an overwhelming emotion, rather than
simply ‘music’. When we remember Hans Zimmer’s wonderful themes from Gladiator, we do not usually
remember just the music; we remember the experience the music gave us. We do not hum Herrmann’s
shower scene from Psycho, all we remember is that it terrified us.
Music for the moving image is not always written to the image
People often underestimate how much of ‘music for the moving image’ is written to the dialogue, the
narration, the words and the sound design rather than simply the picture itself. In many ways it is as ‘much
music to words and/or sound’ as ‘music to picture’.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Composers of documentaries with a narrated voice-over weave their music around the voice as much as the
pictures. George Fenton’s music for the Planet Earth, Blue Planet and Frozen Planet documentaries is as
much a triumph of his ability to carve out a path around Attenborough’s distinctive voice and the labyrinth
of other sounds as it is a triumph of music to picture.
The film is part of your music and your music is part of the film
Most composers are open to the concept of their music bringing new colour, artistry and emotion to film;
they are generally less able to engage with the notion that moving pictures and the existence of a story or
narrative will bring emotion to their music. This is probably because music is a much more intensely
personal and solitary pursuit compared to some creative arts. It’s often difficult for us to see our music
playing a side role in a larger creative and commercial construct and it’s even harder to conceive of a
situation where something non-musical could be interacting with our music and changing the way it’s
perceived. But if the great 20th Century film composers share one common characteristic, it is that they all
write for the film, not to the film or at the film. They write for the greater good of an artistic and
commercial endeavour that represents a consummation of various artistic and technical achievements, of
which they are merely a part. To a movie composer the images which accompany their music ought to be
as much a part of the fabric of the music as harmony, melody, instrumentation or production because they
determine the ultimate context in which it is rationalised, enjoyed and consumed.
Is music for the moving image the most natural kind of music?
When most composers conceptualise and write music, whether they be songwriters, symphonists or
exponents of experimental jazz fusion, they usually use images or powerful memories to fire their emotion
and imagination; composers ‘picture’ things. So in many ways music has always been about the image. In
many ways ‘music for the moving image’ is the most natural kind of music. When we compose ‘normal’
music – music purely for music’s sake – we are fired and inspired often by visual stimulus. Converting our
mental images or visual stimulus into actual music is a major part of the conceptualisation and composition
process. Music for the moving image simply means that our imagination is fired at least partly by someone
else’s images, so in some ways at least part of the initial conception process is done for us. Our job is no
longer to conjure up music from a self-generated mental image or picture, but to interpret an actual image
from a story. We tend to think of music and the moving image as a relatively new phenomenon but the
success of music and visuals is nothing new; music has supported movement for hundreds of years, from
dance through to plays, theatre, opera and more recently, film.
Film music conundrums
Most directors acknowledge that music is the one component that succeeds in making a film more real;
more authentic. In most situations music makes the film more genuine, more ‘actual’ and more vivid. It
heightens tensions and can create abstractions and subtleties which make the film more dramatic and
poignant and which the film alone cannot do. Music can be what makes film appear truthful. It can be what
makes a story authentic. Why and how we are prepared to suspend belief so easily and readily is as much to
do with the music as it is the image. And yet real life - the ultimate ‘truth’, surely - does not come
accompanied by a soundtrack, and indeed it would be absurd if it did. Driving along an unfamiliar dark
country lane at night in a storm would be unnerving enough without Bernard Herrmann’s music coming at
you. So why do we need music in a film when we don’t have it or need it in reality? Why is its inclusion in
real life so obviously absurd but its inclusion in a film depicting real life so natural and important?
The answer is simple and it is a testament not just to the important role music plays in film but to the power
music has over us emotionally: in real life you don’t need a soundtrack because you’re living it; you’re
actually there. The inclusion of music as a permanent soundtrack to our lives would italicise, overstate and
even cheapen the living of it: the emotion is provided by the insatiable reality of life itself; of being there.
But when you watch a film you’re not there, you’re watching a recording of whatever ‘there’ was when it
was filmed, and you’re watching it in a darkened film theatre with a load of strangers. The film wants you
to think you’re there, so the music helps you ‘live’ the film. Music therefore is in many ways the ultimate
emotional connector.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The inclusion of music is often the thing that succeeds in truly connecting you to the film. Music can be the
emotional bond between you and the film; it can make you understand and enjoy the film on a much more
heightened level than pictures or dialogue alone can achieve. It can replicate and mimic the kind of vivid
personal ‘actuality’ you feel when you experience something real. This is music’s great power and
ultimately it is its greatness. Put simply, music helps you think the film is real.
The function of any film’s music is perhaps best expressed by composer Bernard Herrmann when he
suggests that music may be considered ‘the communicating link between the screen and the audience’.
Author Kathryn Kalinak goes further, claiming that music gives the two-dimensional characters on screen
their flesh-and-blood humanity: ‘…through a kind of transference or slippage between sound and image,
the depth created by the sound is transferred to the flat surface of the image.’
This book will provide hundreds of transcriptions of various film and television themes and incidental
music. Detailed expert advice, context and guidance on composing, orchestrating and producing music for
the moving image are embedded in every chapter, discussed through the numerous examples featured. The
book contains detailed guidance on music theory and in particular how to understand and interpret
harmony. But above all, the central theme of ‘how music communicates’ represents the core of what this
book is about. What the book hopes to prove is that music undoubtedly communicates in a whole multitude
of different ways. Whilst our ability to rationalise and enjoy music is based on virtually innumerable and
complex factors such as our level of emotional intelligence, engagement, aural cognition and intellect,
many ways in which music communicates are general, consistent and predictable. This means they can be
evaluated, understood, appreciated and learned from. People listen in predictable ways because music is
structured in consistent predictable ways to accommodate our expectations.
Although, as Adorno is fond of reminding us, the very birth of film music was immersed in formula and its
evolution buried in codification, ironically, despite the continued increasingly populist and commercial
stranglehold of the industry it serves, film music is one of the few avenues of commercial music creation in
which composers are still relatively free to explore areas, styles and approaches which would be open to
hostile interpretation if they were judged purely as commercial music.
Critics of film music
Critics of film music can be found everywhere. There are dissenters right across the musical spectrum
ranging from ancient and crusty cultural theorists like Theodore Adorno who saw it as an adjunct to mass
entertainment and therefore a debasement of what music should be, through to songwriters and
symphonists. They sometimes suggest that the concept of ‘writing to order’ or writing to picture is
restrictive, as if writing music for the sake of music somehow makes it ‘free’. Some (but by no means all)
composers of classical music and classical music academics and scholars (those for whom the classical
canon represents the ultimate arbiter of greatness in music) see film music not as the extension and
evolution of classical music that it so obviously is, but as a troublesome distraction. The vast libraries of
concert music that exist within the repertoire of many film composers such as John Williams and James
Horner, for which they often have multi-million dollar record contracts, will rarely see the light of day in
concert programs in the UK, whose classical music repertoire is rarely progressive and tends toward a
permanent and ongoing celebration of long-dead classical composers and a tiny minority of largely
unknown 20th century classical composers who write music and definitely not film music.
At the other end of the spectrum many supposedly progressive electroacoustic composers resent their music
being ‘cheapened’ by its immersion in film and therefore, ultimately, commercialism. Electroacoustic
music represents and important and valid extension of what music and sound can be, but it is an acquired
taste and understandably doesn’t have a large enough popular appeal for it to be commercial; its existence
is, at least partly, a product of the closeted world of academia. This protection of electroacoustic music by
academia is worthwhile and laudable because it encourages and supports music which might otherwise be
open to hostile interpretation; but it does tend to forge an attitude of elitism and superiority in some
electroacoustic composers, hence the ridiculous reticence in some parts to see their music as an
accompaniment to film.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The elephant in the room in all these cases is that film music is often seen as being unworthy because it
does not exist for its own sake but ‘merely’ as part of a greater construct. Another important thing to
remember when challenging the belief that film composers are somehow less free than other composers is
that ironically music for film, despite the restrictions created by the pictures and the narrative, can actually
be a good deal harmonically freer than ‘normal’ music; the restrictions placed on commercial music by the
record industry that controls it have become increasingly absurd and an inhibitor to the discovery of new
talent, which is why in some respects genuinely new and innovative artists have a problem breaking
Music and meaning
This book’s centre of gravity is the issue of how and why music suggests and implies meanings, emotions
and feelings and how these can be applied to film. Hopefully it will show that music does create common
and predictable emotions within the listener and that emotions can be generated by the use of specific chord
sequences and other harmonic and instrumental devices. I say this because centuries ago composers and
musicologists were largely of the opinion that music was incapable of imparting a kind of general meaning
which could be understood. They were adamant that if music seemed to impart meaning, it just seemed that
way. This is discussed at length in the chapter entitled Music and Meaning. According to many classical
composers, musicologists and academics centuries ago, any meaning that music imparted had to be specific
and peculiar to the individual and was not something which could be seen to be in any way universal or
Composers were at pains to suggest that how they wrote music was a process beyond rationalisation. They
were often incapable of articulating how they thought it all up. This fuelled the other prevailing idea; the
absurd myth of the ‘lone genius’. If composers, musicologists and academics couldn’t figure out how
people wrote music, then how they did it was beyond our understanding. If something is beyond our
understanding we generally tend to either ridicule it or revere it. Luckily for composers we decided not to
lock them up or burn them at the stake but instead to revere and worship; to admire and venerate.
Composers would talk of ‘inspiration’ and of music being ‘from the heart’. They would talk about musical
ideas ‘coming from nowhere’; about conceptualization being an ethereal almost spiritual event, beyond
understanding. Whether composers actually believed this or whether it was simply good PR is unclear, but
these sentiments continue to this day to foster a fundamentally flawed perspective of how music is
conceived and created; it affected for an eternity how listeners and music lovers rationalise music.
Hundreds of years of music history tended to faithfully and happily restate the same views as fact and so
the great lie continued. This is not to denigrate or malign the work of the so-called great composers; merely
to re-contextualise it with modern perspective and more honest context.
History gives us a long list of composers from centuries ago right up to now, whose work is brilliantly
imaginative. The creativity involved and the sheer level of skill, dedication and incredible ability is
staggering. But it is not beyond belief because it happened. The great problem with history, or rather the
telling of it, is that it is mired in sentimentality. Is every notable or historically famous act of musical
composition to be seen as ‘awesome’? And if some are and some aren’t, who decides what is good and
what is bad? Who decides who the geniuses are? Good and bad do not exist; they are merely opinions, not
fact. Genius does not exist and as a means of evaluating the worth of a composer, it is a meaningless
accolade which simply means that the person giving the accolade is unable to articulate their thoughts and
opinions coherently and rationally and instead opts for the safe haven of a term nobody understands but
everyone agrees must surely be fantastic.
Looking at how and why society places such high accolades on music from the so-called ‘great composers’,
we need only look to how society reacts nowadays to any artist or composer who achieves commercial
success. Almost all are universally paraded as being ‘brilliant’ or ‘superb’ or ‘awesome’ or ‘genius’, as if
anyone who succeeds commercially is also by definition excellent. There is a societal tendency to overcook
the importance, relevance or ability of artists. Partly this is the result of ignorance and partly it comes out of
our need for winners and heroes. This is just as present now as it was two or three hundred years ago, and
ultimately it is just as pervasive because it frames the debate and debases the work of creative artists.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
It distills their work through the distorted prism of a media obsessed with celebrity, not ability, and in so
doing determines how society interacts with its musicians and composers.
In concluding this introduction we need to return to the theme of ‘meaning’ in music; music suggests and
infers emotional meaning and such meaning is the subject of intense discussion in most of the chapters in
this book. To be clear, such meaning is not actually physically contained in the music itself, it is contained
in our reaction and response to the music, just as words possess meaning not because of what they look like
or sound like but because of the collective consciousness and common beliefs of those who interpret them.
The meaning music imparts is rarely apparent to just one individual. It is frequently general and obvious to
most listeners, albeit to varying levels of accuracy depending on someone’s aural cognitive abilities,
emotional intelligence and intellect. True, the meaning harmony imparts does not translate to most people
with the immediacy and succinctness inherent in the written or spoken word or the image, but that is simply
because the meanings in words and images have evolved in more of an absolute, complete and unequivocal
way; we can all convert words into meaning relatively quickly and concisely. But there are meanings,
moods, emotions and feelings created within us by music which are ultimately governed by our unified and
collective reactions and responses to specific harmonies, chords, intervals and other devices and situations.
This means we can deduce how, why and in what circumstances certain harmonies, intervals, instrumental
combinations or melodies continue to affect us in fairly consistent, predictable and reasonably uniform
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol. 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
“There never was a silent film. We’d finish a picture, show it in our projection room and
come out shattered. It was awful. Then we’d show it in a theatre, with a girl down in the
pit pounding away at a piano, and it would make all the difference in the world. Without
music there wouldn’t have been a film industry at all”
Irving Thalberg, MGM Producer, 1920s
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol. 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Chapter 1
“Some people come by the nature of genius in the same way an insect comes by the name of a
centipede – not because it has a hundred feet, but because most people can’t count above fourteen”
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg 1742 – 1799
German scientist & satirist
Anyone trying to figure out what music is, and therefore what composing is, is caught between the
past, the present and the future. Music, like popular culture, is a moving target, forever evolving.
Analysing composing, one is forever comparing and contrasting between the past and the present,
uncovering commonalities, traditions and precedents, attempting to offer insights into the future.
Teaching composition is not about whether ‘this chord sequence is good’, or ‘whether this melody
works’, it’s about embracing traditions, styles, approaches and using them as a blank canvass for your
own new ideas, interpretation, imagination and vision. No one ever literally ‘teaches’ composition, for
in many ways it is both unteachable and unknowable; it’s about intensely personal decisions which are
peculiar and specific to one writer. It’s about the emotional intelligence, creative abilities and intellect
of one person and how they manipulate music structure to offer something which has enough elements
of originality to make it theirs. Budding composers can be sensitively guided through a labyrinth of
stylistic possibilities and opportunities in order to uncover their preferences and inclinations, from
which, with advice and guidance, they can grow their own distinctive voice. Composers will deduce
their own strengths and weaknesses, and will inject their own personal style. A good composition tutor
is someone who can open the minds of composers to new ideas and possibilities; not overtly but in a
way which makes it almost appear as if it had never happened.
There are rules of logic, science, engineering and science which underline the whole creative side of
music. Why we make the ‘creative’ decisions we do is down to our perception of architecture,
placement, craft, precision and understanding about how to harness and manipulate what music offers
us, e.g. the almost limitless abundance of possibilities, permutations and potential music contains and is
already there. By ‘already there’ I mean that every path we carve out through music, every road we
navigate from the beginning of a piece to the end was already there in theory. We did not invent the
chords or the individual notes and do not own copyright on them individually. What we ‘own’ is the
architecture; the precise method of construction; what we own is the journey.
The one thing we bring to music is the one thing it can’t do and doesn’t already possess - the ability to
choose; to make selections. Every chord trick in the book already exists in principal but they never
exist in fact until somebody chooses them. Music itself is not a conscious thing; it does not have a mind
of its own. We are its mind. We bring the one thing it never had: humanity. So in essence composers
are, principally and foremost, arrangers; they assemble. Composing is about choice; ultimately
composers choose where to put stuff. A composer is not responsible for the fact that one chord might
work well with the next; he or she is responsible for deciding to use such chords; for realising the
chords work as they do.
Has music been damaged by its historians?
History is real but the retelling and interpretation of it is someone else’s version; the telling of history
nearly always, and to an extent naturally, has a particular viewpoint. History, or at least the telling of it,
is dripping in the kind of sentimentality which can and does make it prone to being unreliable. History
is not usually written by the people who live it; it is written by people who observe and report from
afar. Similarly the nightly news is not generated by the people who report it, but they frame it and
determine its context. In many respects there are rarely any truths, only opinion and interpretation.
Truth is frequently something we create, not always something that just is. I say all this because,
arguably, no other art form has been more damaged by its historians and academics than music. The
history of music is prone to being manifestly misunderstood, misreported and misinterpreted by its
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol. 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The myth of genius
Over and above the obvious need for heroes and the fact that holding individuals in great esteem helps
and inspires us to succeed, there are other reasons society reveres the ‘great’ composers: because we
are taught to. As I alluded to in the introduction to this book, people love music but for the most part
they do not understand the method by which it is achieved, much less the process of conceptualisation
and composition. Because few people can conceive of how music is created and built by composers,
music has always suffered from a kind of emotional isolation and insulation. People love music but
they do not understand it. In one foul swoop most listeners are both in their element and out of their
depth; they revere something they don’t understand and presume is the result of greatness because
that’s the way society (history books, the media, etc) ‘frames’ composers. Anything which is not
understood or rationalised is generally either demonised or revered. Society refers to the great romantic
composers as geniuses simply because it has no other terms of reference: they’re so good it’s
unbelievable. And if it’s unbelievable it must be genius.
You could read most books on Beethoven and still be none the wiser about how he created music. You
might read about what ‘drove’ him but about his process or how his music communicated or created
meaning you would find comparatively little. You would no doubt read a lot of reverential speculative
context about why he wrote what he did, and when, and in what condition he was. Few people
appreciate or understand how composers compose and so the telling of their life and work become
addled with speculation and supposition. Books often tell us what was written (which notes, harmonies
and instrumentation) and they convey the brilliance of the structure and organisation of music, but little
is written in terms of deducing how and why his music affects us.
In music there is no such thing as good or bad; there is only opinion and interpretation. There is no
such thing as good music; no such thing as bad music. Opinion is prone to being a societal concept in
which the wisdom of the crowd is king. Therefore Beethoven is a genius; and so is Elton John and
Stevie Wonder and anybody else who does something wonderful. Most people don’t understand how or
why music communicates, so they shroud it in words like ‘art’ and ‘genius’ – concepts which have no
meaning, only conjecture, guesswork, opinion, supposition, presumption. Let us examine the words
which normally shroud supposedly great composers; genius, art and inspiration.
Art is a name we give to the result, the conclusion. We cannot define it. To call a creative process ‘art’
is meaningless. It is not a definable process we can rationalise or understand. The ‘result’ might, in
some people’s estimation, qualify as ‘art’ but the process is about intelligence, understanding,
perception, placement, architecture, decision and profound judgment and awareness. I’m not saying we
should avoid using any words which don’t have a concrete unassailable meaning; simply that we
should remember that such words are, quite literally, meaningless.
Genius is more about revealing our own opinions and imposing them on others. Saying someone is a
genius is like saying ‘look at me, this is what I think’. It is a platform for your own opinions. Genius is
a manifestation of our inability to understand a process - a process which only appears to defy
explanation and only seems to be amazing and therefore ‘genius’. Our desire to believe in genius is not
entirely unlike our desire to believe in God: it says more about the believer. Genius is more of a
concept than a reality; it is a nice idea. The concept of genius hasn’t always been here; it evolved as
people became more attuned to the concept of personal greatness and eventually became the prism
through which society rationalised the work of the great thinkers and artists. This is a shame because
the growth of the concept of genius is tantamount to society admitting that it has no proper tangible
explanation for people who achieve great things. I say again, this is not an attempt to discredit or
dispute the fact that immensely talented people exist, simply a desire to understand ability in a sensible
way that can be understood properly.
The concept of genius fulfils our need for heroes. All this is perfectly understandable but stands as
testament to the level to which the history of music has been seen through a reverential and distorted
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol. 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
People do not rationalise music in the same way they might interpret visual art because for most people
music lacks a visual dimension; we interpret it using only our ears. People can understand visual art
better because they can see it; most have some kind of idea how the art is physically constructed
because they can see it. Phrases such as ‘seeing is believing’ do not happen by accident. Because
people lack an understanding of how music is conceived and created, and because most people cannot
see it (i.e. read it) the lack of understanding creates a vacuum which is sometimes filled by endless
mystique and reverence.
The phenomenon of musical ideas arriving full-blown in the mind is called inspiration. The concept of
inspiration is just as much a myth as ‘genius’ and the two concepts tend to fuel each other. Let us
consider some statements from the great composers, when referring to how their ideas ‘came to them’.
Handel said “I thought I saw all heaven before me”. Mozart said “Whence and how they come I do not
know; nor can I force them”. “The music of this opera was dictated to me by God”, so said Puccini.
Brahms said “I felt like I was in tune with the infinite”. All the statements above share three common
characteristics: they can’t be understood, they can’t be explained and they can’t be challenged. Let us
instead turn to what is known; to what can be proved fairly conclusively.
Beethoven’s sketches, like Mozart’s (many of which have been carbon dated and subjected to other
scientific tests) reveal that both had a habit of writing different sections of a piece at different times,
after which they would place them in sequential order. Beethoven often worked on several pieces at the
same time. He produced numerous drafts, often spanning years, and would mix and match different
ideas from different pieces. Mozart regularly ran out of ink and used several different kinds in the
composition process. By studying ink patterns scientists and musicologists have deduced that Mozart
rarely wrote fully formed compositions; he sometimes mapped out the melody and bass first, adding
chords and voicing later. He sometimes started pieces in the middle (or at the point at which he wanted
the piece to achieve its grand statement) and then simply worked back to provide a proper delivery for
the great moment. This is frequently how composers of the moving image often work.
Neither Beethoven nor Mozart would have worked this way if they’d copied perfectly formed pieces
from mental images in their heads, but without this context we have the perfect illusion; the illusion of
‘immediate linear composing’, of ‘inspired genius’.
So, what is inspiration? Inspiration is sometimes referred to as the one aspect of composition which
defies explanation. It defies explanation largely because it is not entirely true. When composers
compose, what they are doing is converting the process of speculative conceptualisation into actual
hard truths. When people listen to music they tap into unconscious or conscious memories of existing
structures in order to understand, classify and rationalise what it is they’re listening to. But this is also
how composers write music. It’s the same process but undertaken by someone who has the mental and
emotional faculties to convert their knowledge into the creation of musical ideas. They invoke tradition
and custom; they explore and utilise different templates, habits and behaviours. They distil all this into
structural blocks. They impose their own changes and alterations using craft, architecture, placement,
common sense, incredible expertise and intellectual ability to fine-tune the product into a unit for
consumption. Granted, this doesn’t sound as exciting as “being in tune with the infinite”, or as thrilling
as “seeing all of heaven before me”. Nor does it sound as exhilarating as “being dictated by God”, but
it has the single virtue of being more plausible. When composers compose they impose their own
changes and alterations on an existing structure. If they’re lucky they impose enough changes to
develop their own style and find their own ‘voice’.
When people hear music they listen through mental processes which are governed by a myriad of
assumptions and probabilities the brain creates for us, based on previous listening experiences. We are
creatures of habit. The employment of routine and convention is what prevents us inhabiting a world of
permanent chaos and confusion. Music is rationalised according to how it fits with our preconceptions
and our prejudices; how it rates alongside the thousands of other musical experiences we’ve had. The
problem is that composers are guided in much the same way; they add a distinctive voice to the process
and so claim moral authority and legal ownership of it but most composers are essentially involved in
the same journey; they are arrangers first and foremost, deciding where, and how to use what music
structure offers us.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol. 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
If composers were not essentially involved in the same journey, different composers would sound less
alike than they do. We pick different apples from the same tree. The tree replenishes itself with apples
which may have fractionally different dimensions, but it’s still the same tree. Composers who really did
change things - composers who fundamentally altered or genuinely evolved music – succeeded in
plucking apples from a section of the tree no one else could see or reach.
In some cases they succeeded in taking a cutting from the original tree and growing an entirely
different tree. Another fundamental reason that composers write in homogenised styles is because
they’re fine tuning a product into a unit fit for commercial consumption. Listeners respond quicker to
something they can understand and composers fulfil their part of the bargain by writing in a way which
is accessible. And so the cycle of commodification continues.
Many composers do not always fully understand, appreciate or respect the process by which they
achieve a creative work. Some don’t understand the process by which they suddenly arrive at a
conclusion; a finished musical product. Some don’t realise that their journey has been done before,
which makes it easier for them to see the path before them. Chord sequences have a habit of becoming
clearer as they progress, because as writers we are seduced by the safety and comfort of something we
know and understand. When some composers try and explain their process they tend to either talk in
bland generalities which could theoretically mean anything, or focus on the distinct and new areas of
the piece which are personal and peculiar to them, or they drench the whole process in abstraction and
mystery. This doesn’t mean that composers are dishonest; merely that most of them simply don’t sit
and ponder or analyse how and why ideas come to them. Some that do are seduced by the romantic
notion that ideas come from ‘somewhere unknown’ and are beyond rationale - something which further
fuels the myth of genius.
Paul McCartney, one of the 20th century’s most prolific composers, along with numerous other popular
composers, said he didn’t know where his ideas come from. This is a familiar mantra but the idea that
ideas literally come from nowhere is absurd. Everything comes from somewhere and the idea that
musical ideas are somehow immune from this procedure or separated from this process is an example
of how we romanticise what we don’t understand. For example, we are perfectly attuned to thinking
that the great inventions are the product of a perfectly rational mental process which involves science,
engineering and ingenuity. We believe that the person who invented the Hovercraft or the cyclonic
vacuum cleaner is a great engineer, planner and builder but we don’t accord such relatively normal
plaudits to composers. Instead many accept without a moment’s hesitation the laughable concept that
when composers conceptualise, their ideas come from nowhere. We suspend our normal healthy
judgment and even scepticism and embrace, without reservation, concepts which have more to do with
magic than anything rational. Composing is not done by magic. Nor is it done by genius, because the
two concepts are unprovable and without merit. One is ridiculous; the other is a description without
meaning or logic.
Listening with prejudice
Despite the rich tapestry of harmonic possibilities music offers us; despite the almost limitless potential
we have access to, the type of harmony that is used is usually simple and fairly predictable. This is
because we compose the same way as we listen; with prejudice. The notion that we sit down at a piano
and compose whatever ‘comes into our heart’ is nonsense. Its good PR but it is essentially a lie. The
notion that ideas come from ‘nowhere’ and are therefore the work of genius or God or some other
implausible or metaphysical concept is a myth. Composing is a series of neural events governed by
biological and intellectual factors, culminating in the creation of something which has an element of
our own sculpturing.
If every piece of music ever written was literally from the heart or the result of a baffling and utterly
personal piece of inspiration unique to every individual, the music written by one person would sound
radically different to the music written by the next person. Music would not sound as alike as it does.
Music is not composed in an empty emotional or intellectual vacuum. It is the some of your parts; the
culmination of your knowledge and understanding, distilled into music. Every piece of music you ever
listen to plays a part in shaping your musical tastes, habits and routines. This is not meant to challenge
what music is or how clever the individuals who craft it are; but it does shine a light on the essentially
fanciful notion that some innate and utterly unique and unfathomable greatness of the individual is
solely responsible for the music we listen to.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol. 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Composition is often referred to as ‘frozen improvisation’ and improvisation is often called
‘spontaneous composition’. Improvisation is often labelled ‘extraordinary’, but looked at
dispassionately and from a non-reverential and non-musical perspective there is nothing neccasarily
extraordinary about the basic concept of improvisation. We all do it, all the time. We improvise not in
tones but in words. We do not stop talking in order to conceive our next word or sentence. We just
keep talking, reaching for the best idea and stating it in the most eloquent words possible. Musical
improvisers do the same with harmony and melody. What is fantastic about improvisation is the
considerable skill and dexterity involved in the conversion of ideas into physical delivery. Improvisers
have a way of articulating their vast musical knowledge in exactly the same way others articulate
memory and words. But improvisation is not as truly random as some would have us believe. Certainly
it is no more random than speaking. Most of us do not randomly speak gibberish for no reason at all.
Most of us articulate our thoughts through speech. Analysed properly most improvisations are a
collection of compacted ideas, strung together and articulated. Often jazz improvisations are a
collection of licks and phrases at least partly based on training, practice and rehearsal. What
mesmerises us is that people can do this with music rather than words. What is truly exceptional about
improvisation is the link between memory, imagination and performance technique which allows such
perfect synergy between the mind, the body and instrumental technique. We must separate the concept
from the practicality to highlight where the true expertise in improvisation lies.
Our endless preoccupation with ‘greatness’ and ‘genius’ and what people perceive to be the work of
one person blurs our knowledge and understanding about how music is created. John Williams is
arguably the most successful living film composer. He possesses an innate sense of artistry, creativity,
judgement, economy and purpose and a truly fabulous imagination. His music works on an emotional
level because it is articulated brilliantly and communicated so well. But people talk about the ‘John
William sound’ and this encompasses the work of many people. Indeed one of the reasons some of his
film music is said to be so immediately identifiable is precisely due to the skills of his orchestrators,
notably in the past, Herbert Spencer. Also people like Shaun Murphy (music engineer) and Ken
Wannaberg (music editor) are partly responsible.
Absolute Pitch
Absolute Pitch is highly revered, but speaking as someone who enjoys both the benefits and drawbacks
of what used to be called ‘Perfect Pitch’ (the ability to recognise the pitch of a note on hearing it), there
are important lessons to be learned about this area which tie-in to aforementioned notions of ‘greatness’
and ‘genius’. Before we come to AP, let us analyse some fundamental preconceptions about a number
of music related areas and issues. We enjoy what we assume is instantaneous sight and sound. We are
under the illusion that we simply open our eyes and see. Something makes a sound, so we hear. But
sights and sounds actually come to us as partial and fragmentary information. Our perception systems
restore the missing information with speculation, probability; what we assume is there to see and what
we expect to hear.
Sensory perception makes mental images of the world in our mind – representations of the world
outside our heads. It is so quick we’re not aware of this procedure. So we presume there isn’t one.
People often presume that things they can’t see or hear or understand simply aren’t there. Whilst this is
understandable to an extent, it also compromises our understanding of fundamental mental functions.
The concept of absolutely instantaneous sight or hearing is a complete illusion. Our perceptions are at
the end of a long chain of neural events that give us the appearance, quite literally, of instant vision.
We have a problem acknowledging processes. We have no problem acknowledging events, because we
know they’re real. But the process by which something happens can be abstract, theoretical and
conceptual. So we ignore it. We ignore the process by which something happens and look only at the
outcome, the result.
There are many areas in which our strongest beliefs mislead us. The appearance of a ‘flat earth’ is one.
The presumption that our senses give us an undistorted view of the world is another. Everything we see
we presume is exactly as it actually is in reality, but our perceptions are at least partly guided by ‘best
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol. 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Perception involves an analysis of probabilities; the brain’s task is to determine what the most likely
arrangement of objects in the physical world is. We don’t look at every branch but we know it’s a tree.
Colour is a psychophysical fiction; it is the imposition of a categorical structure we impose on what we
see. Similarly but not as obviously, pitch is a psychophysical fiction; a direct consequence of our brains
imposing structure on the world of frequency. Frequency exists; pitch is something we invented to
explain it. To go a little further, ‘key’ is also a fiction; it is a construct, a method by which we
understand and categorise sound - in particular, pitch. It creates a hierarchy of importance; a pecking
order. It exists only in our mind and on paper. It is something we imposed on music to make sense of it;
it is how we humanised and dominated music.
Our perception fills in the bits that aren’t there.
Because ‘seeing is believing’, people are more ready to accept visual
illusions as the most notable proof of sensory distortion. The ‘Ponzo
illusion’ (left) is an optical illusion that was first demonstrated by the
Italian psychologist Mario Ponzo (1882-1960) in 1913. He suggested
that the human mind judges an object’s size based on its background.
He showed this by drawing two identical lines across a pair of
converging lines, similar to railway tracks.
In the Kaniza illusion (fig 2) there appears to be a white triangle over a
black outlined triangle. Once again this is an illusion.
Most of the time the information we receive is ambiguous or
incomplete, but our brain’s ability to make identifications based on
partial, incomplete or fragmentary information is brilliant. When we
hear music our preceptors are unconsciously working hard to try and
rationalise it based on simple determining factors
Brain categorisation simplifies musical memory as well as musical perception. Without categorisation
the world would be confusing. A dog with a long tail would be totally different from a dog with a short
tail. The same is true of our interpretation of melody. When music is performed several times, or a
piece covered by different artists, we don’t hear them as separate songs. We seldom notice individual
characteristics. We seldom notice tunings. Categorisation disables us from listening to different pitch.
What key something is in is irrelevant to our brains. People can easily remember songs without the
burden of knowing exactly what key something’s in.
So, returning back to ‘absolute pitch’, we can instantly name a colour by looking at it, but why can’t
we name a pitch by listening to it? In other words, why don’t more people (in fact everybody) have
absolute pitch? The answer is, quite simply, because there was never a need for it. Thousands of years
ago our lives depended on our ability to distinguish colour, but our lives never depended on our ability
to distinguish pitch. If we ate a certain coloured berry we might die. If different berries had sung at
specific pitches instead of possessing specific and identifiable colour, we’d probably all have absolute
Perhaps more people have AP than we think
Imagine you knew the colour red but didn’t know its name; you knew what it was but not what it was
called. You could recognise but not classify. Now imagine you know what the pitch of the note of ‘A’
sounds like - what it feels like - but because of a lack of any training in music theory, particularly
harmonic categorisation, you don’t know what it’s called. You can hear it, recognise it, but not classify
it; and therefore you can’t prove it.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol. 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Worse still, if you’re not a musician you’re probably not even aware that you can recognise a pitch.
People might know you as being particularly good at Karaoke without anyone realising you have
absolute pitch. Absolute Pitch is thought to be rare but we don’t even know that for sure, because AP
requires musical knowledge to even realise you’ve got it. Remember, musical knowledge is required to
prove you have AP and is probably required to even know you have AP. But it’s probably not
necessary to have AP.
There are probably many more people with AP than we currently know about. In order for us to
develop it we need to exist in an intensely musical environment, preferably from an early age. Many of
the ‘great’ composers had it. Many arrangers and orchestrators have it.
The question as to whether AP makes you a better composer is a tricky one. It means you can hear your
conceptualisations in your head clearly, so the creative process can be quicker and more intense.
Whether that neccasarily makes you ‘better’ begs the question, what is ‘better?’ Often people who
possess AP have it because they have developed a susceptibility to it based on close constant exposure
to music. Composers who write from an early age can develop an innate emotional relationship with
music; this can foster and generate AP. People with AP are simply accessing an ability we all have the
potential for but few have. AP is behind a door that usually remains closed. AP has never been
‘needed’, unlike ‘absolute colour’. Therefore comparatively fewer people appear to have it.
To visit the phrase ‘seeing is believing’, consider this: if the ear as an organ was only as sensitive as the
eye, we would hear less than an octave. The ear (in particular the brain’s interaction with it) is capable
of so much more than it actually does. When we listen to music, just like ‘the illusion of instantaneous
sight’, much of what we think we hear was coming whether we liked it or not. We subconsciously fill
in missing gaps with our knowledge and understanding of tradition and precedent; what we expected to
hear. This continues to be how we rationalise music. The brain has a strange relationship with music.
When conductor Clive Wearing lost large parts of his memory after an illness, the only bits which
survived were memories of music and of his wife. What a wonderful world that must have been. When
Ravel’s brain deteriorated he lost his sense of pitch but not timbre. Hence the ‘Bolero’ was often said to
be ‘orchestration without music’.
Plato said: “The music masters familiarise children’s minds with rhythms and melodies, thus making
them more civilised, more balanced and better adjusted”. He didn’t say the music masters made
children more ‘controlled’ but he might as well have done, for in reality this can be the net result. In the
book ‘On the Track’ Rayburn Wright and Fred Karlin, referencing recent cognitive studies, said “By
four months old babies already prefer major and minor 3rds to the more dissonant minor 2nds”.
In the same book David Hutton, head of the Cognitive and Systematic Music Laboratory, was quoted:
“Through constant exposure, synapses are trained to respond to the tones and characteristics of western
music”. So there we have it; our brains have adapted to the narrow margins of what music ‘is’ and are
less receptive to what music ‘might be’ or ‘is capable of’.
In order to completely kill off the myth that to be a great composer you need AP, I will simply state
that excellent ‘relative pitch’ is sufficient. This is something we can generate and nurture. This will
benefit your own music and your ability to understand and enjoy the music of others. Most people with
AP can also name pitches of non-musical sounds, such as tills, car horns, bottles clinking, cats
meowing, engine noise, etc. This makes life very interesting and also makes the world very musical but
in itself it is not a great benefit to being a composer.
Music through the looking-glass of its industry
One of the primary battles any teacher of composition has, whether they acknowledge it or not, is to
decide whether musical composition is taught within the reality of the industry which controls it, or
whether it is taught as an autonomous art. Should music be defined by the current music industry, or do
teachers have a broader responsibility to contextualise the past and offer possibilities for the future? I
say this because whilst this book aims to contextualise the past and learn from elements of its history
and practice, I want to encourage young composers to avoid being defined purely by the industry and
working practices that currently control music. We must endeavour to ensure the survival of the spirit
of adventure and the notion of daring. Almost every famous and successful film composer has brought
something to the table around which he or she sits. Otherwise film music would be permanently
drowning in a sea of pastiche.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol. 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Despite an industry desires to commodify and commercialise film music and turn it into a ‘type’ of
music they can easily market, composers have nevertheless managed to evolve and advance film
What do you call music?
Over the years I have occasionally asked people what they think music is; what defines it. Someone
once said that Bob Dylan represented what music was, until he dared to play an electric guitar at
Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when hundreds walked out. A jazz enthusiast told me that anything
made before 1940 or after 1960 ‘isn’t really jazz’. Whenever you try and uncover and unpick what
music is, you encounter a world of pride and prejudice, bias and intolerance, misunderstanding and
even bigotry. I even asked a Catholic Priest what he thought music was. He joked ‘anything as long as
it’s not polyphonic’. He was referring of course to the Catholic Church’s famous banning of
polyphonic music (more than one part playing at a time) because they thought it would cause people to
doubt the unity of God. We snigger at such intolerance in complete denial that exactly the same kinds
of intolerances exist today, exacted by the current custodians of music; the music industry.
The Church was famous for protecting and nurturing music but also for interfering with it. The Church
banned the augmented 4th (also known as a tri-tone) – it was so awful that it must have been the work
of Lucifer. I mention this because the Church was the Music Industry centuries ago. People often look
back with horror to a time when music was controlled to such a perverse degree without, for even a
moment, seeing the irony that the modern music industry, controlled as it is by corporate interests and
business and commerce, does exactly the same thing. Educators are often no better; one Degree tutor
told her students to “avoid 1st inversions” simply on the basis of personal preference. I could name a
dozen pieces right now where a 1st inversion was crucial, critical and essential to the success of the
music. Most teachers of composition make the fatal mistake of imposing their views, choices and
preferences on others; teaching becomes merely a vehicle for their own opinions.
The music industry’s grip on music is perhaps the latest incarnation of society’s desperate and eternal
bid to control music. The classification and categorisation of music is probably essential in order to
make a coherent industry out of it but it is control nonetheless. Categorisation creates hierarchy; a
pecking order of importance. As an example, most composers readily work on the blissful assumption
of melody being the prism through which music is heard. In fact harmony is probably the ultimate
musical prism. Close analysis of music reveals harmony to be completely pivotal in almost every way.
We assume melody is more important because this is the bit we can understand. People do not walk
down the street humming chord sequences or singing harmonic extensions or chord voicings.
Humanity presumes that the most important aspect of music is the thing it can rationalise. If we hear
unaccompanied melody we instantly but usually unwittingly rationalise it harmonically. Melody will
always be suggestive of harmony. It will nearly always suggest a chord. We hear it in context of that
chord. Melody thus exists as ‘horizontal harmony’. In some ways it could be said that there is no such
thing as unaccompanied melody. When we hear it we subconsciously attempt to make sense of it, and
the way we choose to try and make sense of it is to hear the harmony it implies.
Another example of how we accept unquestioningly what history has delivered us in musical terms is
summed up in John Cage’s famous statement that “Beethoven was wrong”. According to Cage and
other pioneers of the new and bold, melody and harmony in particular were far too ‘goal orientated’.
He blamed Beethoven, probably unfairly, for fostering what he saw as a narrow attitude and approach
to composing. Cage meant that ‘goal orientated music’ (music which went on a journey and had a
series of junctions before arriving at its destination) pandered to our expectations and effectively closed
us off to other possibilities. It was, he said, all about the goal, the result, the culmination, and the
melody was simply a crude device for delivering the journey. I say all this because one of the many
things we will find through studying film composers in particular is that they, more than most and
because of the unique nature of what they do and the kind of music they have to produce, are able to
challenge some of the traditions and tolerances that have defined music through the ages. They are able
to refuse to be bullied into pandering to musical ‘expectation’ because they are not governed by purely
musical or commercial concerns.
In general composers either bow to the weight of expectation and use it as a platform for fumbling
around in the dark searching for a new way to say something that’s been said a thousand times, or they
subtly distort or dislocate our expectations to try and create something which, whilst not qualifying as
ground breaking, is nevertheless ‘new’ or ‘original’ in its application or context.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol. 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
We find the latter approach a lot in film music. For ages we have assumed that the only viable
alternative to ‘normal music’ is to produce something wild, innovative and subversive, such as ‘electroacoustic music’. The prevailing myth is that tonality has had its day; it is broken, exhausted.
This is simply not the case. We are nowhere even remotely near exhausting the wonderful and almost
limitless tapestry tonality offers. We do not have to jump off the ‘deep end’ in order to be original.
Tonality is not as shallow as people think. What we do with tonality is shallow most of the time, but
that’s our fault, not its. Tonality, due to the almost limitless and subtle choices it offers, is much more
than the sum of its parts. A major sobering thought is that most of the real changes in music in the last
100 years have been largely stylistic. The biggest genetically lasting influence on popular music has
been the structure and form given to us by Bach, and that was hundreds of years ago. Real musical
changes to structure and form have been few, and have been largely ridiculed and ignored. There have
been many changes of stylisation, genre, approach & method, but these are not changes to the idea of
what tonality has to offer. We make think that songwriting has progressed because of the radical and
varied stylistic changes it has gone through, but the fact remains that the industry is still besotted and
dominated by the four-minute song, or as Cole Porter called them, ‘little symphonies’. More than a
hundred years after the birth of modern popular music we are still beholden to the concept of a
commercial entity which contains almost the same harmonic patterns and devices it did a hundred years
ago. Styles have changed but not the concept.
Taking it one stage further, the song itself is simply a crude commercial abbreviation of the Symphony.
It’s all based on an adherence to structure, simplicity and entertainment. Film music’s great strength is
that although it doesn’t have to function as stand-alone music for entertainment and therefore pander to
the normal requirements of popular music, it is plentiful, abundant, commercially successful, greatly
appreciated and listened to by the public. It is a great area of opportunity for expressive composers who
don’t want to be buried up to their ears in commercial expectation and convention but want to be heard
in a commercial context nevertheless. I do not mean to moralise about popular music and its tendency
to adhere to simplistic and aged styles, methods and approaches; simplicity and tradition have delivered
some of the world’s most endearing and emotionally communicative music. My point is that surely
there must be more? The industrialisation of popular culture and popular music has been the prism
through which music is rationalised, studied and enjoyed. Why are convention and simplicity such
potent and powerful constructs in music? As we discussed earlier, we look at art. This helps us
rationalise and digest. We listen to music. The extremes of art play better on the eyes than the ears for
most, but to repeat the earlier stated fact, if the ear as an organ was only as sensitive as the eye, we
would hear less than an octave; the brain’s ability to interpret sound is so much more advanced and
sensitive than its ability to interpret sight, and yet, ironically, it is this sensitivity which disables us
from understanding and appreciating weird music. People will happily walk around the Tate Gallery
and enjoy a wide variety of strange, bizarre, outlandish, eccentric, peculiar and subversive images. But
the same people would not usually enjoy a concert of equally or comparably ‘weird’ music. We are
more sensitive to the aurally bold than we are to the visually bold. Perhaps if we could ‘see’ music and
not just hear it, this synergy of information would allow it to be more understood and thus allow us to
be more open. Another uncomfortable truth is that we have become punch-drunk and stupefied by the
diet of simplicity and mediocrity we’ve been fed for a hundred years. This has made us immune to the
musically bold.
Film music, more than ever before, remains one of the few areas where composers can explore styles
and approaches which would otherwise not see the light of day. This book will hopefully enlighten and
inform about the many and varied styles employed in film music; what they are, how they work and
why they communicate.
How many illiterate authors do you know?
Large portions of this book require a good understanding of music theory, particularly notation; not the
razor-sharp sight-reading skills needed for performance, just an ability to understand notation enough
to be able to see the structure of music as well as hear it. Notation is the language of music; if we want
to truly understand music we need to be able to not just hear through our ears but interpret through our
eyes. A combination of listening to and reading music is the ultimate way of understanding how music
works and why it sounds like it does. Aural and visual cognition is a heady mixture which will
enlighten, educate and entertain.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol. 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Happily, more and more musicians and composers want to compose for film, but unfortunately fewer
musicians and composers than ever before seem to want to read music or feel that it is necessary. This
area needs to be addressed in order to contextualise why so much emphasis in this book is placed on
the importance of analysing musical notation. Music is not scored out in this book simply to offer a
visual reference or to allow you to ‘play along’; it plays a crucial role in how we analyse and
understand music.
The role of music in society
Until relatively recently written music has always enjoyed a special place within education. In ancient
times music was studied alongside mathematics and astronomy. To the ancient Greeks music was a
byword for intellectual culture and high art. The old association between music theory, maths and
astronomy was maintained in medieval educational life. During the renaissance period the ability to
play or sing was a massive social advantage and every artist and thinker had a working knowledge of
musical theory. Music was central to the thinking of educational reformers of the 18th and 19th
centuries. Many of them took their cue from the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who
suggested that young children should learn music by ear as they learn to talk, and later learn music
theory, as they would language.
But what damaged music tuition and eventually all-but banished music theory from the narrative of
modern music education in Britain was the way education failed to react to changes in popular culture
and popular music in the 20th century. Throughout the 20th century British music teachers were, in the
main, classically-trained amateurs, many of whom feared and resented the evolution of popular music,
which seemed at odds with what they’d been taught to teach. For decades prior to the latter part of the
20th century, music was taught – even in schools, in fact especially in schools – in an imperialist and
elitist way which simply pretended popular music hadn’t happened and wasn’t there. I myself can
remember music classes in the mid-1970s consisting of children singing hymns. Later when I did my
‘O’ levels and ‘A’ levels, the only music discussed was classical music. I learned lots about Benjamin
Britten and Dvorak and then went home and listened to other music.
This kind of life tainted the way a generation of youngsters viewed music. In a musical sense at least,
school didn’t reflect society or normality. The teaching of rigid classically oriented music theory
became associated with the restrictive practice of only teaching classical music. Modern theory (chord
symbols, lead lines, modern chord voicings – the kind of thing you might encounter on most gigs) was
not addressed at all. The only music theory addressed was the kind which might prepare you to work in
a symphony orchestra. For any youngster wanting to be involved in pop music, school music lessons
were the last place to be. If you scour the history of pop music of the 60s and beyond, you’ll find many
of the artists who went on to be amongst Britain’s top performers and composers (Mick Jaggar, David
Bowie, John Lennon, to name but three) went not to Music College but to Art College.
Nowadays pop music is acknowledged and taught in schools. Schools finally acknowledged the 20th
century just in time to catch the end of it. Just as classical music was the singular prism through which
music was taught in schools, now technology is the central dominating ethos, with most young students
deposited in front of computer screens, able to construct music from samples. Music theory has been
largely jettisoned and is considered by many educators as irrelevant and elitist. Music must, at all costs,
be fun. Students must be able to create their own music and enjoy the sounds music makes without
hardly any meaningful reference to what the music looks like. The unassailable message is that
creativity must be effortless, enjoyable and never difficult. Theory is difficult and thus doesn’t fit into
the ‘fun’ narrative.
In a modern world it is perfectly understandable for people to want to understand and contextualise
music in different ways. Technology has been massively beneficial to music. It has democratised,
enhanced and liberated music, freeing it from the restrictions of its past; but this is no reason for the
wholesale abandonment of the use of our eyes in understanding music. Some say that ‘reading music’
is irrelevant to a younger generation. Music theory may be irrelevant to a handful of genres which are
unable to be articulated through notation, but this has always been the case. Some of the most
interesting, effective and ground-breaking music of the 20th Century couldn’t be notated.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol. 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
But most mainstream music could, and still can. Musical notation, one of the most profoundly
beneficial forms of musical enlightenment, is hardly ever referenced in the teaching of composition in
It means in most cases that students never learn about the beauty, the structure, the abstractions, the
similarities, the traditions, the tolerances, the tricks, the methods, the techniques and the systems with
the essential benefit of seeing what they look like. How, for example, would you teach orchestration
without referencing musical notation? You wouldn’t, and yet some think you can teach composition
(which is inherently and inextricably associated with arrangement) without reference to notation. To
read many composition books one would be forgiven for thinking that all we need to do to understand
composing is to simply and endlessly talk about it. In some respects the study of music, and in
particular composition, is its own nemesis. It has become shrouded in pointless discussion, undue
reverence and academic gobbledegook. It has become immersed in supposition, assumption, guesswork
and hypothesis. It has remained amateur.
This attitude goes on in colleges and universities in Britain too. A majority of colleges of further
education contain music courses where the teaching of theory is almost non-existent and where
teachers themselves are musically illiterate. It happens in universities too, where you can encounter
PhD lecturers teaching composition and/or songwriting without any knowledge of what music looks
like. Worse still, they try and justify their ignorance by claiming that musicians and composers don’t
need to read. They cite the many pop stars who don’t read music. Obviously it is true that many pop
artists don’t read, but what people fail to realise is two things: firstly, the vast majority of popular
music would never see the light of day were it not for a vast army of professional session musicians
who participate in the recordings. Secondly, if you teach someone music without teaching them to read
music, one or two might be able to become world famous pop stars but the rest will be relegated to the
role of amateurs. They won’t be able to participate in the numerous professional careers musicians can
enjoy which involve reading music. A whole range of careers in music will be snuffed out simply
because their music teacher thought it was okay to be musically illiterate simply because he was.
To understand how important music theory (particularly notation) is, you have to understand how
theory is used in the practice of composing and in the process of analysing composition. If there is no
use for theory knowledge – no practical outlet - music theory remains precisely that; a theory. Musical
notation represents the visual link between the composer and what they have created. It represents
absolute proof that the student understands what he or she has created, and can therefore replicate it,
enhance it and learn from it to progress. It can be analysed, investigated, scrutinised, explored and
dissected. Composers who can read and interpret and analyse their structure and craft by looking at it
have the means to analyse; to progress. They have two means of interpreting what they’ve done –
visual and aural. Your ears alone will rarely be able to fully analyse every aspect of your music or
someone else’s music. Those who cannot read their own music might never properly progress; they
will simply become caricatures of themselves; different versions of the same thing, existing in an
eternal present. An ability to understand and analyse music is how and why arrangers, orchestrators,
classical composers and film score writers were and are able to turn projects around so quickly. What is
often mistaken for greatness, genius or an unfathomable ability to produce music at breakneck speed is
actually merely a deep and profound understanding of what music is and how to capture it.
This is one of the reasons the ‘great’ composers produced so much imaginative and vividly
communicative music; because they could hear it and see it and understand it to such a fine degree.
This is also one of the reasons how and why so many film score writers are able to distil the vastness of
music structure and capture their thoughts so succinctly and quickly; they understand music aurally
and visually. The breadth of understanding is complete. Composition for these people is not some
romantic chance event accompanied by a flash of lightening. The degree to which they understand how
music communicates has become ingrained in who they are. To be able to see rather than only hear is
crucial. Writing freezes music, and in so doing gives birth to the grammarian, the logician, the
historian, the scientist. The written note or chord or voicing is far more important than simply a visual
reminder; it recreates the past in the present.
It has often been said that some elements of music technology offer the quick solution but sometimes
lack context. It has been said, for example, that composers, producers and engineers need ‘the context
of the original equipment on which the plug-in is based’ in order to properly understand its usage.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol. 1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
I would argue against this as a general rule. The leap forward that technology has brought for music has
been profound and fantastic. It is not necessarily relevant to understand what came before or what lead
to a certain technology in order to respect it. We are where we are and technology represents the latest
instalment of the evolution of music. Some use this logic as a reason to jettison musical notation
completely from the landscape of music.
The reason for retaining musical notation is not out of blind reverential respect for the past or to try and
maintain the past in the present; it is to ensure the continuing role of our eyes as well as our ears in
understanding music. Music notation is simply music, visualised. It is not technology. I would argue
that only using our ears ‘offers the quick solution but lacks the context’. This is nothing to do with
technology or reverence or the past or the future, it’s to do with human interaction – how we
understand, appreciate, identify, empathise, realise, comprehend; in short, how we know music.
These are the reasons music notation plays such an important role in this book. A composer who
doesn’t understand music theory is someone who’s full creative potential might never be fully realised.
For any beginners wanting to know precisely which branch of music theory to work on to get started, I
would suggest any of the ‘Pop’ or ‘Jazz’ theory books. When confronted with the hugely dominating
classical music theory books (ones which invariably contain the world Royal), I would turn and run
hard and fast in the opposite direction. Only a small portion of information contained in classical music
theory books is of any interest or relevance. There are no chord symbols, there are no modern voicings,
most of the terminology is ancient and the music is too. You will drown in a sea of Schubert and
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Chapter 2
How do we uncover the secrets of music structure?
Musical structure is simpler to understand than most people think. Decisions composers make are
frequently dictated not by the idiosyncrasies, characteristics and eccentricities of the individual mind, but
by the hugely powerful tolerances and traditions which bind musical structure together. These tolerances,
structures, customs, rituals and conventions are quite narrow given that they respond to a public desire for
relative uniformity and conformity. People don’t like having to think hard when they listen and most people
don’t listen critically. Why would they? Music is primarily supposed to be entertaining. As a testament to
the consistency of music structure and how relatively quickly it takes shape during the composition
process, it’s interesting to note that many composers concede that the further they get into a piece, the
easier it becomes. This is because the journey becomes more and more obvious, predictable and ‘knowable’
as the process goes on. We are enticed into making decisions based on what we already know, tolerances
we understand and the safe seductive territory of familiarity. We’re reluctant, unwilling or perhaps
genuinely incapable of thinking outside the safe confines of simple music structure.
Given the simplicity of music structure and the ease with which it has been appropriated knowingly or
unknowingly from composer to composer over the centuries, it’s easy to form the opinion that writers often
get disproportionate credit for things they merely decided to use - rather than created ‘from scratch’. In
reality composing is usually more about arranging, architecture, placement and assembly than it is about
truly ground-breaking original thinking. Most successful composers have two people living permanently
inside their heads. One is the pragmatist, the realist, the logician, the ‘closer’; the voice which stops you
endlessly pontificating to a point where you never finish. The other person living inside your head is an
arranger. A good composer is one who understands the instrumental complexion of their creation and
doesn’t leave such vast considerations to chance.
Ideas we sometimes think are original to us are frequently a result of the construct of musical structure
itself. Therefore the degree to which we are prepared to slightly subvert musical structure often determines
how original we can claim to be and also how successful we might become. There is still considerable
scope for enormous creativity and originality even within the constraints of regular tonality, tradition and
structure. If you examine every successful piece of music which appeals to you personally, invariably the
reason for its success, its appeal and its emotionally communicative qualities are the result of something
within it which is subtly different; something we didn’t expect and are mildly surprised by; our
expectations have been quietly confounded. People refer to pieces having an individual and specific style or
character but the reason these moments communicate so strongly is usually because in some small way
they confound our expectation; they engage us. This is where the composer did something different.
Having analysed thousands of examples of film music as well as popular songs and classical music, in
almost every example of a piece which was effective, successful and remembered, the reason was probably
that in some small or subtle way something in the piece subtly challenged the listening experience, skewing
what we expected. If the piece had been full of such strangeness it would have been difficult to listen to; so
the basic skill appears to be to create something which has enough tradition and regularity to ensnare us but
also enough of something new to engage us without disorientating us too much.
Even the successful composers (the ones who offer something that challenges our expectation) seem to fall
into two categories; those who lead and those who follow. Such categories are usually not acknowledged;
they don’t appear as categories in record shops, but in every generation of composers there will be those
who genuinely break new ground - those who skew what we expect to such a degree that it slightly
redefines what ‘normal’ is - and those who, although undoubtedly producing music which communicates
emotionally, are essentially treading an existing path. Given that this second category represents most of
the music we’ll ever listen to, there is significant untapped scope for vast stylistic, structural and
organisational variation. Composers chip away lightly at the structural blocks but not many manage to
fundamentally change the context of music. I do not beat a moral drum here; ultimately a slow,
cumbersome evolution is better than none at all.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Why is it so hard for composers to create genuinely new music? If you ask most composers this question
they tend to interpret ‘new’ as ‘bold’ or ‘brave’ or ‘weird’. There is a tendency to live within what we
perceive to be normal and become victims of commercial expectation. Many composers think that in terms
of ‘normal’ music there is nothing left to discover; that the only roads left to explore without going off the
deep end centre around style, sound, arrangement and production. But even within the shackles of rational
harmony there are millions of possibilities, avenues, subtleties and shades which are rarely explored.
Music shares similarities and characteristics because inherently most of it is very similar in makeup and
design. How do we tap into that hidden structure of music and learn how to capture, develop and subvert it?
Will standard traditional notation reveal musical structure, or do we have to rely on our aural judgement?
Will our ears tell us everything? Standard musical notation, harmonic groupings (chords) allow you to view
music in its proper sequential order – i.e. left to right - the manner in which you listen to it.
Music notation is not really used or taught to be used to analyse, only to follow and reproduce. The written
version therefore seemingly conveys no artistic merit; it suggests no pecking order of creative importance
and it usually conveys no obvious structural secrets. The assumption is that it shows you a finished product,
not the means by which it was achieved and not the manner of its conception. It shows you the destination,
not the journey. You read music to play and reproduce, not to interpret the secrets of its structures.
But these assumptions are misleading; music notation not only offers ways and means of identifying
music’s structures and secrets, it is one of the principal means of identifying how and why music is the way
it is. We just have to know what to look for and how to identify and interpret.
Although chord symbols can only be interpreted by those who understand music theory, they succeed in
giving a name and a description to the precise way in which simultaneous groups of notes are
communicated, rationalised and understood by everyone, not just people who understand them. In this way,
everybody understands chords to a degree; it’s just that most people don’t realise they do. In many ways a
chord name is a name we can give to an emotion or a feeling. If I was talking to a bunch of film music
students it could take ages to explain something I was trying to articulate, or I could just say ‘#4’ and
everybody who knew what emotions a #4 interval was capable of producing, would be there in an instant.
If you played the chord in fig.1 to almost anyone, they
would instantly name a popular film character. In this
respect, the chord symbol is more than a mere name or
a description; it communicates a feeling, an emotion,
which we have come to associate with a specific
Everybody hears chords, not just people who understand them. Everyone is a beneficiary of the effect of a
how a certain, specific chord is constructed, not just those who read or who understand how and why
they’re being emotionally affected. We all understand, but only people who can read music can properly
analyse and interpret why. I say all this because to understand chords and harmony is not just to understand
and appreciate what music looks like; it is to understand why music sounds the way it does. When you look
at a chord, you’re looking at music theory, but more than anything else you’re looking at music. To give a
name to specific chords or types of chords is the same as giving a name to the way you feel or a name to a
colour or a person. Knowing chords isn’t just about being able to communicate; it’s a means of expression
and understanding. To describe and interpret is to understand and to know.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Back to the beginning
To be able to glean anything from musical notation which allows us to be an analyst as well as a reader, we
have to briefly go back to the very beginning. We start with the chromatic scale of C (below) and then we
dispense with the chromatic notes to produce the all-powerful and world-dominating major scale on the
stave underneath. As we can see from the spacing, the major scale may sound ‘normal’ but it is far from
straight-forward. It is the result of intervention.
Classical theory tells us that notes in a major scale equate to specific chords. This helps us rationalise how
music theory itself rationalizes frequency into pitch and turns it into music.
The chords in fig.4, displayed in scalic
order, evolve from the key of C. Most
music in the key of C would feature a
combination of these chords
The template is probably responsible for about 75% of the world’s popular music. Obviously all music isn’t
in the key of C – the key of C is representational. The chords used in relation to the key centre are
transferable to all keys, but the science is the same. The chords used in fig.5 also have the same key centre,
around which other chords exist. Unfortunately this template is gibberish because it shows the chords
randomly displayed, not in their harmonic order or placement in relation to the key centre. And yet it is our
reliance on the traditional scalic order of this sequence (fig.4) which makes it so profoundly unable to
articulate the structures of music
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The figure to the right is the familiar
‘cycle of 5ths’
Imagine instead if keys / chords were
displayed as below (fig.7).
In this particular example the key centre
is C. The enharmonic crossover points are
displayed in boxes at either end of the
sequence of chords. This is a major
defining style of harmonic analysis I will
use numerous times within the text of the
book for the purposes of understanding
film music chord changes.
To the left we have chords down a 4th each time, from sharp keys (G, D, A etc). To the right we have
chords up a 4th from flat keys (F, Bb, Eb etc).
C# F# B
F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb
In the example below (fig.8) the key centre is still C but we have dispensed with the duplicative
enharmonic crossovers, choosing the chords which are more appropriate and easy to rationalise, not all
possible enharmonic alternatives.
F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
In the example below the key centre is F. The ‘centre of gravity of the key centre’ has shifted to the right
but in order to retain the integrity of the display and methodology, F has now visually shifted virtually
centre stage.
F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb
In the example below the key centre is A. The ‘centre of gravity of the key centre’ has shifted again but,
again, in order to retain the integrity of the display, A has now shifted centre stage
Eb Ab Db F# B
F Bb
In the graph below (fig 11), which is back in the safe key centre territory of C, complete with an
enharmonic overlap, I have added the relative minor chords underneath the major ones. Chords are
contained in ‘bubbles’ but empty bubbles lie above and below the chords displayed. Also I have added
perforated lines to display the level to which the chords in this territory lie outside the key centre
The inner perforated circle represents
the chords we find in 75% of most
popular music ever written. This
represents the narrow key centre.
Outside this key centre we see chords
laid out in the order of their harmonic
proximity to the key centre.
The major and relative minor chords
cannot be altered. These exist with the
presumption of a key centre existing at
all. The empty bubbles above and
below can be used to chronicle any
kind of altered chord (extensions, slash
chords, inversions based on the chord
they lay on top of or underneath) and
are therefore almost limitless.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
In the version below I have added some examples of chords underneath and above the primary chords,
which would simply be a selection of possible types of extension chords which might be used. They exist in
their correct harmonic context, lying above or below their ‘host’ or ‘primary’ chord.
In the example below (fig.13) the chords underneath and above the ‘primary chords’ are simply an
alternative selection of possible types of extension chords which might be used; this time including slash
chords and inversions. Again, they exist in their correct harmonic context, lying above or below their
‘primary’ chord.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
This type of analysis enables composers to study the work of other writers, looking at choices made,
avenues explored. If we design a chord grid for a favourite composition we can see how composers used
the chords available to them. This type of analysis of chords also enables musicians to contextualise the
vast possibilities harmony offers. Using this system of displaying abbreviated harmony (chord symbols),
we can potentially spot other important structural similarities or peculiarities. If you select songs from a
whole host of famous artists over the past thirty years, take the chord symbols from their songs and place
them over a grid, it can be quite interesting to see what a harmonic analysis looks like. When we see a
chord chart we look at the chords in sequence and so we tend to analyse bit by bit. When we extract a chord
sequence and place it over a chord grid we tend to see all the song in one hit. Characteristics tend to
become more obvious in terms of how music navigates round a key centre. This kind of analysis of
arguably of more use in songs but it is still useful when analysing chord sequences from film music.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
From major to minor
By displaying harmonic possibilities using a grid of chords we see straight away that harmony offers a
much richer abundance of major chord extensions, inversions and slash chords than minor.
The make-up and harmonic complexities of major chords offer more possible variation; minor chords less
so. This is why grids have more major chord possibilities. Nevertheless when composing we choose a fairly
even variety of major, minor and non-defined chords which means that actually we choose a
disproportionately higher number of minor chords in relation to how many there are available. This simple
example below represents this. The black box represents minor chords and their possibilities and
extensions. The white box represents major chords and their possibilities and extensions. The circle
represents what we actually use. A simple fact is that most music makes equal use of major and minor
What’s available
What’s available
The major chords are ripe for use because there are so many available extensions. The ones below represent
a few extension types
6th 7th maj 7th maj 9th
6/9 add2 add9 11th
Aug 5th (+) Dim (o) b9 b10 13(#11)
In addition there are then a vast array of inversions and slash chords. Minor chords are harmonically less
able to be altered. Below are pretty much the main extensions used.
m7 m9
With minor chords less slash chords are available because there are fewer chords on which to base such
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Now I want to look at some fairly obvious chord relationships; chord sequences that work because of
obvious proximity.
Chords of C & Ab connected by the note of C
Chords of G & Eb connected by the note of G
Chords of A & F connected by the note of A
Bb Eb Ab Db Gb
Chords of E and C connected by the note of E
Chords of D and Bb connected by the note of D
It’s worth pausing here for a moment to consider how these simple chord exchanges work. On a crude level
they work, quite simply, because they share a common note. There is a common relationship, which, as
listeners, we respond to.
But on a deeper level we respond to something else; a different context and meaning. This different context
and meaning is featured in many of the analysis contained in this book.
If we look at the two simple chords to the left, we
presume the only movements we are aware of are the
bottom two notes (from C and G to F and A). We
assume that this alone dictates how we perceive the
chord changing. The top two notes are physically
unchanged so we assume they are unchanged.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The issue is that, as musical notes they remain the same, but what they represent as intervals has changed.
The C and E on the treble clef stave represent root and major 3rd but in bar 2 the same two sounds and notes
now represent 5th and maj7th because they have been recontextualised by new notes underneath. Most
people are happily oblivious to this fact but it still affects their listening experience. They are beneficiaries
of the change in intervallic context without being aware of it. When we hear notes move in chord sequences
we respond to two realities, not one. There are two types of movement taking place, not one.
Taking the relationship between the chords of D and Bb and their common note of D, during the transition
we hear the note of D once and then again as part of its new surroundings. We hear the same note (this is
the musical context) but we hear another relationship (how the note relates in terms of its interval in the
new chord) too. As a note it doesn’t move; it goes from D to D. As an interval it moves from the root of the
D chord to the 3rd of the Bb chord. As listeners this is the intervallic manoeuvre we respond to. This is part
of what music is. Each and every melody note and each and every note in each and every chord have two
possible meanings; two realities: the musical and the intervallic. This, more than almost any other aspect of
harmony, defines how we respond to what we hear. This central point will appear regularly in this book in
varying degrees of complexity.
Below are some more filmic examples of chord sequences with common notes but different contexts.
The Sci-fi chord change
The Goldfinger
chord change
G#m C#m F#m Bm
F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb
Am Dm Gm
The James Newton Howard
chord change
Fm Bbm Ebm
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
I have given these chord changes ‘names’ to contextualize them a little better. In real terms James Newton
Howard does not own the chord change attributed to him and nor was he the first or the only composer to
use this device.
He has, however, exemplified its usage perhaps more than most modern film composers, as we will see in
numerous examples of his work featured in this book. The strength and beauty of the sequence and
therefore the reason it transports so emphatically and emotionally lies in the peculiar usage of the 3rd. The
example above shows the chord of E moving to Fm. The sequence is equally effective whether it’s
forwards or backwards. The G# (3rd of the E chord) becomes the Ab (min 3rd of the Fm chord), and therein
lay its uniqueness. The major or minor 3rds are what we sometimes call defining intervals. They literally
define the basic character and colour of a chord and they transport emotionally more than most intervals.
The existence of the 3rd is the reason for most of the obvious colour in a chord; without a minor or major 3rd
a chord possess a stark and suspended feel.
In these two chords in the JNH chord change we have the major 3rd becoming the minor 3rd of an entirely
different chord but with the sound of the note staying the same. We call it an Ab or a G# depending on
which chord the sound happens. The sound of the Ab/G# represents min or maj 3 respectively. The listener
therefore hears a kind of musical version of an optical illusion. The note remains the same but seems to
change. It therefore seems to do the impossible. The major 3rd becomes the minor 3rd and it does not move
an inch. What moves is the context, the surroundings, the interpretation.
This book will diversify in later chapters into complex detail about how such chord exchanges work in a
filmic environment and how they transport emotionally and even visually. For now I have displayed several
versions of the same chord shift, in different keys.
The James Newton Howard chord change in a few different keys. The top note of each first chord in every
bar represents the min 3rd with the top note of the second chord (which makes the same sound) representing
the maj 3rd.
The sequence below is an abbreviated section from the score to the film Signs, music by James Newton
Howard. The piece starts by fluctuating between C and Cm. These two don’t belong in the same key centre
so create a slight emotional tension. This is then capitalized on by the famous chord trick in bars 8-9 (Cm to
B), where what was the Eb (min 3rd of the Cm chord becomes the D# (maj 3rd of the B chord) by merely
changing its name, context and function; not what it is but what it is perceived to be.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio – First Crop Circles (from ‘Signs’) – James Newton Howard
In order to simplify and contextualise the issue of musical context of a note versus intervallic context, the
stave below features several chords all voiced on bass clef. The line at the top of both staves is a ‘musical’
representation of the top note, the E.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
This time the line which runs over the top of each stave is a visual representation of the note of E (top of
each voicing) in context of what it represents as an interval within the chord.
b 10th
The note of E therefore has two qualities, two characteristics, two contexts, two realities: the musical
context and the representational intervallic context.
Another example below helps to contextualise this issue. Below we have a succession of chords, all of
which are in root position. This makes the journey from one to the next chord clinical and parallel
sounding, as displayed by the notation and the somewhat exaggerated perforated contour lines underneath,
displaying the note names.
As we can see from the graph below, the intervallic movement (the intervals in relation to overall chord they
create) show a predictably virtually identical pattern of movement
maj 7
maj 3
maj 3
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The same chords below are now revoiced to allow more consolidated and variable movement. Underneath
we can now see the contours of the notes have variation.
If we now look at the revoiced notes as intervals we can see that they too are now variable and not identical
like they were in fig.8
3rd note down
Top note of the chord
4 th note down
2 nd note down
Bottom note
Perhaps the best way of displaying the magnitude of the difference between the note and the interval it
represents relative to the chord created, is by placing both contexts side by side (below, fig.27). Before you
look at this have a glance back at fig.22 and 23 which contain the musical and intervallic context of the
root-positioned version.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
This is what the chord sequence looks like in terms of notes (top) and intervals (bottom). This is what we
listen to when we hear these chords this way, voiced appropriately to ensure movement and variation. This
is why harmony is much more than simply a bunch of notes. Perhaps this is like looking at music in 3D.
How many notes change in this
How many notes change in this
Physically only one note changes in each sequence but in reality all notes change. One changes physically
but some change ‘intervallically’, as shown below.
# 11
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
One of the most effective ways of using harmony is to create the feeling of a lot of movement but without
the actuality of as much physical note movement. The interval context changes but not the notes. As
listeners we are in two worlds at once. The crucial thing here is that when a note changes intervallically but
not actually, the listener is much more involved in the reinterpretation of that event, which is why
sometimes such chord changes can create a strange feeling.
(add2) (2/6)
F maj7
The chords to the left are more examples of the same
issue. The context of the top three notes of the three
chords changes purely because of movement in the
lower stave. The other interesting thing is that the notes
on the bottom stave go physically down; the notes on
the top stave stay physically static but the intervallic
context of the notes on the top stave moves up.
Another example is below, where, solely because of the movement of two notes on the lower stave, what
the chord is changes profoundly. It could be said that the chord symbol name is simply a name and bears no
resemblance to what people hear. But people hear in much more complex ways than we assume. They are
able to detect and respond to the changing context of the top notes. They hear the same notes but are
emotional beneficiaries of the evolving intervallic context. The changes in chord symbol name, therefore,
represent an accurate example of the scale and magnitude of the change
(omit 3)
(omit 3/add 11)
(omit 3)
Below G notes are notated onto a stave. The chords which accompany this passage ensure that the
intervallic context of the G notes change. Underneath the stave I have annotated a contour that matches the
different intervals that the G notes represent as the sequence evolves
The notion that the G note remains the same is an illusion. In the sequence above, as in most music, notes
do not exist unilaterally, in a vacuum; they are part of a larger harmonic context. They exist as intervals of
an accompanying chord.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
We ‘hear’ the intervallic manouvre happen, simultaneous to the static ‘note’. The same G note is score
below in a light-hearted attempt to merge both contexts.
The chord sequence below we will call the ‘Sci-fi chord sequence’ (which I alluded to briefly on page 12).
It could belong to Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, John Williams, any other sci-fi composer and truthfully
any other composer, but of course it belongs to no one. The sci-fi genre in general has perhaps used this
chord maneuver more than most so to call it the ‘Sci-fi chord sequence’ is simply a means of identification.
Why does C to Gm work so well? To answer the question see what C to G sounds like. It sounds obvious,
classical and traditional. Using the grid system we can see straight away that C to Gm sounds ‘far away’
because the Gm literally is outside the key centre of C. The Sci-fi chord-change therefore changes the
predictability of the C to G exchange by turning the G major into a minor chord. We will discuss this and
other more complex chord changes during this book but for now below I have notated the chord sequence
in all its keys.
Em Am Dm Gm
Gm Cm Fm Bbm
Am Dm Gm Cm
Ab Db
Cm Fm Bbm Ebm
Dm Gm Cm Fm
Fm Bbm Ebm Abm
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
A#m D#m G#m C#m
G#m C#m F#m Bm
D#m G#m C#m F#m
C#m F#m Bm Em
F#m Bm Em Am
Bm Em Am Dm
This chord exchange is simple and effective. It exists in pop music but is at its most effective when used in
context with orchestra in a film environment. Many of the numerous filmic melodic and harmonic ideas we
will analyse are created not as pure musical ideas but as ideas which require film to play its part in bringing
them to life.
Audio - Main title theme from Star Trek - The Motion Picture
To the right we have the
sci-fi chord used in Jerry
Goldsmith’s iconic and
much-used Star
Dm Gm Cm Fm
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The Goldfinger chord change is arguably tied more emphatically the source of its use than most chord
changes, principally because it is so iconic and well-remembered and because it is rarely used as a chord
sequence outside of that context. The dramatic context of its use in John Barry’s famous Bond score
delivers the sequence in its most dramatic form. So, why do these chords transport so well? Why do they
sound odd but dramatic? Once again the sequence shares a common note; the chord of F and the chord of
Db share the common note of F. Below we see chord maps of both key centres, side by side.
They two chords are miles apart
in terms of key centres, as the
chord grid above shows.
Whoever’s key centre you take
as the first, whether its F or Db,
the maneuver between the two
is odd. Below I have displayed
the same F to Db chord
sequence in each of the three
bars, but have voiced them
differently, because the voicing
here is crucial.
The one in bar three is the most accurate in terms of being a
simplified version of the orchestration and voicing employed in
the song and film. Why was this voicing chosen and why is the
voicing at the centre of the success of this sequence in the film
The answer is simple; in bar 3 the voicing of the two chords (F and Db) has the major 3rd on top. The 3rd,
whether it’s a major or minor, as we’ve discussed already, is what we call a ‘defining interval’. Having the
3rd on top of a voicing will expose the interval. This - combined with such an odd ‘out of key centre’ chord
exchange - completes the exercise.
Audio – Goldfinger (John Barry/Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley)
Plunger- muted trumpet
As this reduced score shows, the
drama is increased by the wah-wah
muted trumpet figure which
essentially repeats the original motif
but over the Db chord. What had
been the 3rd-to-root figure now
becomes a discordant clashing #5to-3rd figure.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
In the next couple of pages I’ve filled the grids with various chord relationships created
by notes common to both chords; this time less obvious chords, links and relationships but the kind of links
film score composers might think of. I have contextualised them with the grid so readers can see where the
chords lie in terms of their harmonic closeness or detachment to each other. Often chords which work well
are rarely thought of if composers are simply thinking in terms of key centres or the way traditional
harmony operates; that’s why it’s good to look at them in this context.
As before, the two lines of primary chords (major and relative minor) are preset.
The rest are a collection of regular extensions, slash chords, inversions and other types of chord
embellishments. There are, as always, many more major chord variations than minor chord variations,
which makes the grid appear ‘top heavy’.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
relations. The D and E (sus4
and 5th) become the 3rd & #11th
Bb7 Eb7
Ab7 Db7 Gb7
A13 D13
C13 F13
Gmaj9 Cmaj9
Fmaj9 Bbmaj9 Ebmaj9 Abmaj9 Dbmaj9 Gbmaj9
Bb9 Eb9 Ab9 Db9 Gb9
Gmaj7 Cmaj7
Bb7 Eb7 Ab7 Db7 Gb7
F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb
Bb13 Eb13 Ab13 Db13 Gb13
Bb9 Eb9 Ab9 Db9 Gb9
Fmaj7 Bbmaj7 Ebmaj7 Abmaj7 Dbmaj7 Gbmaj7
Eb6 Ab6 Db6 Gb6
G#m C#m F#m Bm Em Am Dm Gm Cm Fm Bbm Ebm
G#m7 C#m7 F#m7 Bm7
Fm7 Bbm7 Ebm7
G#m6 C#m6 F#m6 Bm6
Bbm6 Ebm6
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
A13 D13
C13 F13
Ab7 Db7 Gb7
Bb13 Eb13 Ab13 Db13 Gb13
Gmaj9 Cmaj9
Fmaj9 Bbmaj9 Ebmaj9 Abmaj9 Dbmaj9 Gbmaj9
Gmaj7 Cmaj7
Bb7 Eb7
Bb9 Eb9 Ab9 Db9 Gb9
Bb9 Eb9 Ab9 Db9 Gb9
Obscure relations: The
only note that changes
out of the entire chord
is the bass note, from
an E to F.
G of chord 1 (b10 of E
chord) becomes 9th of
D of chord 1 (7 of E
chord) becomes 6th of
Fmaj7 Bbmaj7 Ebmaj7 Abmaj7 Dbmaj7 Gbmaj7
Bb7 Eb7 Ab7 Db7 Gb7
F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb
G# of chord 1 (maj3rd of
E chord) becomes
min3rd of Fm
Eb6 Ab6 Db6 Gb6
G#m C#m F#m Bm Em Am Dm Gm Cm Fm Bbm Ebm
G#m7 C#m7 F#m7 Bm7
G#m6 C#m6 F#m6 Bm6
Cm6 Fm6/9 Bbm6 Ebm6
Fm6A (3rd)Bbm6
Obscure relations:
the 6t. Because of the multitude
C#m6 F#m6
Fm7 Bbm7 Ebm7
of possible
C representations
Bbeach note
Ebhas depending
Ab on its surrounding
context, we only have to change notes in the first chord subtly to arrive
at a completely different one
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
A13 D13
(b10) (b10/b13) (b10)
Bb7 Eb7
Ab7 Db7 Gb7
Ebvoiced Ab
Dbstatic Gb
All three top
notes remain
but the chord
C13 F13
changes completely. Ab (flat 13 of first chord) becomes min3 of
second chord. Eb (flat 10th of first chord) becomes min 7th of second
chord. Bb (7th of first chord) becomes mid-voiced 11th of second chord
Gmaj9 Cmaj9
Fmaj9 Bbmaj9 Ebmaj9 Abmaj9 Dbmaj9 Gbmaj9
Bb9 Eb9 Ab9 Db9 Gb9
Gmaj7 Cmaj7
Bb7 Eb7 Ab7 Db7 Gb7
F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb
Bb13 Eb13 Ab13 Db13 Gb13
Bb9 Eb9 Ab9 Db9 Gb9
Fmaj7 Bbmaj7 Ebmaj7 Abmaj7 Dbmaj7 Gbmaj7
Eb6 Ab6 Db6 Gb6
G#m C#m F#m Bm Em Am Dm Gm Cm Fm Bbm Ebm
G#m7 C#m7 F#m7 Bm7
Fm7 Bbm7 Ebm7
G#m6 C#m6 F#m6 Bm6
Bbm6 Ebm6
C#m6 F#m6
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
When the same notes mean different things in different contexts, we can sometimes change chords
completely by only actually changing one note.
In order to change chords we don’t need to always change all the notes. We need to simply change one note
which will recontextualise what the remaining notes represent. Bars 1 and 2 feature a treble stave of
identical notes but which have different names due to their context within the chord which they represent.
The same applies to bars 3 and 4. The defining context in the chords in bars 1 and 2 is a singular bass note;
this changes everything. It changes the context of the notes above without moving what they are, merely
what they represent intervallically.
This is an important issue; film score writers have to acquire subtlety and refinement, sensitivity and
delicacy. These are often not found in obvious chord changes or harmonic devices. An ability to identify
and codify musical relationships and structures should be at the heart of any film composer’s talent,
whether it’s a conscious or an unconscious skill. Without wishing to sound disingenuous, whether or not
composers necessarily know what they’re doing all the time doesn’t alter the fact that they’re doing it. The
fact that so many composers buy into the same tried and trusted structural templates and patterns that film
music offers is a testament to how well such structures and constructs and harmonic assemblies work. It is
also a testament to how easily they are found and appropriated. None of this lessens what a film composer
does or the level of their ingenuity, initiative, resourcefulness, skill, cunning or cleverness. But it does place
it in a proper, more enlightened and arguably more honest perspective.
Opening our minds to different ways of viewing music can help unlock doors that remain closed simply
because of how we rationalize music. Traditional theory is essential but one of the pitfalls is that it is
designed not to analyse and discover new ideas, but to chronicle, annotate, interpret and perform existing
music. That is the context of its existence. In order to use what music theory offers, try to use it to analyse
and identify patterns and characteristics in film music. The chord chart below shows a few examples of
chord changes which are less obvious. Each bar begins with a chord, the context of which evolves into
something else. Sometimes composers can gain mileage from making one chord ‘fit into’ an entirely new
chord by manipulation and the creation of new extensions. Composers normally change from one chord to
another in rather more obvious ways; occasionally they add extensions, embellishments or inversions but
the basic design of music means most chord changes are a little italicized. Underneath is what can happen
when you evolve a chord by retaining as much of it as you can but adding other notes to reshape existing
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
5 th becomes …
3 rd becomes…
1 st becomes…
5th becomes…
3rd becomes…
1st becomes….
5 th becomes …
3 rd becomes…
1 st becomes…
…11 th
3rd becomes …
1st becomes…
5th becomes…
…11 th
5th becomes …
3rd becomes…
1st becomes…
….m10th (m3rd)
5 th becomes …
3 rd becomes…
1 st becomes…
Below we have the harmonic movement of each of the bars above contained in a graph, in which the
musical ‘note movement’ of the treble clef voicing is displayed, along with its representational movement.
11 th
9 th
7 th
Top stave notes
maj7 th
5 th
3 rd
1 st
5 th
3 rd
1 st
5 th
3 rd
1 st
Top stave notes
5 th
3 rd
1 st
5 th
3 rd
1 st
Also composers all-too rarely benefit even from what a more enlightened and artistic use
of an inversion might bring. Most use inversions as stepping stone chords, transitory in nature. Remember,
chords are defined by two things: what they are but more importantly how they’re used. A chord is only as
good as the way you use it. There is, for example, as I have stated elsewhere, no such thing as a great
chord. A great chord in isolation is robbed of the context which makes it ‘great’.
Film composers tend to work more closely with subtlety, intimation, suggestion and innuendo and so tend
to use more varied devices for extorting colour and emotion from music. Sometimes the more distant the
link, the more tenuous the relationship is, and the more oblique the change is - the better the end result.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
One way to use chords you might not otherwise have thought of, is to take the root note of your key centre
chord (Eb in the example above) and apply it to chords outside the key centre itself, forcing different and
unorthodox extensions as you do so
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Chapter 3
Distinguished screenwriter Hanif Kuresishi describes popular music as ‘a form crying out not to be
written about’ in his introduction to The Faber Book of Pop. (Thompson, 2001: 57). To an extent he
has a point; many of the traditional critical theories which apply to music are from a different
generation and some no longer apply to contemporary circumstances. That said, there are critical
frameworks which, despite their age, context and circumstance, succeed in highlighting and exposing
current issues in music composition, commission and usage.
This chapter will attempt to unravel and highlight whether, and to what degree, music contains
meaning. I will examine theories from some of music’s biggest critical thinkers and analyse how
traditional beliefs translate in a modern context. I will attempt to address various issues, traditions,
precedents and realities which continue to affect the role of today’s composer.
Music analysed includes The Big Country (Jerome Moross), The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein),
JFK (John Williams), The Day after Tomorrow (Harald Klosser and Thomas Wander), Independence
Day (David Arnold), Back to the Future 3 (Alan Silvestri), The West Wing (WG Walden), Jurassic Park
& Star Wars (John Williams), Dallas (Jerrold Immel)
Conceptualisation: Do composers think or do they simply ‘do’?
When we examine issues concerning originality, freedom, authenticity and conceptualisation, a
rhetorical question appears: are composers free to think, or is their purpose simply to do? Some have
argued that films, particularly the Hollywood variety, and therefore the mainstream, have overused or
in some way misused music consistently for almost the entire history of film itself. The argument
traditionally centres on the degree to which music has been standardised and immersed in formula.
There are, however, conundrums and contradictions at the highest level of debate. Whenever music’s
‘meaning’ and its use commercially are debated, the omnipresent dominating influence of cultural and
musical theorist Theodor Adorno appears.
“Adorno calls music a ‘language without concepts’. He and Eisler dismiss
standardisation with the film music industry as if languages of any sort
were not sets of conventions. By understanding music as an art rather than
as meaning-making practice, Eisler and Adorno contain it within the realm
of the universal and the aesthetic and remove perceivers even as part of the
evaluative process of film music”.
(Kassabian, 2001: 39)
The quote from Kassabian’s book ‘Hearing Film’ is useful because it highlights Adorno’s legendary
reluctance to see music in anything other than its purest form. This is laudable but perhaps limiting,
especially when analysing film music, the primary function of which is as part of a greater,
commercially-driven entity: film. Adorno refuses to conceive of music as in any sense subservient or
even equal to a concurrent but separate commercial art.
This belief is, of course, a 20th century manifestation of the post-Enlightenment view that music is, first
and foremost, an autonomous art.
“Baroque and pre-Baroque notions that, for example, specific scales or
phrases might have specific meanings have been denounced since the
….Communication of meaning came to be considered outside the realm of
music’s tasks”
(Kassabian, 2001: 15)
The useful quote again displays the restrictions imposed on thinkers who adopt the purist theory that
music is devoid of meaning. One of the central themes of my book is that not only does music convey
and create meaning - there is structure and method to the way in which such meaning communicates
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
There are ways we can rationalise and understand specifically how certain musical devices create
emotion and meaning. This is why I feel duty bound to encompass traditional beliefs which disagree
with this theory at the outset. One of the central criticisms levelled at film music by Adorno is the level
to which it has become immersed into, and subservient to, film and the level to which it has been
sucked into commodification and standardisation. But this sits uncomfortably with his other theory,
namely the idea of rationalising music as an art rather than as a meaning-making practice. If music is
unable to convey a sense of meaning within its listeners how does it manage to become standardised?
This collision and contradiction of theories displays the perils of trying to impose a specific dictum on
the meaning of music.
In his book Composing for the Films Adorno argues that it is music’s ‘ideological function’ that has
caused it to become institutionalised. (Kalinak, 1992: 34). Certainly in the early days of accompanied
silent films, music was improvised and often wildly inappropriate. It lacked the ‘institutional
conventions’ which would later identify it and lead to its standardisation. When film shifted from
cottage industry to big business, the improvisatory ethic was lost forever and replaced with structure
and inevitably codification. This codification worked, but it was codification nonetheless. So we are
left with the conundrum that the standardisation needed to make music function as part of a film is
precisely the restriction that has lead to its commodification.
Adorno, obsessed as ever with the hierarchical relationship between film and music, suggested that
music can ‘radically critique and even undercut a film’s dominant ideology’. This is true to an extent
but to suggest this as the main premise for music’s inclusion in film is questionable.
It is not just the great 20th century intellectuals and the thinkers who promote the notion of music as
“I consider that music is, by its very nature, powerless to express anything at
all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a
phenomenon of nature. If music appears to express something, this is an
illusion and not reality” Stravinsky (1936:91)
(Kassabian, 2001: 15)
One remains baffled as to whether composers such as Stravinsky said such things because they
perceived them as fact or because they come from a subconscious and unintentional delight in
promoting the concept of music as a kind of magic, devoid of the ability to convey meaning and
therefore any kind of rational explanation. More honest composers might venture to suggest how
comparatively easy it is to construct music; how effortlessly it falls into shape and how easily it creates
‘meaning’ in its listeners. But to acknowledge this not only pits one against the 20th Century’s great
intellectuals and thinkers, it also robs music of the eternal myth of the ‘greatness’ that so defines it.
To be clear, as I state elsewhere in this book, I do not suggest that music, unilaterally and by itself has
intrinsic contained meaning: people listen to music based on their previous experiences. Our listening
ability and aural cognition is largely based on how it compares and contrasts previous listening
experiences to current ones. Indeed many of our cognitive abilities are based on our ability to classify
and categorise the world around us. We do not listen each time with a fresh perspective, just as when
we open our eyes we do not freshly reinterpret everything we see. Specific chord types and even chord
sequences appear regularly, and because we interpret these emotionally, they establish a characteristic,
a kind of ‘meaning’, within us. On a basic level this is the ability to associate major from minor and
consonance from dissonance, but on an advanced level there are specific harmonic events which can
create more specific meanings. When we hear fragmented or fractured harmony, where essential
elements of chords are missing or skewed, we can interpret this in ways which cause excitement or
anxiety. Because of the regularity with which some harmonic events appear, or the consistency of the
context in which they appear, the emotions and ‘meanings’ they create within us can become common
to many people, not just one person. They take on a collective identity, or meaning.
Play the distinctive Em9 and most people will hear James Bond, or at least hear a chord which creates
within us a furtive, clandestine feeling or meaning. Even people who have never watched James Bond
will gain a similar meaning from the chord because of how specifically different it is to ‘normal’
chords. Such ‘meaning’ can then be tied specifically to how the chord is constructed and the tensions it
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
We do not listen with a ‘blank slate’; we listen with prejudice. We therefore recognise and respond to
consistencies and similarities. Because most music is constructed from the same basic harmonic and
textural DNA, we develop an understanding of basic types of harmony and when we hear ‘different’
harmony we sometimes respond in a specific and predictable way. Because music is constructed from
such narrow harmonic DNA, such ‘meanings’ are not exclusive to one person but exist in a more
general, more ‘social’ form.
The ‘infantilising’ of the audience
In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls respected film historian Peter Biskind refers to an apparent
‘infantilising’ of the audience.
“They were infantilising the audience, reconstituting the spectator as child
then overwhelming him or her with spectacle, obliterating irony,
aesthetic and self conscious and critical reflection”
Biskind, 1998: 344
His target is not necessarily music, but since music is such a large part of the era of film to which he
referred, it is implicitly included. He referred to the gradual diminution of the ‘art of film’ itself. The
explosion of money fed into the film industry in the 1980s, thanks largely to profits made from
American films by theatres in the 1970s, led to growth in the number screens and of films being shown.
This brings with it an illusion of choice and diversity, but some have said that actually a simultaneous
opposite effect in terms of the styles and genres available, has taken place.
The choices available are smaller than ever, but they are greater in number. In fact we are more likely
than ever before to see an American film, and less likely than ever before to see art-house films
receiving national theatrical distribution. This is not an argument about arts funding; moreover it is an
example of the bloated nature of the film industry; a comment on the gradual morphing of the industry
into a perfect commercial entity, one in which the wisdom of the crowd reigns supreme and the lowest
common denominator is king.
It is a fair assumption that this is one of the many factors which has led music to be formulaic,
derivative and commodified. When any cultural force, business model or stylistic approach dominates
an arts industry, the results are inevitable. Once again we are in Adorno’s hallowed territory; the first
section of his book ‘Composing for the Films’ contains some of his theories, principally his dismissal
of popular culture as a product of an oppressive ‘culture industry’. (Kassabian, 2001: 38). If this is true
it would explain the downward slide into predictable ‘scoring clichés’ to which he alludes. He suggests
that film music is too closely wedded to the commercial music industry. Not only is this certainly the
case over the past twenty to thirty years, but this collision of mentalities which has merged commercial
music with film music became extremely evident at exactly the same time in history as the infamous
‘infantilising of the audience’. These facts to an extent prove Adorno’s points; a sideways glance at the
film industry since the 1970s and in particular much of film music since the 1970s act is a testament to
Adorno’s worst fears.
As we have established, the ‘infantilising’ of the audience to which Biskind refers did not only affect
film, and it did not only affect the audience; its effects on music and on the choices and decisions made
by an entire generation of film makers and composers are profound. The merging of different types of
culture industries and the desperate fabrication of culture into a brand which can exported in film and
music has had major influences on society. The fact that much of society seems to remain blissfully
unaware is largely irrelevant. Society seems always to be ‘unaware’. This is a testament to the degree
to which it is managed by structures and conventions, formerly the ‘state’ variety, nowadays mostly
private commercial entities.
The formulas of Franz Waxman, Max Steiner and Alfred Newman
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Film music perhaps underwent its primary and most enduring era of codification during the reigns of
composers such as Franz Waxman, Max Steiner and Alfred Newman. Steiner defined what became the
classic film music model, and the notion of correspondence and relationship between music and the
implied content of the narrative is perhaps the most enduring and endearing characteristic. The
remainder of the model was a little obvious and restrictive (a high degree of correspondence between
music and action and the use of leitmotifs). Nonetheless we are left with this dominant legacy. It is
hard to think of any other art-form which has been dominated so wholly by a practice which was first
used seventy years ago in the 1930s and 1940s and was itself borrowed from a musical stylisation
which predated that by two hundred years. Indeed one reason why genuinely talented young composers
who have fused elements of the rock genre and classical romanticism find it hard to achieve ‘escape
velocity’ from the stranglehold of classical romanticism is firstly because of its historical dominance,
and secondly because it was, and continues to be, so effective in transmitting emotion in music and
film. Much though film music has undoubtedly evolved and progressed, stylistically and harmonically,
the symphonic orchestra is still the dominant texture through which it is articulated.
Just as ‘special effects’ have dominated moving pictures to the extent where visually almost anything
can be achieved through illusion and CGI, and where therefore, in some ways nothing is new, some
have suggested that there has been a comparative and simultaneous drop in the quality of film
narratives; the ability to do has to some extent replaced the ability to think. Shallow and dumbed-down
narrative goes largely unchallenged because it is shrouded in overwhelming visual effects. ‘Seeing is
believing’, so essentially the need for narratives that questions, cajole and stimulate is in many cases
less important than it was.
Given that Star Wars has that rare distinction of being both commercially successful and critically
acclaimed, and given that films such as this effectively paid for the continued existence, expansion and
survival of the film industry for thirty years after they were made, it is perhaps a little disingenuous to
criticise John Williams’ iconic music. But serious critical analysis often has to address difficult
questions. Annette Davison, in her book Hollywood Theory, Non-Hollywood Practice, argues that since
the mid-1970's the model of the classical Hollywood film score has functioned as a form of ‘dominant
ideology’. Kalinak makes a similar point in her book.
“One would think that faced with the limitless of space and multiplicity of life forms
Williams would explode with ideas. But in composing the sound to go with the
future, Williams doesn’t look to any of the avant-garde composers… Instead
Williams looks to the major key flourishes of Wagner and Tchaikovsky and the
swashbuckling Captain Blood and Adventures of Robin Hood soundtracks of Erich
Wolfgang Korngold”
Greg Oatis, ‘Cinemafantastique’,
quoted by Kathryn Kalinak
(Kalinak, 1992: 34).
The quote above addresses some fundamental issues; how is ‘the future’ to be represented musically in
a fictional sense? Do we score by invoking the image of ‘now’, from what we perceive as the future,
or, as Williams has done, by using the past as the template? 1960s composers who tried to emulate a
vision of the future through music via instruments such as the Theremin were often ridiculed because
the instrument sounded not just unsettling and mysterious, but more than a little odd.
When the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey is evaluated, at least it can be said that sections try to
address the fundamental question about the future, and more specifically, how ‘the future’ is to be
represented musically in a fictional sense. Kubrick utilises some dark and difficult music in trying to
address these fundamental issues; he helps shape the audience’s perceptions ultimately by questioning
their reliance on formulaic music and ‘the past’. Over and above the eternal issue of his crude dismissal
of Alex North’s soundtrack in favour of his favoured temp track, the great irony is that in trying to
depict the future Kubrick used music written by composers from the past.
Star Wars is a wholly different film, arguably for a different audience, but still it is telling that
Williams regurgitated the past by using a sure-fire, well-known combination of late classical
romanticism and swashbuckling fantasy in order to tell a story set in the future. Williams’
appropriation of existing formulas, formulas usually reserved for fairytales and traditional Westerns,
effectively set the standard for science-fiction ‘space movie’ music scoring.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
This is why Star Wars is such a pivotal moment not just in screen history, as Biskind has informed us,
but also in the history of film music.
The function of music
Kalinak again, this time quoting Claudia Gorbman:
“The restricted number of possible film/music relationships as discussed by
most scholars seems curiously primitive, limited largely to the concepts of
parallelism and counterpoint; either the music resembles or it contradicts.”
This is an important point because it divorces the link between music and what the function of the
music is. No matter how diverse the music is in itself, as music, if its function is merely parallel or
counter then its scope for communication will sometimes be limited. Sitting comfortably alongside a
propensity to score using traditions and approaches which are seventy years old at least, is the
increasing use of music as special effects. ‘Shock and awe’ scoring has seen a revival not just because
it sits so well with traditional orchestral template, but because musically it is the only approach that
penetrates sound effects and it is one of the few approaches that, in the eyes of many directors, can
match the visual spectacle that film has become. But is music supposed to match special effects? Is that
its purpose? Is it a competition?
Two of the hundreds of films analysed in this book are Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and one
of the refreshing aspects of these scores is that, although they compete in terms of visual spectacle
versus aural spectacle, the music contains much subtlety and reflective sensitivity which actually
contextualises the films and the vastness of their narrative and history.
‘Shock and awe’ scoring technique at its most basic can be a combination of brash romanticism, heavybrush orchestration and piercing high and extreme low frequencies. It has penetrated the area of
musical decision-making but it may be in danger of artistically compromising not just the finished
product, but the idea of conceptualisation in music. The comparative lack of conceptualisation is not
something we can assume is initially the composer’s fault, but it is something they are forced into. One
of the first concepts to grasp as a film composer is the need to avoid excessive scoring around sounds
which occupy the same sonic range as the music. A great number of films today have increasingly
realistic, constant and loud special effects; effects which often span the spectrum of sound. This limits
the ability of a composer to score freely and can limit their ability to conceptualise.
Referencing his film Alien, director Ridley Scott refers to the challenge of ‘how far we can cock the
pistol before firing the gun’. Given Alfred Hitchcock’s famous observation that a film viewer’s
apprehension is not ‘the bang’, but ‘the fear of the bang’, the point Scott is making is an important one;
the difference between what a film shows, what it implies and what is understood is essentially down to
audience interpretation. This is where music can be so effective and this is why Hitchcock and Scott
are such great users of music. One of music’s primary idealistic and indeed moral functions therefore is
not always to think along such narrow lines as duplication or counterpoint; it is to draw out the
emotion, often emotion which is not present visually. It is to create a relationship between the image
and the audience.
Composers need to be free to conceptualise and hypothesise, with the director, about what the function
of the music can be. What is its purpose? Whose point of view does it play? Does it play the story or
the fiction? Does it play the pictures or the narrative? Is it surface level or does it play what the film is
often really about? Composers must have access to a multitude of styles and conventions, traditional
and modern, but also employ the use of conceptualisation. One only has to remember that Bernard
Herrmann was famous not just because he was an effective film score composer, but because he
received much critical acclaim for employing radically different styles and approaches. He utilised
modernistic orchestration techniques, sometimes against the wishes of directors. Even visionary
directors as Hitchcock showed startling lack of imagination when it came to music. We all know the
story of Hitchcock instructing Herrman to ‘leave the shower scene alone’ in Psycho, but a less wellknown story took place while Hitchcock was filming a scene at sea, during which, clearly questioning
the need for music in a scene set in a lifeboat, he was heard to say to Herrmann, “where exactly would
the orchestra be?”. Herrmann’s uncompromising and watertight response was “the same place as the
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
In his work with Hitchcock, Herrmann created new sound textures, making modern harmonies
accepted in film. In many ways he predated minimalism by twenty years. His musical style was bold
and direct and not typical of the day. Rather than actual themes or leitmotifs, his knack was to select
and develop simple ‘mottos’ such as high-pitched violins in Psycho or augmented chord arpeggios in
Just as reading a book allows for and is dependent on the personal interpretation of the reader, so films
which leave more to the imagination of the viewer are sometimes more effective and intelligent films;
but they are frequently more dependent on music. Therefore, if there is a notable diminution of
integrity in terms of the artistic freedom accorded to artistic interpretation and conceptualisation in
music, it is to the detriment of the art forms of film, music and a combination of both. As an example, it
is hard to imagine that the off-screen monologues in Gattaca would have been as effective had they not
been accompanied by Michael Nyman’s deep and reflective score.
Also, somewhat curiously and ironically, diminution of integrity and reduction in musical
conceptualisation in composing for film can have a damaging effect on the bloated film industry itself,
as surely there is a limit to the number of films which can be made using predictable, duplicative and
formulaic music. If film is so beholden to the concept of shock and awe and delivers this by using
predictable narratives and music, one has to ask two rhetorical questions: how much is enough, and
when will that point be reached? This is an important point because stylistically and artistically there is
no clear path forward from this approach. Bernard Herrmann was a modernist and so was Jerry
Goldsmith. Goldsmith famously said that one day the orchestra would consist not of four sections, but
five. The fifth would be the ‘electronics section’ and would be full of people playing keyboards and
triggering samples. He believed this; many of his works fused the orchestra with rock instruments – not
in a tired clichéd way but in a way which did indeed feature electronics as a section of the orchestra1.
In Ridely Scott’s Alien, Goldsmith spent large portions of the film deliberately avoiding the predictable
bombastic scoring which had so commodified ‘space films’ of the previous two years, notably Star
Wars. The darkness of Ridley Scott’s film is due at least in part to the haunting nature of the music.
The opening segment to the film’s music seems to extort various emotions from the listener, not just
the expected ones of trepidation and anxiety. The orchestration is standard Hollywood, but the use is
slightly skewed and distorted. Ridley Scott uses several excerpts of classical source music during the
film, but none to better effect than the final sequence which uses Howard Hanson’s Romantic
Symphony No.3 in Eb. Once again a director uses romantically inclined music, but at least it is
authentic 20th Century romantic music.
Another reason the issue of artistic freedom of expression in film music is important is this: Given that
statistically most people do not visit theatres or concert halls to listen to music, for most the only time
they will hear an orchestra is as the accompaniment to film, in a movie theatre on in their homes on
DVD. To take this argument to its natural conclusion, the only time most people would ever hear serial
music is by watching a film. Films such as 2001, The Exorcist and Planet of the Apes are important
milestones in the use of serial music. The problem is that they are old films. Progress in music has no
template to follow. There are no rules or observations, only history, tradition and the spirit of adventure
and evolution to guide us and shape the future. But surely progress is not supposed to be a wholesale
rampage through the past anymore than it is meant to be a complete negation of it. If music is a product
of its genes and its experiences, and if the future is created by people and circumstance, it is important
that we maintain a healthy, stimulated and varied approach to scoring for film, not just to whet the
appetite of the few that might enjoy listening to ‘strange music’, but to maintain balance, equilibrium
and choice, or as Adorno might put it, ‘to give the people what they don’t want’.
An example of two composers standing back from predictability, convention and formula to deliver
music which goes against the grain of a genre is Michael Nyman and Philip Glass. In particular
Nyman’s score for the film Gattaca stands as testament to what can be achieved when composers are
free to conceptualise and are not forced by directors or ignorance to ‘buy into’ existing formulas.
Although critics of Nyman normally assess the music as romantic but unduly tedious, dull and
mournful, they perhaps miss the point that his music, particularly in Gattaca, elevated the film into
more of an art film than it actually was.
Several of his films, notably Star Trek The Motion Picture, treated heavily distorted guitars as
orchestral instruments, not as tokenistic gimmicks
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
In other words critics analyse the music first and then film, in a sequential preferential order which
denies the music a coherent and contextual analysis. Gattaca’s abstract narrative, devoid as it was of
time and location, was so much a creation of the score. Nyman’s score, which is analysed at length in
this book, didn’t so much ‘accompany’ the movie, as immerse itself in it. The two are inseparable.
The film Notes on a Scandal was scored with similar and predictable detachment from formula by
Philip Glass. Here the music sometimes creates an alternate narrative to the one we watch. The music
tells the same story as the film, but in a different way. This qualifies as deep conceptual thinking,
where the composer is not merely an extension of, and an interpreter of, the director’s psyche, but a
conceptual thinker who envisages drama in different and non-formulaic ways.
Back to the question; do composers ‘think’ anymore, or do they merely ‘do’: Do composers ‘create and
craft’ music which functions as an artistic dimension to the pictures they accompany, or does the
modern composer function as a ‘provider’ – a humble functionary whose primary role is to entertain?
We have technology in the arts in abundance; technology to aid creative film-making, to open the
minds of film makers and to revolutionise what is on offer to composers. Much though the argument
amongst some tends towards a suggestion that technology can sometimes stifle art by immersing it in a
multitude of infinite possibilities and baffling its users with choices they don’t know how to respond to,
the more probable theory is not that art is stifled, more that we simply don’t know what to do with
technology, so we simply do what was done before, but quicker, faster and, arguably, with less respect.
Music spent a long time craving the opportunities that technology finally brought, to the point where its
usage sometimes simply serves to caricature and exaggerate music, not make it more interesting.
Can Music Communicate?
So, we return to the issue of whether music has meaning, a debate which has focussed the attention of
great minds, some of which we’ve analysed already. ‘Art music’ since the 18th century has tended
towards the instrumental. Instrumental music, because of its lack of words and therefore traditional
context, flutters on the edge of something which would be considered comprehendible. Such issues
have haunted most of the critical writings and theories about what music is. Music and language are
dependent on the articulation of sound into discernable units – a kind of grammar. In the case of music
this grammar is generally thought to be largely metaphorical. Philosopher Ludvig Wittgenstein claimed
that ‘to understand a verbal sentence was to be able to replace the sentence with another that means the
same thing’. If we can do the same thing with music then music is indeed a language capable of
creating meaning within the minds of listeners. The mechanism of how (and if) music creates meaning
within listeners has been written about by musicologists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists
and psychoanalysts. But we are no further forward for all of the lofty debate. At the centre of the debate
is the assumption that music doesn’t generate meaning because we are at a loss to suggest how, why or
when such meaning manifests itself.
Music is said to be ‘closed off’. Few people understand it because its primary means of
communication, as I have discussed at length elsewhere in this book, is by aural means. People often
don’t understand what they can’t see. The meanings music imparts are therefore different than those
contained in literature or visual art. But nevertheless music conveys emotion to people who simply
don’t understand how it’s happening. Music’s most endearing characteristic is most probably the fact
that it communicates such emotion despite not being understood. It is precisely this nebulous
impreciseness that makes music able to communicate often quite precise emotion in such a warm,
gentle way.
One of film music’s roles is to distort and heighten reality musically and in this respect it is perhaps
one of the few remaining areas of music where one is expected to dance on the edge of what is
acceptable, stylistically, texturally and harmonically. Even early film score composers, some of whom
were so much victims of the hangover from Vaudeville, created most of the nervous reaction of early
filmgoers by intricately and subtly displacing the point of rhythmical, melodic and harmonic emphasis.
Film composers have made a virtue out of bending musical structure almost to breaking point,
protected always by the simple fact that what they’re writing is not ‘real’ music, but music driven by
literary means. This book is firmly built on the theory that not only can music create meaning within
listeners, its methods of emotional communication can be identified, rationalised and understood.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Film music conventions, styles and misinformation
I want to touch briefly on perhaps one of the best examples of musical communication – the use of and
manipulation by musical ‘conventions’. Film music styles and approaches (known as ‘conventions’)
are not created by accident. People craft such things in order to illicit specific emotions from a film
viewer, often by the power of suggestion or association. Conventions are ingrained in a cultural sense
and create a universal, shared, collective perception. Conventions activate and stimulate our responses
and our prejudices. Many harmonic and rhythmic devices summon up thoughts of specific geographic
locations; not because in all cases these are accurate, but they are what a composer deemed to be
appropriate and fitting and what listeners therefore thought was accurate. Thus we have grown up with
an occasionally distorted view on what kinds of music come from which locations.
Music taps into a collective power of association to attempt to create the time and place represented in
the image. Nowadays this is wholly more accurate but half a century ago it wasn’t; open fourths and
fifths, played by massed armies of brass instruments were often used to represent ancient Rome. Such
assumptions are and were wildly speculative. This does not mean composers were deliberately
falsifying our interpretation of culture and ethnicity through a distorted prism. Composers try to
establish a musical identity with a certain place, geographically or in time. At best their efforts were
often horrendously caricatured and exaggerated versions of reality.
Composers were under the twin pressures of ridiculous time schedules and the need to offer music
which used sufficiently ‘western’ harmonies. Composers often created their own version of what a
country’s ethnic music might be. Thus a kind of ‘quasi authenticity’ developed. Directors and
composers often worked on the flawed assumption that even if they were to sensitively locate, decipher
and rationalise an authentic ethnic sound, such is the ignorance of most filmgoers, the audience
wouldn’t recognise it anyway. Film music aside, this is a big issue in today’s global homogenised
culture where it is becoming increasingly difficult to hear authentic indigenous music in many places.
Here modern film music comes to the rescue, albeit minimally. Just as for decades the only time most
people would hear an orchestra would be through film music, nowadays film is one of the few prisms
through which people can experience reasonably accurate ethnic music.
The Cowboy chord sequence
Elmer Bernstein, who scored The Magnificent Seven, was at the forefront of early film score
stylisation, but more importantly he is the co-creator/discoverer of one of the most enduring film music
conventions. Bernstein said: “I’d wanted to do an American type of theme for a long time because of
my interest in folk music and Copeland, who invented American music”. If Copeland invented
American music, then arguably Bernstein must have been one of the two great users of ‘cowboy
music’, along with Jerome Moross, who composed The Big Country.
To give a little historical, cultural and political context, with a few notable exceptions, ‘westerns’
tended to be idealistic. Cowboy films displayed little genuine real dirt or squalor; heroes were
universally heroic, Native Americans were universally brutal and Cowboy sharp-shooters could hit
their target from a mile away with a hand-gun. Also, curiously, there were few black characters. The
subversion of history for the benefit of a largely white western audience is nothing new in film and
indeed it is not exclusive to America. Most English period TV dramas portray a fundamentally
distorted view of the period they seek to dramatise. Most Victorian dramas do not aptly portray the
squalor, depravation and class inequities which plagued the era. Instead we receive what could
arguably be termed the ‘Disney’ version. The interesting thing is that the enduring iconic image of the
‘cowboy’, with all its inherent absurdities and historical airbrushing, did not begin or end with
traditional ‘cowboy films’. Captain Kirk essentially functioned as John Wayne in space. Indiana Jones
(Raiders of the Lost Ark series), John McClane (Die Hard series), Ethan Hawke (Mission Impossible
series), are all reinvented cowboys. Historically the most successful reinvention of the cowboy was
when it crossed over from film into the real world and became Ronald Reagan and eventually George
Bush. Politics aside, and crucially to the issue of whether and how music conveys meaning, the cowboy
aesthetic is kept alive by the longevity of Jerome Moross and Elmer Bernstein’s treatment of it via
chord sequences which show up time after time in different films. Bernstein and Moross cannot claim
ownership on two or three chords – especially a group so relatively ordinary, used thousands of times
in classical music. What they created is the context; the way the music was used in a filmic context.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Hollywood film music standardisation and codification, to which Adorno and others refer, is used in
this context to retain the feeling of the heroism contained in the old Westerns and successfully graft it
onto newer films wanting to exploit hero connotations and emotions in the mind of the viewer/listener.
In order to explain and contextualise this issue, below the original Cowboy theme which contained the
distinctive chord sequence is notated, followed by several films which used the same convention. The
chord shift is explained musically in order to contextualise how codification actually works
The Big Country Jerome Moross
Audio – Main Titles
Fig. 1
Given that this iconic chord change has been grafted onto other film music sequences and arguably
converts to an almost literal meaning within listeners, it is worth trying to figure out how and why this
worked to well in the early Westerns and still instils sentiments of heroism and grandeur within us.
The chord sequence, which returns the phrase back to the key centre - in the case of The Big Country,
the key of C - would read Bb, G then back to C. Thus it retains the convention, stability, tradition and
commerciality of the famous and all-powerful V-I (G to C) chord shift, but adds a slightly unexpected
prefix chord, the Bb, which contextually sits a tone below the tonic and outside the key centre of Bb.
Thus in the key of C, a sequence of Bb to G to C is the ‘Cowboy chord sequence’. Below is a ‘chord
grid’ (the chord maps are explained in detail in the chapter entitled Music Theory in Action) displaying
chords in their harmonically literate order, using C as the key centre. Underneath the chord map is the
original ‘cowboy chord sequence’ in transcribed form. As stated earlier, the Bb chord is crucial here; it
is the only one outside the immediate key centre of C and it is therefore this, especially coming before
the G and then C, which gives the sequence its distinctive colour.
Fig. 2
F Bb Eb Ab
F#m Bm
Overleaf, (fig.3) we have Elmer Bernstein’s take on the same chord shift, used in his famous and
enduring theme from The Magnificent Seven, with the relevant highlighted chord sequence.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The Magnificent Seven Elmer Bernstein
Audio – Main Titles 00.27
Fig. 3
How to retain the musical cultural longevity of the Cowboy and graft it onto new films wanting to
exploit similar emotions in the audience via the power of association
In figure 4 (below) the opening bars of the movie JFK, by John Williams, is transcribed. This time the
cowboy sequence appears twice; once in the middle of the phrase, as an edited reference and once at
the end in its full three-chord mode. Power, greatness and heroism are referenced well in this theme,
using a romantic template, melodically and in terms of orchestration. So the sudden appearance of the
‘cowboy chord sequence’ is therefore quite deliberate and strategic. The piece would function quite
well without it but Williams inserts it to reference what the audience remembers as ‘heroic times’. The
crucial point here is that the music doesn’t have to bother with the moral fallout: whether the audience
‘buys’ the cowboy myth is irrelevant; they ‘buy’ the musical equivalent without realising, and that’s
the power of music and the meaning it creates within us.
JFK John Williams
Fig. 4
Audio, Main Title, JFK - 00.19
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Composers Harald Kloser and Thomas Wander wrote a beautiful, simplistic but haunting section to the
introduction credit-roll on the film Day after Tomorrow. The ‘middle 8’ prior to a return to the main
theme features the ‘cowboy chord sequence’. Placement of the cowboy chord sequence is harder this
time because the piece as a whole is in a minor key. Therefore the euphoric, uplifting climactic sense
the sequence provide is slightly lost since it resolves to a minor chord, not a major.
The Day after Tomorrow Harald Klosser & Thomas Wander
Audio - Main Theme: The Day After Tomorrow 02.04
Fig. 5
The final theme of the film ‘Independence Day’ featured the iconic Cowboy chord sequence too.
Independence Day David Arnold
Fig. 6
Audio - Main Title: Independence Day
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Below (fig.7) the main theme from Back to the Future III is transcribed. The film, the third and final in
the successful trilogy, goes back to the Wild West. Alan Silvestri’s iconic theme features the ‘Cowboy
chord sequence’.
Back to the Future III Alan Silvestri
Audio – End Credits - Back to the Future 3
Fig. 7
The example of the Cowboy chord sequence in fig.8 below is from the successful American TV drama
The West Wing
The West Wing WG Walden
Intro titles – The West Wing
Fig. 8
The ‘cowboy chord sequence’ is used to reinforce notions of tradition, history and heritage.
The next example is from the pen of John Williams. A more subtle, innocuous and hardly detectable
example of the same chord sequence this time appears during a cue from Jurassic Park.
Fig. 9
Firstly let’s look at the chord sequence itself in
isolation (fig.9). This time the first chord is an
inversion, which subtly alters the harmonic
centre of gravity, distorting the sequence and
making it more subtle.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The section as it appears in the cue occurs during a transition from the key of G to Bb,
as we can see from this slightly more contextualised example below (below, fig.10).
Fig. 10
The section in its entirety is below
(fi.11), and is buried deep within
what is an extremely effective and
emotional section, featuring the
string section alone.
Jurassic Park John Williams
Audio 03.19 – ‘Welcome to Jurassic Park’
Fig. 11
George Lucas said of Star Wars, “I saw that kids didn’t have any fantasy life the way we had – they
didn’t have Westerns, they didn’t have pirate movies”. It therefore no surprise that Williams invoked
the cowboy chord sequence in Star Wars; proof if proof were needed that some of the lure of Star Wars
was in fact that, like Star Trek and others, it was a Western in space.
Star Wars John Williams
Fig. 12
Audio - Main Theme from Star Wars
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Perhaps the last example of the ‘Cowboy chord sequence’ ought to come from an
actual contemporary example of a Western; the phenomenally successful TV series
Dallas. This time the sequence itself is abbreviated; it appears just before a key
change so the E chord in bar ten (fig.13) drops to the D in bar eleven but does not go
to the B chord which would have brought it back to the E chord.
Dallas Jerrold Immel
Fig. 13
Dallas Main Title theme
As we can see from the few examples given, the audience can listen to the music and subconsciously
benefit from the obvious referencing by the composer without really being aware of it. All we know is
that it reminds us. Indeed some composers aren’t aware of the various references and conventions they
use either, but the fact that similar chord sequences are chosen time and time again proves that
structure is not always ‘created’ but is frequently appropriated by composers who often do so
unknowingly. For most, music has no tangible reality over and above its aural qualities; the audience
are in the uniquely emotional but simultaneously baffling position of being at the same time both ‘in
their element’ and ‘out of their depth’ as listeners. Few art forms deliver this kind of endearing
experience. As I have said before, the fact that music is not understood by listeners is most probably
part of its great charm. For many it is a kind of magic, where its composers and ‘creators’ are
magicians. But simply knowing and understanding how to do something that few others can
comprehend does not make you a magician; it simply makes you rare.
Academics have traditionally exalted the theory that music has no meaning. Their conclusions are
reinforced by a supporting cast of great composers and cultural thinkers. Nevertheless they are wrong.
Music creates meaning within us through our emotional reactions to it, which are alike and in some
cases identical to that of everyone else, such is the specific power and identity of chord shapes and
If, as composers, we want to progress and evolve the commercial art-form of film music and stop it
dipping head-first into bland homogenised commodification we must first understand how it
communicates specific identity and thus creates specific meaning.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Despite film music’s apparent dense, impenetrable shell, which maroons it, for the most part, to a
lifetime of surface-level, mundane and reverential analysis, when we break it down and unpick the
harmonies and dense orchestration, the secrets behind the success is that there are no secrets – it is
simply the application of great skill, judgement, deliberate adherence to, or avoidance of, structure. It’s
also about observation, economy and method. It is about understanding how music contains identity to
which we respond, creating meaning within us.
The aim of this book, therefore, is to show how film music communicates; to analyse film music and
place the reader and composer in a position to understand how it is created, why decisions are taken
and how music takes shape, so that they might become film score writers or educators, and in so doing
might progress the art form.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Chapter 4
This chapter deals with modern and traditional techniques of using harmony and chord voicing to extort
specific emotions. The chapter addresses a combination of fairly simple observations regarding how
harmonies ‘speak’ to create a feeling of mood and feeling, through to more complex and deeper types of
analysis. Central to the study, as always, is the issue of how music communicates meaning and how that
meaning works in the film.
The films and music analysed in this chapter are: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone - Main Theme
& Diagon Ally (John Williams) The English Patient (Gabriel Yared) Atonement (Dario Marianelli) Catch
me if you can (John Williams) Knowing (Marco Beltrami) Sixth Sense & The Village (James Newton
Howard) Wolf (Ennio Morricone) Panic Room (Howard Shore) The Reaping (John Frizzell) Passengers
(Edward Shearmur)
Let us first turn to one of the more recent and iconic movie franchises - Harry Potter. The first film was
scored by John Williams and one of the most enduring motifs was ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ which is referenced
numerous times in all the films in the series. The piece contains a heady mixture of childlike innocence and
charm, together with slightly intimidating, frightening and menacing characteristics.
Audio – ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ (Harry Potter)
does this music
contain and how
do they create
exactly the right
emotion within
The first thing I have highlighted in the transcribed score is the 11th and 9th in bar three. Because of the lack
of any contextual harmony between the melody and what is, in effect, the counter melody underneath, the
listener is deprived of the normal chordal ‘filler’ which guides their listening. But the melody in bar two
contains all the usual harmonic signposts (root, minor 3rd and 5th) which help us rationalise the bar as Em.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
There is, in most circumstances, no such thing as unaccompanied melody; the concept is a myth. When we
listen to solos which are unaccompanied, we simply fill in the harmony according to what the melodic
notes suggest, using intuition, knowledge and intellect. An infant child hearing this tune would probably
listen to it completely without context but anyone who’s listened to music for any amount of time builds up
a database of information which guides their listening; thus we listen according to previous listening
experiences. If the harmonies aren’t there, we subconsciously fill them in. We are usually blissfully
unaware of this process. Therefore bar two gives us the information we want but bar three only contains the
11th and the 9th. Because we heard the bar before we know in what context we’re hearing the A and the F#
but because they’re not ‘normal’ intervals this tests our aural cognition, causing brief surprise, which
engages us because of the extent to which it differs from ‘normal’ music. The notes are not dissonant but
are sufficiently ‘off the beaten track’.
The second ‘surprising’ element, which I have highlighted below are the D# and F natural, which in context
of Em function as maj7 and flattened 9th. This is enough to ‘throw us’ but if we go a step further and look at
how those two notes might function taken out of this context, we get this:
The Harry Potter context of the two notes places them
as maj7 and flattened 9th
A more rational interpretation, on face value would be
root and 2nd of an Eb chord
Of course we are effectively prevented from rationalising the two notes like this due to the accompaniment,
which alludes to the Em presumption. But regardless there is a slight ‘duality of aural perception’ which is
what offers us the polytonal characteristic. Perhaps the bar which communicates the most in terms of its
mesmeric and enticing appeal is bar seven (the second bar of the abbreviated transcription below) which
features a melody of D (5th of the Gm), Db (b5th of the Gm) and C (5th of the Fm). The absolutely key thing
here is the 2nd inversions of the Gm chord and the Fm chord; building the Gm chord over the D shines a
light on the melodic line, also a D. Inversions always dramatise chords, but when the inversion is copied in
the melody, producing an octave line, it can be more effective. The same happens with the Fm chord
(melody on a C; chord inverted over a C bass).
Put simply, when a chord is inverted the harmonic dynamic is subtly altered. This is like placing an object a
different way up. It’s the same object but it looks different and causes a slightly different reaction. In this
case an inversion alters our perception by distorting the harmonic balance. This makes this listening
experience slightly more acute. Try playing the bar over root-positioned chords and again with the
inversions. There is a difference. With John Williams everything is deliberate. Nothing is accidental.
Perhaps more than any other film composer he has the ability to extort any emotion he chooses by the
skilful harnessing and manipulation of the virtually limitless possibilities music offers. He knows which
specific harmonic or textural alterations cause tiny, almost imperceptibly different emotional reactions in
listeners. Turning now to a scene in the film where Harry Potter is taken to ‘Diagon Alley’ we examine
again how Williams manipulates our perceptions.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
In the films Diagon Alley is reached on foot by passing through The Leaky Cauldron, a pub visible to
‘Muggles’ which lies somewhere along London’s Charring Cross Road. Diagon Alley is only accessible by
Wizards and Witches. Therefore when Harry is taken from the ‘real’ world and into the magical world
which will occupy the rest of the film, the moment represents the start of a whole new life. It is also a major
turning point in the movie. None of the buildings are straight; the dimensions seem a little odd and skewed.
This important part of the film is scored brilliantly by Williams. Below I have transcribed a reduced version
of the piece which displays all the salient harmonies which play such an enormous part in crafting the
musical version of Diagon Alley. Williams’ skill here is making the musically complex, intricate and
multifarious sound completely plausible, rational and effortless.
Movie, 00.20.54 – Cue: “Harry, welcome to Diagon Alley”
Strings / woodwind / brass
Low strings / woodwind / brass
Eb Db C
If we are looking for harmonic or rhythmic elements which ‘skew’ a listener’s reality then the two opening
bars do just this; once again we have no harmonic context offered – no chords. The counterpoint offers two
lines which are a 9th apart.
This is virtually impossible to rationalise because that’s precisely the point – it should be beyond rational
comprehension. If we rationalise we normalise and then we zone-out. What Williams has written in bars
one and two isn’t absolute dissonance but it functions by politely displacing our expectations. If we look
below we can see that there is an abrupt time change from 6/8 to 4/4. This time change might not have
worked as well had the first two bars not been so difficult to rationalise harmonically. Given the lack of
harmony we concentrate instead on the rhythm, which we can rationalise. This piece may sound and look
confusing but the crucial thing is that it isn’t cluttered. There is great economy here.
Abrupt time change; no perceived
key centre
Strings / woodwind / brass
Low strings / woodwind / brass
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Easily the most infectious and mesmerising section of this piece is where it breaks out into what at first
seems like a ‘tune’. On closer scrutiny however we’re aware once again that the piece is skewed
harmonically. If we simply isolate the rhythm of the melody we realise it is perfectly rational. The
harmony, however, features bitonality. The last two beats of bar four and six feature notes which belong
over a C chord but which are actually played over a Db chord. Williams has done what he’s done a
thousand times before and always to great effect; he’s placed a ‘nice tune’ in a bizarre harmonic
surrounding. We therefore experience a ‘duality of perception’; it’s a nice tune but something’s wrong. It’s
a nice tune but something’s weird
Bi-tonal; notes imply a
chord of C (over Db)
Eb Db C
Turning now to something wholly more sedate, we examine one of the main themes from the movie The
English Patient, a grand and complex tale of love, loss and tragedy. Set in North Africa and Italy it is an
epic drama of two haunting love stories that unfolds against a background of WWII. Through the prism of
war, love and friendship, themes of adultery, nationality and betrayal are explored.
A track entitled ‘Rupert Bear’, by Gabriel Yared is one of the most effective pieces in the film. Given that
this piece is the most popular music cue from the film and has been performed in its own right, what are its
communicative qualities, and how does it reflect the sense of sadness, loss and emotion?
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio – Rupert Bear
Let’s first start with a simple observation; that the piece is slow and languid; there is room for the
harmonies and subtleties to breathe. One of the main reasons that music is often prevented from reaching
its emotional potential is that often it simply goes to fast or tries to fit too much music into itself. This is
something Thomas Newman has often said. Music which is open, transparent, languid and plodding but
which contains a selection of attractive harmonies and suitable and subtle orchestration can often create
more emotion than music which is fuller, busier or more intense; listeners are given much more of an
opportunity to engage and interpret. They become part of the process, not merely the object of it. Another
basic observation is that the Harp figure penetrates better because it starts on a 3rd (circled) – one of the
most descriptive intervals because it immediately colours the chord and determines whether it’s major or
minor. To start a melody or countermelody on the 3rd will expose it and draw our attention.
A more subtle observation would be that the melody, when it comes, is anticipatory; it arrives early
(highlighted by a rectangular box – fig.7). This subtly wrong-foots the listener and faintly confounds what
they might have expected, given that few melody lines do this.
Another observation is that the piece is built on inversions. There are more inverted chords in the piece than
not. However, so far we have discussed inversions in terms of how they displace and redistill the harmonic
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Though most of the inversions in this piece do precisely that, there is one inversion used where, although
technically an inversion, the harmonic flavour created does not sound as if it has redistributed the intervals.
The chord in the second bar ‘sounds’
like a Bb6; it possesses the warmth
you would normally associate with
the 6th interval. And yet it is not a
Bb6 but a Gm 1st inversion. If it
actually was a Bb6 it would contain
an F note, which would make it
sound slightly more ‘jazzy’. The
reason we perceive it to be a Bb6 is
because it is preceded by a Bb
chord; our perception of one chord is
nearly always influenced, guided
and informed by what comes before.
The chord in bar two therefore
sounds like a ‘sophisticated Bb6’.
If a Gm 1st inversion is preceded by a Gm root
position chords, the 1st inversion will sound
dramatic and ‘classical’. If it is preceded by a
Bb chord it will sound like a subtle Bb6
(without the F note). To the right the piece
does a similar thing; an Eb/Bb chord is
succeeded by a Cm/Bb chord.
The second chord ‘sounds like’ a Eb6/Bb with
the C note being the 6th, but again, because the
Eb chord itself has no Bb in it, it is actually a
The point here is not to discuss what chords are called and how one note can alter the ‘name’ of the chord;
the point is that the success of these sequences is because in both cases the chord in the second bar has a
specific effect; we think we’re listening to a subtle major 6th chord but what we’re actually listening to a
chord which is designed to illicit that reaction. It could be said that if we were to describe the chords in bars
two and five of the original transcription ‘phonically’ they might be called Bb6(no F). That would, after all,
be a literal explanation of what we think we hear. This also underpins the fact that a chord symbol is much
more than simply a name we give a group of notes. In many cases the name is associated with a particular
feel or emotion; when we say the Gm/Bb ‘sounds like’ a softer Bb6, we are referencing the style and
emotion associated with a chord name.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
ATONEMENT Dario Marianelli
I would like to turn now to the film Atonement, music by Dario Marianelli. Below is a reduced
transcription of the main theme.
Audio - ‘Briony’ - Movie, 00.00.01
When we listen to this we are drawn initially to its unusual characteristics; the piece starts with the sound of
a typewriter forming the rhythmic element. Then perhaps we are drawn to monotonous and mesmeric
repeated Bb in the first few bars, followed by the equally captivating quaver triplets which follow in bar 5.
There is a constant unsettling harmonic manoeuvre between the Bb and Gb/Bb chords (boxed) but what
makes that transition work is actually the much-travelled Bb. In the transcription below I have highlighted
the sections in question and have placed the Bb in context of its intervallic meaning, i.e. what the Bb is in
context of the chord that accompanies it or the harmony being implied.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Bb nc
Bb nc
The ‘shifting sands’ of what the Bb represents Intervallically in this chord sequence is actually a major
reason for the mesmerising, ‘skewed’ feeling it conveys when listening.
Disorientation and the subtle subversion of expectation
I would like to turn briefly to the opening titles music for the film Catch me if you Can, by John Williams.
On a surface level this is a true story of Frank Abagnale, one of the greatest conmen of the 20th century.
Essentially it is a cat-and-mouse chase between forger Abagnale and his FBI Nemesis Carl Hanratty,
played by Tom Hanks. The two rarely share screen time, but their relationship is almost one of mutual
respect and grudging admiration. Like other Spielberg films Catch Me if You Can deals with themes of
broken homes and troubled childhoods. Spielberg creates a film that sympathizes with the crook and his
pursuer equally. John Williams, like James Horner, is just as familiar with jazz as he is with the Concert
Hall and Classical repertoire. In this score, particularly in the opening theme, he creates an effortless
feeling of 60s / 70s sophisticated orchestral jazz. The orchestration leans toward the style of Neil Hefti and
Sammy Nestico, but with harmonic touches of abstraction thrown in. The eye-grabbing opening title
sequence with a cartoon figure of Hanratty in pursuit of Abagnale, set to John Williams’ jazz score is
perhaps one of the most vivid and effective movie openings in recent years. Spielberg wanted a visual
sequence in the spirit of the 60s era, in the style of Saul Bass (Pyscho, Vertigo), which offers a ‘visual
overture’, which was once a staple in Hollywood film-making.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The question for us is how does the music interact with the visuals? What extra emotion does the music
betray? Let’s look at the first few bars of the opening of the film
Fig.12 Audio - ‘Catch me if you can’ - Movie, 00.00.01
When listening and following the transcription in fig.12 it’s virtually impossible to ‘feel’ the piece because
the opening bars have no audible pulse. The point is that you’re not supposed to ‘feel’ it; these are bitesized chunks of harmony and rhythm, delivered melodically fast and loose, ala Bernard Herrmann. Let’s
take a closer look at the harmonies, because this is really how and why the piece manages to distort and
challenge our expectations and transport a distinct emotional feel.
Above (fig.13) we have two chords in bar one (Dm and Gm). In bar two I have merged them, which make
for a challenging, but not too dissonant, listening experience. As listeners our primary preoccupation is to
rationalise, to categorise, to classify; to understand. Although on a surface level we enjoy, in order to enjoy
we must attempt to understand, scrutinize and rationalise. Simply put, we have difficulty dealing with a
polychord because it throws up groups of intervals we don’t normally have to deal with.
On the version to the left (fig.14) we have again merged the two
chords (the Gm over the Dm) but have missed the minor 3rd out of
the Dm, leaving just the A and D, and missed out the 5th of the Gm
(the D note). What’s left is enough of the characteristics of each
chord for the combination to sound strange.
Because we’ve taken the 3rd out of the Dm, technically it’s a D, but the combined effect is still fairly odd.
It is this precise version of harmonic distortion that is so successful in the opening credits, specifically bar
nine, two bars into the abbreviated transcription below.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Gm (no 5th)
D (no 3rd)
Over and above the jazz instrumentation, the success of the film intro music can be distilled into one
musical trick which creates the subtle subversion of expectation
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
KNOWING Marco Beltrami
This film contains a blend of the kind of paranoia found in vintage sci-fi movies and new-age spirituality.
Like many science fiction movies, it is a film about the fallibility of humanity and the frailty of the human
condition. The music serves to highlight and heighten these aspects more than it plays the science fiction,
especially during key scenes displaying the introspection, paranoia and suspicion of the main adult
character. The transcription below plays during the intro credit roll.
Movie, 00.07.43 Audio 01.03 Main Title
Strings /
The interesting things in this section are the varying levels of emotional intensity and corresponding
harmonic complexity. The piece essentially is split up into four sections, each 4 bars long. Each section
begins with a ‘normal’ chord and slowly progresses through a progression featuring varying degrees of
‘weirder’ chords. In the first two 4-bar sections, the peak is reached in bar 3 before returning to a ‘normal’
chord in bar 4 to tie-up the phrase.
The third 4-bar entry features an emotional contour that simply keeps growing whereas the final 4-bar
phrase reaches a peak in bar two and gradually ascends to the absolute normality of a major chord. The
example below contextualizes the emotional contour created by the relative intensity or dissonance of the
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
When attempting to deduce and rationalise human emotional response to any given chord (how it creates a
sense of meaning within us) we must never forget that the type of reaction to a specific chord is created and
achieved partly by the preparation we receive. The first Bbm6 we hear wouldn’t have exactly the same
impact if it simply appeared from nowhere without any preamble; the fact that it comes on tha back of a
Gm(add9) chord is partly responsible for how ‘out of the blue’ it sounds.
One reason the piece works so well is because the harmonic ‘weirdness’ is dealt with in a slow,
cumbersome, plodding manner with the rising emotional tension of each entry bleeding through slowly and
in most cases dissipating. No one sequence in this piece begins on a strange chord; the sequence graduates
toward it. What comes first therefore is crucial. The strange chords are a reaction; this is why they work so
well. If they were the norm we would acclimatize to them and the effect would be lost. In a piece like this
where the music plays to graphics and not dialogue, ultimately it’s about delivering a journey which maps
across the introduction with several stop-off points where the emotion created within the listener has
chance to take a breath.
When chords become Polychords
As alluded to numerous times in this book, one of the many compositional methods that differentiates film
composers from ‘normal’ composers is that they don’t always think of complete chord changes; instead
they sometimes think in terms of evolving an existing chord, subverting harmonies and making use of the
subtle interplay between different intervallic tensions.
The first chord in the example below is an F. The second chord adds a maj7. If we think of how we might
evolve this chord further still, perhaps adding some mild dissonance, we might sharpen the 5th. The
changing of this one note fundamentally alters the harmonic perception and complexion of this chord
because it opens up the concept of polyphony.
The chord in bar 3 is still an Fmaj7 but the top 3/5ths of it unilaterally function as an A chord. In fact the top
four notes constitute an inverted A chord. The note that changes everything is the bass note – the F. There
is a subtle duality of perception which affects our listening experience. The original F chord has been
altered, not by simply applying absolute chord changes but by adding extensions which give the chord two
A chord
Fmaj7 chord
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The section below, again from Marco Beltrami’s score to Knowing, shows how basic chords can be
subverted, altered and evolved to offer new harmonic colours. The first chord is an F (#5)
Looking at, listening to and focusing on the top three notes, they represent most of an inverted A chord.
The low F note creates a tussle between what harmonic flavour will dominate our perception of the chord.
The voicings are mid/low and the orchestrations feature low dense brass, which adds to the abstraction.
Movie - 00.22.33
Audio 00.21 Numerology
(00.52 Numerology)
The next chord is an E/F, an abstract chord which features most of the notes from one
chord (E) with a dissonant bass note (F).
Inside the bracketed second bar chord of fig.20 is the same
chord as in bar one but spelled enharmonically different.
This reveals that the bottom and third note (going bottom to
top) could be described as the root and minor 3rd of an Fm
( )
What this analysis seeks to do is shine a light onto the multitude of different harmonic possibilities and
reveal and expose the different and complex harmonic relationships that govern how we listen to music.
If a group of notes can theoretically be given two names this leaks over from theory to practice; arguably it
can have two simultaneous aural identities. This mild confusion is what baffles the listener and creates
anxiety. The vast majority of listeners will be unaware of the chords types and characteristics involved and
how they relate but it doesn’t matter because in their own way they are the beneficiaries of the outcome. I
am not even saying that the composer himself looks at the chords used in this way or has the time to
analyse the vastness of harmonic relationships that exist; I am simply stating that, regardless of
compositional methodology or aural perception, these are part of the reason the chords work so well and
part of the reason we respond to them.
Movie, 00.23.24 Audio – 1.10 Numerology
The last section in this film that I want to analyse
comes twenty three and a half minutes into the
film, leading on from the last section we analysed.
The two chords (Dbm and Eb/Db) work well
I will momentarily place this sequence in different, easier keys to rationalise in order to better understand
the harmonic dynamics at work. The first two chords of each group of four chords shows a transition
between a minor chord and a major chord a tone above.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
This dramatic, euphoric chord sequence is used often in film and even song. Bar three and four of each four
bar sequence shows a remake of the same sequence, this time keeping the original pedal note. This is lessemphatic and euphoric but it is dramatic and is much used in films. One of the reasons for the drama this
chord creates and the success of this type of sequence is the changing context of the root note, evolving as
it does from root to 7th whilst remaining the same ‘note’. There is also obvious drama when one group of
notes all change but the root note remains. If it was one of the notes in the middle of the chord which had
remained, this wouldn’t have been so obvious. The top or bottom note remaining static but changing
context is much more dramatic, exposed and obvious.
The track below is from the movie The Village – by James Newton Howard. He makes a virtue out of the
same approach in bars one-four. In bars five-eight the top line stays loyal to the same idea (but in a
different key) whereas the accompanying harmony becomes more abstract and dissonant.
Audio - ‘The Forbidden Line’, 00.01
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
PANIC ROOM Howard Shore
This brilliantly claustrophobic film is made by David Fincher, one of the foremost filmmakers at using
digital effects to enhance his stories. Most of the camera movements would not be physically possible
without digital tricks and yet one never you never get the feeling that you’re watching CGI. Virtually the
entire film takes place within the walls of one house. Fincher is great at creating dark moods in his films,
something which, in this film, is greatly supported and enhanced by the Howard Shore score.
Shore’s music builds the tension of the narrative without ever compromising it or unduly italicising it.
Shore never turns drama into melodrama. When you allow bass instruments to ‘take the tune’ you would
normally orchestrate very carefully around the sound, the register and the notes. There is obviously a very
good reason why most melodic figures are on top of, or immersed in, the accompanying harmonies and not
underneath them; it would cause sonic ambiguity and ‘lumpy’ voicings. However, composers can often get
great results when placing melody at the bottom. It can add gravity and drama to a piece, as long as you
orchestrate sensitively.
Howard Shore makes even more dramatic use of placing the melody in the lower register because the
opening to Panic Room is more abstract than tuneful. On the top two staves of fig.25 we have a consistent
harmonic approach – the Bsus4. Piano/Harp and strings provide a constant, steady harmonic base. The
lower notes cause the precise intervallic complexion of the harmonies to change by virtue a fluctuating bass
and how it impacts on the chord above. The beauty and power of the bass register notes is that they
penetrate much more than a mid-register melody and therefore fundamentally affect the context of how we
hear the passage. Below I have transcribed the opening and have notated the subtle differences in harmonic
context with chord symbols. The differences in harmonic complexion and context are subtle which makes
them all the more effective in this dark, dramatic setting.
Movie, 00.00.18 Audio - Main Title
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
This introduction sequence is visually stunning but dark, threatening and ominous. The music has a
palpable portentous and fateful air to it. This is arguably mainly down to the exquisitely and subtly
changing harmonic context caused by the use of the dark, cumbersome and plodding melody in bass
On the transcription in fig.25 I have also added grey perforated lines which display the rises in harmonic
complexity caused by the evolving bass-register melody re-contextualising the harmonies. This functions as
a kind of emotional contour. It’s interesting to note that the chords grow from being simple to complex
before returning again to simple.
PASSENGERS Edward Shearmur
Passengers is a film about a young psychologist who is assigned to deal with the survivors of a jet liner
crash. The film is largely quiet, subdued and pedestrian, but it manages to invite in the subtext, which
relates to how we deal with death; with loss. Some narrative elements of the movie lull you into a kind of
trance state, not entirely unlike the Sixth Sense. The intro music and main theme plays several times
throughout the movie and betrays a heady mixture of feelings; it feels passive and restrained but also
possesses a kind of luminous freshness. As is always the case, the music itself does not possess such
characteristics and qualities; our interpretation of the music is what creates the feelings we enjoy, and the
relative uniformity of our aural cognition and perception manages to create a similar feeling in most
Audio, ‘The Wreckage’ - Movie, 00.00.37
Earlier on in the book we dealt with the ‘sci-fi chord change’, which, because of the nature of the change,
can often create feelings of wonderment in the mind of the listener. By way a reminder, in the key of C the
transition was from C to Gm, as below (fig.27).
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
D G C F Bb
F# B E A D
Bm Em Am Dm Gm
D#m G#m C#m F#m
In the intro to Passengers the sci-fi chord change (fig.28) is from the key centre of E and the change is
therefore between E and Bm. This is one the main reasons the piece has feelings of luminous freshness and
The harmonies are serviced by soft dreamy-textured layered samples and strings with the lead instrument
being quite a bright, sharp almost crystal-like sampled sound. There are some other harmonic issues which
are worth mentioning because the regularity of their use makes them function as ‘harmonic identifiers’ –
something without which the piece would not be as effective. I am principally referring to the 9th (C#) and
the 11th (E) in bars two-seven. Bars eight-eleven also feature the 9th but this time it appears as the F#. These
slight subtleties help the piece communicate a consistent identity.
What also helps is that the F# which begins the phrase on bar two falling on the 5th of the Bm chord becomes the 9th when the phrase changes on bar 8, creating a consistent sound but different intervallic
context. The G# (the all-powerful maj3rd) appearing as the second note of the phrase in bar eight and nine
reinforces the chord change from Bm to E.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
THE REAPING John Frizzell
In The Reaping actor Hilary Swank plays a former missionary who, having lost her faith after her family
was tragically killed, became a world expert in debunking religious phenomena. But she investigates what
appear to be the Biblical plagues and realizes that science cannot explain what is happening. There are
similarities between this film and Signs in that they both question the notions of science, God and belief.
The score was originally composed by Philip Glass, who went as far as recording. Producers were not
satisfied, however, and decided to give John Frizzell chance to write the music. The intro to the movie
features an extremely atmospheric and distinctive, dark and moody piece performed using a Fender Rhodes
keyboard sample. Transcribed below is a small section of the music which has some key areas of
importance and interest.
Movie, 00.00.03
The most important aspect of this piece aside from its distinct Fender Rhodes texture lays in the way the
intervals cascade into place. No chord is stated ‘as one’ but rather they fall in and out of form. This is a
good example of what is often meant by ‘horizontal harmony’ – chords that ‘reveal’ rather than ‘state’.
The D on the treble clef stave has two contexts; it functions as the root of the first D chord and then
becomes the major 3rd of the Bb/F chord. Looking at the top line and chords if we focus on the D note and
look at the perforated line underneath we can see its evolution from root to 3rd without changing the way it
sounds; it simply changes what it is; what it means.
The voicing of the second chord in each bar (Bb/F) is effective too. The spacing of the three notes is earcatching featuring an 11th between the bottom F and the Bb above and a 10th between the Bb and the top D.
The ‘root’ of the chord is in the middle with the 5th at the bottom and the 3rd at the top. This odd delivery
of notes and what they constitute as intervals goes beyond being of merely theoretical interest; what
interval a note ‘speaks’ is part of its character. Listeners may be oblivious to how and why music
communicates identity, character and meaning but this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
When bar one starts we don’t know if the D will suggest or imply minor or major. Because the second
chord (Bb) is more akin to a key centre of Dm and in any case contains the F (which would function as a
minor 3rd in a Dm chord), every subsequent D is heard as a Dm despite containing no 3rd.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Ultimately parts of this piece are great examples of music which doesn’t necessarily ‘state’ but suggests,
implies and hints. This is often such an effective way of writing because it involves the listener’s
interpretative skills more. The listener is not passive; their interpretation has a higher level of involvement
than is the case in most music.
Finally we have the ‘leaking A’: the A note in chord 1 (the 5th of the D chord) stops before the second
chord comes in but its ‘ghost’ functions as a distant major 7th in the Bb/F chord. This subtle interplay with
harmonies being created by innuendo and suggestion is impressive enough, but managing this with so few
notes and one instrumental texture is especially effective. The music seems to work with the style of credit
roll at the beginning, which is modern, abstract and edgy.
THE SIXTH SENSE James Newton Howard
The Sixth Sense is a landmark movie which has a thoughtful and meaningful narrative. A film of subtlety
and refinement, intricacy and detail, the movie needed an equally sensitive film score. “One of the most
important aspects of this score is that Night asked me to start composing music before he started shooting. I
went to Philadelphia and sat with him in his office while he storyboarded the entire movie for me, which is
something I've never done before.” So said James Newton Howard, composer of the music for Sixth Sense.
This is an important point and one we will return to again in this book; the notion of the composer sat down
looking at the film and ‘composing to picture’ is the way we envisage a film score composer working. But
it is only one way of writing film music.
Some composers such as Newton Howard and Zimmer occasionally provide initial material based on their
emotional commentary of the director’s concept. In some situations directors then use the ‘pre-score’ as a
temp-track for the film, which in turn affects the way they make the film. This means music really is an
integral part of the process of the film, not simply something which is added afterwards.
This situation turns the whole composer-director relationship on its head but represents a progressive
evolution of the art of film-making and film composing. Wedded as we are to the notion of music being
something that is added to a film after it is made, we have to acknowledge that the idea of a composer
providing a musical emotional commentary based on an idea or concept from a director or writer, which
then informs the making of the film itself, is an evolution of the art of film scoring and an
acknowledgement of the power of music. This book deals with conceptualisation and the vexed issue of
whether composers ‘think’ or simply ‘do’ at various points but certainly directors allowing composers to
think before they see; to compose based merely on a concept and a conversation, can do nothing but
progress the art form of film composing. It suggests the notion that composing for picture is much more
than simply the interpretation of pictures by a composer.
Christopher Nolan asked Hans Zimmer to write the music for Inception without seeing the film itself. For a
film which includes the concept of dreams within dreams it would seem entirely fitting that the composer is
allowed to conceptualise without the hindrance of the actual reality of the pictures.
The personality of the score to Sixth Sense lies in the subtleties of precise instrumentation and key shifts, as
the following examples shows.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio - ‘Run to the Church’ - Movie,
The ‘rhythmic dissonance’ and interplay between 6/8 and 7/8 don’t sound as difficult or disorientating as
they look on paper. The constant quavers create a slightly mesmeric and captivating feeling. The ascending
quaver line (E, C, G) at the end of each bar offers a feeling of similarity and familiarity which bridges the
differing time signatures well.
The two chords on the left (fig.33) represent the chords at
the end of bar nine and the beginning of bar ten. As is
common with JNW the concept of a note trading more on
its intervallic context is always present; the E note
functions firstly as the 9th of the Dm9 chord and secondly
as the m3rd (m10th) of the C#m chord. The addition of the
9th stops the transition between Dm and C#m sounding too
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The section below is a continuation of the same piece (on single stave format) and shows once again how
overlapping one note from the bar before helps the music communicate. The C# at the top of bar one (maj
3rd) becomes the 4th at the start of bar two. The overhanging C# also ensures than not all the parts move
Audio, ‘Run to the Church’ 00.40 - Movie,
C# (4th)
C# (3rd)
As we can see from the evolution of the harmony from ‘consonance’, through ‘suspension’ to ‘resolution’
(fig.34) the C# hangover from bar one to two helps the piece have a sense of purpose and direction.
JNH uses the same methodology again in the next excerpt from the same film. He mixes the two unrelated
key centres G#m and G via the linking note of B - which in both cases represents the 3rd (minor then
major). The 3rd (whether minor or major) is a defining and exposed interval, as we’ve establish elsewhere
in the book. Italicizing its use in this way is extremely effective.
Fig.35 Audio - ‘De Profundis’ 00.17
Looking again at this chord manoeuvre we can see that the top melodic line moves from min3 to maj3 (e.g. ‘up’),
the note itself is static (B to B) whilst the chord moves from G#m to G (e.g. ‘down’).
The chord manoeuvre and melody note therefore offer three perspectives,
contextualised by the example below. This sense of simultaneous static and
contrary movement is at the heart of why the chord sequence doesn’t sound
unduly chromatic and ‘square’
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
context of
the B note
The other reason this particular piece works is because it merges two distinctly different areas: firstly we
have the delicate chord maneuvers of G#m to G, softened up by the deft orchestration, but secondly we
have a couple of ‘Blues’ touches; the C# (b5) and the F (7th). This lends the piece an extra dimension.
The section below plays 54 seconds into the movie over a credit roll and really helps establish the tone and
flavour of the movie.
Audio, ‘Tape of Vincent’ 02.30 - Movie,
Simile strings / ww
Bar two to three contains a C which functions first as a 9th, then a 5th. Bar eight to nine have an F which
functions first as a minor 3rd, then a major 3rd. JNW utilises the slightly hypnotic and entrancing
characteristics to be found when a melodic line of a chord shift stays on the same note but changes from
major 3rd to minor 3rd or vice versa. We ‘feel’ the context of the note moving although the actual note itself
(the sound) stays static.
Another harmonic identifier which helps lend a sense of wonderment is the famous #4th, which appears
twice. In addition the quaver octave piano part creates an identity which is later used in Run to the Church.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
WOLF Ennio Morricone
Wolf is a Werewolf movie from director Mike Nichol in which the concept of the Wolf functions as
multiple metaphors for unleashed sexuality and the law of the corporate jungle. John Williams was
originally attached to compose the music for this film but left when the project became delayed. Ennio
Morricone plays the movie wonderfully with a selection of cues which range in style from classic 50s
horror movie genre, through to classical romanticism.
Mostly he plays the story of the betrayal of the main character, Will Randall, by his wife and work
colleague. He plays the love story between Randall and Laura Alden, played by co-star Michelle Pfeiffer.
Morricone plays love better than most composers by providing evocative but simple music that rises and
falls effortlessly through a series of clever chord changes and poignant harmonic statements. His use of
orchestra and Alto sax is entirely typical of his ability to think outside the box. Where others would have
simply used orchestra, Morricone throws something unique into the mix; certainly when one imagines a
Werewolf movie, Alto sax is not the first instrument that comes to mind.
Before examining the romantic theme properly I would like to cast an eye and ear over the chords below,
which form the harmonic basis for the theme. The orchestrated harmonies alone are used earlier in the film,
with the melody being added for scenes toward the end of the movie.
The piece highlights again the use of bass and inversion as writing tools. As I have highlighted in the
transcription, the choice of inversion allows a smooth transition at the foot of the chord which makes the
chord changes seem smoother. The boxed chords show simple examples of how inversions are used
passing chords. Inversions nearly always cause drama but their use is also tactical in allowing for a better
chordal transition. The transcription below now has the Alto sax melody added. The grey perforated lines
represent repetition of motif; not literally but where the same notes are applied to slightly different rhythms
and different harmonic support. Bars four and five feature similar figures and bars nine and ten feature a
similar contour.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
In the example below, a single stave transcription of the same piece, I have mapped out the intervals being
stated by some of the notes. The manoeuvre that takes the G note at the end of bar 3 from stating a 1st (root)
to a 7th on the first beat of the next bar is interesting; the chord moves up but the note stays the same. But
only the physical note stays the same; the intervallic context goes from 1 to 7 and then back to 1. Therefore
there are three separate movements; the chord, the note and what it represents.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
To those who might reasonably venture to suggest that this is over-analysis, or analysis gone mad, I would
say that such abstract observations go to the heart of how and why our minds and respond to music in the
way they do. 99% of listeners will in all probability be blissfully unaware of the existence or significance of
most of the observations in this book. But they will be beneficiaries of the affects caused by most of the
points addressed.
As composers we do not necessarily have to be consciously aware of such things when we actually sit
down and compose, because to be aware at all means such knowledge will seep into your intellect and
become part of your writing. If you understand how and why harmony communicates your writing will be
indelibly affected by such knowledge. Knowledge is not something we can switch on and off. We can’t
‘un-know’ something; it is part of who we are and what we do. We are products of our genes, our
experiences and, most of all, our knowledge and understanding.
To those who might venture to suggest that too much analysis, knowledge and understanding goes against
the spirit of creating art - that ignorance is bliss - I would say that in most cases ignorance is never bliss; it
is only ever ignorance.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Chapter 5
All composers have a need to define themselves. Compositional identity is the ultimate hallmark of
success, the great pinnacle of achievement; to be recognised is everything. In an obvious sense professional
film composers ‘identify’ themselves by doing a great job, repeatedly and in ridiculously short amounts of
time that are the stuff of legend; but how their music manages to achieve a sense of specific character and
identity, of self, is one of the main reasons for their success and longevity.
Composers such as James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, John Williams and many more
manage repeatedly to succeed at the highest level. One of the reasons they do so well so often is not in spite
of the short time limit but probably because of it. The need to abbreviate the process, to limit the
conceptualisation time, can sometimes succeed in the creation of an identity. In other words, identity is
sometimes not something we strive for, but rather something we have thrust upon us by a mixture of our
abilities, imagination, experiences and because of the time limit. One thing film score writers have never
had is time.
So how does this identification work in practice? Some composers identify their work via its ‘sound’ – a
specific and particular use of textures and instruments or use of the orchestra; having a specific
orchestration and / or production approach leaves a composer relatively free to use different harmonic
choices. If the music is defined by its texture the composer is free to use varied harmonic approaches within
that texture. For example, people talk about the ‘John Williams sound’; one of the main identifiers of John
Williams’ music is its wonderful use of orchestral texture. The way particular orchestrators such as the late
Herbert Spencer interpreted Williams’ arrangements should not be underestimated. Williams’ particular
way of writing for strings, brass and woodwind represent some of the fundamental reasons his work
transports emotionally, even over and above the glorious melodies and dense harmonies he crafts. This is
why, despite Catch me if you can being so markedly different, harmonically, from ET or Jurassic Park or
Close Encounters (all of which this book analyses in detail) there is a bond between them, a style, a voice, a
sameness; ultimately an identity. Although the distinct sound is at least partly the child of Williams’
orchestrators and mix engineers, it is the fundamental consistency, the strength of character and longevity
of his composing and arranging which defines John Williams. As he has proved time and again, having a
specific ‘sound’ doesn’t mean that rhythm, pace, harmony and melody can’t be diverse. It simply means
there is a consistency of approach which identifies your work.
If a composer’s ‘voice’ is a specific and identifiable approach to harmony, this leaves them free to offer
that voice up in multitude of different ‘sounds’ and textural scenarios.
Central to any serious study about if, how and why music creates a sense of meaning within the listener is
the issue of how it communicates - how the musical characteristics can communicate, almost literally. The
reason music works so well in film is precisely because moving images allow the viewer and listener
emotional context in which to rationalise, interpret and enjoy accompanying music. Music’s vast but
complicated communicative power is never better used than when put to picture.
Music analysed: The Dark Knight & Batman Begins (music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard),
The Island (Music by Steve Jablonsky), and Spiderman 2 (Music by Danny Elfmann). King Kong (James
Newton Howard).
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
THE DARK KNIGHT Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard
The Dark Knight is not simply a movie about a super-hero. It succeeds in separating itself from movies like
Spiderman and The Hulk by focusing deeply on the hearts and minds of diverse characters. On a deeper
level it is a film about choice, morality and idealism. The Joker is not played for laughs and nor is he in it
for the money. His anger is against the superficiality of a morally structured world. That these complex
issues are distilled into the body of a superhero film is impressive, but the reason it works in a different way
to the previous incarnation of Batman films is at least partly down to the music; in some ways the music
distils the subtext better than the pictures. And yet music does not offer as much of an obvious, concrete or
specific meaning as pictures do. Perhaps the reason why music is so useful in accompanying pictures is
because the emotions and meanings it conveys are not quite as literal as words and pictures but more
ethereal in nature. Because listeners don’t translate an actual meaning but instead benefit from more of a
‘feeling’, music’s effect can be more subtle and general and useful in accompanying a whole scene or
conveying an over-arching emotional contour. The fact that it is not absolutely specific is perhaps its most
endearing characteristic.
At its most effective the music for The Dark Knight rarely excessively protrudes or punctuates; it functions
by delivering a musical context for the film’s images but more importantly, for its story. It acts as an
emotional commentary on the story rather than simply being a crude accompaniment to the film’s hit
points. This brings another pivotal and central issue of film scoring to the forefront of the debate; whose
point of view do you play? Film can exist on several levels at once. As a composer, do you play the fiction
(what the film appears to be about), or the subtext (often what the film is really about)? Do you play the
character or the scene or the overview? Perhaps because of the many and varied ways in which music can
serve a film, composers who manage to extort the film’s emotion and bury it within their music are best
writing more for message, not the surface- level content. Certainly Hans Zimmer has succeeded in this
approach more than most, which is why his music communicates so effectively and often so vividly. So
much of the really successful and emotional sections of what Zimmer and Newton Howard wrote for The
Dark Knight function as commentaries on the story, the narrative, the overview; comparatively little of it is
actually placed to picture in the normal sense.
Because of this there are few examples of film scoring cliché. Great film composers often don’t just write
to picture. They write to the story, to the feeling the film creates; to its emotion, perhaps to its soul. In some
respects placing the music to picture ought to be the final act the composer undertakes, not the first
response. The great composers of today often reflect on the concept of a film before it is even made. Both
Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, when working individually, have composed music before a film
is finished and sometimes before the film is even shot. Filmmaker M.Night Shayamalan often asks James
Newton Howard to respond to the concept of film. He doesn’t want the composer to be initially unduly
hampered by the reality of his [the director’s] vision of the concept, but instead wants the composer’s first
responses to be guided by the idea of the story.
Before we begin analyzing, I am reminded of Leonard Rosenman’s statement, referenced in the book ‘On
the Track’ by Fred Karlin and Rayburn Wright, that “as a film composer you are not writing real music”.
Rosenman made a telling and important distinction between what he called ‘real music’ and film music. He
wrote, “Film music has all the ingredients real music has – counterpoint, orchestration, harmony – but it
doesn’t have the primary ingredient that separates music from non-music; the propulsion is not by musical
ideas but by literary ideas”. This astute observation underpins perfectly why film music is so different to
‘real music’ but critically why composers have to address it with such a different mindset. Film music
provides many contradictions and conundrums, perhaps the worst of which is the singular inescapable fact
that although the primary function of film is that it can be believed, music is the one ingredient that
ordinarily wouldn’t be there but without which film wouldn’t be so realistic. As I alluded to in the
introduction, a person’s normal everyday life has no musical score behind it. This is because it is being
lived, not filmed. Music’s job, therefore, is to provide the emotion that would be there if the film were
indeed happening in real life. Music brings films to life. Music provides an emotional link. Music, when
done right, makes film real.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Studying the music alone is limiting because with The Dark Knight, as with most films, the pictures are
part of the music; much of Zimmer’s and Newton Howard’s music is about harmony, counterpoint and
small, short brief melodic figures. In this respect the film almost represents the actual melody (the melody
that would appear in ‘real music’). Let us not forget that music brings emotion to film but film also brings
emotion to music. I would therefore urge students, once they have read and understood the musical
analysis, to ‘watch’ the music in action as part of the film itself.
Although all of the music in The Dark Knight is credited to both composers, any decent scholar of film
music would spot the difference between something written by Zimmer and something written by Newton
Howard in the same way people can sometimes spot the distinction between Lennon’s songs and
McCartney’s songs, many of which were written individually but accredited to both. The segment below is
a microcosm of Zimmer’s writing style, featuring as it does, the trademark dancing semiquavers that so
identify his approach. Below (fig.1) we have the counterpoint between the semiquavers and the middle line
counter melody.
As is nearly always the case with Zimmer the sounds are a combination of real instruments and
synth/sampled sounds, often duplicating the parts. This approach represents the genesis of Zimmer’s
approach to production and the use of textures in many of his films.
Audio, 00.43 ‘A Dark Knight’ – Movie, 02.16.00
Violas / Violins
Strings / Brass
There are several simple aspects in this piece which create character and identity and succeed in creating
emotion. The first section of the transcription, above, displays a low cello line. This is synonymous with
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Zimmer’s style. He mitigates the potentially hazardous low melodic lines [which might otherwise get
swallowed in the mix] by impaling the line in bar three and many others on the major 3rd, a descriptive
interval which punctuates and penetrates even the densest undergrowth. However, Zimmer does not simply
hit the buttons which will ‘work’; he also states potentially difficult intervals such as the bracketed maj7th
in bar four, the 6th in bar eight and the 4th in bar twelve. One of Zimmer’s key communicative tools is
precisely this low, dense melodic scoring which features consonance intervals but also intervals which are a
little more demanding on the ears, particularly low down.
The ‘safe’ intervals would sound too sweet without the occasional difficult ones. Also in fig.1 (bar fifteen)
we can observe a G chord featuring the kind of low, ‘crunchy’ dense voicing which has become so much
part of Zimmer’s style. These low, condensed voicings work well because of the manner of Zimmer’s
production, which involves real instruments being merged with sampled sounds, enabling him to mix the
various textures together to create a real feeling of warmth. This habit of scoring low and dense is as much
a part of Zimmer’s style as his choice of chords and intervals.
The section below (fig.2, a continuation of the cue from fig.1) shows another example of Zimmer’s
communicative counterpoint; the effectiveness of the top line (the dancing semiquavers) is shared with the
counterpoint on the stave underneath, which this time breaks into two halves (boxed, bar twenty-one), a
trend which continues. This mixture of specific counterpoint harmonies and dense lower voicing ensures
the music communicates in a cyclical, slightly mesmerising and absorbing way. The cue isn’t impaled on
any single dominating melodic figure, which might have detracted from the images; this is the kind of
writing which can appear again and again, gaining character and identity without punctuating the film too
Audio, ‘A Dark Knight’ cont
Strings / Brass cont
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Turning now to an abbreviated transcription of the harmonies used in the same section of The Dark Knight,
we analyse how and why the specific choice of chords translates and communicates so well. One of a film
composer’s goals is to provide music which ‘speaks’ in an uplifting and emotional way. If composers tread
the normal paths open to them they can sometimes create predictable music, whereas if they stray into
dissonant or abstract territory they can sometimes create music which is difficult and inaccessible,
particularly in a filmic context. Listening to music is a complex and complicated business. As listeners
we’re constantly subconsciously searching our existing database of knowledge for models and comparisons
in order to rationalise and digest whatever music we’re listening to. This is an almost instantaneous and
subconscious process. A large part of music digestion is based on assumptions. Music which constantly
proves us wrong in our presumptions fails to engage most listeners and is open to hostile interpretation.
Music which perhaps digests too easily does the opposite and is often bland, dull and quite literally
predictable. What drives the creation of most music is the desire to entertain as music. Songs have opinion
and attitude; they are in many ways an extension of a composer’s attitude and ego. Film music does not
share the burden of commercial expectation present in song. The film composer’s job, by comparison, is to
provide music which engages the listener and creates an emotional link between the film and its music.
Often this means challenging a listener’s expectations. Frequently film composers need to write music
which, on the one hand offers the comfort and security of tradition but on the other hand offers a whiff of
abstraction and surprise. We need to make the audience’s interpretative skills work harder than normal, but
perhaps not too hard. This constant trade-off between what we’d like to write and what we can reasonably
get away with is perhaps most obvious in film composers. With all this in mind, let’s look particularly at
the chords used in the section we analysed earlier, this time circled.
The first chord starts this (or any) sequence off and everything else is heard in context of this. Music is
usually goal-orientated. It is consumed as a linear experience with structured reference points and repeated
sections throughout which allow listeners to navigate. How a chord reacts to the one before it or after it is
crucial. But other, less obvious relationships exist, like how chord in bar one interacts with the chord in bar
three or four or five. Even in short sequence dozens of potential dynamics exist. We hear in a linear way
but we listen in a much more detailed cumulative way. Why and how music ‘works’ depends often on
things we are not even aware of, but which conspire to dictate how we experience music.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The seemingly baffling chart above italicises the relationships between each separate chord and the rest of
the chords in the same sequence. All these relationships exist, at varying levels of subtlety. Critics might
say it is impossible for a person to rationalise the myriad of different harmonic dynamics, or even that such
dynamics only exist theoretically. But such relationships do exist and continue to affect our interpretation
of what we listen to. Returning to the sequential order of chords, below is the chord sequence seen
logically, sequentially and in context of one continuous stream.
The same sequence below now breaks the chords into two-bar mini-sequences
Sequence 1
Sequence 2
Sequence 3
Sequence 4
As individual mini two-bar sequences, the chords are logical and predictable. But seen in context of the link
between the mini two-bar sequences, the move from Bb to C is very slightly outside what we would
normally assume, as is the link between Am and Bb. If we follow a predictable path we might reasonably
have expected a Gm or F to follow from the Bb chord, not the C, because this takes us into the ‘feel’ of a C
key centre.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Similarly the C chord moves to Am, which in context of that manoeuvre, is predictable; but in a wider
context (particularly the Bb two chords before) isn’t quite so smooth. The trend of ‘interrupted chord
sequences’ continues. This is one of the dominating communicative factors of the sequence; it takes you
slightly outside what you might expect, but does so subtly and softly. Although there is a cyclical feel, as a
whole Zimmer manages to make the sequence unpredictable by using chords which lie very slightly and
almost imperceptibly outside the immediate localised key centre. Thus there are regular slight unsettling,
uplifting and even mildly euphoric elements, particularly the manoeuvre between Am and Bb. Perhaps the
most unsettling aspect is Zimmer’s imperceptible removal of the feeling of an absolute key centre.
If we look at the chords which together make up the essence of the piece, we see that although it jolts out of
its perceived key centre every two bars, there is a connection between bars 1/2 and 5/6. Equally there is a
link between bars 3/4 and 7/8, so in essence the piece services two key centres.
Am Dm Gm
The same chord sequence seen in context of a ‘chord grid’
(referenced in previous chapters), show that Zimmer mainly stays
within the key centre of Dm. What is notable is the ‘red herring’ his use of the chord of G, which lies outside the key centre of Dm
and gently hints at the key centre of C. His decision to leave out the
Gm and F chords (grey) chords which would have normally been
found in Dm is interesting; together with the use of the G chord,
this is why the piece effectively exists in two key centres and has a
cyclic mesmerising feel. This is an important aspect of Zimmer’s
style; he uses this approach in many films including The Da Vinci
Code and Angela & Demons.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
THE ISLAND Steve Jablonsky
The chord sequence for figures 1, 2 and 3 is identical to the title track from a film called The Island, which
contains a very powerful and creative score from Steve Jablonsky, once a protégé of Zimmer, which buys
into the style and sound made famous by his mentor. I make no moral judgement here whatsoever; the
scores for the two films are different in many ways. I simply focus on the similarities here to prove a point
of how composers are drawn to specific harmonic structures and devices as a means of basic
communication. The chords used are the same as The Dark Knight but written in a slightly different order.
My point is that regardless of the order of the chord sequence they achieve the same cumulative emotion.
They are cut from the same cloth, harmonically and stylistically. Because they operate round more than one
key centre, there is a mild cyclical, mesmeric feeling. Just as in the Zimmer piece, there is no verse, no
chorus; no ‘goal’.
Audio, 00.20 ‘The Island Awaits You’ – Movie, 00.00.20
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
As stated earlier there are notable differences in the precise sequential order of the chords but in terms of
the emotional content and communicative power, they achieve the same goal. The two are scored out on
single stave format below (fig.11 and fig.12) in order to highlight the way in which the harmonies and
melodic style communicate.
In particular the relationship between the Am and Bb creates the same ‘euphoric’ lift in both pieces. Also
the use of the G chord to take the piece outside the Dm key centre is crucial to the identity of both pieces. A
more obvious melodic link is to be seen and heard between the two pieces. Zimmer’s use of semiquavers
which colours some of his films, is appropriated in the sampled quaver line in Jablonsky’s piece.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The following track to be analysed (‘I’m not a Hero’) from The Dark Knight,
conveniently and subtly highlights two issues – both major forces in context of film score
composing. The first is the potent and emotional power of the humble ‘inversion’. The
second issue (referenced in the chapter Music Theory in Action) is how notes have two
contexts; two realities (the first being its musical value, i.e. the note itself and the second
being its ‘intervallic’ value, i.e. what interval is being stated in relation to the chord
which accompanies it when the note is played). The relationship between the two realities
is one of the invisible governing dynamics that determines why music sounds like it does
and how it affects us when we listen. This simple observation allows us to understand the
relationship, for example, between two chords in context of a common note. But firstly
the inversions:
A casual glance at many of the modern film scores shows the power of the inversion.
Why is the inversion such a powerful device? To understand how the inversion
dramatizes and communicates and the best way to use it, we first have to grasp what
happens to a chord when it is inverted. Along with extensions and other harmonic
devices, inversions allow us to slightly alter the flavour, weighting, complexion and
dynamic of a chord, slightly challenging the assumptions of the listener. Inversions
specifically provide drama, gravity and ‘lift’ to a chord. They change a chord’s centre of
harmonic gravity; its equilibrium. In the segment below not only does Zimmer use
inversions (circled); he makes a virtue out of them by placing them within the melody
itself. He draws attention to them. Melody does not have to always be on the top, or even
in the middle. Ultimately melody is not a specific instrument and needn’t always exist in
a predictable range. Over and above everything, melody is principally a function.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio - ‘I’m Not a Hero’ 0.05
In the same cue a specific chord exchange is highlighted (Bb to the Bm, bars seven to eight). This sequence
(boxed) works well because the D note (common to both chords) retains its musical value (it is a D in both
chords) whilst subtly changing its intervallic value (major 3rd becomes minor 3rd).
Again, this information is meaningless and no more than an abstract theoretical observation unless we
understand the context of how and why these manoeuvres communicate; a shift from Bb to B or from Bbm
to Bm is completely chromatic; everything changes at the same rate. By contrast Bb to Bm offers a majorto-minor change but what it also delivers is a common note with a changeable intervallic value, which
prevents the chord manoeuvre sounding parallel. Normally a common note wouldn’t be such a big deal, but
the common note is, in both cases, a third. Thirds are crucial intervals; they are descriptive intervals. They
carry the weight of the colour and emotional context of the chord. The move from Bb to Bm by definition
draws attention to the bass line, which moves from Bb to B and to the 5th of both chords (F and F#). These
chromatic changes are mitigated by the common D note which changes its intervallic value halfway
through the exchange (to accommodate the new chord) but not its sound.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
BATMAN BEGINS Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard
Just like its successor The Dark Knight, Batman Begins aimed for a darker and more realistic tone, with a
strong sense of humanity and realism. Fear is a common theme throughout the film and the dark tone set
the context for this and The Dark Knight. The following track (entitled ‘Eptescius’) is taken from Batman
Begins. This is an effective sequence which displays some other subtleties sometimes found in film music.
Again, although Zimmer and Newton Howard share the credits for this film, this is classic James Newton
Howard. Look at and listen to the sequence below. Do you notice any significant features which might help
it communicate in a filmic environment?
Audio - ‘Eptescius’
The chord symbol in bar two is G6/9. But if we look at this chord and examine its aural qualities, its
distinct airy ethereal sound, we realise that what it is, in effect, is a subtle poly-chord (fusing elements of
the G chord and the A chord). It doesn’t sound as abstract or extreme as most polychords because the G and
A chords are incomplete (the G chord is missing its 5th and the A chord is missing its 3rd). It is two thirds of
two chords fused together. The same chord appears in bar four. We often refer to harmonies being effective
because of the preamble that delivers them – the lead-up. In this respect what happens in bar one and again
in bar three is crucial in delivering the context in which bars two and four are heard; the ascending D and C
notes in bar one and three lead effortlessly into the bottom two notes (G and B) of bars two and four.
The real James Newton Howard ‘moment’ comes in the second chord in bar five. The mid/low strings
provide a Dm7 ascending to Em7 with the beautifully dissonant F note above gliding between both. This is
classic of the type of ‘polite dissonance’ displayed by Newton Howard. The final chord sequence (bar
eight) represents, again, a classic JNH chord change, where he displays a slightly off-key ‘polite
dissonance’; a subtle ambiguity. How? By making the low resonant E and B from an E chord sit fairly
comfortably with what is, in all but name, an inverted Fm over the top. The first chord in fig.15 is the
penultimate chord of fig.14. The same chord, enharmonically re-voiced in bar 2, exposes its poly-tonal
qualities, featuring as it does elements of E and Fm chords
add +5
( )
Fm (omit 3rd )
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The subtle manipulation of harmony is one of the ways music talks to its audience. This is what stops it
being merely background music. This is what makes it mean something. This is the language of music
speaking. Listeners who don’t understand music theory are able to understand; they just don’t realise they
understand. It’s a communicative language they are beneficiaries of but unaware of. Normally when any
language communicates it does so literally. Music is a language that transmits and therefore creates
meaning, but without necessarily being fully understood, principally because most people cannot read
music. When classical scholars and some academics say music is incapable of conveying or creating
meaning, that the collective sense of meaning felt by listeners is somehow the same illusion felt
simultaneously by everybody, this is why they are wrong.
KING KONG James Newton Howard
James Newton Howard is a master of the subtle nuance; the almost unheard gesture. He is a master of the
careful and creative manipulation of harmony; beautifully disfiguring the harmonic content of a chord,
rearranging and distorting its DNA so that what was an ordinary chord is now a chord with five legs instead
of two. The track below (‘A Fateful Meeting’ from King Kong) displays the kind of chord which is typical
of his understated writing. Two sections are highlighted; the first is a small, innocuous example of the
intervallic value of a note being crucial. The note itself is constant; what it means changes because of its
surrounding context.
The second example highlighted is a classic JNH chord embellishment; the two G notes which constitute
the minor 7th on top and in the middle of the Am9 are retained and become the min6 of the Bm7 – a
potentially dissonant chord but one which is delivered with the deft touch of sympathetic orchestration.
The Gs don’t suddenly appear as min6s out of nowhere; their intervallic context simply changes as the
chords change. It is not the min6s which suddenly become ‘okay’; it is the harmonic context which makes
it believable, acceptable and eerily normal. The harmony seems to shape-shift around the two Gs.
Audio -‘A Fateful Meeting’
/ Strings
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Below is a piece called ‘Macrotus’ from Batman Begins. It appears eleven minutes into the film and/or one
minute into the audio track. Again, although HZ and JNH share the credits, this one has Newton Howard’s
fingerprints all over it. This piece is fertile with compositional and creative tricks and tactics.
Audio -‘Macrotus’ – Movie, 00.11.00
#4 maj3…4th
m3 2
#4 maj3…4th
On a simple level we have the compositional trick of the replication of a melodic line with different
surrounding harmonic context; the safety of the original idea repeated with the addition of new context. The
listener has something old, something new. They are taken on a journey which has familiar landmarks (bars
two, four, seven and nine). The second observation is slightly more oblique; the harmonic contours of the
piece are highlighted here. If you ignore the melodic line and focus on the chords, they have their own
context; their own journey. This is a good example of the myth that melody is the sole context through
which music is understood. The chords are often the real context. The melody is frequently a simplistic
prism; a window into the piece through which we appreciate the harmonic contours.
Chordal contour
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Does this piece have a harmonic identity? Does it have a recognisable and definable harmonic fingerprint?
Yes it does; normally when harmony is analysed the focus tends to be linear, from left to right, looking at
the key-centre chords which perhaps start every phrase and how other chords relate. But a harmonic
identity is not necessarily the gravitational pull towards its key centre. If there is a chord type in this piece
which defines it, to which the piece returns, it is the humble but eternally useful ‘sus’ chord. The unique
aspect of the sus chords used here is that two of them contain the 3rd and the suspended 4th together.
The circles over the chord denote the sus chords, which appear regularly and define the character of the
piece. In the blacked-out circled chord symbols the melody states the sus whilst the harmonies underneath
simply state the basic chord, inclusive of its 3rd. Nevertheless the sus chord defines the harmony in this
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Expect the unexpected.
Earlier we discussed how, as listeners, we’re constantly subconsciously searching our existing knowledge
for comparisons in order to rationalise and digest music. This process is so fast and so subtle, we are simply
not aware of it. As alluded to earlier, music which constantly proves us wrong in our presumptions fails to
engage but music which does the opposite is often bland. The film composer’s job is to create a heightened
sense of aural awareness by pricking, provoking and tantalisingly titillating our senses. With this in mind
let’s look again at this sequence. The last chord in bar three seems to suggest a return to Fm, but we go
instead to Db. At the end of bar six we expect the C chord to resolve to Fm but instead it takes us on a key
change to Em. When listening to James Newton Howard, expect the unexpected. As a composer, do the
At this point
we expect a
to the Fm
but instead
to the Db
We definitely expect a
resolution to the Fm
but instead get a totally
unexpected key change
to Em
The first example of the unexpected definitely lifts the piece but is subtle; but the second example on bar
six defines the entire section, creating high emotion. Expecting a move back to Fm or possibly Db but
getting a move to Em is what raises our engagement. Surprise is one of the greatest musical devices. This
small, seemingly innocuous section of music we’ve studied is actually full of compositional and creative
tricks and tactics. It displays quite vividly how music communicates and creates a strong feeling. If we feel
something when listening to music, it is invariably because it has ‘meant’ something to us; it has suggested
created a ‘meaning’.
Almost every conceivable musical action and reaction has an emotional consequence. Some are nebulous
and unfathomable because they mean different things to different people, but some can be rationalised and
understood in a more general, collective sense. The more we understand, the more we realise how the same
type of events crop up again and again. Most music we listen to comes built according to specifications we
are used to and understand. There is little ambiguity or room for interpretative manoeuvre. It is distilled and
digested by aural consumers. But some composers are masters at creating subtle nuances; understated and
barely distinguishable harmonic deviations which quietly question our assumptions and create interest and
even excitement. When we listen to these harmonic events and hear something we didn’t expect, most of
the time we’re probably not even aware of the fact; we are simply aware that we’re listening in a different
way, or that we’re enjoying the experience more, or finding it more challenging. The reason we’re enjoying
it more or finding it more challenging is be because at that moment we the listener represents a bigger part
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
of the process than they normally do. Far from being passive receptors of what we hear but don’t listen to,
our preconceptions are challenged, forcing us to engage on a deeper level; in short, we listen.
Corynorhinus from Batman Begins (transcribed below) contains some expressive harmonic language
entirely typical of its composer, James Newton Howard. The delicate harmonic subtleties contained in his
music, along with the instrumental textures, have an identifiable and communicative style.
Occasionally the harmonies are implied rather than explicit. Sometimes he uses delicate polyharmony, odd
voicing techniques and other subtleties which succeed in drawing in the listener in a way other music
sometimes doesn’t.
Audio - ‘Corynorhinus’
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
For the first three beats of bar one we hear no min3rd. We hear the root, 5th, 9th and 11th but no 3rd. The
number of extensions equals the number of primary intervals, so in effect the chord is a little ‘extension
heavy’. The chord is slightly and almost imperceptibly less clear than we expect. Even this small aspect of
the process causes the music to communicate in a subtly more introspective way.
The string chord in bar nine contains a slight subversion of what we might expect in that it has the C note
(maj7) next to the root note of Db. Normally a major 7 chord would be smoothed out and voiced to avoid
such a clash. This chord works so well because the clash is mitigated by the chord containing two F notes
(major 3rd). These colourful, rich and descriptive intervals penetrate through the chord. The fact that the Db
chord (with the maj7/root clash in the middle) is inverted over the F is interesting because it offers another
way of visually and aurally rationalising the chord; the bottom two notes of the chord (F and C) represent
what could be heard as a root and 5th of an Fm chord, whereas the top three notes of the chord represent a
Db chord.
There is therefore a small hint of polyphony, which by its nature is ambiguous and difficult to aurally
unpick and rationalise. Remember, the names we give to chord symbols have a value which goes beyond
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
merely the ability to visually identify and classify. Chord symbols, intervals and extensions implicitly
suggest an identity, a character.
A chord symbol is also a way of describing the way something sounds, the way it feels.
The precise voicing of the second
chords of bar eleven and twelve of the
original transcription (Fm11) contain
some colourful and vivid voicing.
These chords are transcribed (left,
The 11th is voiced midway up the chord, on top of the root, 5th, 7th and 9th. But the min3rd is voiced at the
top of the chord, not within it; this creates a strangeness in the way the chord sounds, due to the internal
intervallic dynamics, namely the 11th and the high 5th being side-by-side and the 7th interval between the Bb
and Ab.
In bar thirteen of the original transcription (featured again in fig.23, left)
the Dmaj7, with #4 but no 3rd and 5th is produces an interesting sound.
Primarily this is because it is a fractured chord (no 3rd and 5th) with two
extensions, which completely alters the internal dynamic, but it is also
because the C (maj7) and the #4 (G) create a square perfect 4th interval,
creating harmonies which might better be described as a C chord with no
3rd, over a Db. So why don’t we ‘hear’ it as that? We hear it as an altered
Db chord because the preceding chord (an actual Db chord) provides the
context which feeds the subsequent chord and determines how we hear
it. Chord symbols are not just names; they give a name to describe the
context in which we hear.
Finally, bars twenty four-twenty seven of the original transcription (repeated below, fig.24) are particularly
effective and also typical of the kind of vivid harmonic tensions that characterise Newton Howard’s style.
The section is in 6/4 but because of where the crotchets and minim fall it seems to have an ‘open’ feel. Bar
twenty five and twenty seven are of particular interest harmonically; the lower strings state an open, richly
voiced C chord but the top violins (top stave) state the F – the added 11th. The flattened 9th interval
(between the E and F notes) creates significant tension but, as we have seen before, the tension is mitigated
by the rich voicing and textures. This creates a kind of ‘polite dissonance’ where the dissonance is sounds
mildly skewed and unsettling rather than extreme or jarring.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
SPIDERMAN 2 Danny Elfman
Danny Elfman’s music is instantly recognisable and his scores for the Spiderman films display his usual
distinctive and vivid hallmarks. The intro alone has three distinct sub-sections (perforated boxed on the
transcription, fig.25); the first is the three-bar A-minor section which gives way to the Em chord over the B
bass (2nd section). Am to Em is quite ‘normal’ and the inversion on the Em is typical of how a composer
might dramatise the situation, give it a lift and subtly displace expectation. This evolves finally to the two
chords (the Bb#4 to F#) which precede the main theme. This rapidly evolving harmonic sequence is typical
of Elfman. The success of his music and the unique style it possesses, whilst partly to do with distinct
harmonies and accompanying orchestration and voicing, is also to do with rapid movement between key
centres – something we don’t normally expect. Part of Danny Elfman’s style, as with Hans Zimmer, is the
‘dancing semiquavers’ [bar eight] where strings are used almost percussively. Certainly the line is moving
too fast for the notes to be rationalised by the listener, so the string lines are effectively used as rhythm and
horizontal harmony. One of the ways in which the listener’s assumptions are subtly confounded and their
expectations denied, is the way in which the time signature effortlessly moves from 3/4 to 4/4. The
‘dancing semiquavers’, although not transcribed after bar eleven, do continue. It takes a moment to settle
into 4/4 as a listener because the change lacks the kind of gestures or signposts which might accompany
such a time change. This kind of subtlety is one of many nuances Elfman uses.
Audio, 00.01 ‘Spiderman 2 Main Theme’’ – Movie, 00.00.01
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
If we analyse the intro in more detail we can see how subtle some of the harmonic dynamics are and how
the sequence navigates the listener from the beginning up to the start of the main theme in Dm (bar seven).
E note = #4
Seen through the prism of an emotional contour which responds to
the complexity of the harmonies, we can see the gradual rise as the
intro reaches its preparation for the main section which follows.
E note = 7th
The chromatic downward
harmonic lurch is offset by the
E note, common to both chords
The main focus of our attention in this piece, however, is the harmony; particularly the section from bar
seven to fourteen (of fig.25) and particularly the alterations and inversions which are so typical of Elfman’s
style. Elfman is renowned for his distinctive ‘sound’. The vivid orchestrations of his long-time collaborator
Steve Bartek are principally responsible for interpreting and articulating the creative imagination of the
composer. Here, however, we’re looking at the information, not the sound; the harmonies and inversions,
not the instrumentation. A manoeuvre from Dm to Ab is not subtle, existing, as is does, a #4th apart.
Elfman solves this in bars seven to eight (fig.25) by inverting the Ab over the Eb. This alters the weighting
of the chord and changes the harmonic dynamic, creating drama but also facilitating an easier and smoother
bass line. The bass movement from D (root of Dm) to Eb (5th of Ab) mitigates the uneasy chromaticism of
the chordal exchange by providing a simple semitone between the bass of the first chord and the subsequent
inverted bass of the second chord. The chords are a #4th apart but the bass isn’t. Also the melody in bar
eight references a brief D note, which in context of the Ab represents a #4. What the D is actually doing is
linking back to the previous bar’s Dm chord. The link between chords is essential, no matter how oblique
or tenuous.
As we have seen in other examples, the transition between a minor chord and a major chord a semitone
lower, can be effective because they share a common note; the minor 3rd becomes the major 3rd whilst
remaining static as a note. The fact that the C note’s intervallic context changes between the two types of
3rd creates a strange transition. The C note remains static but what it is moves; as stated elsewhere this
amounts to a kind of musical version of an optical illusion.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Elfman uses this tactic in bars eight to ten. Also the C (3rd) appears in the bass in bar ten which, again,
heightens the emotion through a change in the harmonic dynamic of the chord. In fig.27 below (which
features the last four bars of fig.25) we see a relatively simple way of getting from one key centre to
another. The F to Dm is delivered via the transitory chord of A. The ascending melodic sequence in the
penultimate bar includes the note of B which bridges the gap between Dm and F#m creating the feeling of
almost a melodic inevitability.
maj6th of Dm
4th of F#m
Although not a big part of the melodic line, the A note is the strand that binds the chords together. It is not
heard as one note but its ability to weave through every chord is at the centre of how and why this sequence
works and why it displays consistency. Seen in its musical context (below) it is simply an A note threading
through the bars.
People rationalise the music they listen to in a number of ways. But in addition to our individual methods
we also hear and interpret harmony and melody through their musical and intervallic contexts, as described
earlier. That most people are blissfully unaware of this does not make it untrue. It is important to be aware
of the various prisms through which music communicates. Being more open to rationalising in this way
will enable you to understand music and the ways in which it communicates.
I do not pretend for a moment that these observations or analysis are what occupies the imagination of the
composer during the composition process. What I claim is that the analysis reflects some of the ways in
which music is heard and listened to. What happens in music can be analysed independent of the
composer’s stated intentions. The route to the finished composition can be a solitary process, difficult to
rationalise or define. What can be rationalised and understood with reasonable clarity is the outcome; what
was achieved, how it happened and why it is effective.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Chapter 6
This chapter will look at various approaches in film music composition, all of which share the virtues of
subtlety, understatement, intricacy and nuance. We’ll look at how composers make subtle shifts and
manipulations to tradition and structure in order to illicit emotion. Sometimes music communicates
emotionally because it offers us a different type of listening experience compared to what we have become
used to. If ‘normal’ music is applied to film, frequently it doesn’t distil the emotion off the film sufficiently
for it to be of any use. It can be distracting and fail to bring us closer to the story. This is why film music,
when listened to purely as music, can often sound abstract, intangible and confusing. Sometimes it can
seem to have no direction or bearing. This is of course because its main function is to serve the movie, not
to exist on its own, as pure music. In some situations subtlety and restraint can sometimes create
interesting, exciting and stimulating film music precisely because the incompleteness of it all poses more
questions than answers. It asks more of us as listeners and compels us to hear it in context of the film; the
film almost becomes part of the music. The two are meant to work as one experience, not as film and
music. Sometimes music which is not obvious or transparent in its harmonic complexion can be all the
more effective for it. Music which blurs harmonic reality in an impressionist way or which simply fails to
define itself fully can, ironically, be all the more striking for it because it can force us to engage with the
film on a deeper, more emotional level. Sometimes a whisper truly speaks louder than a scream. Film
music which requires more interpretation or imagination from the listener can sometimes benefit the way
the film is perceived. These are the kinds of issues this chapter will address.
The music analysed in this chapter will be from World Trade Centre (Craig Armstrong), American Beauty,
(Thomas Newman) Road to Perdition, (Thomas Newman) The Descent and Insomnia, (David Julyan)
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, (Ryuichi Sakamoto) 2012 (Harald Kloser & Thomas Wander) Crimson
Tide, The Rock, Pearl Harbour, The Da Vinci Code & The Ring (Hans Zimmer) Hopilola (Sigur Ros)
Unbreakable, Signs, The Village and Outbreak (James Newton Howard) A Beautiful Mind (James Horner)
The Butterfly Effect (Michael Suby) 28 Days Later (John Murphy) The Firm (Dave Grusin) Jaws (John
The harmonic movement below, abbreviated from Craig Armstrong’s score to World Trade Centre, looks
definite and absolute. The top-stave open voicings penetrate fully.
Audio – ‘World Trade Centre’
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
However, if we look at the completed version (below, fig.2) it has a pedal bass throughout and the
appearance of denser harmony toward the end. The effect of the pedal bass merely serves to confirm the
first few chords, but in bar five (highlighted) we effectively have a poly-chord, fusing the implied G chord
in the treble stave with the C octaves in the bass stave.
In bar six (highlighted) the G (5th) and D (9th) are added to the bass stave C chord voicing. No 3rd appears
which leaves the chord open and ambiguous. But there is a deeper relationship between the chords, in that
the G and D on the bass stave directly relate to the G and B on the treble staves, belonging as they do to the
chord of G. The point then is, do we hear the B and G (treble stave) and the G and D (from the bass stave)
as part of an overall G chord (with a pedal C bass) or do we hear them as the maj7th, 5th and 9th of the C
chord? The omission of want would be unequivocal defining the 3rd creates the ambiguity; it creates a sense
of both chords at once. Although in all probability few people are aware of the complexities at work, they
are beneficiaries of the effect, which is profound subtlety created by complex harmonic interaction. By
giving the senses little to go on, you deflect expectation and create a different, more transparent, subtler
experience. The different ways of rationalising these chords are therefore not just theoretical; they are
actual because they create two subtly different ways of aurally interpreting the chords. In this music a
whole myriad of different harmonic reactions, combined with the distinct soft textures, combine to create a
slightly mesmerising ‘soundscape’ feel. If this seems like its minimalism, it only seems that way.
1st and 3rd of G
chord or maj7th 5th
of a C chord
3rd and 5th of G chord
or maj7th 9th of a C
Does the G and D represent the 1st and 5th of a G
chord with the addition of a pedal C?
Or does the G and D represent the 5th and 9th of
the C chord? The lack of the 3rd creates
ambiguity, which makes the experience mildly
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The subtle emotional contours of Craig Armstrong’s music for the film World Trade Centre work so well
because they are so deftly stated. Because the events portrayed in the film are grounded in profound reality,
more than almost any film the music for World Trade Centre cannot and must not sentimentalise. Almost
any music might be considered an intrusion but much of Armstrong’s music is emotional commentary. We
do not really hear it as typical film music; it is an emotional response to the narrative, to the story and to the
pictures. If any composer had tried to replicate or counter the images with a ‘typical’ formulaic film score
response, this wouldn’t have worked; it would have turned tragedy into melodrama.
Road to Perdition is a thoughtful and complex film which explores many difficult and emotional themes.
Director Sam Mendes said “Michael Sullivan is in a battle for the soul of his son. Can a man who has led a
bad life achieve redemption through his child”? Gangster Michael Sullivan is on the run after taking the life
of his boss in revenge for the murder of most of his family. The film explores themes of violence, guilt,
redemption and also father-son relationships, not only between Michael Sullivan and his son, but between
Sullivan and his boss, John Rooney.
The abbreviated excerpt below is taken from Road to Perdition. One of Newman’s most profoundly
communicative approaches is to slightly obscure the harmonies by ‘painting in’ subtle extensions. This
works well, underpinning the pedestrian pace and sombre and dark context of the movie. Newman has used
this style and approach in numerous films and has created an emotive musical dimension to films which
function on many levels and is which is much copied and emulated.
By writing music which is open and free to interpretation Newman allows the viewer chance to experience
the music and the film in a deeper way. The first bar in this excerpt features the added 2nd. Newman uses
this again in bar two over a different chord. When listening we would be forgiven for thinking the ‘sound’
of the chord in bar one is created purely by the polite clash between the notes of D and E (min 3rd and
added 4th). We think this because this is the most surface-level, noticeable, observable element.
Audio - ‘Road to Perdition’ Movie - 01.39.34
As discussed elsewhere in this book the true power of harmony and intervals are best seen and heard in
their full context, not simply their localised context. The intervals below are simply the ones from bar one,
spread out, and are seen only in context of the root note; the perforated line represents the harmonic
contour of the intervals.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
In fig.6 (left) all intervals within the chord
(transcribed at one note per bar) are seen
in context of each other. Altogether there
are six separate harmonic relationships
which define and govern the sound of this
chord. When people hear this chord, this is
what they experience; this is one of the
main reasons it sounds like it does.
To presume, therefore, that the reason for this chord sounding the way it does is purely the tone-interval
between the D and E is to miss the point completely. The 11th (E) does indeed make the chord interesting,
but because of its interaction with the other three notes in the chord, not just the one nearest to it.
Understanding these deep and profound relationships helps us rationalise the complexity of harmony and
its potential to subtly affect how we listen and emotionally digest music. Below we have the complete
transcription. As we can see, in addition to the subtle nuances created in the piano harmonies, Thomas
Newman places behind it an E chord played by an ethereal-sounding sample. So the finished sound is a
subtle poly-chord with the E/B chord set back in the mix.
In the example below I have scored out a composite and amalgamated version, complete
of the harmonies from piano and synth staves.
The amalgamated chord symbol is Bm.
In terms of hearing it, the listener is aware of two chords; two realities – Bm and E.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Because of the harmonic ambiguity of the poly-chord, the G# can be heard as the #13 of the Bm
chord OR the 10th (3rd) of the E chord
Because of the harmonic ambiguity of the poly-chord, the E can be heard as the 11th of the Bm
chord OR the root of the E chord
Because of the harmonic ambiguity of the poly-chord, the D can be heard as the 10th (3rd) of the
Bm chord OR the 7th of the E chord
Because of the harmonic ambiguity of the poly-chord, the B can be heard as the root of the Bm
chord OR the 5th of the E chord
The B and F# serve the Bm which makes the overall harmonic complexion more weighted in
favour of Bm than E.
American Beauty is described by many as a film about ‘the meaning of life’ and by others as a film about
the hollow reality of the ‘American Dream’. It is a story which shines a light on what some see as a ‘rotting
American Culture’ – what some describe as a kind of ‘spiritual bankruptcy’. The needless, meaningless
material things America holds onto with so much conviction are ridiculed in this thoughtful film. Director
Sam Mendes himself called it “a kaleidoscopic journey through American suburbia; a series of love
stories”. Above all it is a satire on what’s wrong with American life. Mendes also called American Beauty a
“rites of passage film about imprisonment and escape from imprisonment”.
One of the most beautiful scenes is the scene in which a paper bag is take freely by the breeze; a symbolic
representation of ‘letting go’. How does a composer write music which addresses such a potent mix of
complex and composite themes? The example below features music from the ‘paper bag’ sequence. In the
film two characters watch a home movie of a paper bag flying freely in the wind. The viewer therefore
watches a film of two characters who are themselves watching a film. The music works so well because it
provides a kind of distant, mesmerising and ethereal emotion which serves two purposes: it bonds us to the
characters and bonds us and the characters to the film of the paper bag. Newman’s identifiable style has
been copied the world over and this track specifically has been used in numerous film & TV sequences.
Why? How and why does this music communicate so well? How does it translate the emotion
of the scene and the film and how does it function as a musical version of Mendes’
Sound, music and production
Listeners are invariably seduced into the easy presumption of the ‘sound’ being principally responsible for
the mesmerising and hypnotic effect of the music.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Certainly Newman’s use of heavily produced piano with his archetypal and memorable accompanying
samples, are what communicate ‘the sound’. But sometimes when people analyse music they stop at the
sound without looking at what the sound is playing, e.g. the music. Save for electroacoustic music, where
sound arguably has a different meaning, sound is nothing without the information; the actual music. We
need both. Sound without music isn’t music, and music without sound to carry it is simply silent,
theoretical music. These sound like ridiculously obvious statements but so often people obsess over, and
are preoccupied by, ‘the sound’ without giving much thought to the music the sound is articulating. The
‘distinctive sound’ (the choice of instrumentation, the mix, the production, the orchestration) is not in itself
music; sound is the vehicle on which music transmits. The sound represents the eventuality of music. To
presume that Newman’s music is all about the sound is to miss the point completely. Thomas Newman’s
approach to harmony is exquisite and crucial to the success of the ‘paper bag’ scene from American Beauty,
and it is the sound which contextualises the information and turns it into music. This piece is one of the key
reasons Newman’s style has been obsessively appropriated, imitated and copied the world over.
In terms of Newman’s global success and the appropriation of his sound by thousands of young composers,
most roads lead back to American Beauty. A cursory glance tells you immediately that this piece doesn’t
arrive at a resolved chord very often. It has a transitory feel. The resolved chords are circled in the
transcription below. The rest are a collection of suspended or incomplete, impartial, fragmentary chords;
the left hand displays very clinical, parallel writing but the right hand provides the expression; the colour.
The power of this style of writing is that it sometimes provides an exquisite and heady mixture of
extensions, but without the defining 3rd in the main body of the chord.
Audio, 00.40 ‘American Beauty’ – Movie 00.59.20
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The mixture of incomplete, partial writing represents almost a type of ‘harmonic depravation’ for the
listener. The listener, dispossessed of the normal harmonic indicators and signposts, has to work hard to
find any kind of rationale. This creates the effect we experience when listening to this style of writing.
Within this context, the pivotal chord sequence (the American Beauty chord sequence) has to be the first
two chords of bar two, which appear again in bar five, seventeen and twenty. This is the signature of this
piece. This is the musical centre of gravity for American Beauty. Why? The example below (fig.9) features
the first four bars of fig.8. The first chord (in bar two) cannot be defined as Cm6 or C6 because it lacks the
minor or major 3rd which would define it. The bare fifth (left hand) is an octave lower than the added 6th
creating a little more ambiguity. The things which hint at the chord being a min6 rather than a maj6 are
firstly the brief Bb which delivers the chord; we would find a Bb in a Cm natural minor scale but not in a
Cmaj scale, therefore when we hear the chord on bar two we experience it as a Cm6 even though there is
no min3rd. Essentially this is what we might describe as implied or inferred harmony. The vast majority of
people who listen will be happily oblivious to this, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t the beneficiaries of its
effect. Secondly, and ironically, the second chord in bar two (the resolving Eb) provides the context for the
chord before - the answer, the solution. This means that the next time we hear the same phrase we
understand the unstated elements of the first chord even better; we ‘get it’. This system of partial,
fragmented, broken and drip-fed information, more than anything else, creates the dream-like quality that
defines this piece. Remember, although we hear music from left to right, from start to finish, from
beginning to end, the emotional effect music has on us is cumulative.
2012 Harald Klosser & Thomas Wander
The transcription below is taken from ‘2012’ by Harald Kloser and Thomas Wander. It appropriates the
Thomas Newman style beautifully. It blurs harmonies subtly; the string section undercurrent delivers a
Csus4 chord, but overlaid we have various chords, including F, Eb Gm, F, Eb and Cm
Audio - ‘The End is only the Beginning’ 01.10 Movie, 01.16,30
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
This subtle poly-harmony mildly disorientates the listener, creating a slightly ‘dreamy’ listening
experience. The use of this music at the end of 2012 creates a reflective, emotional response from the
viewer which, with the movie itself, gives the film a poignant and inspiring ending.
THE DESCENT David Julyan
The Newman examples we looked at showed how partial, fragmentary information can create a kind of
dream-like quality. In the following example, by David Julyan, from the movie The Descent, we’re going
to look at a small section of the introduction, a musical chord sequence which came several times in the
film and became in many ways its harmonic and sonic signature. The piece sounds seemingly unlike the
section we analysed from American Beauty, but, just as in American Beauty, parts of the harmony are
partial or incomplete, and also, like American Beauty the composer often overlays extensions onto chords
whilst omitting important primary intervals. Although the two films seem different musically, they share
similar approaches compositionally. This proves that although music conveys meaning through the
appropriation of specific harmonies, no one chord can be said to create an absolutely precise emotional
meaning with which it is inextricably and exclusively connected. Chords can be said to create within us
some emotional meaning but ultimately it is the context of the film (which is, after all, part of the music)
which places on the music its final immovable context.
In The Descent the composer uses chords where two extensions which don’t normally exist together, are
placed in within the same chord. In addition Julyan omits primary intervals from chords. This can make
chords very ‘extension heavy’ or ‘colour heavy’, which can sound undefined, transparent, partial and
spatial. David Julyan’s score for The Descent is solemn and somber in places. It’s not entirely unlike parts
of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Alien. It is dark, ambient and minimalist sounding and has touches of Philip
Glass. The movie itself features a group of women caving in the Appalachian Mountains who encounter
monsters - referred to as ‘crawlers’ - that gradually and perhaps inevitably pick off the group one by one.
There are tensions between the characters which become exposed as the movie progresses. One of the
elements that make the film such a convincing and classy horror movie is the music, which features some
refreshingly abstract harmonies. This is not, thankfully, the kind of formulaic score it could easily have
ended up being. The normal Hollywood gloss may well have ruined the film. Julyan’s thoughtful,
introspective and deep music raises this film outside the context of what could have been an atypical horror
movie. It features little in the way of melody or formulaic Hollywood orchestration.
The transcription in fig.11 is typical of Julyan’s score for The Descent (and Insomnia which is covered later
in this chapter). It possesses a serenity, stillness and tranquillity despite its preponderance toward difficult
intervals and odd voicings. This approach serves the movie well. It lends the first few scenes a sense of
foreboding which the pictures do not entirely reflect. Visually the opening scenes are ‘on the nose’; but the
music tends to betray the story long before the pictures do.
The chord in bar two contains the strings playing the root, 5th, 3rd and 6th whilst the trumpets play the maj7th
and 9th. The 6th and maj7th would normally not be found in the same chord and the fact that they are lends
the cue a distant, remote sound.
Also the piece moves in and out from defined chords (containing a 3rd) to non-defined chords (no 3rd); for
example bars four to five.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio: White Water Rafting – Movie: 00.02.00
Defined chord
Defined chord
Non-defined chord
Non-defined chord
When I say you
wouldn’t normally
find a maj6th and
maj7th together in
the same chord,
what I mean is that
they possess
distinctly different
aural qualities. They
offer quite specific
characteristics and
tensions. In scalic
context they are
only a tone apart but
Julyan separates
them by placing the
6th above the maj7th.
But still it sounds a
little odd.
Bar six features a Bsus4 resolving to a B which then subsequently ‘resolves’ to a bare C# chord, with no
defining 3rd but with an 11th and a high 7th. This is a classic example of a filmic, spatial, extension-heavy
In previous chapters we looked at the issue of the intervallic context of notes, whereby the emotion and
character is dependent on a note’s musical function and its intervallic context (what interval it represents
relative to the chord in which it is placed). With this in mind, bar eight contains an F# (7th) which in the
previous bar functioned as the 11th. This tiny subtle nuance is crucial to how this piece functions. Bar eight
also contains a high m6 (the E) which creates tension with the 7th (F#) lower. Perhaps bar nine contains the
best example of what harmony can achieve; chords normally contain either a 3rd or a 4th but not usually
both; indeed the very concept of a suspended 4th is that it takes the place of the 3rd. However in this case the
lower strings state the suspended 4th (A) of the E chord whilst the French Horns state the 3rd. This is not a
semi-tonal clash; the notes are a maj7th apart, mitigating and softening their potential for dissonance but not
deleting it.
This piece succeeds in being effective, emotional, sparse, dense, spatial and dissonant, all in the space of a
few bars. The musical cue, which appears several times in the film, is crucial in underpinning the drama.
The first time it appears, while the characters are white-water rafting, the music offers a sense of subtle
foreboding. Set against the seemingly happy scene on film, this creates an effective juxtaposition.
The dull inevitability of music
Normally when we listen to music there is a sense of inevitability. As we discuss elsewhere in this book,
John Cage criticised Beethoven personally for being the principal creator of what he termed ‘goalorientated’ music. Whilst it might seem disingenuous and even absurd to level criticism at Beethoven for
simply constructing music in a way that was absorbing, enlightening and entertaining, it would also be
wrong to presume that John Cage was necessarily inaccurate about his central observation; music is goal
orientated. It mirrors our lives, which are also punctuated by journeys and goals.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Perhaps the one area of mainstream music (listened to by millions) capable of exploring other ways of
delivering music is film music. Music is linear by its very nature. Even if it doesn’t possess goals, it has a
beginning and a conclusion. But the real beauty of some of the more expressive film music is that it doesn’t
appear to have the same dull inevitability that most music possesses. Because of the nature of how film
music is constructed - and although it still goes from left to right, from beginning to end - it seems
sometimes as if it communicates cumulatively, as if the music is being fed to us from different directions,
almost as if a labyrinth of chords and extensions are falling like snowdrops. It appears lacking of the kind
of dull inevitability or grand scheme which so defines ‘normal’ music. The music seems to ‘breathe’ and
evolve rather than move. It seems to inhale and exhale rather than progress or conclude. It evolves rather
than develops. This is of course down to the nature of what film music is and the functions it undertakes. It
is required often to come in halfway through a scene; it is sometimes required not to really have a
beginning or and end but merely to appear briefly. It is almost an unwritten rule of music’s central function
that it ought not neccasarily exist as a separate, standalone entity because to do so could be distracting.
INSOMNIA David Julyan
The piece below, again by David Julyan, is part of the opening sequence to the film Insomnia. A glance at
the chords below will show, once again, Julyan’s use of incomplete ‘fractured’ chords - ordinary chords
deprived of some of their pivotal structural intervals. The opening of the film is visually stunning, with
aerial footage of Alaska. Sent to investigate a murder in Alaska, cop Al Pacino accidentally shoots his own
partner while trying to apprehend a suspect. He hides his guilt, which adds to an already emotionally
entangled movie. Julyan’s music works brilliantly well in this deeply emotional and psychological film in
providing densely textured but harmonically incomplete and mildly dissonant music. The music is
introspective and pensive throughout the opening sequence, which adds an unsure, apprehensive and
ominous context to the visually dramatic pictures.
Audio, Opening Titles (Blood Drips) 00.30 – Movie: 00.00.30
F Bb
Bars one and three
feature an Am but
minus its 5th; bar two
features simply octave
unison; bar 4 features
a Bb chord but minus
its 3rd.
This is particularly striking when the chord evolves to a Bbmaj7 later in the bar. A maj7 chord minus its 3rd
is an interesting chord because the lack of the defining interval (3rd) makes the maj7 into a slightly different
listening experience. The aural qualities of the maj7, although in part due to the maj7 interval between it
and the root, are partly the product of the completeness of the chord. This is what gives it its ‘niceness’.
Omitting the 3rd partly aurally recontextualises the maj7. All extensions rely on the completeness of a chord
to determine the way their aural qualities are heard. If we omit the vital 3rd from a chord which has
extensions, we expose different intervallic dynamics within the chord.
The penultimate bar of fig.13 is rationalised as an F over a Bb bass. The lack of an F or C in the chord,
however, means the description falls between different possibilities (Am/Bb for example) as does the sound
it creates. The real success here is that Julyan’s use of fragmented and incomplete harmonies creates a kind
of apprehension and tension in the film. It works as an effective musical accompaniment to the desolate but
striking panoramic mountain scenery in the film’s opening.
As listeners we’re conditioned to be able to fill in any confusion or missing gaps with supposition,
assumption and hypothesis.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
This is an instinctive process by which we attempt to understand and comprehend. The harder this process
is, the more effective the music can be, within reason; if the process was impossible due to unfathomable
dissonances or sonically impenetrable textures then we would be confused to the point of irritation.
Because the piece doesn’t reveal itself easily or immediately, the process we go through to rationalise what
we’re listening to is, to some degree, what creates and defines its inherent communicative ability. It’s why
it’s so effective and emotional. The music creates an emotional response in us. The absence of crucial
intervals creates insecurity in the listener. Absence apparently makes the heart grow fonder, but it also
makes the musical receptors and aural cognition more heightened.
The following short abbreviated transcription (fig.14) is from the same film and shows again the use of
minimal harmonies, e.g. chords which appear to be missing intervals which normally define them. The first
chord ‘sounds’ like an A6/9 chord but on closer analysis has no 3rd or 5th.
Audio - ‘Will hides the gun’
(no 3/5)
This chord creates emotion precisely because it lacks complete identification. Indeed the only reason for
rationalising it as a chord in the first place is to show a benchmark by which it can be classified; to show
how near it is to the chord on which it is loosely based. Rather than see the chord as a bunch of notes, we
have to look in context of what it’s nearest rational reference is, then look what is being omitted and to
what degree this dictates its effectiveness. The chord in bars four to six is another incomplete one; this time
it’s the A6 but minus maj3, which makes it a different listening experience. The lack of the 3rd recalibrates
the harmonies and redistributes the emphasis of each of the notes in the chord, giving the chord a stark
Fig.16 looks at the manipulation of harmony to illicit very slight and subtle harmonic blurring by
examining the main theme from the film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. First, in order to acclimatise, it
would help if we glanced at fig.15, which contains chords which are followed with the isolated extracted
elements of the chords that offer tension.
Fig.15 pppp
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The chords on the treble and bass clef above (fig.15) in bars one, three and five offer a slightly different
chord, simultaneously. The differences are so subtle as to be hardly recognised but their effect is crucial to
the emotional impact of the music and in order to garner the slightly dreamy feel of the chords. Although
the bottom and top stave of bar one feature a distinctive flattened 5th, the top chord features maj 7/9
whereas the bottom stave features the 6th. As in the Julyan piece at the start of The Descent, finding a 6th
and a maj7 together can create a cluster of colour to which we aren’t accustomed.
When one listens to the title track from this movie there is a temptation to assume the theme itself is the
main propellant of the emotion, resplendent with its far-eastern style textures. However, the preamble
which precedes that section completely sets the tone (texturally and harmonically) for the rest of the piece;
this is the section we will analyse. Technically the section below is the introduction but it is completely
crucial. It manages to present a sad, melancholy innocence whilst retaining textural clarity. How does it do
this? The crystal-clear synth instrumentation in the melody is crucial to the sense of textural clarity but the
‘melancholy innocence’ is greatly aided by the sequence of accompanying harmonies. The subtle, blurred
distortion created by two subtly different chords at the same time creates emotional impact. Listeners are
unable to rationalise the subtly indistinct harmonies which creates a slight dream-like mesmeric quality to
the sound. Subtle differences in the precise harmonic complexion of the chords create a warm, evocative
and ‘mystical’ sound which can be misunderstood for texture rather than content.
Audio: Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence title track 00.27
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The mesmerising and expressive top-line melodic movement goes too fast to be rationalised as a melody
and so is absorbed into the chords and functions as rapidly moving horizontal harmony. Film music’s
primary function is to aid the telling of a story told through images and narrative. Because music for film
lacks the habitual great incentives of ‘normal’ music – the need to serve itself, the need for musical goals
and the desire and need to entertain as music – it is free from its customary structural shackles, as this piece
displays, however subtly. Music for music’s sake carries with it the burden and expectation of commercial
expectation and musical entertainment. Music for film’s sake has no such incentive. This is why composers
can deliver ethereal sounding textures and harmonies for films like Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.
How Harmony leads us into temptation
Take a look at the following excerpt, which is abbreviated from a sequence from Pearl Harbour
Audio, ‘I will come back’ 00.29
The sequence is crying out to be resolved at the end of bar four. We are lead to the assumption of a
resolution to Gm. But one of Hans Zimmer’s defining characteristics is on the one hand to immerse us in
cotton-wool orchestration and dense but soft textures, but on the other hand to take ‘the road less travelled’.
With Zimmer expect the unexpected. One of the things that can make music ‘original’ is not what it is, but
what it is not. The level to which it weakens our assumptions and subverts our expectations can, in some
circumstances, also be the level to which it succeeds. Something which subverts completely, suddenly,
abruptly or starkly will disorientate a listener and in terms of a film experience, it will distract, but not in a
good way. Something that subverts unexpectedly but subtly will titillate, tantalise, tempt and entice. Take a
look at a fuller version of the excerpt.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
D to Dm (boxed) is unexpected. It’s an acutely anticlimactic harmonic sequence which creates a sense of
insecurity, sadness and foreboding. This happens again between bar 8 and 9 (Am to Ab). Zimmer does
these things at crucial moments within the structure of music to extort the maximum emotional impact at
the right time. In music, architecture and placement are everything.
In order to put this into some kind of context, below in bar one we have a D note. The idea is deliver it into
a sequence which contextualises it harmonically, e.g. ‘works’ and makes the D note ‘mean something’. The
first example (fig.19) is a simple no-brainer: the D note becomes a D chord. In fig.20 the D note becomes
an inverted 7th of an E chord. This causes a sense of freshness and surprise. By beginning the sequence with
a note which we presume is the tonic but turns out to be the inverted 7th, we ‘surprise’ people.
The change in fig.21 is slightly less expected, where the D note becomes part of an Ebmaj7 chord. The
change in fig.22 is even less expected, where the D becomes the flat 5th of an Ab chord.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig.23 features the D note becoming the 1st inversion of a Bb chord. Again, this is unexpected because the
chord of Bb is outside the key centre of the chord of D we expected. The note of D links the two chords
together and alters the harmonic weighting of the Bb chord which makes it more ‘interesting’. It is effective
also because the interval of the ‘destination D’ note is a 3rd which is a penetrative descriptive interval.
Fig.24 is perhaps the most unexpected and severe. The D becomes the flattened 10th of a B7 chord. Subtle
complimentary textures and orchestration will soften the impact.
Zimmer uses the ‘expect the unexpected’ tactic again in this short opening sequence from
one of his most successful movie scores.
Audio - Dies Mercuri Martius - Movie: 00.00.06
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
There are several ways in which Zimmer disturbs and blurs harmony in this cue. For a start, the initial
opening chord has an added 2nd, clashing faintly with the min 3rd and is also built over the inverted A (5th).
Secondly, the bass motif, which comes in three bursts, although ‘normal’ (3,5,1) in the first instance,
reverts to a more harmonically blurred state; in the second statement (bar seven and eight) the line rests on
the 4th (G) and then again on the 2nd and 4th (bar twelve). These are the harmonic tactics which ensure the
piece doesn’t descend unduly into normality and tunefulness. This is what makes it dramatic and makes it
filmic and makes it suitable for picture. Later on in the same cue (01.05 – movie 00.01.06) Zimmer’s
harmonic tendencies come through again.
Audio - Dies Mercuri Martius 01.05 - Movie: 00.01.06
Choir /
The initial bass note of D becomes the inverted 3rd of a Bb chord. This is classic Zimmer, ‘confounding the
When we hear a single note, or octaves, we default to the natural assumption that we’re hearing the tonic,
the root. We’re not particularly conscious of this presumption but given that classification forms part of
aural cognition, this process forms part of how we listen, how we understand and how we enjoy. If it turns
out that the note we presumed was the root isn’t the root, the realisation can be very mildly surprising; this
is one of the many ways music communicates a sense of identity, character and meaning. In the next bar the
chord changes to Bbsus4. The sus4 is the Eb, which causes mild dissonance between it and the D bass,
mitigated by the D being so low.
If the Bb inverted chord in bar three was played in isolation it would sound like it is supposed to sound, like
you would expect it to sound; but played after the two bars which precede it, it sounds different because its
context is different. Harmony does not ‘communicate’ to its listener as a singular linear experience, despite
this being the method of its physical delivery. Chords communicate collectively in a cumulative style. The
emotional ‘feel’ and identity of a chord is something that communicates, but when that chord is delivered
or ‘prepared’ in a certain, specific and unexpected way it can change its characteristics slightly and subtly.
The effect of the D even continues after the key change because although it no longer represents the bass,
there is a D note within the Bm chord. This piece of music runs behind the opening credit sequence from
the film and as such has only graphics to accompany. Thus it is almost exclusively responsible for
preparing the context of the film for the viewer.
If we now take a look at the same cue, this time from the beginning, we can observe other factors which
help the piece communicate.
A scene in the same film gives us a perfect example of the simple power of the inversion in creating a
subtle but nevertheless dramatic distortion of the harmonic equilibrium of a chord. 00.55’10 in, the film
presents a scene in which the two characters punch in a sequence of numbers (the ‘Fibonacci sequence’)
which results in the arrival of safety deposit box. This is a key moment of the film and is preceded by Tom
Hanks’character stating “the moment of truth”. Before we look at this sequence let us first analyse the two
simple chords below.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Although the two chords sound
dramatic, they are a little obvious;
they lack any real subtlety in voicing.
The voicing is almost parallel and has
a clinical chromatic feel. How can we
make the transition smoother?
Almost parallel motion
By making the second chord inverted, we create contrary motion in the voicing (top note goes down,
bottom note now goes up), and create dramatic tension in the second chord by virtue of its inverted nature.
By such simple devices music is
manicured and manipulated. What
we’re doing when we alter chords for
more dramatic effect is sculpturing
the raw materials of harmony to
create a more dramatic aural ‘shape’
whilst retaining the basic feel of the
Although it is important to understand the technicalities of how the inversion has affected the sequence in
terms of subtle dramatic tension, just as important is to understand that contours created by contrary motion
could be described as being how music breathes. Every time music is performed and listened to, it lives.
One of the reasons it sounds alive is because of the internal evolving architecture of the harmony moving.
Just as we are programmed to breathe by our brain, the level to which music breathes is determined by
composers, arrangers, orchestrators, producers, mix engineers and of course, the musicians who interpret
and perform. Although people might presume that the rhythm or pulse of a piece would constitute it
‘breathing’, every subtle nuance in voicing, every small bit of harmonic architecture, is one more way in
which music contracts and expands. The sequence is transcribed full [fig 28] complete with the crucial,
dramatic but subtle inversion which creates the contrary motion. We hear the chord going down but the
bass line going up. The chord goes from major to minor but the minor-ness is disguised by the inversion.
What’s really happening here is that we’re experiencing competing perceptions which cause dramatic
emotional tension. In addition, if we look carefully from bar six onwards with the use of alternating 5s and
#5s, articulated with classic orchestration, we see what could almost be described as Hans Zimmer’s ‘John
Barry moment’.
Audio ‘Fructus Gravis’ - 0.41 Movie - 00.55’10
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
THE ROCK Hans Zimmer
In the transcription below (fig.29) from the main theme from The Rock, bar seven features Asus4 and A
chords. The expectation is for the sequence to resolve to a Dm. As with The Da Vinci Code, Zimmer
chooses instead so ‘resolve’ to a Bb/D. This chord sequence, again containing the inversion, is almost a
semi-trademark of the composer. Our analysis of it is in context of its ability to generate an emotive
response from the listener / viewer. The piece below, like many Zimmer pieces, possesses an anthem-like
quality with its slow, deliberate, unhurried harmonies and pedestrian pace. This piece, like so much of
Zimmer’s music, is not so much written to be synced to a precise point in the film, but rather exists as an
uplifting, elevating, stirring response to the narrative of the film as a whole.
Audio: Hummel Gets the Rockets - 00.22 Movie – 00.00.36
The excerpt below is taken from Crimson Tide and, as with bars seven and eight of The Rock (fig. 29)
features the same harmonic approach in bars nine and ten. Also, in bars seven and eight Zimmer uses the
distinctly John Barry ‘007’-sounding chord sequence (boxed)
Audio – ‘Roll Tide’
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
THE RING Hans Zimmer
In terms of creating delicate and subtle harmonic dissonances, we ought to examine the
following section from The Ring. The music is a defining aspect of the film and works
with the narrative to deliver some memorable moments. Zimmer’s harmonically and
texturally opaque music works well. The music below is one the central musical cues of
the film, and is first heard during a car journey which follows character Rachel’s meeting
with her child Aiden’s teacher in which the teacher expresses worry over Aiden’s recent
behavior. The scene in the car is initially silent apart from this eerie piano and synth line.
The two characters glance at each other but the music describes the anxiety and strain.
Movie: 00.10.15
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
What this piece highlights, yet again, is the effectiveness of subverting the listening experience; the denial
of what the listener expects to hear. Broken harmonies can and do communicate more profoundly in some
cases than regular more exacting harmonies. There is a vague and unsettling impreciseness which draws us
in and makes us think more than harmonies which are complete and delivered on a plate. The defining
moment is bar three, where we would expect a return to the chord in bar two, but are instead given a mildly
distorted version of it, in the form of a sparsely voiced Dm(add4). There is no actual D note (root) in what
we assume is a Dm simply because a chord of Dm preceded it. Even the A note (5th) is only heard thanks to
the sample line on the bottom stave. In the spirit of ‘less is more’, harmony by suggestion or innuendo
where central pillars of the chord are omitted can be more powerful because the listener’s interpretation is
more acute. The chord contains the 4th, which, given the lack of a root note, displaces the harmony further.
Taken in isolation we wouldn’t even hear the chord in bar three as a Dm(add4); it is the slightly more
certain chord in bar two which delivers this aural assumption and chord symbol name. Ultimately with less
definite and fractured harmony perception is everything. Placing fractured chords after more definite
chords is therefore one of the cornerstones of this kind of writing. Beginning with a fractured chord in
many respects gives the listener nowhere to go. Moving in and out of harmonic focus is what makes this
style of writing so effective.
This subtle denial of what we expect is one of the main harmonic approaches in this film. Bar four is
technically the most dissonant, featuring an implied Bbm chord (no 5th) but with the added major 7th on the
synth line underneath. This would sound more challenging than it does were it not for two things; firstly the
soft sample textures deliver the dissonance subtly and secondly, bar three offered a much more subtle
dissonance, leading us up to the main dissonance. We therefore have an ‘emotional arc’ created by an
‘harmonic contour’ which delivers a gradual ‘swell’ of intensity before subsiding in bar five (see fig .32).
Other subtle dissonances come in the following, which appears several times in the film.
Audio - The Well 00.00
Strings /
This short section displays a Dm chord
being offset by an alternating major 7th
and dominant 7th melodic line.
However, closer scrutiny and different contextualization below reveals that the first two bars are in fact
polytonal. The melodic line is in Bbm whereas the accompaniment is in Dm. thus we have the irony that
the more visually complex explanation is actually easier to rationalise.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Polyharmony is not beyond comprehension but
often makes music seem beyond conventional
rationalization. But it only seems that way; in
music most things can be rationalised and
Strings /
In the section below, which is abbreviated from the opening few bars of probably the most iconic musical
motif in cinema history, we have an open key signature with all context deliberately removed apart from
the notes in bar nine, which we naturally perceive to be the root, 3rd and 7th of an Eb chord.
1st maj3rd 7th
As we can see from the fuller version below, from the movie Jaws, this is classic polytonal writing. The
bottom stave contains notes which tell us one thing, whilst the horn line in isolation is in an entirely
different key: simple polytonality. Because we aren’t able to separately rationalise each line, we hear
something which is effective but which we don’t understand; brilliant but baffling. After hearing several
bars we understand the basic concept of the semitone movement between E and F. Then we hear something
that doesn’t fit. The point is, one of the main reasons it is effective is because we don’t understand it;
because it doesn’t fit. If you played the horn line a thousand times featuring three notes which ‘worked’ it
would probably not have the same impact.
Audio - Main Title from Jaws
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The section below, which is a continuation of The Well, from The Ring, offers an intriguing insight into
how and why music which has been subtly disfigured communicates so well
Audio - The Well 00.18
The first issue is the context of the lower note of the arpegiated piano line. The D in bars one to three
constitutes the root of the Dm chord, where as the Db in bars four-five constitutes a minor 3rd of what is an
implied inverted chord. Therefore although the musical notes D to Db drop by a semitone, what the
intervals represent rises by a minor 3rd. This simple duality of perception is one reason why sections like
this work so well. The reality of this particular sequence is skewed further by virtue of the A which appears
in the left-hand accompaniment, which represents a 5th of the Dm chord, then a major 7th of the inverted
arpegiated Bbm chord. The note itself clashes but of course what it represents changes too.
We only call the chord in bars four and five Bbm/Db and not Db because the melody line in bar four hits
the Bb. This kind of loose chord classification is not just a theoretical observation; these vagaries affect
how we hear. Listeners hear chord symbols even if they don’t know what they are, which means they also
hear the subtleties which shave the edges of the certainties of the harmonies too. The transcription below,
which is from the hit US television drama series Rubicon, features music written in a similar style to the
example from The Ring.
05.19’ episode 2, season 1 - Rubicon
1st Interval
Again, if we look and listen carefully we notice that the G in context of the Gm piano arpeggio represents a
root. The Gb note in bar two has dropped by a semitone but the interval rises to a minor 3rd of the Ebm/Gb
chord, so the intervallic ratio rises, offering a kind of ‘contrary motion’ between the note we hear and what
it represents, which we also hear. The final example from The Ring is entitled ‘this is going to hurt’ and is a
slower, more languid and expressive example of same concept of ‘note v interval’.
Audio - ‘This is going to hurt’ from The Ring
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The D bass note (seen as a continuous line in the example below) in the double basses, drops to a Db. The
intervallic context (what the notes are as intervals in context of the chords they imply) seen here as a
perforated line, is from root to minor 3rd.
This is one of the reasons this cue sounds so effective and dramatic. This is one of the reasons why it
works. The transition from Dm to Bbm/Db lets out a stream of emotion, almost as if the piece is literally
‘breathing out’. This is how our senses are tweaked, our responses titillated and the predictability of our
reactions challenged. Music structure delivers these possibilities. We find them only by looking hard at
what music can offer. This is why the ‘crossover’ section where the musical and representational contexts
cross over (the end of bar two into the beginning of bar three) is so interesting and relevant.
The idea of contextualizing music not just as notes but also as intervals can be rewarding and enlightening.
It’s not that it necessarily makes us better writers; it’s just that we can understand how harmony works and
creates emotional reactions within listeners.
Take a look at the simple bass line below; the key is Db, so taken on face value the notes, as well as being
Db, F and Ab, are root, major 3rd and 5th. If we were trying to harmonize this section we would probably
default to a relatively safe approach where the key signature and perceived key centre guides us. This is
natural but it does underscore to what degree we are hostages to conformity and tradition. When we sit at a
piano keyboard we naturally default to a ‘normal’ way of approaching composition and harmony. Our
fingers are programmed to automatically reach for favorable chord voicings. Even if we attempt to buck
this trend by, for example, placing our entire arm on the keyboard to deliberately create harmonic chaos,
even this is a caricatured overcooked extreme reaction. We are programmed to obey the rules of music. But
of course in reality there are no rules, only traditions. There is no truth, only opinion.
Above are written three alternate chord sequences to fit the bass line provided. In truth none of them sound
that good because none of them stray outside the key centre. The bass line is quite restrictive. So let’s see
what Debussy did.
The first two chords are root-position but in bar two the Ab has been re-contextualised enharmonically as a
G#, which means the interval is different and now provides the inverted major 3rd of the E chord.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
This simple shift is typical of someone who thought - as Dr Emmet Brown from Back to
the Future, might have said – ‘fourth dimensionally’. Chords or notes are not always
hostage to their key centre. They are only hostage to their key centre because we allow
them to be. Why is this sort of harmonic device effective? What are the unique and
distinctive harmonic relationships that make this work so well? First of all we have the
contrary motion contained in the chords and voicings, in which the top and bottom notes
move in contrary direction, avoiding static or parallel movement. Also, look at the
difference between the musical direction of the notes (fig.43) and the subtly different
contour of the intervals.
Sometimes there are two completely plausible but different ways of rationalizing a chord, theoretically,
visually and aurally, just as there may be two completely different, equally valid interpretations of a
picture. In the picture in fig. 46, do you see a girl’s face or a caricatured saxophone player?
What is the chord in fig.46?
(omit 3rd)
B7 or an Em11
Technically from a chord symbol perspective
it can be both. Although you will probably
settle on the B7 because it is easier to
interpret, in terms of hearing it, the chord has
two possibilities.
Just like the picture, the chord can be described two different ways which means it doesn’t possess an
absolutely definitive theoretical or aural identity. Chord symbols give a name to the way something sounds.
If the chord only ‘sounded’ one way – if it was simply heard in one definite way – then however many
abstract and ridiculous theoretical chord symbol names we tried to apply to it, it’s irrelevant (for example,
if we called a chord of C an Am7 minus the root this would be theory gone mad – it would quite literally
only be theoretical). The situation in which it’s not irrelevant or merely theory is if a chord has two equally
valid and compelling chord symbols, because then it has two different aural definitions. It is like an aural
version of the picture in fig.45. There are two equally valid simultaneous ways of interpreting it.
Chords like the one in fig.46 communicate in a similar way to the picture in fig.45; they both offer two
simultaneous realities which are equally plausible.
Most chords come to us already zipped-up and ready to be heard; ‘heard’ rather than ‘listened to’. The
composer has offered us a definite context and we have no alternative than to accept it because there are no
alternative contexts. But when harmony comes in ambiguous forms which have more than one
interpretation, as listeners we are involved more in the process. We are no longer passive and reactive. We
are titillated, perhaps mildly stupefied, but equally we may be more proactive and engaged. We may be
listening rather than merely hearing. That the chord has more than one type of recognition available can
sometimes suggest an unfinished incompleteness.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig.47 The sequence to the right, seen in
context of an unstated Bb chord
possesses no 3rd by which we
would normally deduce the
harmonic flavour of a melodic
maj 7th
All melody is harmony. We rationalise melody by means of rationalizing a harmonic accompaniment
which is either given to us musically or, in absence of that, is presumed by the listener. Technically there is
no such thing as unaccompanied harmony because if harmony doesn’t appear to be there, we create it in
order to understand the context. Melody is simply horizontal harmony; it is simply harmony drip-fed rather
than given to us in a chord or harmonic grouping.
(omit 3rd)
If we condense and convert the melodic pattern in fig.47 into a chord, where notes are struck
together, not separated horizontally into melody, we begin to realise, as alluded to in other
parts of this book, that the notes themselves mean nothing; they are unilateral harmonic
energy. The real cause of how and why a chord sounds the way it does is the space in
between. It is the gaps that determine harmony, not just the notes.
In this sparse, ‘broken chord’, transcribed horizontally again,
chord extensions are in equal number to the basic core
components. This, along with the missing 3rd makes the aural
identification of the chord difficult.
THE FIRM Dave Grusin
If we look at this harmony in deeper context, (the track is ‘Mitch and Abby’ by Dave Grusin from the film
The Firm) we can see how the harmony creates an ambiguous feel which offers the piece a distant,
melancholy feel. The melancholy, distant feel is absolutely right for the scene for which it was used; at
12.33 Abby, who is about to move to Memphis with husband Mitch, receives a gift from the class of
schoolchildren she teaches. The music is happy, playful but the broken chords help articulate the scene;
perhaps they help describe how Abby feels about the move; melancholic, apprehensive, nervous but happy.
Audio: Mitch & Abby - Movie: 00.12.33
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The initial harmonies are indistinguishable but not dissonant; difficult but not impossible to rationalise.
Sometimes composers can get good results if they view the traditional, restrictive and hierarchical
relationship between melody and harmony literally back-to-front. If the ‘melody’ is static or heavily
repetitive whilst the chord sequence moves, this can have an interesting impact on the intervallic context of
the static melody and effectively turn the chords into the most important aspect.
Take a look at the following group of chords and in particular the note of A voiced on top of every chord.
The note of ‘A’ means different things to different chords
The ‘A’ is notated at the top of each voicing in the chord chart above. In each of the chords we hear the A
but it never becomes boring or monotonous – in fact there is a peculiarity and abstraction about it –
precisely because this is not how you normally hear the ‘A’, being restated in different intervallic contexts
We are used to melody moving more than chords. What we hear in the sequence in fig.51 is the feeling that
the ‘A’ moves when in fact it doesn’t. Above the chord sequence is an intervallic contour line which
displays what the ‘A’ means in terms of its intervallic movement; its intervallic context.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Whilst we ‘hear’ the A, what we listen to is the note and the interval it occupies. With this in mind, if we
examine the melodic sequence below without determining what chords will be applied, it is a fairly lifeless,
predictable, repetitive and uninspiring line. When we rationalise the possibilities the line offers us we
default to traditional assumptions; that is why we assume this melodic line to be lifeless. We are the victims
of a combination of slavish adherence to tradition and an inability to see beyond what is probable and into
what is possible. We look at notes as notes, not numbers.
Now add the chords which make the intervals make sense (below). The only reason the
notes ‘make sense’ is because they have intervallic meaning.
Although we are used to the assumption that melody is the dominating characteristic of music, the
accompanying chords represent how and why the melodic line above even has an identity. To some degree
this happens in all music; harmony is nearly always what enables an effective melody. Without
accompanying harmony, melody generates its own harmony (as we’ve discussed in other chapters); what
accompanying harmony does is define the context in which the melody is heard. Without accompanying
chords listeners fill the gaps in themselves, guided by the melodic lines and what they imply and suggest,
harmonically. The simplistic and monotonous line in fig. 53 is an extreme example of the effectiveness of
harmony; harmony literally is everything in this piece. Without harmony the odd line, consisting of
semitone-tone-semitone, doesn’t really suggest anything tangible and obvious in terms of the kind of
chords which might work. The harmony is the only thing giving real identity to the ‘melodic’ line.
Now look at the melodic line below, annotated simply with notes and note names
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Rather than look at it as ‘music’ look at it as a series of intervallic possibilities; we end up breathing life
into what looks like, on face value, an uninspiring and repetitive line, by adding harmony which
contextualizes the melody.
Bb chord
Dm chord
F chord
maj3 maj7 maj3
maj3 maj7
Gm chord
The piece notated above is called “In the House - In a Heartbeat” and it was written originally by composer
John Murphy for the film 28 Days Later. The name of the track stems from a scene, set in a country house,
in which the character Selena is tested to make good on her promise to kill character Jim ‘in a heartbeat’ if
he ever became infected, as she had earlier promised she would. The music possesses a relentless,
persistent, inexorable quality; a quality which works well in juxtaposing some of the scenes in which it
28 DAYS LATER / 28 WEEKS LATER John Murphy
The movie 28 Days Later represents society in its extreme; people kill people. Humanity descends into
violence and eventually collapses in on itself from its own hatred. The ‘Rage’ virus may just be a
metaphorical representation of the anger in human society and culture, sped up to an extreme. Some have
suggested the sequel 28 Weeks Later was a metaphor for the events in Iraq, with American troops
occupying a ‘green zone’ within a foreign country.
John Murphy’s transfixing and iconic track, ‘In the House’, is typical and symptomatic of a score that goes
underneath, beyond and outside the obvious sci-fi genre to deliver music that addresses deep and emotive
issues buried in the subtext. The track’s worldwide usage in other media projects underscores is profoundly
mesmerizing and transfixing characteristics. It has been used on numerous films as trailer music, usually
used to evoke a sense of panic, urgency, fear and anxiety. It has also been used on TV car adverts,
countless TV dramas, the TV Drama Documentary Britain’s Largest Storms, James May’s Big Ideas,
(episode 1; used during the Harrier sequence). It has been used in short sequences on BBC 1’s Strictly
Come Dancing and Strictly Come Dancing - It Takes Two and is played while the meat is being shared
around during the cannibal party scene in the film Doomsday. The track is also used in CSI: Miami, season
six, episode five, titled Deep Freeze. In addition the track was used in The Apprentice: The Final Five, as a
backing track. The track was used in the adverts for the 2009 RSC production of Hamlet on the BBC and
was also used in EastEnders - The Greatest Cliffhangers. These are just a few examples of how the track
has been licensed and used. I mention all these uses simply to highlight its success but also to display the
sheer depth and variation of the projects that have utilized the track’s qualities. Anxiety, fear and
trepidation do not have only one stylistic avenue (especially when the shows are as diverse as EastEnders,
‘Strictly’ and 28 Days/Weeks Later are involve) but they do speak with one musical voice. Perhaps what
unifies the success of the sequences in which this music was used is the music. That, after all, is the
common denominator.
When you look at a picture, which bit is the melody? Pictures don’t have melodies – they simply consist of
different contexts which work well together.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Only music has a fixed-stare mentality when it comes to rationalizing different aspects of its context; only
music pigeonhole’s different aspects of its character in terms of their perceived greatness or industrial
potential. If we look at a reduced transcription of the whole track, below, we ask ourselves the question –
which bit is the melody? Traditional thoughts about the hierarchical relationship between melody and
harmony are capsized.
Audio – In a heartbeat 00.32
Which bit is the melody - the monotonous melodic figure in the middle stave, or the monotonous piano
figure on the top stave, or the harmonies which contextualise them? We must remember, especially in film
music, that melody, above else, is a function. Melody does not necessarily mean something that has the
most ‘melodic’ movement; it doesn’t necessarily mean something on the top stave or something played on
a certain instrument or a certain stave. In film terms sometimes melody can be a restrictive, crude and
inhibiting device; too obvious, recognisable and distracting to function behind a busy scene which in many
ways functions as a melody itself.
SIGNS James Newton Howard
The traditional notion of film score composers ‘writing to picture’ is perhaps in need of some modern
context. Composers such as James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer have been known to write an
album’s worth of music before even seeing the film, following detailed meetings with directors and access
to storyboards. This has become an established working practice between composer James Newton Howard
and director M. Night Shayamalan. Together they are responsible for films such as Sixth Sense, Signs and
The Village. Shayamalan is a critic of the way in which music is used in film, i.e. its function; one cannot in
honesty be a critic of music per se because so much is opinion and personal judgment, but he is critical, for
example, of the amount of music in a film, saying, “Music is used way too much in film and is used too
much as a ‘band aid’ to cover up poor story-telling”. The way Shayamalan uses music in the film Signs, (as
in Sixth Sense and The Village which we cover elsewhere in this book) highlights the issue of the function
of the music. Certainly the music, with the exception of the introduction titles, does not always function as
atypical horror music in the film. It works on a much deeper, engrained level, addressing the frailty of the
human condition in the face of adversity.
The scene five minutes into the film where Mel Gibson’s character, Graham Hess, surveys a flattened
cornfield is interesting. The communicating factor here is the schism between the 5th and the #5th.
This dissonance is brief and is dressed up in orchestration which prevents it from jarring. But still, it is
subtly unsettling, which is exactly what it’s supposed to be.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio – ‘First Crop Circles’ 01.26 Movie 04.50
The same way The Ring had an identifiable harmonic brand, so does Signs. The rhythmic identifiers are the
two semiquavers-to-quaver. On many of the cues the fluctuation and interplay between the 5th and #5th is a
major factor. The cue below begins the first time Graham Hess sees the unmistakable form of the alien. He
shines a torch in the darkness and sees the fleeting image of the alien’s leg disappearing into the cornfield.
Terrified, Hess runs back to the house. He enters the house to a scene of calm with his brother sat reading a
book and his children doing housework. Gradually they notice his unease. There is no dialogue; the music
tells the story, not with classic sci-fi music but with subtle delicate and restrained harmonies and
Audio - First Crop Circles Movie 00.36.40
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
What is notable in this cue, as discussed briefly in the chapter Music Theory in Action is the chord
maneuver between Cm and B (bars eight and nine) with the min3rd of the Cm (the Eb) becoming the maj3rd
of the B (the D#). We see this trick hundreds of times in modern film music. As we allude to elsewhere in
this book, the success of the chord shift is that it offers a note common to both chords which function as
minor and major 3rds (the Eb becoming the D#). The success is buried in the slightly unnatural harmonic
feeling this creates, and this is because the 3rd (minor or major) is the ultimate defining interval. Changing
the intervallic value from major 3rd to minor 3rd by staying on the same note is an effective harmonic
The listener hears the slightly abstract reality of something changing but not changing. What actually
changes is nothing as obvious as the note itself, but something wholly more subtle: what the note means;
what it represents. This is what we respond to. We respond to the context of the note. Our understanding of
context is everything; it is how we make sense of the world around us.
OUTBREAK James Newton Howard
Staying with James Newton Howard, the harmonic shifts in his score for the film Outbreak are also
effective in creating a mysterious, peculiar and strange musical backdrop. Film composers do not always
think in terms of writing different chords, but more in terms of evolving an existing chord; changing it,
modifying it. Look carefully at this piece, played near the beginning of the film as the camera enters a
research facility and eventually a laboratory. No dialogue interrupts this sequence and sound design is
minimal. The music, almost alone, dictates the scene. Although technically there are three different chords
at work in the opening four bars, essentially all that’s happened is the top two notes of the chord have
ascended on bar two and then again on bar three. This is what has physically happened to the music, but in
terms of the development of the intervallic harmony, it’s far from simple. The F# at the bottom of the chord
is consistent as a note but as an interval it represents first the root, then the 4th then the 5th.
Audio 00.11 Main Titles Movie – 00.04.00
Interval 1
F# note
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Look now at the 2nd note up from the bottom (the C#) and how the intervallic context evolves.
C# note
This is frequently why sequences like the one above sound a lot more effective than they, on first glance,
look. Film music is not alone in trying to cultivate more expression in the manipulation of harmony. If we
look closely at this musical excerpt from Jean Michelle Jarre’s landmark Oxygene, we see the same
harmonic tensions that were contained in the previous sequence from James Newton Howard’s Outbreak
Audio – ‘Oxygene part 2’ (Jean Michelle Jarre)
The second half of the fig.59 sequence from Outbreak shows similar characteristics at work. Look at the
evolution of the lowest note in the bottom stave (E).
Synth /
Audio 00.30 Main Titles
5 ------- maj7th
Signs from harmony
and chords 1
Interval (root)
Note (E)
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The final sequence from the same cue features perhaps the most obvious and successful example of the
note remaining static and the intervallic context changing.
Audio 01.00 Main Titles
G = min3 ……G = maj3
G = min3rd ……G = maj3rd
G = min3rd ……G = maj3rd
G = min3rd ……G = maj3rd
Harmonic uniqueness was once a composer’s stamp of individuality, authenticity and originality. For
composers such as Schumann, Debussy, Chopin and Liszt, harmony was everything. This is interesting to
note because by comparison even fifty years earlier composers such as Mozart and Haydn had essentially
occupied each other’s territory, harmonically. Debussy in particular not only proved that music featuring
mildly dissonant and abstract harmonies needn’t be impenetrable; he also made it acceptable, fashionable
and popular. But despite the rich tapestry of harmonic possibilities available to us and the routes
painstakingly carved out by composers such as Debussy, harmony remains, for the most part, predictable
and simple.
One of the reasons harmony isn’t more progressive is because people are far too attuned to the concept of a
hierarchy of importance in terms of harmony and melody. People are used to a diet of fairly mediocre
harmonies because of the dominance of what is, perhaps, music’s biggest commercial entity; the melody.
Melody dominates western music and it prioritises our listening pleasure. As I said earlier, when we look at
a picture, we don’t tend to think in such absolutes. For example, there is no dominating aspect of a painting
to which we are so permanently wedded. We are accustomed to vivid and abstract visual art but music
which is difficult to listen to is open to hostile interpretation. Where is the musical version of Banksy, and
why isn’t it more popular? John Cage once said “people are afraid of new ideas; I’m afraid of the old ones”.
This poignant phrase perhaps sums up why music is such a victim of its own success and popularity. It has
a fundamental problem with progression and evolution; such is lure of tradition, the crass sentimentality of
the way in which music history is learned and revered, and, ultimately, the iron grip of music’s industry.
But before we consider going off the deep end and descending into abstract musical art, one of the things
composers who want to explore new possibilities can do is to address and challenge the limitations of
restrictive and dominating conventional relationships between melody and harmony. So much of music is
based on the assumption of a hierarchical relationship between melody and harmony. This assumption has
forced us down the narrow roads of predictability and simplicity. I would like to highlight some subtle
examples of how we can gently subvert listener’s expectations whilst remaining ‘mainstream’ and fairly
loyal to the general ‘rules’ of music. People wrongly assume there are two choices; the mainstream or the
abstract. In between those two extremes lie avenues of possibilities which can slightly and almost
imperceptibly offer a more challenging and rewarding listening experience.
With this in mind it would be helpful to discuss James Horner’s score for the landmark film A Beautiful
Mind. “I have this vision of how numbers work and to me that was always something I wanted to bring
across musically”, said Horner in an interview about the film. If we take the issue of intervals and numbers
we can often find interesting structural relationships in music which can uncover and expose successful
compositional methods.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Horner’s exciting and communicative score for this film deftly underscores and references the fractious
state of mind of the main character, scientist and mathematician John Nash, who suffered his entire life
with schizophrenia. Horner’s use of unorthodox and rapidly changing harmonies mirrors perfectly the
character John Nash and also addresses the ever-present issue of numbers and how they interact with the
narrative structure and the character’s mind. One of the reasons the film was such a milestone in cinema
history was its sensitive portrayal of Schizophrenia. It enlightened and educated many about this
challenging condition in a perceptive but delicate way. One of the reasons it managed this was because of
the music, which was penetrating, subtly abstract and absorbing.
The piece below, entitled “Kaleidoscope of Mathematics” plays at the start of the movie and includes
phrases and an overall harmonic approach heard throughout the movie.
Fig.64 Audio – Kaleidoscope of Mathematics 0.32
Repeat 3x
Maths is about numerical relationships; so is music. The score for A Beautiful Mind makes a virtue from the
link between music and maths. Of all film scores examined in this book, this encapsulates the success of
the interval more than the note it sounds. The harmonic relationships in the music manage to ‘skew’ the
harmonies, creating a vivid and emotional listening experience. The repeated section at the beginning of
fig.64 (transcribed again separately below) possesses a repetitive melodic line, the monotony of which
draws out and italicises the chords underneath and thus the changing intervallic context of the melodic line
itself. Looking at the note of Bb purely as a note (below) reveals little of its impact in the piece unless we
look at it in terms of its relationship with the evolving chords (fig.66)
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Looking at this piece in terms of what the Bb represents offers a different perspective on how we actually
hear the note as it progresses through its different contexts
Carrying on now from 0.33 of Kaleidoscope of Mathematics see how what the interval of the note
represents is crucial
Audio – Kaleidoscope of Mathematics 0.33
min3rd …..to………...maj3rd
min3rd …to……. maj3rd
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
In the same cue below, see in the supporting harmonies how many times a note stays the same in a chord
sequence whilst the intervallic context undergoes a change.
Audio – Kaleidoscope of Mathematics 0.33
min3rd (Db) to maj3rd (C#)
…to maj3rd (B)
min3rd (B)….
min3rd (A) to maj3rd (A)
Finally on the same cue, we have some examples of more than one intervallic change in the same chord
change. This is important because it shows how chords can change the way they sound not because of
fundamental alterations in most of the notes but in the alteration of how we hear them. For example, on bar
four of fig.69 two chord notes remain the same; they change their meaning simply because of one of the
notes in the chord physically changing. In many ways this is simply harmony at work, but it is worth
highlighting because the reason it works so well is because the change of chord is largely down to how we
hear the intervals, not just the notes.
Audio – Kaleidoscope of Mathematics 0.33
maj3rd (G#) to 1st (G#) AND
5th (B) to minor 3rd (B)
maj3rd (F#) to 1st (F#)36
5th (A) to minor 3rd (A)
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None of the factors addressed are necessarily earth shattering revelations; they are mentioned because they
show how important issues such as chord voicing and intervallic interplay are in terms of understanding
how harmony can be tweaked and subverted. In the following cue we see the same harmonic style at work.
The piece, this time in 6/8, features a pedal note of D over different chords. Look at how the representation
of the A note changes
Fig.70 Audio – ‘Creating government dynamics’ Movie – 00.20.42
If we observe a larger section of the same cue, we see how James Horner uses the
intervallic context to good effect.
A (1) A (5)
A (maj7) A (1)
Minor 3rd
Before moving away from A Beautiful Mind, let’s look at a transcription of the theme song, music written
by Horner and sung by Charlotte Church.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig.71 Audio – ‘All that love can be’
When the vocal line arrives all chords are in root position. This means they have a very parallel ‘square’
feel. But one of the fundamental characteristics is that the song has no separately functioning distinctive
melodic line. The melody is simply an element of the chord. And in all but two chords, the interval of the
chord chosen for the voice is the 3rd. As we have established before, the most communicative interval is the
3rd. It literally colours the chord in. To have a melodic line impaled purely on the 3rd is to italicise and
exaggerate the implicit richly communicative qualities of the 3rd. To then have a melody which utilises a
sequence of rhythmically identical sequential minims, voiced almost identically, is to further italicise the
The piece transcribed in fig.72 is part of the final credit roll of the film The Butterfly Effect (music by
Michael Suby). I have highlighted this piece because in shows how other composers have been influenced
by A Beautiful Mind. In The Butterfly Effect the chord sequence is played with soft textures and we can see
and hear the same harmonic approach as we saw in the Horner score where the Db (min 3rd of the Bbm
chord becomes the C# of the A chord.
Fig.72 Audio – ‘Everyone’s fixed memories’ (01.39) Movie end credits 01.45.16
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The section below is a reworking of the theme song from A Beautiful Mind, used in the film. There are
several interesting harmonic aspects in this piece, not least of which is how Horner once again distorts our
perceptions. Note the choir in the last two beats of bar six; the natural overhang of the choir chord of E is
just enough to cause mild dissonance with the chord of Db which follows but which is not stated by the
choir; thus the choir never resolves. It does the same again at the end of bar eight but this time the effect is
smooth because the subsequent chord of B is not so far removed from the preceding chord of E. Secondly,
Horner obscures and muddies the harmonies in the lower strings in bar five (the Fm/C) and bar six (the E
over B). The chord is inverted but the voicing is so low that the 5th interval between the low inverted C and
the F above (in bar five) creates a mildly dissonant rumble of competing frequencies. By the time the same
phrase a tone lower in the key of B (bar nine) appears, the harmonic clarity can no longer sustain the dense
undergrowth of the inversion so it is jettisoned in favour of root-position harmonies.
Audio - A beautiful mind closing credits
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It’s worth taking time out here to look at how chords react to each other and how we can manipulate the
interplay and effect. The first sequence is E to Eb, the second is E to C, the third is E to D and the fourth is
E to Db. Why does the second and the fourth sequence work better than the first and third?
E note = octave
E note = maj3rd
G# note = maj3rd
Ab note = 5th
The obvious answer is because the second and fourth sequence contains notes which are common to both
chords. In sequence 2 the common note is E, which represents the root of the E chord and then the major 3rd
of the C chord. In sequence 4 (which is used at 1.42’ of the intro to The Butterfly Effect) the G# (maj 3rd) of
the E chord becomes the Ab (5th) of the Db chord. The slightly less obvious reason the chords work better
in sequence 2 and 4 is because in both cases the common note goes either to or from a major 3rd – a
defining interval.
So what’s the point? For years music has been rationalised, chronicled and understood through a prism of
the personal greatness of the composer. History faithfully delivers this fundamentally flawed perspective.
Some music history books, whilst full of reasonably accurate facts, display questionable assumptions.
Especially when chronicling classical music, most books lack the context to adequately explain why the
music works, much less how it was likely conceived. Into this vacuum come unbridled reverence and the
crass assumption that each piece is a work of the brilliance of one person. Music is a plan, a structure
whose characteristics and tolerances existed long before we started finding them and using them. We buy
into it, we uncover it, we use it, but we do not literally create it and nor can we truthfully claim long-lasting
moral or intellectual ownership of it. We claim temporary ownership largely because of the architecture;
the method and mechanism of its delivery, but we are not responsible for the fact that it works, only the
realisation that it works and the decision to use it. Structures and tolerances are there already. Through a
detailed examination of the structure of A Beautiful Mind we uncover how and why it works. The fact that
it works is not the responsibility of the composer. He designed it and built it but is not responsible for its
Sometimes it’s good to try and put to one side the hierarchical relationship between melody and harmony.
Film composers treat them the same way because essentially they are the same thing, separated not by
stature but by function.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
UNBREAKABLE James Newton Howard
The piece below is a section from the intro music to the movie Unbreakable. The piece uses various shades
of Em as its harmonic centre, but which stave represents the melodic line?
Audio – ‘Visions’ 01.21 – Movie 00.02.48
Strings / samples
Truthfully although we will automatically gravitate to the middle stave simply because it is busy, there is
no dominant melodic feature. Look at the same piece below which this time has the melodic and intervallic
contours of each line, side by side. The top line of each contour represents the top stave of the notated
version (fig.76). The middle line of each contour represents the middle stave of the notated version and the
bottom contour represents the top note of the two-note voicing on the bottom stave of the notated version.
Therefore if we view the context of this music as being essentially three separate lines of counterpoint, we
get closer to understanding how it works.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
There is an assumption of a key centre of Em at the centre of the piece. Below written out are the musical
context (the notes) and the intervallic context (what notes those intervals state in relation to Em). By
looking at both we can see many similarities but also sections where the musical and intervallic context go
their separate ways. This is one reason music communicates: because we listen in two ways, two contexts.
There is a duality of perception in all music, whereby we listen to intervals and notes; character and colour.
This is one of the many reasons why we find music so alluring; we aren’t just listening to the music, we’re
also listening to and experiencing the intervallic context.
The Music
The intervallic context
As referenced many times in this book, what distinguishes melody from harmony is what function it fulfils,
not what it is. We are taught that there is a distinction between melody and harmony - a difference that
separates them – that they perform distinct tasks. Music is built on a tirade of assumptions, traditions,
functions, accepted norms, tolerances and structures, but these are simply interpretations.
The section below is again from the film Unbreakable and comes around 01.41.00 when Bruce Willis’
character, David Dunne, discovers the truth about Elija Price, played by Samuel L Jackson. The music has
a distinctly cumbersome, pedestrian but revelatory feel to it but melodically is the same phrase repeated.
What gives the cue its distinctive air is the evolving harmony underneath which continually refreshes and
recontextualises the melodic line, ‘intervallically’ In addition to the transcription I have added melodic
contours which are pretty much identical in each 4-bar phrase.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio – The Orange Man 01.05 Movie 01.41.00
The version underneath is the same piece but this time has the intervallic context added by way of intervals
and a contour to plot their journey. If you look at the contours displayed in both versions, in a way this is an
indication of what we hear. The ‘melody’ is only one half of the equation. Whether we are aware of it or
not, we experience the melodic line’s intervallic context. This is what gives the melody line its distinct
‘aural 3D’ image.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Below we have the musical contour with the intervallic contour underneath. The repetitive monotony of the
melodic line is mitigated by its evolving intervallic context.
THE VILLAGE James Newton Howard
Turning now to the film The Village by director Night Shayamalan – music by James Newton Howard – we
examine similar issues at work. For this sequence in the film the sound design is pulled down in the mix to
allow the silent pictures and the music to contextualise the narrative and deliver the story. Bar eight of the
sequence is the chord change from Fm to Ab; it comes at the moment one of the characters in the film sees
a red flower in the ground; supposedly a harbinger of danger. By the end of the cue the characters have
pulled up the red flower and buried it out of sight. This is a pivotal moment of the film and one which is
served brilliantly by the music.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio – Noah Visits Movie – 00.04.10
The moment when the two characters see the
red flower
The two characters bury the red flower out of sight
From bar eight we have almost exactly the same melodic line but with a new chord underneath, which of
course changes the intervallic context of the melody. This cue has been described as sounding mesmerising
and mildly hypnotic. It is not beyond the wit of man to understand the reasons behind such description. The
reasons for this description are not personal or specific to one person or subjective or abstract or
metaphysical; the reason for the reaction is partly the ‘duality of perception’ – the repetitive melodic line
with evolving harmonic context underneath. This kind of line, which has the dual perception of, one the
one hand a very simple line and on the other hand subtly different intervallic meaning, regularly provokes
emotional reactions.
From a purely structural perspective, it is interesting to note that the phrase in bar two and three bookends
the transcription; it appears to announce the phrase and then to tie the phrase up.
7th 3rd 7th
But also on this piece, the bookended phrase
(transcribed separately, fig.82 and in bars two and
three and bars twelve and thirteen of fig.81) are
interesting from an intervallic perspective. The first
three notes are bare, stark characterless intervals;
whereas the next three are colourful descriptive
intervals (7th, 3rd, 7th).
I say this once again to highlight that whilst intervals may seem the automatic by-product of a
compositional whim, it only seems that way. The interval defines how a note will work. If we go looking
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
for the structural secrets behind a piece of music we will learn much from investigating the intervallic
contour of a melodic line. Don’t forget the note delivers the sound but the interval delivers the context of
the note; literally the music. What a note represents is as important as what a note is. What a note
represents ‘intervallically’ gives us an insight into its function within the music.
The piece below is called ‘I cannot see his colour’ (from the same film). It features some quite abstract
harmonic and rhythmic writing. However, even in something as difficult to rationalise and penetrate as this,
there are patterns and consistencies. The intervals are written over each note in accordance with whatever
chord accompanies them.
Audio – ‘I cannot see his colour’
5 3 2 1 6 1 5 3 2 1 6 1
3 2 1 5 3
3 2 1 6 5
5 3 2 1 6 1 5 3 2 1 6 1
3 2 1 6 5 3 4 3 m2 6
3 2 1 5
5 3 2 1 6 1 5 3 2 1 6 1
3 2 1 5 3
3 m2 1 6 5 4 3 m2 1 6 5 4 3 m2 1 6 5 4 3 m2 1 6 5
2 1 maj7 5 #4 3 2 1 maj7 5 #4 3
2 1 maj7 5 #4 3 2 1 maj7 5 #4
As we can see, the intervals which ‘colour’ the music are quite consistent in how and where they appear.
The 2ndand 6th intervals give specific colour. The interesting thing here is the two different intervallic
possibilities that emerge halfway through bar eight. The intervallic context on the top of the notes stays
loyal to the Fm feel in the supporting harmonies. However the more likely intervallic context written
underneath offers a polytonal perspective where melody is essentially following an unwritten Gb harmonic
framework. Thus the melody is following a notional chord; a chord which isn’t being played. It is,
however, being inferred by the unilateral intervallic dynamics of the melody.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Like many famous pieces in the history of film and television, the final musical example in this chapter was
not written for the screen but has been used in a multitude of filmic settings. Every once in a while a piece
of music appears which dominates the media landscape. It captures the imagination so perfectly that it
suddenly gets used in many different moving image contexts and scenarios. Just a handful of the words
used to describe this piece are ‘powerful’, ‘dramatic’, ‘uplifting’, ‘inspiring’, ‘mesmerising’, ‘elevating’
and ‘theatrical’. The song is ‘Hoppípolla’ by Icelandic band Sigur Rós. It was released as the album’s
second single on 28 November 2005 and was, inevitably perhaps, referred to as ‘the money song’, as the
band was certain they had written a song which would have commercial success outside their own success
as a band. They were right.
It was used in 2006 advertisements for the BBC's Planet Earth TV series, giving the band one of its rare
exposures to a mainstream audience. When Sir David Attenborough received his National Television
lifetime achievement award, the piece was used for the moving anthology of his work, made especially for
the occasion. Other uses include the BBC coverage of the 2006 FA Cup final and TV coverage of the
World Cup. The common denominator in all the media usages was the need for poignancy, expression,
euphoria and/or exhilaration. The song was featured in the Doctor Who episode ‘End of an Era’ and
featured in the movie trailers for Children of Men and Slumdog Millionaire. It played on moving image
excerpts as diverse as an Oxfam TV ad and Sky Sports. It was also used as background music to interview
contestants in shows such as The X-Factor, Britain's Got Talent and I'd Do Anything. In April 2008, a film
trailer was released advertising Disney’s new movie Earth. This is arguably its finest hour. In a now iconic
scene, all sound design and music is pulled down, a bird floats down to the ground and as it lands the music
starts. The music has a euphoric feel from its opening bar. Here it is below.
Audio - ‘Hoppipola’ Sigur Ros - ‘Earth’ Trailer.01.06
The issue as far as we’re concerned is why. Why and how does a piece of music communicate such vast
emotion? How does it manage to communicate similar emotions to all? Or, as traditional music discourse
used to dictate, does it communicate similar emotions to all who listen by accident? If each listening
experience is peculiar and specific to each individual person, as many suggest, is it just blind luck that it
manages to speak to people in the same way? As we discussed at the beginning of the book, many classical
composers and musicologists thought, and still think, music is incapable of conveying intrinsic or palpable
meaning, especially a meaning which can be applied to the many, not just the one. They say it is powerless
to convey specific meaning in a general way, and that any meaning we get is specific to individuals, not all
of us.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
This is patently absurd not least because listeners regularly experience the same emotions and deduce
strikingly similar meanings from the same piece. If so, how and why would millions of different people go
out and buy the same record?
So, having dispensed with the absurd notion that music is powerless to communicate, and in order to
ascertain what general meaning this piece has, let’s first look at some obvious areas in terms of basic
emotional communication before we turn to the more in-depth, abstract issues. The opening four bars are
arpegiated but although no chords are played, melody is essentially communicating and functioning as
harmony by arpegiating the harmony rather than stating it as one chord. This is important because
horizontal harmony tends to communicate more profoundly because we join the dots ourselves, unlike a
vertical chord in which the colour of the harmony exists instantly.
Whereas bars two to four infer sus chords and bare chords, bar one implies a chord of B and opens with a
D# (3rd) F# (5th) B (root) and C# (2nd).This mixture, especially the initial rich 3rd and the inclusion of the
2nd, creates a sense of emotional warmth. The last note of the group (the 2nd) has often been criticised for is
cheesy characteristics in chords in ballads and love songs, but of course context is everything; here we have
a sparse, slight arpegiated sequence, not a lush chord orchestrated, for example, for strings. The reason for
the emotional, romantic (and, if abused, cheesy) characteristics a major 2nd exudes lay in where it is in the
scale in relation to its neighbours. It lays one tone from the root and a tone from the major 3rd. The 3rd is of
course the ultimate descriptive interval; nothing colours like a 3rd and most chords without one have trouble
communicating warmth. The major 3rd and 4th played together creates serious dissonance but the major 3rd
and major 2nd played together, when contextualised with the root and 5th, creates a warm emotional feeling.
When a major 2nd is played alongside a minor 3rd the clash is more dramatic because the interval is smaller.
3rd 5th 1st 3rd
1st 3rd 5th maj7th
The way it could have been is
transcribed to the left (fig.85) with
intervals and gaps which are even and
consistent. This is cheesy, normal and
containing three major thirds.
5th 1st 2nd
1st 2nd 5th maj7th
The way it was – the version to the right, features
intervals that are not quite so basic and obvious. There
is only one major 3rd (the first note). Add to that the
interval of the 2nd (which comes twice in this bar) and
you have one of the reasons why this seemingly
innocuous line works so well. The colour is subtle. The
specific delivery of the notes and the intervals they state
is absolutely crucial.
So far we’ve examined the intervals of the notes in relation to the chord they create, but if we look at
intervals that exist between the notes themselves, this too is interesting The notes that play over the E chord
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
are a little uneven in that they features a tone (between the E and F#) followed by a 4th then a 3rd. The lack
of a G# in this small four-note section over the E chord, as I said earlier, is key because that note would
have represented the bright maj 3rd. without the 3rd we are drawn disproportionately to the other intervals,
namely the 2nd (F#) and in particular the square, penetrative 4th interval between it and the B which follows.
The lack of the 3rd tends to almost recontextualise the existing intervals and draw more attention to them.
Now we address another reason people thought it was ‘mesmerising’. Once again this goes back to the
issue of notes and intervals. Below I have placed melodic contours over the line which, to an extent,
explains the consistent, repetitive ‘mesmerising’ element.
Below we analyse the musical and intervallic context of the melody line, particularly from bar six, seven
and eight. If we focus from bar six to the middle of bar seven and then from the middle of bar seven to the
middle of bar eight, we see the same melodic line repeated ‘across the bar line’ but with subtly different
intervallic context. This explains why such a repetitive line doesn’t become boring or monotonous but
instead mesmerising and entrancing. The fact that it comes over a bar line disrupts our sense of time and
E F# B D# B E D# B F# E F# B D# B E D# B F#
1 2 5 maj7 5 4 3 1 5 4 5 1 3 1 6 5 3 7
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Some context
Music offers a multitude of different and almost limitless structural possibilities to composers. These vast
reservoirs of possibilities exist long before we find them. We do not invent them, we find them, we
discover they work well in a specific context and we assemble them. In many ways thinking of composing
as ‘creating’ is to be seduced by the romance of writing music and is to miss the point of the process of
composition: Composers are, in the main, arrangers; they assemble, place, coordinate and plan.
Songwriting is seen in many ways as an extension of someone’s character, personality and even ego. It’s an
expression of self-worth, of individuality; what they think and who they are. But even this is partly a myth;
songwriters choose sequences built from existing chords, placed in a specific order which gives the song a
touch of individuality and a flavour of newness. Lyrics are the reassembling of words which already existed
and which have pre-existing meaning. Their precise meaning is recalibrated via the specific placement of
words. In some respects the melody is the key area of real individuality and character for a songwriter. But
film composers ought not to be speaking with ego and their music should not ideally be an extension of
their character because what the function of the music needs to be is dictated by the needs of the film and
the narrative.
The only real choice film composers have is how precisely to interpret someone else’s idea. This is not
rampant creativity; it is creativity in a controlled environment. I say all this because it’s important for any
composer (but especially a film composer) to try and dismiss sentimental notions of composers ‘speaking
from the heart’ or of ideas ‘coming from nowhere’. If we speak of ideas ‘coming from the heart’ this
amputates any logical discussion about where ideas really come from and how they are formulated and
processed. Ultimately they have to come from somewhere; they can’t come from nowhere and it doesn’t
happen by magic. Anyone who thinks ideas come from nowhere is seduced by romantic sentimental
notions which seek to glamorise rather than understand.
Remember that successful film composers cannot wait for the great inspiration, for they do not have the
luxury of time; they find the inspiration, they cultivate it; not out of thin air but from a conscious or
subconscious database of knowledge and experiences which forge together to reassemble such knowledge
in a newish way. Try not to obsess about elastic notions such as ‘creativity’ and ‘inspiration’ and focus
instead on understanding what the process is and then harnessing and manipulating it to function more
efficiently and at speed.
Film composing is about craft, technique and vast amounts of harmonic knowledge. It is about architecture;
it is about harnessing music’s vast structures and harmonic edifices. It is about design and build, about
construction. Part of the reason people misunderstand what composers do is firstly due to the baggage of
sentimental notions of greatness and genius but also because of the word ‘composition’. If we rationalise
the term ‘craftsperson’ we have a fairly firm and accurate idea of the skill entailed. ‘Composer’ wraps the
process of writing music up in awe, admiration, respect, astonishment and reverence, most of which is
because people misunderstand the process by which people write music and so replace it with one based on
personal greatness of the individual.
Composers do not ‘make stuff up’; they find ‘existing stuff’ and present it in a specific order and context.
That is it; no more, no less. That is not to say that many composers do not possess significant and fantastic
abilities firmly beyond the ability or even understanding of most people, but it means that those abilities
should be contextualised in a more rational way, not one buried in reverence. In short, we need to
demystify what composers do. The fact that we don’t understand something does not in itself make it great.
The ‘elephant in the room’ in this discussion and the reason I go on about it so much, is that the blind
reverence we accord to composers, as if they are all unfathomable geniuses whose abilities are completely
beyond any understanding, discourages, depresses and daunts many young composers. Because they too
are seduced by the celebrity superstar status to which we elevate those who succeed, all too often they see
what the ‘real’ composers do as brilliant and by comparison their own potential and self-belief is
compromised. This isn’t to suggest that we ought not have heroes, just that we should remember that they
too were once unknowns who had heroes too.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Chapter 7
As discussed in other chapters, often what we ‘hear’ is surface level, but what ‘listen to’ is a combination of
the sound the notes make and the harmonic context they represent (which we may not be conscious of
‘hearing’ but nevertheless ‘experience’). Our responses and various levels of perception enable us to enjoy
the different levels on which music transmits or communicates. We all listen in subtly different ways; the
variables are infinite because our emotional reactions are based on individual emotional, psychological,
physical, biological and intellectual factors. There are, however, common denominators and common
emotional reactions caused by specific musical devices which we can quantify and understand. This is how
and why some elements of music communicate in ways we can identify. In short, although the manner in
which we all hear and listen varies greatly, there are some musical devices and structures which are so
strong, so popular, so ingrained or so utterly communicative that we all respond to them in a way which is
similar enough for us to deduce a kind of universal meaning. This is why musical structures, traditions and
tolerances are so powerful and is why we are able to identify, rationalise and learn from them. In this
chapter I aim to address some of these complex issues by looking at the music to some notable films.
Music analysed: Gladiator (Hans Zimmer) The Day After Tomorrow (Harald Klosser & Thomas Wander)
Contact (Alan Silvestri) Aliens (James Horner) King Kong (James Newton Howard) The Long Good Friday
(Francis Monkman) Pearl Harbour and Angels & Demons (Hans Zimmer) Chaplin, Out of Africa, Dancing
with Wolves (John Barry) Defence of the Realm (Richard Harvey)
No book on film music would be complete without an analysis of the music for the film Gladiator,
composed by Hans Zimmer. Analysing Zimmer’s music means examining specific, successful and
identifiable harmonic devices and how they communicate a sense of emotion and even meaning to the
audience. The most successful sections of the score are written as emotional commentaries on the story
rather than functioning necessarily as explicitly synced ‘music to picture’. Freed often from the need to
overtly italicise specific visual elements and respond to hit points all the time (which can sometimes
punctuate the emotional impact and longevity of film music) Zimmer’s music provides an emotional
musical narrative which is expansive, majestic and imposing. One of the things that make Gladiator a great
movie and separate it from being just a film about violence and revenge is Zimmer’s music. Maximus is
governed by a commitment that is of greater substance than a desire simply to avenge the deaths of his
family, and the sensitivity of some of the music cues italicises this. Below I have transcribed the lead line
and chords to ‘Now we are Free’, a piece which runs at the end of Gladiator over the credit roll.
Audio, 01.00 ‘Now we are Free’ – Movie, End Titles 02.22.12
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Contours have been added which show variation in the way the melody and harmony interact; firstly we
have contrary motion in bars two-three as the chords move upwards from D to E and the melodic line sung
by Lisa Gerrard moves down. The same type of sequence happens in bars six-seven where the chord bass
line moves upwards and the melody moves downward. By contrast the melody and chord movement in bars
four-five and twelve-thirteen displays close, almost parallel, movement. Contrary motion might be an
obvious observation but it underpins one of the main ways music communicates. To put it in more human
terms, it could be said that this is one of the ways harmony subtly contracts and expands, or ‘breathes in
and out’. This is one of the many aspects that make music something we can experience, respond to and
enjoy; something we can listen to, rather than simply hear. In the same excerpt below, this time I have
highlighted another important characteristic; the all-powerful and descriptive minor / major 3rd intervals.
Such intervals are profoundly descriptive; they literally colour a chord by determining its harmonic
characteristic – e.g. whether it’s major or minor. As listeners we respond to these intervals; we gravitate
towards them. They wield disproportionate power within a chord. The crucial area here is in bars four-five
and ten-eleven, where the notes and the chords both move down but the intervals they represent remain
3rds. There is a richness to these bars in particular, not least because the emotional 3rd features in all chords.
G# F#
min3rd maj3rd maj3rd
G# F#
maj3rd maj3rd
In general musical terms the relationship between the musical sound and the intervallic meaning is one of
the things that creates the distinctive emotional impact and aesthetic beauty of music. The relationship
between what the melody sounds like (the notes) and what they represent as intervals is everything.
The difference between the surface-level obvious musical analysis and a deeper contextual perspective is
key to understanding what music is. In the figure below we see the musical notes (from the melody line in
bars four-five and twelve-thirteen of fig.1 and fig 2) diagonally from top left to bottom right. I have also
added an intervallic contour (bottom left to top right right). That these factors happen simultaneously
explains the duality of experience enjoyed by the listener. This is a harmonic device which specifically
finds its way into film music on a regular basis, as described elsewhere in this book.
Maj 3rd
Min 3rd
Maj 3rd
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
In the three bar excerpt in fig.4 we have another example of the
interval being of more interest than the note; firstly, we have a
note of C in context of an Am chord. By bar two the C note has
become the sus4 of the Gsus4 chord. Then we have a Bb which
represents the minor 3rd of a Gm chord, which becomes the sus4
of the Fsus4.
Here is the same section in context of a larger excerpt from Gladiator. I have also highlighted the minor
and major 3rd ( ) intervals (which lend the piece a richness of emotion) and the contrary motion at work
Audio, 02.38 ‘The German Battlefront’ Movie - 00.02.37
Section from
The 3rd intervals come at the beginning of each of the first three bars of fig.5 establishing a sense of warmth
and emotion. The extra drama and gravity created by the inverted bass in bar four is also worthy of
mention. The chord of C in bar three becomes a chord of F/C in bar four, then back to a chord of C in bar
five. Such a simple observation belies the extent to which this dramatizes the moment. The use of
inversions softens the extremity and squareness of the movement between chords of C, F and C, offering a
common bass line.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
But what inversions also offer is drama. We hear the chord but are aware that something is different; there
is a different harmonic weighting, a different distribution.
Other notable tensions are to be found in bars thirteen-fifteen. Bar thirteen offers a Dm chord with an E-toD downward counterpoint (2nd to root) in the mid strings (top stave) with a G# to A (#4th to 5th) upward
melodic figure in the top strings. Much of what the harmony offers in counter-melodic terms can be
considered inferred, implied, or almost ‘shorthand’. The E and G# (over the Dm chord) could also represent
the 1st and maj3rd of an E chord, which means the chord almost functions as a polychord (containing
distinct elements of E and Dm). I say this not because it is some vague theoretical possibility but because
the fact that this can have two visual interpretations, or meanings, is one of the characteristics that make it
work so well, especially as a brief passing chord.
The final observation from this section is the glide upwards on the 8va strings (bars twelve to fifteen)
especially the C# note which ties between its major 3rd intervallic context in bar fourteen to its ‘destination’
intervallic context of a major 7th over the Dsus4 chord. This skewing of context offers further reasons as to
how and why the piece communicates so well. In fact if you observe the final C# in conjunction with the
sus4 G note of the Dm (bar 15) what you actually have is a major 3rd (C#) and 7th (G) of an A chord. Again
this is subtle polytonality
What makes Zimmer’s music so effective is the difference between, on the one hand, the vast and subtle
harmonic complexities and the often inferred and oblique nature of their delivery, and on the other hand,
the texturally soft subtlety of his instrumentation, merged with the dense undergrowth of his samples. This
is what makes the complex seem effortless; it is what makes the complicated appear simple and it
represents perhaps the enduring aesthetic characteristic of his writing and production.
THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW Harald Klosser and Thomas Wander
The transcription below (fig.6) is the introduction title music from the film The Day After Tomorrow by
Harald Klosser and Thomas Wander. It works because the slow, deliberate and ponderous nature of the
music creates a portentous, threatening and ominous feel, which suits the narrative and underpins the
seriousness of the subject and the movie. The music serves the movie narrative well and expertly delivers
the context of the film in music to a watching and listening audience. How does it do this? The first small
observation would be the way the melody line is initially doubled in the mid-to-low register; normally
composers of orchestral music might avoid this as the potential for ‘lumpy’ voicing and sonic ambiguity is
The way Klosser and Wander have crafted this iconic and much used track is impressive. Regarding the use
of a low melody, they have avoided any potentially difficult intervals by ensuring the melodic line sticks, in
the main, to primary intervals; however, the use of the add2 in bar seven works well to soften the edges of
the harmony. The add2 on the lower stave, merged with the chord which accompanies it on the middle
stave creates a rich lush cluster chord featuring (from the bottom up) F, C, F, G and A. Instrumentation,
orchestration and production are dense at first, with the melody line buried within.
Also in bar two we have the interesting issue of harmony by suggestion rather than action; the low D in the
bass does not in itself necessarily suggest the chord of Dm. Although the low cellos and basses playing the
D note does sound ominous texturally, the note doesn’t neccasarily suggest Dm; nor does the first A-note
melody vocal line. It is the Bb which suggests a Dm feel in the mind of the listener; the note of Bb does not
feature in the scale of D major but it does feature in the scale of Dm (melodic). The average guy in the
street doesn’t know this and indeed the vast majority of people would never know their harmonic detectors
were being manipulated. The composers subtly suggest Dm without actually stating it by using a note
found in the scale.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
This is yet another way in which people who have no knowledge of the intricacies of harmonic interaction
are nevertheless beneficiaries of its effect, and another example of how beneficial it is for a composer to
understand harmony to the degree that allows them to infer chords subtly rather than state them obviously.
Audio - ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ Movie - 00.00.25
Later in the same piece the harmonic interaction transcribed below (fig 7) appears, featuring a combination
of mid strings, brass and woodwind to articulate a subtle chord exchange. The really effective part is in bars
three and four. Examining why the move from Am to F is so effective we again come across the issue of
the evolving intervallic context of the lower stave notes.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio - The Day After Tomorrow – 2.04
Like shifting sands the change in what
the notes of A and C (bass clef) represent
‘intervallically’ and the subtle interaction
this creates is completely key to the
success of this section. Making
something remain physically the same
but change its ‘meaning’ (almost like a
musical version of an optical illusion)
manages to be both extremely powerful
and extremely subtle at the same time.
C (3rd)
A (root)
C (5th)
A (3rd)
Musical reality
The way we perceive harmony is crucial to the success of most music. This kind of gentle manipulation
is effortless but effective.
The simple chord manoeuvre below (fig.8) is voiced entirely in root position. When people listen to
moving chords they hear the sounds and rationalise harmony by virtue of easily recognisable note
movement; people don’t perceive, for example, the changing context of the note of C as it evolves from
being the root of the Cm chord to becoming the 5th of the Fm chord. But nevertheless the reason the two
chords work together is because they are from the same key centre and share a common note.
One of the fundamental things moving image composers
sometimes don’t do is to make wholesale, complete chord
changes. Chord shifts they employ are not always complete,
absolute, root position-oriented and easily identifiable. By
subtly altering voicings we can make simple chord shifts
appear slightly more interesting.
But how would you ‘subvert’, abbreviate or lessen the absoluteness of the chord changes above? To see
how the chord sequence above could be voiced to extort more potential from the chords, we turn to a track
used in the film, and on the album, called ‘Sam’. A reduction is transcribed below.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio –‘Sam’ Movie - 00.14.58
Cm Fm/C
Bb/C Cm
Cm Ab/C
(omit 3/7/9)
The first observation is that the second chord, the Fm, is not root
positioned; it is voiced as an inversion. This allows the C to form
more of a bond between the two chords than might otherwise have
been the case; it isolates and exposes the bottom C because
effectively it becomes the lowest note we can hear of both chords.
The revoicing of the Fm chord (bar one) might seem like an innocuous point but what it allows for is a
smoother transition between the two chords; less movement. We’re still aware the second chord in bar one
is a different chord, but the movement between the two chords is more subtle. The high string note in bar
three undergoes a similar intervallic transformation; in fact, in reality every note in that bar moves. The G
to Ab manoeuvre is an obvious and physical move, but if we examine what happens to the top C and the
bottom C and Eb, they move, but less obviously (below, fig.10)
The Eb note
as an interval
goes from
min 3rd to 5th
The C note as
an interval
goes from min
1st to maj 3rd
The level to which harmonies ‘shape-shift’ their intervallic meaning is one of the reasons the following
excerpt (‘Cutting the Rope’, from the same film) works so well. This is a highly emotional part of the film
in which Frank, one of the characters, falls through a glass roof and dangles on a swinging rope attaching
him to the rest of his group. Realising he is jeopardising everyone he selflessly cuts the rope and falls to his
death. At this exact moment the excerpt transcribed below is played, capturing the emotion perfectly. The
real skill here is in the relative briefness of the excerpt, which although short in length, captures the essence
of the moment. Let’s look first at the high cello line which begins on the ‘A’ note at the beginning of bar
one. This is quite high for the cello which changes the textural character of the instrument, making it
sounded more strained, pained, passionate and exposed. The melodic line runs from the A note through to
the F#, the first being a minor 3rd and the final being a major 3rd. Starting and beginning on the 3rd ensures a
high emotional impact. The fact that the melody line is embedded in the chords and not a separate line in
addition to supporting chords also gives it much more impact because the emotion is condensed into fewer
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The harmonic grouping on beats 3 and 4 of bar two and beats 1 and two of bar three are quite revealing in
that they display the staggered, variable and ‘falling’ harmonic movement which can often characterise
effective orchestration; the movement of the C# (maj7 of the D chord) down to the B (root of the Bm7
chord) and then the falling top A (7th of the Bm7 chord) to the G# (6th of the Bm6 chord) cause tensions
which, because they hit at different times, in a cascading manner, create great emotional impact, especially
because the intervals represent colourful extensions.
Audio, 00.13 ‘Cutting the Rope’ – Movie, 01.19.55’
Bm7 Bm6
F# F#
CONTACT Alan Silvestri
The following example is from theme the film Contact, with music from the inspired and vivid imagination
of composer Alan Silvestri. Factors under the spotlight in this example are far more basic and obvious than
issues already discussed but the nature of their function and effect is just as important. Silvestri’s main
theme underscores and highlights the main narrative of the film; our incurable search for meaning. Both
main characters, Ellie and Joss, are looking for meaning. She seeks proof of extra-terrestrial intelligence,
whereas Joss seeks meaning in his spirituality. Contact references God many times in the film. At one stage
Ellie asks: What is more likely? That an all-powerful mysterious God created the Universe and then
decided not to give any proof of his existence, or that he simply does not exist at all? In order to take the
film’s theme away from science fiction and place it squarely in the realms of the frailty of the human
condition and the eternal search for meaning, the theme features a romantic piano solo portraying
innocence and purity. It is a very un-sci-fi theme and as such drives the movie away from extra-terrestrial
intelligence and into matters of belief.
Firstly, the string harmonies on the bottom stave display classic voicing techniques, e.g. root, 5th and high
3rd (10th). These voicings provide a warm, solid sonic bed of sound on which to build the rest of the piece.
The chords are, however, all root positioned which means the movement between Eb and Ab is quite
obvious. One way round this might be to invert some of the chords to lessen the extremity of the
manoeuvres but another way is to provide an effective counterpoint between the piano line (top two staves)
and the string chords (bottom stave). The violins line (3rd stave down) provides an effective bridge between
the melody and supporting chords. It possesses its own movement which is slower and more languid than
the top piano line. This is a perfect example of how and why effective orchestration can help ease some of
the anomalies music structure throws at us. The melodic line and counterpoint evolve at different rates.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio – Contact end credits
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
ALIENS James Horner
Below I have transcribed a fairly basic chord shift. The chords are all in root position and there has been no
attempt to mitigate the abrupt shifts up and down.
The first and
second chords
possess no
The third and
fourth chords
possess no
Although there is a commonality between
the C# in the A chord and the Db in the
Gb chord, the actual physical movement
sounds square and parallel
How might these work better?
If we insert pedal notes and slash chords the same chord sequence will work better. We still have the same
movement of chords, but with the subtleties of craft, voicing and orchestration. Rescoring chords with
better structural integrity and more fluid movement isn’t just a good idea; it’s also the harbinger of drama,
spectacle and gravitas.
The example below is similar to one of thousands that exist; this chord sequence is from the movie Aliens,
composed by James Horner. The revoicing allows for greater consistency and stability
Audio, 00.13 ‘LV426’ – Movie, 00.24.50’ & 00.34.20’
3rd becomes 5th
The inversion in the penultimate chord
allows for a better move to the final
Dm, with which there is no relation
(Eb to D semitone
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
KING KONG James Newton Howard
The shifting sands of harmonic accompaniment
I want to turn to one of the main themes from the movie King Kong (below), scored by James Newton
Howard, in order to rationalise some interesting harmonic observations.
Audio -‘King Kong Movie, opening titles’
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Just like The Day After Tomorrow, this piece is written low and orchestrated densely. The low, deep
melodic Horn line conjures up a sense of premonition and apprehension. This line is copied with bassoons
for more depth.
Bar seven features trombones and other brass scored low; the C# (major 3rd, trombone) is almost at a depth
where the 3rd wouldn’t work or would become crunchy and lumpy. Instead here it produces a crisp,
penetrative and deep, portentous menacing sound.
There are some other notable harmonic events in this piece which help it function brilliantly well in the
film; the Gm chord stated by violins in bar six is inclusive of its minor 6th interval (on top of the voicing) to
give a tiny whiff of harmonic friction and significant colour. This is aided by the delightful
demisemiquaver line on woodwind and violins 2, which periodically comes back to the Eb (min6).
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio -‘King Kong 0.42
Eventually the piece gives way to a nod toward
the classic ‘scary monster’ chords - made so by
the chromatic shifts, the low brass, but most of
all because of the lack of maj or min 3rds
The opening theme appears again later in the film in (below).
Audio - ‘The Venture Departs’ – Movie, 00.24.15’
Gm A Gm
Strings / Brass
Starting with something obvious; there is great interplay and coherence between the grand opening motif
(bars three to six) and the subsequent bar which effectively mimics the phrase at a quicker pace. The initial
melody, grand and majestic, benefits from the chord shift underneath, between Gm and A, which creates an
uplifting feel. The piece also benefits from the changing context of the note in bars three and five; bar three
features a C# (the maj3rd of the A chord) whereas bar five features the same ‘note’, this time functioning as
a Db (min3rd of the Bbm).
The Empire State, another cue from the same film, is packed full of important nuggets of information which
will help us better understand how film music works, how harmony functions and how music
Audio -‘The Empire State Building’
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Consistency in Melodic Contour: looking at the melodic phrasing we can see two distinct rhythmic
approaches. Bars four and five mimic bars two and three but at a more hurried pace whereas bars six to
seven offer a different rhythmic vehicle for the melody.
Consistency in use of intervals (#4): If we look at bars three and four (fig.21) we can see that the use of the
#4 plays a big part in conjuring up the sci-fi-fantasy feeling. The #4 is a regular favourite when trying to
inject a sense of wonderment into a piece. As we will see elsewhere in the book, one reason for the success
of the #4 is that it subtly alludes to a different key and chord. In the case of bar three of fig.21, the exposed
top E on cellos could be said to ‘sound’ like the maj3 of the C chord. Strange extensions sound as they do
because of a harmonic interaction between them and the ‘normal’ components of the chord but also because
they are gently suggestive of other chords.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
What defines this phrase harmonically is the expression and colour created by the more extreme intervals which come midway
through the sequence. Below is a line expressing the harmonic contour in terms of the expressive power and complexity of the
intervals used in the cello line. The more complex and expressive the interval, the higher it appears on the arc. The reason the
second #4 appears higher than the first is because in context of the cue the G cello note in bar four is higher and therefore
more exposed and therefore more intense.
This piece also benefits from the same notes cropping up in different intervallic contexts. It allows the
piece to evolve its harmonic complexity whilst retaining familiar melodic phraseology.
G = #4th
G = 9th
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
If we concentrate on the section from bar eight to eleven just prior to the key change from A to D (bars ten
and eleven of the original transcription – fig.19) we can identify the point at which the harmonies create
drama, tension and gravity leading up to the key change. I have transcribed an alternate version below
(fig.23). It could be called an ‘easy listening’ version, using safe, predictable chords to achieve the key
change, in order to distinguish between it and what was actually written.
The way it might have been
The way it might have been
The version in fig.24 is the ‘subverted’ version which contains two chords prior to the key change which
evolve to a dissonant climax (boxed) before the key change. The C#/A chord is extremely dissonant in
isolation, but sandwiched briefly as it is between the preceding and successive chords, it works extremely
Another good example of the effectiveness of ‘harmonic character’ is contained in the following short
excerpt from the 1979 movie The Long Good Friday, music by Francis Monkman. By using synths as
instruments in their own right, and not simply as a means to cheaply replicate or emulate acoustic
instruments, Monkman’s expert and evocative music (along with, for example, Angelo Badalmenti’s score
for Twin Peaks) helped pave the way for electronic music in subsequent TV shows such as The X-Files and
24. I will be covering the iconic main theme from The Long Good Friday in Volume 2, but for now I use
the short piece below (00.03.50 into the film) as an example of the communicative power of harmony when
using only a few notes.
Movie, 00.03.50’
6 3 maj7 3
maj7 3
10 3
The richness of the 6th (C) in bar one gives way to more abstract harmonies in bar two,
which offers an Eb(#5) chord underneath a quaver line who’s punctuating alternate intervals are major 7th,
8th, 9th and 10th.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The relationship between the Eb(#5) chord and the D of the melody line is crucial here; if you ignore the
bottom Eb root note of the chord, the melodic line above is now seen and heard in a different context (see
Without the Eb root note of the accompanying chord what we
effectively have is a G chord with melody line intervals now being
5, +5, 7th and the octave. I say this because at first glance on bar two
of fig.25 we assume the tension is caused by the B natural (the +5
of the Eb chord), where as in fact the tension is also caused by the
Eb root note, which is a red herring in what is otherwise a G chord.
This subtle interplay and ‘duality of perception’ is what makes this
work; it has two possibilities, not just theoretically, but aurally;
actually. This is what causes the slightly abstract qualities.
I would like to return now to Hans Zimmer and to a big issue this book addresses elsewhere with other
musical examples; the issue of how music leads us into the temptation to presume one thing and then
confounds our expectation by delivering something else instead. To produce ‘surprise’ musically by
confounding or expectations is one of the most effective things we can do as composers. It happens
everywhere in music; it is one of the main reasons we enjoy music. As I have alluded to elsewhere, we do
not listen objectively; we listen subjectively and with prejudice. This is not a deliberate act, it is simply the
way human brains store data, classify information and compartmentalise the world of sound and music.
Based on our previous listening experiences we form comparisons, opinions and judgements. This means
that everything we listen to is heard in context of a generalised formulaic perception which rounds things
up and consolidates information. This doesn’t mean we are not susceptible to music which confounds our
expectations; indeed such music excites us. Virtually all the most successful music, to a degree, subverts
the listening experience by confounding our presumptions and expectations. It gives us something we
didn’t expect, and we usually like it. These subversions are sometimes so subtle as to be undetectable to the
untrained ear and eye. This is why people are sometimes left clueless as to why a particular piece of music
seems to engage their responses better than others. People are frequently prone to focussing on aspects they
presume represent the reason they might like a certain piece of music. Such aspects tend towards simple
explanations; things which can be generally understood without advanced musical knowledge.
I do not wish to diminish or underplay these responses, merely to expose the way in which composers
(deliberately or unknowingly) play with our perceptions to create music which is engaging and successful.
None of what follows is particularly radical or profound; they are all subtle, delicate and restrained. The
excerpt below entitled Tennessee is the title track from the movie Pearl Harbour.
Audio -‘Tennessee’ – Movie, opening credits
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
When we consider where this sequence might go it’s tempting to presume, with a G (chord V) in bar eight
that the piece will revert to the tonic chord (C) and repeat the sequence. But what it actually does is more
appealing (see below).
This sequence would not have worked so well if the preceding chord of G had implied a
return to the tonic chord of C. Therefore how the G chord was perceived by the time the
piece got to it is crucial.
Although the key centre is C, by the time the chord of G arrives in bar eight we don’t expect a return to the
key centre; we feel comfortable settling on the G chord and using it as a springboard for the move to Dm,
which feels completely natural. Why? This is achieved by inserting small harmonic signifiers in the first
eight bars which subtly allude to a key centre of G. These are the F# notes in bar two and six. The first F#
is mildly unsettling when it appears but only retrospectively so; the following bar (bar three) contains an
Fmajor7 – a chord which wouldn’t really work if there was an F# within earshot. The sequence from Em to
Fmaj7 works but the F# melody note over the Em does raise the tension of that specific two-bar chord
sequence. But the real function of the F# is to prepare us for hearing the G chord in bar eight in a different
context, e.g. when the piece starts we think it’s in C but by bar eight we’re acclimatised to the key of G.
Although the chord sequence and melodic line appear to be romantic and ‘song’ oriented, the addition of
the F# over an Em prior to an Fmaj7 chord is something you would rarely find in song – this is its filmic
element. The melodic line over the Fmaj7 is identical to bar one, which brings familiarity and prevents the
F# lingering. Above all, the melodic contour in bars seven and eight pave the way for the line to eventually
settle on an F note over a Dm chord. It’s also worth mentioning the contrary harmonic motion at this point,
which, typically for Zimmer, is delivered cocooned in lush orchestration.
For maximum impact it’s often effective if a descriptive and emotional interval (3rd) in a melodic line
comes on the second beat of the bar, not the first. If, as in bar one of the excerpt below, it comes on the first
beat, all the emotional potential is released in one moment; the 3rd doesn’t react to anything – it just
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The phrase as used in Hans
Zimmer’s theme from Pearl
Harbour (right) features the
3rd on the second beat.
In the second bar the emotional energy is delayed, staggered and spread out. There is a brief expectancy on
beat one which is fulfilled and answered on beat two.
Defining moments and hit points in music
Pieces that start with a minor-to-relative-major chord shift are uplifting but comparatively rare. The
opposite way round is very common but ‘minor to relative major’ is hardly ever used at the beginning of a
piece. Seemingly unrelated, a chord change between C and G would normally be an unremarkable
sequence but preceding it with an Am puts a different complexion on the subsequent C to G; although we
interpret the written form of music in a sequential linear way, from left to right, start to finish, beginning to
end, the aural effect music has on us is not always the result of a linear listening experience; music
communicates cumulatively. The reason that a two-chord sequence might transport aurally, aesthetically
and emotionally may be because of the totality of the entire sequence, not just a local, smaller sequence.
The reason two chords, halfway through an eight-bar sequence, work, might be because of the chord in bar
one or two and the effect it has on the chord in bar four or five. The effect of music is cumulative: the C to
G will sound different if preceded by the Am because we will perceive it in a different way.
There are three dynamics at work in the first three chords.
Their effect is collective. The longevity of the chords and
the specific delivery of the sequence effect our
interpretation of it.
But the defining moment of the sequence is the transition between G and Em, using the passing chord of
D/F#. Once again Zimmer has started with the presumption of one key centre (Am) only to deviate to Em
within a few bars. The manoeuvre to Em is made more natural by the initial manoeuvre from Am to C and
then to G; by virtue of the route taken to G, by the time we get there we no longer hear it in context of a
chord V. Because the D chord and F# bass notes are outside the original key centre of C, their use lifts the
piece. This is typical of Hans Zimmer and a major ingredient of his arsenal of successful harmonic tricks.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
If we look (below) at the opening sequence from the movie Angels and Demons we see how effective the
whole piece is. This time it is transcribed in its actual key of B. When trying to rationalise the success of
this opening sequence and its tremendous impact on the film, we tend towards a presumption that it is the
sound. We tend to rationalise according to what seems probable. Because we listen via sound and not via
information, we presume the sound is chiefly responsible. The sounds are important but the harmonies are
crucial. If we examine Hans Zimmer’s success, above all it the triumph of harmony.
Audio - God Particle Movie – beginning titles 00.00
Pieces that start with minor to
relative major chord shifts are
uplifting and rare
The chord change between B and F# would normally be an
unremarkable sequence but preceding it with a G#m puts an
entirely different complexion on the subsequent B to F#.
I would now like to feature several pieces from the late, great, John Barry. Perhaps his most well-known
music is for the James Bond franchise is analysed in Vol.2. In this book four themes which are just as
powerful and communicative, if perhaps not as famous, are analysed.
CHAPLIN John Barry
Chaplin is a 1992 biographical film about the life of Charlie Chaplin, directed by Richard Attenborough
and structured around flashbacks as an elderly Chaplin reminisces over moments in his life. The film
highlights the triumphs and tragedies of Chaplin’s life. The film opens to silence as Chaplin walks into his
backstage room, dressed in his trademark attire. As he sits down the wonderfully emotive opening theme
begins. Immediately the music transmits romantic and vaguely solemn and somber emotions,
communicating and commenting on the tremendous sadness in Chaplin’s life.
The transcription below features the first few bars of the main theme, after which we will scrutinize the
complex harmonic patterns, how they communicate and how they are delivered effortlessly through the
prism of effective and sympathetic orchestration which allows the theme to breathe.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio – ‘Chaplin’ Movie 00.00.44
In the abbreviated transcription
(fig.33) we see a classic example
of ‘how music breathes in and
out’, or how it has a feeling of
contraction. The melody line
ascends from the F (root) to E
(maj 7th) while the Cello
counterpoint two notes lower
moves from C (5th) to C#
How music breathes
The second chord is a typical John Barry chord and transmits drama, seriousness and apprehension. How
does it do this? Firstly it’s a distinctive and odd combination of notes. An Fmaj7 with an augmented 5th is
hardly ever heard; it works in this example largely because of what precedes it; the second chord is
transitory and reactive. Played alone without having something to react to, it loses its impact. This proves
yet again that context is everything. Chords which are distinctive and which provide specific emotional
reactions in listeners usually only do so because they are ‘fed’.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The harmonic dynamics present in that second chord are interesting in that, on closer scrutiny, we find that
the top three notes (from the top, down - E, A, C#) of a 4-note chord actually represent an A chord; the
reason the chord sounds odd is that, essentially, it’s an A chord with an F in the bass. What makes it part of
the ‘F chord context’ is that the preceding chord is an F, therefore we rationalise it as a ‘weird kind of F
chord’. Barry restates the augmented 5th in bar two when melody hits the C#. In bar three the piece
‘breathes in’ again.
Looking at the isolated melody (below) we can see another one of John Barry’s traits; the use of excessive
intervallic leaps.
Bar four contains a leap of a compound minor 2nd (or a flattened 9th), something rarely seen in such an exposed melody.
Barry achieves this partly by the use of ‘cotton wool orchestration’ – instrumentation designed to soften and smoothout any harmonic tensions. This juxtaposition between harmony and orchestration works beautifully in shrouding what
is a difficult interval. Again in bar eight (below, fig.35) he uses another interval, not as severe, but still rarely used in
such an exposed melody; the 9th. John Barry makes these leaps sound plausible, effective and even luscious by clever
use of instrumentation and voicing.
Isolating part of the orchestration highlights another one of the aspects of instrumentation which so
distinguishes the work of John Barry and others, namely the open-position trombone voicing (below).
The voicing - 1st, 5th and 3rd (10th) highlighted left, is nothing special;
in fact it represents basic good
practice in terms of effective
Such open voicing between root, 5th and high 3rd (10th) gives space and room for the individual voices to be
heard. What makes a virtue out of it is the texture and timbre of the trombones and the way Barry draws
attention to them. If strings are voiced in this way, which they frequently are, we hear the richness of each
element of the section, but when trombones and other low brass play the same voicings the sound is so
much more crisp and organic because there are fewer of them. The section below (a continuation of the
trombone section from fig.36) again displays the consistent approach in the trombone voicing.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The intro to the cue (also found at the beginning of
fig.32) has extra richness embedded in the
arrangement by virtue of the harp (left) which hits
the root, 5th 9th and high 3rd (10th). The ‘add9’
element helps, with the open string voicing above it,
to create a luscious and transporting sound.
A great example of how arranging in film music works is the way his theme for Chaplin is shared by more
than one instrument or section. Melody is, more than anything else, a function. We are used to seeing and
hearing melody being impaled on one instrument but in film music the function of melody is often shared.
If we looked at the initial transcription for Chaplin (fig.32) we would be forgiven for simply seeing the
melody on the top line violins. But Barry, realising that a theme is first and foremost a function and
secondly a tune, places small snippets of the theme on different instruments. What we might perceive as
counterpoint is, in fact, the melody functioning on different instruments. Below is the same piece from
fig.32 but abbreviated to highlight how and where the theme is shared between different instruments.
The final section of the analysis of Chaplin concerns another, more obvious representation of what is
sometimes called the ‘John Barry sound’. Look closely at bar three of the transcription below (fig.40) and
look even closer at the trombone and low strings. Like all great film score composers Barry is fond of
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
F (3)….... F (5)
D (1)…… D (3)
Look at the way the Dm chord
gives way to the Bb/D by virtue of
the movement of just one note
(the A to Bb). This subtle shift of
one note in a chord completely
transforms the intervallic context
of the rest of the notes.
F (3)……F (5)
D (1)……D (2)
Now look at the transcription to the right (fig.41) in
which, in the first bar, we see the sequence seen in bar
five of Chaplin (fig.32). I have added the Dm6 to
show how easy we go from Chaplin to perhaps the
greatest John Barry piece of all.
Although the theme from Dancing with Wolves, below, doesn’t have the same odd intervallic leaps in its
melody or indeed any of the distinctive chords from Chaplin, if we observe the orchestration and chord
voicing we see and hear the same approach to orchestration; namely the open-voiced mid-low strings and
trombones, which lends the piece a real richness of texture. In the example below what also adds to the
effectiveness of the voicings are the occasional low 3rd and 7th (highlighted). This draws out and italicises
the richness of the intervals and the instrument textures; they aren’t so low to cause sonic ambiguity and
‘lumpy chords’ but they are low enough to sound rich. Also highlighted are the subtle descending bass
lines, similar to the lines in Chaplin.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig.42 Audio – Dances with Wolves main theme
Looking at the strings and trombones in particular it’s interesting to see not only the style of voicing but
also the consistencies. In bars one, three, four and five the trombones are voiced with the distinctive warm
and descriptive 3rd on top, ensuring the richness of the chord is heard. The Bb7 is scored effectively with
the mild tension of the 7th and octave a tone apart but with the rich low 3rd below.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
It is worth mentioning again the issue of what the ‘role’ and ‘function’ of the music is. Out of Africa is an
adventure film based loosely on Karen Blixen’s famous book. The film is set almost exclusively in Africa
and yet the most enduring and endearing music is itself set firmly in context of the European classical
romantic tradition. This is because the music is not playing the location or even the historical context; it
plays the romance and the drama portrayed in the story and by the lead characters. Two distinctive and
iconic themes from Out of Africa are transcribed and again these feature some typical John Barry traits.
Audio - Flying over Africa
maj6th maj7th
The tension caused by the use of the maj6th and maj7th (over the Am chord) is very suggestive of emotions
such intrigue, mystery and conspiracy, which is why these chords are used heavily in John Barry’s Bond
scores. Why and how does the use of a maj6th and maj7th cause these feelings?
The intervallic relationship between the A note (root of the Am) and the F# / G# are a maj6th and maj7th
respectively. These are effective intervals but the main reason the F# and G# penetrate so much is actually
because of the relationship between the C note (min 3rd of the Am chord) and the F# / G# (#4 and #5
respectively). The 3rd is an extremely colourful interval; a defining interval which literally defines a chord
as major or minor. Therefore the way in which extension notes interact with the 3rd is important. The
specific tension created by these harmonic dynamics is responsible for their characteristics.
In order to contextualise this point, look at the two bars transcribed below.
#4 #5
With an Am6 there are two points of harmony which colour
the chord; firstly, the relationship between the low A and the
F#(maj6th) but secondly and more importantly the relationship
between the C (min3rd) and the F#(6th), which is itself an
augmented 4th. This is more important because the 3rd is the
all-important descriptive interval; any relationship with this
note will be more acute.
The same applies in the relationship between the min3rd and the maj7th (G#). This chord communicates
vividly and dramatically because of the wealth of information and harmonic dynamics available to the
listener. The G# is maj 7th apart from the root but also it lays an augmented 5th above the chord’s min3rd.
Add to this the usual Barry propensity for open trombone voicing which emphasises the richness of the
chords and creates a crisp penetrative sound, and we have the sound John Barry is so famous for. The next
section of this track (below) contains some interesting and effective arranging.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio - Flying over Africa - 01.48
2nd Violins
Tension between
the C and the
lower B
Tension between
the C and the
lower B
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
There are two seemingly innocuous aspects of the first few bars of Flying over Africa which are extremely
effective in making this piece sound as striking as it does. The first is the descending 2nd Violin line which
‘cascades’ due to the downward arc but also due to the off-beat rhythm. If the descending 2nd violin had
been on the beat it would not have been as effective. This phrase is more obvious when it comes again an
octave higher in bar nine. Once again, as with many other pieces this book highlights, we see the seemingly
small decisions having such a good effect because, very slightly and almost imperceptibly, they alter what
we expect and cause momentary surprise. The second ‘event’ is the slight and almost unnoticed tension
between the carried over C melody note and the chord underneath (which is an Em, bars two and ten) - i.e.
the clash between the B notes and C note). The final piece (below) from Out of Africa is the main theme
itself, which once again has John Barry’s fingerprints all over it. Firstly we have the rhythmic interplay
created by the off-beat phrases (highlighted *). Secondly the held high octave string note of B creates slight
tension in bar five/six and nine/ten when it becomes the 9th of the Am chord. From bar eleven (over a Gm
chord) we hear an effective octave descending line, the fourth note of which (the E) hits the 6th interval – a
distinctive and colourful interval we see in other John Barry pieces, not least, as stated before, his music for
James Bond.
Out of Africa main theme – 00.00
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
What makes the E note (bar twelve) even more effective is how it evolves from the 6th interval of the Gm
chord to the 2nd of the D chord; the real effectiveness in bars twelve/thirteen and sixteen/seventeen lies in
the chord shift and the intervallic shift of the held note.
One landmark 80s film, similar to The Long Good Friday in terms of the distinct musical approach, is
Defence of the Realm, scored by Richard Harvey. The film tells the story, set among the political tension of
the 1980s Cold War era, of a reporter who stumbles on a story linking a prominent MP to a KGB agent,
which in turn leads him to discover a near nuclear disaster at a UK American air base. The tagline of the
movie was ‘just how far will a government go to hide the truth?’ and the air of apprehension, fear and
paranoia runs through the movie. Just like Monkman’s score to The Long Good Friday Harvey’s edgy
score complemented the movie well, using a combination of synths and traditional instrumentation. The
transcription below is from 00.00.40 into the movie during the opening credits. The main theme is
established via a combination of synths, orchestral instruments and various successful and communicative
combinations of broken or incomplete harmonies and extensions. When composers use broken harmonies
(by which I mean ordinary chords with one or more important elements missing) they can succeed in
creating a slightly uneasy harmonic feel. Taking a 3rd or 5th out of a chord might seem an ineffective thing
to do but even the slightest change to harmony as we know it can create tension.
The addition of extensions (with perhaps one of the primary intervals still missing) can often be unnerving
and disturbing. To take an important primary component out of a chord effectively gives you an alternative
‘version’ of that chord. For example, if you think you know what kind of distinctive sound a maj7 chord
makes, take the 3rd out of it. The remaining intervals are still there but their main relationship was with the
3rd; taking it out changes everything. The notes are still the same and their intervallic relationship with the
root note is still, intact, but the effect of the missing 3rd radiates through the chord.
Cmaj7 (with 3rd)
Cmaj7 (without 3rd)
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The transcribed section below (fig.48) enters just after we see the title card ‘Defence of the Realm’ on the
screen (accompanied by a dissonant chord). The music drifts into bar one of the transcription, which offers
an incomplete Eb chord with a 7th (Db) melody note on the top stave. Although there is no betrayal of
whether the chord is major or minor, minor is slightly and obliquely hinted at by virtue of the Db melody
note; this would be found in a scale of Eb melodic minor but not in an Eb major scale. Harmony by
innuendo and suggestion is a powerful approach. The addition of the note in the melody is gently
suggestive of minor via the power of suggestion. The bareness of the supportive harmonies are broken by
the comparatively strange and brief F/C woodwind chord (bar seven) which resolves back to the bare 5th
and octave of the Eb (bar eight). Bar ten contains two suspensions, the sus2 (F) and sus4 (Ab).
Right up until bars eleven and twelve the harmony has been a mix of broken harmonies with added
extensions and suspensions, offered through the textural prism of distinctive and occasionally slightly
ghostly 80s synth sounds. It is this specific combination which creates a distinctly troubling and
disconcerting vibe.
Movie: 00.00.40 Audio 00.30 Defence of the Realm Main Title
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Haydn horn
11th b10th
Harvey’s brilliantly ironic nod to ‘Britishness’ via his reference of the ‘Haydn Horn progression’ in bars
nineteen and twenty is inspired, as is the quirky, brief and disturbing dissonance which follows in the last
two beats of bar twenty, where the Ab melody note (11th) and the Gb (flat 10th) clashes with the major 3rd
The synth/string harmonies on the middle stave from beat three of bar twenty, right through to the end of
the transcription have their own journey, their own emotional contour and sense of drama (transcribed
separately below), as the chords pass through an inversion, a diminished chord, a 7th chord, a slash chord,
sus4, major and minor.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Chapter 8
The history of music is the history of the world through music. Music is a product of its time. If you look
hard enough music tends to be littered with clues betraying the age it was created. That said, film music,
especially orchestral film music, could be considered to be almost timeless; if you watched ET: The Extra
Terrestrial, a film from thirty years ago, what dates it is not the music. Thirty six years after Star Wars was
made, it is not the music that dates it; orchestral film music is generally speaking ageless and enduring.
Music composed for TV, however, is much more a product of its age and, one might say, a victim of its
age. Quite often if you play old TV themes, the music will take you back to the era in which it was written.
That is because the music is usually drawn from what was culturally and stylistically popular at the time.
There are other important distinctions between television and film. Movies are scaled toward big images;
television is a more intimate experience. In movies the on-screen drama is a shared experience between the
movie and its captive audience. Distractions are few. In television the images are smaller and TV shows
suffer the disruption of ad breaks and a much smaller, less attentive audience, some of whom might get up
and leave the viewing during the show. Thus, composers sometimes have the option to be more subtle in
film than is possible in most television.
As TV drama budgets have grown some TV shows have become more filmic. Big budget shows like Lost
and 24 tend more toward a filmic approach in music, which sometimes makes it more timeless, unique and
less wedded to the age in which it was created. That said, the time given to composers of TV shows is even
less than that given to film composers, with writers often expected to turn round an hour’s worth of TV
music in a week; there is little time for deep conceptualization or for composers to get all their points
across, so they are more wedded to stylistic, generic writing to achieve their point. Also the scale of
instrumentation and time given to production is generally inferior in TV music. So despite a more filmic
approach being encouraged, television will always be television. Also, whereas film music has stayed
reasonably loyal to the orchestra as the main vehicle for musical expression, again, TV music is often a
snapshot of our time. This chapter will analyse the compositional styles and emotional impact of music
from a wide and diverse range of TV shows. The aim is to expose specific consistent stylistic and
compositional methods and to analyse and interpret how music communicates in TV.
Music Analysed: Black Beauty (Dennis King) Coronation Street (Eric Spear) The Avengers (Laurie
Johnson) Tomorrow’s World (1980s) (Paul Hart) Mr Benn (Don Warren) Father Ted (Neil Hannon) The
Simpsons (Danny Elfman) The Life and Times of David Lloyd George (Ennio Morricone) The Sweeney
(Harry South) Tales of the Unexpected, Man in a Suitcase & Dr. Who (Ron Grainer) The Persuaders (John
Barry) Kojak (Billy Goldenberg) Ironside (Quincy Jones) Starsky & Hutch (Tom Scott) The Streets of San
Francisco (Pat Williams) The Professionals (Laurie Johnson) Hill Street Blues (Mike Post) Harry’ Game
(Ciarán Brennan and Pól Brennan) Emmerdale Farm (Tony Hatch) The X Files (Mark Snow) Soap (George
Aliceson Tipton) Brookside (Dave Roylance) EastEnders (Simon May) Bouquet of Barbed Wire (Dennis
Farnon) Owen MD (Johnny Pearson) The Odd Couple (Neil Hefti) Match of the Day (Barry Stoller)
Dynasty (Bill Conti) Blake’s 7(Dudley Simpson) Thriller (Laurie Johnson) Keeping up Appearances (Nick
Ingham) Red Dwarf (Howard Goodall) Poirot (Christopher Gunning) ER (James Newton Howard) Zen
(Adrian Johnston)
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The Life and Times of David Lloyd George was a political drama series broadcast in 1981. Arguably it was
more famous for its evocative, haunting theme, which entered the British pop charts and its cultural
consciousness. Since then the theme has been used on numerous productions. It has achieved the kind of
following and longevity the show itself never managed. As ever the most important aspect for us is how the
music manages to create and convey the right emotion. Below is an abbreviated transcription.
Audio - The Life and Times of David Lloyd George
There is more than a nod toward the recognisable harmonic characteristics of Baroque, but beyond this
obvious observation there are a couple of other characteristics which make it distinctive and memorable.
There are two interesting melodic points where the melody line hits intervals which are crucial in
articulating the emotional content of the music. First of all the first melodic note of bar five and six states
the A note (the important and descriptive min3rd and 7th respectively). The harmonic interaction between
the two A notes is notable due to their changing intervallic contexts.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
What is also notable here is the A melody note over the Bm chord dropping to the D melody note on beat
two. This interval of a bare 5th would normally sound quite stark but representing as it does the 7th leading
to the min3rd the melody displays emotion. The A to D transition therefore sounds simultaneously both
warm and striking. Also the tension and release between the C#sus4 and C# chords is particularly poignant
given that the sus4 chord lasts an entire bar before it resolves. Running through all the points mentioned is
the exquisite instrumentation (piano, harp and strings) which breathes life into the various harmonies.
One of the most effective aspects of the first few bars of this piece is the cross-rhythmic piano part (lower
stave, fig.3), which plays six continuous straight crotchets per bar underneath the other parts which play the
more standard 12/8 oriented rhythms. Although mathematically the six crotchets ‘stack-up’ to the 12
quavers in each bar, they repeatedly create a mesmerizing sense of unease. The top two staves (piano and
harp) ‘line up’ but of the six crotchets in each bar on the bottom piano stave, only two line up (underneath
the first and third group of three quavers). Although these cross rhythms do not create an uncomfortable
listening experience they do very subtly and slightly skew our aural perception. There are, effectively, two
separately functioning rhythmic entities. One is triplet-based and has real momentum and inertia, whereas
the bottom stave cross-beat piano part has an entrancing exquisite monotony.
Television as Patrons of Music
In the same way the Church was the biggest patron of music centuries ago, and illegal drinking venues
were the patrons of early Jazz, so TV and Film have become and still, to a degree, remain the main
commercial patrons of instrumental music. Composers of many of the 1970s TV shows had studied music
academically and had a thorough knowledge of the essentials such as harmony, counterpoint, orchestration
and arranging. Although many of the themes were ‘cheesy’ by today’s standards, this was simply because it
mirrored the styles and approach of music popular at that time. Many of the TV composers in the 1970s
wrote copiously for library music companies and some of them played with the leading big bands, groups
and orchestras around at the time. The biggest single stylistic influence in film music over its history has
been the classical tradition, but certainly one of the biggest influences in television music in the 60s and 70s
was jazz; many of the great TV composers were jazz musicians, composers and arrangers. The excellent
musical pedigree lots of them shared came to the fore in the memorable themes and incidental music they
created for many of the landmark shows of the time. Music for the moving image is rationalised often not
by how ‘good’ the themes sounded as music but what the function of the music was and how well it
addressed and served that function. The main prerequisites in TV were, and still are to an extent, that the
images and characters are brought instantly and vividly to mind by the music. Essentially music
‘functioned’ as a second way of remembering TV shows. Hearing the music would trigger a memory of the
characters, pictures, context and narrative. Back in the 1970s music’s function was also largely duplicative;
music sounded exactly how you might imagine it ought to sound for the scene and for the show. For this
and other reasons many of them passed into public consciousness. Today music is sometimes less obvious
and more oblique in its function but back then most things were ‘on the nose’.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
One important reason thematic music was remembered was partly due to the fact that it could be hummed
or sung, and in some cases it could even be sung to the name of the show. Many themes from the 1970s and
80s have remained unchanged over the years, save for a few new arrangements; Dr Who being perhaps the
most obvious example. But also, who doesn’t envisage Bodie and Doyle driving a Ford Capri through a
plate glass window on hearing the Professionals theme? Music heightened the drama and tension of
countless television shows, underscoring but essentially duplicating what was happening on screen.
Television companies went to large expense to employ large orchestras, jazz orchestras and other
ensembles to ensure the music was as effective as it could be. Music budgets were in most cases and in real
terms, higher forty years ago then they are now. Composers, orchestrators, copyists and musicians were
paid well for their services. The advent and impact of technology over the past thirty years has led
inevitably to the trend of one person or only a few people being required to create music. Some have
suggested that because of this music has lost a lot of its cultural and aesthetic meaning, but this could be
seen as a simplistic and flawed argument based on a reluctance to change and evolve. In financial terms it
makes little sense nowadays for a production company to pay for a large orchestra score when similar
results can be gained with sample libraries.
Many of the television dramas and even documentaries are now lavish affairs which cost many times more
to produce than their 1970s counterparts, but the music budgets often remain stubbornly low. The value
people hold in music and the amount they are willing to pay for it has reduced. It remains rare for large
combinations of real instruments to be used in many television shows, most of which tend to use samples
instead, often to emulate an orchestra. If you were to watch many TV documentaries, they appear almost to
have generated their own much-copied style of musical approach, one which is typified by the stark, garish
immediacy of the music, the cheapness of the sound and production, and the duplicative nature of its
function. Most science documentaries mimic games in that they are accompanied by a loud cacophony of
continuous music which often bares scant resemblance to the subject or the film. Nature documentaries
tend, on the whole, to be accompanied by large, lavish and loud climactic orchestral music. The music for
many of the lavishly scored television dramas of the 70s which use ‘real instruments’ has an air of
authenticity hard to achieve with the often sterile digital domain. That said, sequencing and digital
technology has enriched music insofar as more people have access to composing. Composition is no longer
a preserve of the chosen few. Technology has democratized music and perhaps history will look kindly and
record this as its biggest cultural contribution. With all this in mind I would like to look at music from the
television show The Sweeney.
The Sweeney was a 1970s British television police drama focusing on two members of the Flying Squad
(aka ‘Sweeney Todd’), starring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman. It was an enormously popular show
which was broadcast during a period of considerable upheaval and notoriety for the real life Flying Squad,
during which they were accused of corruption.The arrival of The Sweeney completely overhauled TV
police drama. Gone was the previously consensual cosy world of shows like Z Cars (once held up as an
exemplar of realism). Harry South’s piece speaks the name of the show in its melody line. It’s a very jazzorientated piece, but not the lush ‘international’ jazz orchestration in films; more of a rough, rockorientated smaller front-line feel.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio - The Sweeney opening title theme
Gtr / Synth / Sax
Gtr / Synth
Apart from the rugged orchestration there are other harmonic signifiers that help this piece function as the
theme for The Sweeney: the consistent downward arc of the bass line (aided by careful use of inversions)
lends the piece a kind of separate dramatic harmonic identity. These kinds of devices and approaches help
give listeners almost an alternate, simpler ‘melody line’ which stretches the length of the phrase, unlike the
melody itself, which exists in small statements. In this case we have the obvious ‘tune’ but a separate, less
obvious counter-melodic bass line with a separate, consistent identity. Also the piece has what has often
been called a ‘bulletproof melody line’; the line is bold, obvious and unambiguous and would probably
transport emotionally almost as well even without the accompanying harmonies, such is its strength.
The theme traditionally came after an opening scene which lasted a couple of minutes. The contrast
between the tense ending of a scene, the brief silence and the high-octane opening thematic statement
worked brilliantly. The piece finishes on an incomplete non-chord which leads effectively into the next
scene. Also the swung quavers in the melody and bass accompaniment lend the piece a stylish jazz feel.
The melody is also bulletproof in that it is clear, defined and can be transported onto another genre with
ease, as we can see from the end titles theme below.
Audio - The Sweeney opening title theme
Cor Anglais
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Gone are the swung quavers and the intense jazz/rock feel. In comes the delicate instrumentation of Cor
Anglais and flugelhorn. This more sedate version perhaps allows us to appreciate the contrary motion
movement between melody and counterpoint (highlighted). Also what’s noteworthy is how, from bar ten,
the countermelody is prominent by being ‘on top’ and the actual melody is underneath. It’s worth
remembering that ‘melodies’ and ‘countermelodies’ are not ‘real’; they are simply classifications,
functions. In songwriting there is an obvious relationship and hierarchy between melody and
accompaniment where one is dominant. But in music to picture, whose primary motivation is literary and
whose function is to support a narrative, the boundaries are less obvious; melody is switched and shared
between different instruments.
The following three tracks are notable for many reasons, not least the fact that they’re written by the same
person. This is an important point because once again it underscores the considerable dexterity and
skillfulness required by TV composers. In an era when film composers are famous for possessing a specific
and immediately identifiable style or ‘voice’ anyone hearing the themes from Tales of the Unexpected, Man
in a Suitcase and Dr Who could be forgiven for presuming they came from three different composers. Ron
Grainer’s eclectic and fertile imagination was driven by a simple Chameleon-like ability to adapt radically
to different narrative or stylistic contexts. The style and approach of the music Grainer composed was often
governed by quick decision-making aided with a fantastic knowledge of musical structure and pastiche,
together with a meticulous ear for detail. Given that most people imagine composing to be a slow,
cumbersome, pedestrian process governed by great pontification and conceptualization it’s refreshing to
note that most of the greatest film and TV music is written against a backdrop of incredibly tight deadlines
and ridiculous pressure. Indeed it is most probably the case that far from ruining the creative process, the
lack of time creates its own dynamic; stress can inspire us.
Tales of the Unexpected was a British television series from the late 1970s. Episodes were initially based
on short stories written by Roald Dahl which were usually sinister and generally had a twist ending. Two of
the main aspects of Tales of the Unexpected in the opening title sequence were the James Bond imagery (a
gun, playing cards and a silhouetted woman dancing) and the instantly recognisable Carousel-like theme by
Ron Grainer, which simultaneously exuded the twin characteristics of childlike innocence and menacing
intrigue. How? How does it do this? How is the music so precise that it conjures up such precise
descriptions from people who hear it?
The piece possesses characteristics which create within listeners a mesmerizing and hypnotic feeling; these
are meanings it creates within us which make it instantly memorable and make it such an emotional
experience. What characteristics of a piece of music make it a memorable, mesmerizing and hypnotic
experience for listeners? As always the answer lies in a combination of the sound and music; the sound lay
in the specific instrumentation, orchestration, textures and timbres and the music is dictated by the specific
choice of melody and harmony. The track features a simple drum kit, piano and sax but there is an
underlying synth which copies the sax melody. Also the piece uses a combination of high steel pans,
chimes and balalaika. This is one reason for the mesmerizing Carousel feel. The other reason for the
exquisite and entrancing monotony, inevitably, is the physical melodic line juxtaposed by the varying
intervallic context of the notes. As highlighted below (fig.5) the melodic line in bar five, six & seven is
musically identical to bars nine, ten & eleven but has a different intervallic context.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio – Tales of the Unexpected
maj 7th 6th
Contrary motion
maj 7th
The melodic ‘hit point’ in the piece is each time the Ab melody hits the 7th of the Bbm7 chord (circled).
Alone this is nothing special but reacting as it does to the first Ab note (the root/8th of the Ab chord) creates
a different, less obvious, softer interpretation. The intervallic context of the melody note in the sequence
moves from 8th to 7th (downwards), the note itself remains the same and the accompany chord underneath
goes upwards from Ab to Bbm. This specific harmonic ‘dance’ of melodic reality and intervallic context
creates unique harmonic qualities which affect our responses.
We can try this by playing any major chord with the root/8th as a melody, then follow it with the minor
chord a tone up with the same melody note, which now functions as a 7th. The contrast between the two
perspectives of the note tends to provoke a slightly dreamy emotional response. There are other small and
subtle harmonic factors which combine to further create a slightly uneasy feel in the piece: the melody
begins on the 9th (Bb), accompanied by an Ab chord inverted over the Eb. This initial mild distortion of
expectation gives way to a ‘normal’ Ab chord (root-positioned with Ab melody note) before repeating the
chord in bar 1. The resulting contrary motion between melody and bass adds to the Carousel feel. In
essence what the composer has done is take a chord and change it in two ways, firstly by inverting it and
secondly by adding the 9th by virtue of the melody line.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
From a simple, pure structural perspective the majority of the melody consists of a four bar phrase (three
dotted minims followed by three crotchets). This lends the piece another of its mesmerizing Carousel-like
features because although we see and hear the four-bar phrase in 3/4 it also functions almost as an entire
bar of a much slower paced 12/8.
The second piece by Ron Grainer is the highly successful theme to the 1967 British crime drama series
Man in a Suitcase (used more recently as the theme for the British show TGI Friday starring celebrity Chris
Evans. Here Grainer taps into his big band knowledge and understanding of jazz orchestration and
phraseology. This is an important example of TV music for crime drama. Written around the same time as
the Avengers theme, this was a much more rugged and earthy approach and would set the tone for other
crime dramas whose music followed similar orchestrations, notably The Sweeney and The Professionals.
The impact was swift, immediate and pulsating, beginning with a dramatic chromatic piano motif. If we
look at the off-beat nature of the ‘tune’ from bar three right up until the ‘chorus’ at bar twenty, we can see it
is extremely rhythmical and anticipated, which gives it a dramatic, panic-stricken air; in fact in bars threesix the ‘melody’ is, in effect, an answering phrase to the chord. Saxes bring in a counter melodic figure in
bars seven-ten but still in essence these are lines which italicise the rhythm section instruments rather than
dominate them. In addition Grainer uses the well-known #5 to heighten the drama through harmonic
tension. This is all delivered via a big band sound with the Honky-tonk ‘pub piano’ sound. This precise
choice of sound bought into the main character’s working class image, as opposed to the sleek
sophistication of The Avengers.
Note the intensely anticipatory nature of the big-band sound leading up to the ‘chorus’ (at bar nineteen).
This dramatic lead up delivers us expertly into the chorus, which is a restatement of the opening motif but
with full big band brass and sax section. That this came from the pen of Ron Grainer is testament to the
eclectic nature of his writing and his ability to compose and arrange music which captures the shows
perfectly. The difference between this and Tales of the Unexpected couldn’t be greater.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio – Man in a Suitcase
DR WHO Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire
The triumph of sound over music
This third and final offering from Ron Grainer again underscores how varied and multifaceted he was. He
wrote the theme from Dr Who in collaboration with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Grainer wrote the
theme but it was Delia Derbyshire whose realization of it made it one of the most distinctive, memorable
and haunting pieces of music in the history of television. Using technology new to the era she laboriously
cut-up and used tape recordings, utilized special effects and used sine-wave oscillators. Grainer was
amazed at the results and famously asked, “Did I write that?” when he heard it.
The BBC prevented Grainer from securing Derbyshire a co-composer credit and thus half the royalties for
reasons which effectively amounted to BBC protocol and petty beaurocracy.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Derbyshire’s spectacular use of ‘sound over composition’ mirrored similar experiments happening in
mainstream pop at the time, where the ‘sound’ was taking over from the supposed ‘art’ of
music and song structure.
Audio – Dr Who theme
Try playing this transcription of Dr Who on a piano or any combination of ‘real’ instruments and you’ll
quickly realise that this theme is a brilliant example of the triumph of sound over music. The specific
textures created by Derbyshire’s evocative and wonderfully crafted sounds are absolutely pivotal to the
success of this piece. That said, some of the electronic sounds themselves create harmonies which affect the
overall complexion of the theme, which proves that ultimately sound and harmony are simply two sides of
the same coin.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The Persuaders! is a 1971 action/adventure series, once referred to as “the most ambitious and most
expensive of Sir Lew Grade’s international action adventure series”. Its two main actors were Roger Moore
and Tony Curtis, famous British and American actors of their generation. Moore would go on to play James
Bond. Because of its exotic European locations the show was popular worldwide and appealed to a wide
and eclectic demographic. The evocative and strikingly original music for the show, which spent time in
the UK Top 20, was progressive for its time. Its 3/4 waltz time and instrumentation created a distinctly
European feel. The harmonies and melodic line were instantly recognisable and also helped create the
‘European detective’ sound, along with the instrumentation, which included a harpsichord and balalaika.
Understandably perhaps elements of the music possessed a Bond-feel.
Audio – The Persuaders opening title theme
If this piece conjures up a specific feel and even ‘meaning’ via the way its harmonies are interpreted by us,
then how? Which chords or melodic lines give it a particular flavour? The major 7th interval over a minor
chord appears in the melody and also in the counterpoint (boxed). How does this chord create a specific
flavour? The chord (transcribed below) transmits in two distinct ways. Firstly there is a dissonance created
by a combination of a minor chord and a major 7th. Each of the intervals independently is perfectly normal,
but the combination is odd; if we look at the chord in bar one, below, we can see it is a polychord. The top
half of the chord constitutes the root and major 3rd of a B chord, whereas the bottom two notes represent the
1st and minor 3rd of an Em chord.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Within the chord there are several intervallic dynamics present. The ones to
watch out for, the ones which offer a specific flavour and colour are between
the bottom E and top D# (maj7th) and between the G – the min3rd (descriptive
interval) - and the D# (maj7th). Crucially the interval between these two is
itself a #5, an interval which evokes real drama.
If we now look at the figure to the right (which has the
original chord in bar one and a chord in bar two featuring two
notes extracted from the original chord) we can see that,
isolated, the G and D# (Eb) work as a major 3rd and root of an
Eb chord..
It is precisely the fact that the Em (maj7) transmits in several different ways that makes it an odd chord.
This is a classic ‘Bond’ chord that John Barry used liberally in his numerous 007 scores.
The add2 melodic flavour (circled in the transcription in fig.9) creates harmonic tension which, combined
with the instrumental textures, is extremely effective. The melody hits crucial intervals: firstly it regularly
hits the major 7th over the minor chord. Also the melody encompasses a 6th and potentially odd maj7th
interval (highlighted by a perforated lined box). These are particularly effective because the intervals are
quick (semiquaver to dotted minim). The interval’s effect is emphasized and italicized by the distinct
MR BENN Don Warren
We are told that children’s music is often more about the sound (the orchestration, instrumental textures)
than it is about the music. We are told that children don’t respond to subtle chord changes but they respond
instead to obvious stimuli, such as comical orchestration – instruments that ‘stick out’. This is true to an
extent but to believe that kids don’t respond to specific harmonies is misleading. Studies have proved that
young children respond more favorably to consonant harmony than dissonant harmony.
Even with no ‘baggage’ in terms of what we expect – even when listening as children we are still, to a
degree, programmed to expect normality and tradition. With this in mind we now examine the theme music
from the highly successful and long-running animation series Mr Benn. Mr Benn is a character who wears a
black suit and bowler hat. In each episode he visits a fancy-dress costume shop where he is invited by the
shopkeeper to try on a particular outfit. Through a magic door at the back of the changing room he enters a
world appropriate to his costume, where he has an adventure (which usually contains a suitable morally
inclined ‘message’) before the shopkeeper reappears to lead him back to the changing room, at which point
the story comes to an end.
One of the best ways of listening to the development of TV music and how it seeps into the public
consciousness is through the prism of children’s television. Kids’ TV music has to create emotions quickly
and obviously. Because of this many kids TV themes are rather caricatured. Allegedly when foreigners first
heard the music to Postman Pat they presumed the BBC was simply trying to be ironic, or that there was a
hidden meaning. There was no hidden meaning; the BBC meant it. Children’s TV music themes are often
performed by accomplished session musicians who would be also involved in high-profile work. As an
example, the musicians on some of the ‘Mr Benn sessions’ included legendary jazz organist Harry
Stoneham and famous jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. When one listens to the theme from Mr Benn it’s
probably one of the few times you’ll hear a bass clarinet playing the melody.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
But the bass clarinet is key to the melody being transmitted in a physical, textural way; in this context it
possesses a comic quality few other instruments have. But the bigger issues are the intervals contained in
the theme.
Audio – Mr Benn
As we can clearly see and hear, the Mr Benn theme tune trades heavily on the subversive characteristics of
the #4. The crucial hit points in bars one and two – the longest and most exposed notes – are impaled on the
#4 interval. This, together with the playful rhythmical nature of the bass clarinet/xylophone melody, played
three octaves apart, creates a very specific environment. Once again we have the ‘bulletproof melody line’,
e.g. a line which communicates a specific harmonic identity without its accompanying harmonies. In this
particular example the accompanying chords are brief, offbeat and low in the mix; the melody really is
everything. Apart from the #4, when the theme modulates to Eb the melody line hits the 7th hard the bar
before (the Ab) to accentuate the move. The precise characteristics of the #4 are dependent on surrounding
contexts. In certain environments the #4 can exude feelings of mysticism and intrigue, which is why it is so
used in science fiction film music. In some situations it can appear to be merely exciting and in certain
precise situations it can be comedic and childlike. Intervals themselves do not always create a precise
meaning; they normally require the addition of skillful environmental treatment, such as instrumentation
and orchestration.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Tomorrow's World was a program that showcased new developments in the world of science and
technology. The choice of music for this show has always been effective. Producers tried to commission
music which was edgy and exciting, to mirror the context and narrative of the show. For many years the
show opened with a brilliant modern jazz piece written by legendary composer and musician Johnny
Dankworth. His theme, an apparent homage to the textured arrangements of the Miles Davis/Bill Evans era,
worked brilliantly in underscoring the show’s progressive and technological context. The theme was
replaced by a piece written by Paul Hart, which is transcribed below.
This time, rather than go for something which was edgy and at the forefront of music, they went for a piece
which possessed distinct filmic qualities and characteristics. The piece is less striking and innovative than
the Dankworth piece but it appropriated many of the popular filmic traits of the time which gave it a kind
of ‘science-fiction lite’ feel. As with Mr Benn and other shows, the #4 is critical and crucial in relaying the
mystique and intrigue of technology. Its well-known science fiction qualities are being utilised.
Audio – Tomorrow’s World theme
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The Simpsons was the first successful animated program in American prime time since the 1970s. Pundits
had considered animated shows as only appropriate for children. They also presumed animation unsuitable
for prime-time television. The Simpsons changed all that. The cultural and societal impact of the show has
been far-reaching. The wonderfully crafted incidental music is written mainly by Alf Clausen but the iconic
theme tune is a product of the fertile imagination of film score composer Danny Elfman. Below is a brief
transcription of the opening few bars of the distinctive theme, which transmits its exuberant playful
comedic characteristics effectively. In many ways the theme is a deliberately tongue-in-cheek pastiche
which appropriates the distinctive style of many 60s sit-com themes. As we can see, again, the power of the
#4 is fundamental to the success of this piece. Its involvement is crucial to the success of the piece in
relaying the comic characteristics of the show in a similar way to the theme from Mr Benn. Both use the #4
as a central defining characteristic and also both use octave woodwind to articulate the theme.
Audio – The Simpsons theme
FATHER TED Neil Hannon
Another show whose theme music trades heavily on the potential comedic qualities of the #4 is Father Ted,
music by Neil Hannon. The hilarious show follows three Roman Catholic priests on the fictitious Craggy
Island, located off the west coast of Ireland. The theme tune for the series was written and performed by
Hannon’s band The Divine Comedy. The band also contributed most of the show’s original music,
including ‘My Lovely Horse’ used in the episode “Song for Europe”. Below is an abbreviated transcription
of the theme. Once again note the crucial inclusion of the #4. The theme tune is sixteen bars long; the #4
comes in at the end of the first 8 bars, a crucial structural point linking the first and second parts of the
theme. The #4 in this context highlights the show’s comedic, subversive, abstract and mysterious qualities.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio – Theme from Father Ted
Black Beauty was not an adaptation of the book by Anna Sewell, but a ‘continuation’ featuring new
characters created by TV producer Ted Willis. The theme tune, ‘Galloping Home’ was written by Dennis
King, one of the most talented composers of his age. This is one of the most iconic and instantly
recognisable television theme tunes in the world.
The ‘rural’ characteristics are almost entirely products of instrumentation and orchestration, particularly the
use of French horn. Also the opening semiquaver string phrasing and timpani accompaniment is closely
associated rhythmically with the concept of a galloping horse. The opening pictures of the show,
accompanied by the semiquaver strings, featured images of a galloping horse. The music, which was
described as very English and ‘pastoral’ sounding, appealed to all ages, which was also part of its charm.
When people remember the television series Black Beauty, what they remember firstly is the music. Why?
How and why does a piece of music so engage its listeners? The theme transmits emotions which create
feelings of strength, heroism and romance. One of the best ways to analyse music is to ask yourself, how
does it make you feel? Having established the emotional ‘feel’ or ‘meaning’ the music creates within you,
ask yourself, how does it do it? What you’re dingo is deciding which musical conventions, harmonic tricks
or other characteristics, do the job. You’re listening to the music and decoding how and why it makes you
feel a certain way. In a way you’re doing what a composer does but in reverse order; the composer
structures the music to illicit general, and in some cases, specific reactions from you.
Looking at the abbreviated transcription below, in which the ‘power intervals’ (root-5th, root-4th) and the
evocative descriptive 3rd interval are highlighted we can see how different sections of the piece exist
structurally, in relation to each other. The 5th interval is used in hundreds of films, perhaps notably Star
Wars and Superman, to evoke drama, strength, valour, fearlessness and courage. To exaggerate the use of
bare 5th intervals and the more descriptive romantic 3rd interval, I have placed ‘heart’ icons over the 3rd and
an ‘explosion’ clipart image to accompany the 5th/4th intervals.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio – Theme from Black Beauty
Power, strength, drama
Emotion, romance
In order for intervals to maximize their potential they have to be contextualised properly rhythmically. In
this context the first group of quavers (bar four) begins and ends with a maj3rd (this pattern is repeated in
bar thirteen) whereas the much more powerful and dynamic fifths have longer note values to accentuate
their meaning and maximize their impact. As we can see from the transcription the dramatic root-to-5th
intervals come at crucial points; chiefly at the beginning of phrases (bar three and bar twelve after the key
Coronation Street is a long-running British soap. It serves to illustrate the cultural importance of TV in the
past half-century and more specifically the use and function of music in television. For many people TV
replaced books, magazines and newspapers; for many it was a form of cultural democratization.
Coronation Street is still the prism through which many people view ‘the north’. The theme and
instrumentation of the music reflects the northern working-class; the use of the Cornet and clarinet
counterpoint links it both to Brass Bands and Dance Bands of the 50s and 60s, as does the slightly slow
swing foxtrot rhythm, which was big in the 1950s dancehalls.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The theme is comforting and local. It is one of only a handful of themes which have lasted, relatively
untouched, for over half a century. Although it has been rerecorded over the years the arrangement has
never significantly changed.
Audio – Theme from Coronation Street
We understand how the orchestration encapsulates the ‘northern’ aspect of the show but how do the chords,
melody, counterpoint and voicing allude to this? The sounds are nothing if what they play doesn’t also
suggest a northern feel. Each of the first two phrases begins with maj7th, 7th and 6th chord sequence
(highlighted with perforated boxes). These are traditional sequences which to some degree speak of a past
generation, especially when contextualised with sounds from the 50s and 60s. Major7 chords create a
‘jazzy’ sound, as do softly voiced maj6th chords. The use of maj7, 7 and maj6 represent several mini
harmonic journeys within one short piece. Each of the first two 2-bar sequences works alone so the piece
can be easily distilled and remembered. You could conceivably start listening at almost any part of the
piece and still ‘get it’. The trombone closed-style voicing and rhythmic articulation also encapsulates the
same dance band aesthetic. The players are ‘pulling back’ on the beat significantly, resulting in a laid-back,
relaxed performance; again, this is symptomatic of the style and era alluded to.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
THE AVENGERS Laurie Johnson
The theme from The Avengers is another one of a select few pieces which can be quickly recognized;
perhaps not as readily as Coronation Street but then The Avengers never had the constant exposure of
Coronation Street. The music and the orchestration are heavily symptomatic of the lavish ‘swinging 60s’
era. For its time the music was sophisticated, stylish, classy and chic. The high strings, written in closedpart voicing, encapsulate the rich sophistication found in the Bond scores of the era. The melody and
instrumentation in many ways reflects the glitzy sexual revolution of the 60s through music. In the same
way The Simpsons tapped into nostalgia in the 90s and Dallas & Dynasty tapped into the greed of the 80s,
The Avengers encapsulate the swinging 60s.
The distinctly decadent international sound is helped by the bluesy harpsichord riff which runs throughout.
Many theme tunes of the 60s and 70s used a wide variety of instrumentation to achieve a certain aesthetic.
We looked earlier at The Persuaders theme, which made brilliant use of the harpsichord. The Avengers was
written by the consummately talented master of character and style, Laurie Johnson, who would go on to
create, amongst others, the theme from The Professionals. There is a playful exuberance which runs
through many of his themes, which has helped them become part of the fabric of 60s, 70s and 80s pop
culture. Like The Sweeney and others, part of the theme (the intro, in fact) can be sung to the name of the
show. The Avengers spanned the post-war austerity and gloom of the early 60s right through to the
psychedelic transatlantic exuberance of the late 60s. TV shows which, unlike one-off films, run for a
number of years can represent a fairly accurate reflection of societal change.
Audio – Theme from The Avengers
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
One of the most notable aspects of this theme is that the melody is the chords. Although listeners might
rationalise the top note of the chord as the melody, it is only so recognised and iconic because of the
grouping it belongs to. This classic lush string writing, where the top note is duplicated at the bottom of the
voicing, instantly communicates the type of chord it is but also gives it strength and character. The
instrumentation embodies the glitzy culture 60s culture and is very Bond-like; trumpets, low brass and lush
strings. The chords are jazz-orientated and the potentially dissonant passing chord of A/C is not heard as
dissonant because of the context (e.g. its briefness, what comes before it and after it and the 60s ‘slide up’
to the chord). Instead it is heard as stimulating, suggestive and sexy.
Other subtle harmonic signifiers are the various slight dissonances which subvert the harmonic flavour,
seen below (fig. 19, boxed) in a continuation of the theme from fig 18: firstly we have the B natural against
the C7 chord, then E against a Bb/C chord and the A against the Ab/C chord
Audio – Theme from The Avengers (cont.) 00.23
These subtle harmonic distortions and nuances, small though they are, juxtaposed by the soft orchestration,
give the piece subtle but real distinction. The descending harp line in bar sixteen of the transcription is
particularly effective but played in isolation is simply an arpegiated Db chord. What gives it its
effectiveness is the hangover of the G bass from the previous bar; thus the effect is created not by the one
particular bar but by the memory of what happened in the bar before.
3rd 1st
Fig.20 features bar eight of fig.19; we see the
harmony is horizontal, not vertical. Because of
this the effect is slightly more gradual and
cumulative. The top row of intervals
contextualises the notes as belonging to a Db
chord but the bottom row of intervals placed
underneath the notes is written in context of a
G chord. The complexity and colour of the
intervals reflects how we hear them.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
This is an important observation; it shows how music is rationalised cumulatively; it is the sum of its parts,
not just something we can contextualise and rationalise in terms of one bar in isolation. Its delivery is linear
but the effect is cumulative. If we were to fuse together the notes in fig.20 over a G bass we would suggest,
rather than state, the chord of G (b9/#11) . The transcription below, abbreviating the sequence from one to six
of fig.19 shows the drama of the chords: the movement of the chords is downwards whilst the bass note
remains on C. But what the C constitutes as an interval rises creating an insatiable feeling of ‘contracting
harmony’ which in turn causes a kind of inexorable inevitability.
depends heavily on
the concept of the
consistent pedal note.
The dramatic effect
of ‘pedal notes’ can
be heard on hundreds
of TV shows.
Chord movement
Bass movement
Bass interval
American composer Mike Post said “I use pedal points a lot”, adding that they were “one of the three or
four great tricks of all time”.
The music for Hill Street Blues was laidback and understated; unassuming and unobtrusive. The show itself
was a major departure from the type of cop shows that had gone before. Gone were the heroes and
anecdotal stereotypes. Some of the camera action was rapid and handheld. In fact it was the first
mainstream TV drama to use handheld cameras; something that lent the show a documentary-style gritty
realism. Each episode featured a number of intertwined storylines. Much was made of the conflicts between
the work lives and private lives of the individual characters. The show dealt with real-life issues much more
than previous shows in the TV Cop genre.
Audio – Theme from Hill Street Blues
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The key question is, how does the style of the music in terms of harmony, melody and instrumentation,
effect and engage with the narrative of the show? Why and how do we associate the show with the music?
The pedal note is prominent throughout. Few bars have entirely root-position chords; the piece is built
around either slash chords or inversions. The first few bars are entirely worked around the pedal note.
The transition and interplay throughout the piece centres around the concept of the right-hand chord
movement whilst the left hand remains on one note. The exchanges are not dissonant but contain soft
harmonic tensions. This is delivered through the soft textures of piano, Larry Carlton’s distinctive guitar
plus bass and drums with a small string section also.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The pushed rhythmical colour is created by a sequence which contains a dotted quaver followed by a
semiquaver tied to a dotted minim. Were it not for this rhythmical sequence the slash chords and pedal
notes would not have the same effect. One works with the other. They work together to deliver the context.
This is the hallmark of good writing; different elements of the compositional process work together because
they are normally conceived together. From bar thirteen to fifteen inversions play a crucial role in building
drama in this piece by virtue of the ascending bass line, which creates emotion and a sense of growing,
impending momentum.
KOJAK Billy Goldenberg
Audio – Theme from Kojak
Billy Goldberg’s iconic theme tune to this successful American TV detective show makes expert use of the
pedal note too, in the opening of the theme; especially the penultimate bar of the phrase, which displays
considerable but flirting dissonance. The modern jazz orchestration, dissonances and pedal notes which act
as a harmonic gelling agent for the phrase, combine to create a memorable intro. The intro creates a
specific, identifiable and definable harmonic flavour which is exciting, unsettling and dramatic. These
types and styles of themes were the hallmark of 70s American cop shows.
IRONSIDE Quincy Jones
The jazz orchestra and dissonance were regular features in a host of successful detective dramas in the 70s.
The opening theme for Ironside was written by Quincy Jones and was one of the first synthesizer-based
television theme tunes. In the transcription below we can see how the composer has used dissonance to
convey the urgency and gritty drama of the show. The piercing trumpets and soft horn counterpoint works
well in articulating the dissonance. There is subtle harmonic tension on bar two of the excerpt between the
top trumpet on Eb (min 3rd) and the D (2nd). In the same bar we have the (Gb) flattened 5th horn note. This
trend of added 2nd and flattened 5th continues throughout with the trumpet melody stating the 2nd on bar four
and the flattened 5th appearing in bars four, five and eight. If we look closely at the rhythmical elements of
melody and counter melody we can see a consistency and similarity (highlight) in the direction of the
Audio – Theme from Ironside
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Starsky & Hutch was a successful American cop thriller television series. The hugely successful theme tune
‘Gotcha’ was composed by iconic jazz saxophonist and composer Tom Scott. It capitalized on the success
of jazz-funk and its energy and rhythmic vitality captured the time and narrative of the show perfectly. The
show was ‘cool’ and so was the music. Nowadays the show seems dated and so does the music, because it
is so much a product of its time. Music from shows of this era locked into the spirit of the time just as much
as they did the narrative.
Audio - Starsky & Hutch theme 0.30
From an instrumental perspective the Jazz-Funk aspect is immersed in
the rhythm section, distinctive percussive piano, synth and Tom Scott’s
Alto sax.
From a rhythmical perspective there are interesting characteristics which
help us identify how Funk works.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Funk depends on syncopation; specifically it relies on the interplay between syncopation and what we
might call non-syncopation (on the beat and in front / behind the beat). If we look at the bass line in the
opening 12 bars of fig.25 (boxed) it is entirely pushed. This is one of the distinctive hallmarks of Funk.
However, if we look at the sax part, ( ) one of the specific identifiable and memorable points is that the
phrase arrives on the beat for nearly the entirety of bar one. It is the interplay between syncopation and
non-syncopation that creates the groove. You can’t have one without the other. The ordered way
syncopation and non-syncopation thread together is something that defines Funk and it is the central to the
success of this theme. Even with Jazz-Funk fusion there is a plan, an order, something we can rationalise,
understand and emulate. The Alto sax line is strengthened and exaggerated by the clever use of parallel 4th
intervals between it and the line underneath. This gives the section a clinical, mechanical, square, chromatic
Truly one of the original ‘American cop shows’, this show revolved around two cops and centred around
crime in San Francisco area. In keeping with almost every cop show theme tune from the 70s, the music
encapsulated elements of progressive jazz and rock, fused together in a way which brought originality and
urgency to the TV cop genre. Jazz, Blues, Rock and Funk were fused together in the theme from The
Streets of San Francisco.
The ‘stabbing’ bass (on bass guitar, baritone sax and bass trombone) displays two
important points: firstly the syncopated nature of the second and third note is implicit of the Funk element;
secondly it shows attention to detail when it comes to overall architecture and placement. The bass and
harpsichord lines are effective phrases but the reason they sound great is because of where they sit in
relation to their counterpart. The two phrases are the introductory tune; without the bass motif the
harpsichord line would be rhythmically lost. The harpsichord line is delivered in a rhythmically cross-beat,
anticipatory way which lends it a tremendous sense of urgency. But it needs the initial ‘on the nose’ bass
figure in order for it to work. In bar six to the harpsichord Bluesy phrase is delivered over two-bar time
scale; from bar seven to eight the phrase is shorter before returning to the initial two-bar phrase in bar nine
to introduce the main theme at bar eleven.
The intro therefore is a ten-bar phrase, which, being a little odd, injects more urgency into the phrase and
the inexorable inevitability of the theme which follows
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio - Theme from ‘The Streets of San Francisco’
1 m3
#4 4 m3
The effective but brief clash between
the 5th and #4 is probably the most
memorable dissonance in the piece,
and again it displays the Jazz
Double time
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The change to double-time swing at bar fifteen is an excellent piece of Big Band jazz writing; the horns /
melophoniums are playing a cross-rhythmical anticipated line which is harmonically as diverse as it is
As we can see from the isolated example transcribed in fig.27, we see the horns / melophoniums as quavers
grouped in 2s and 4s. However, we ‘feel’ them is in groups of 3, which creates a wonderful anticipated
pushed feel, added to by the trumpets, whose second anticipated chord falls on 2nd beat of bar two.
We see and read the horns as quavers
grouped in 2s and 4s but (because the
high trumpets accent and italicise
specific beats) we ‘feel’ and hear the
horns in groups of 3
The ‘crunchy’ dissonance of the 2nd, 3rd & 5th
The Professionals was created by TV drama legend Brian Clemens, one of the driving forces behind The
Avengers, whose composer, Laurie Johnson, was asked to provide a theme for the new venture. The show
featured three main characters; Bodie, Doyle and Cowley and centred round the activities of government
department CI5 (Criminal Intelligence 5).
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig.28 Audio – Theme from The Professionals
Just like other iconic TV themes, The Professionals was a product of its time and its culture. Arriving in
1977 it encompassed elements of 70s pop music, including Disco. The music is perhaps notable for two
other things; firstly although it had Disco characteristics (wah-wah guitar, high hat 16s) it also added blue
notes into the melody line. Also there were no accompanying chords for the most famous section of the
piece (fig.27, above). The piece was entirely dependent on the archetypal ‘bulletproof melody line’ – e.g.
one which was strong, simple and suggestive of supportive chords which didn’t need to be stated because
they were inferred. From a rhythmical perspective the piece is reliant on syncopation; arguably the most
crucial notes are the third ones in bars one and four, which are syncopated.
HARRY’S GAME Ciarán Brennan and Pól Brennan
Harry's Game was a British television drama made by Yorkshire Television in 1982. It is based on a book
by TV journalist-turned thriller writer Gerald Seymour, which was published in 1975. The TV series wasn’t
an enormous success but the music lived on and has been used on numerous projects. It was written by the
main composers from the vocal group Clannad, which featured the then unknown Enya. The music has
been used in movies too; most notably Patriot Games. In addition, and more recently, it has been sampled
and used in dance music (Chicane – Saltwater).
Audio – Theme from Harry’s Game
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Again, many people remember the music before they remember the film that it was written for. Why? What
sounds, textures, harmony, melody, orchestration and voicings are instrumental in making this music sound
so evocative and emotive? From a ‘sound’ context the mixture of the warm 70s analogue synth sounds
filling the bottom register, together with the atmospheric textural qualities of the voices is crucial.
One cannot imagine this music being played by any other instruments such is the degree to which the sound
matches the music. Play these harmonies on a piano and they lose most of their meaning. This of course is
not to deny the power of harmony and voicing, without which the music would not exist in the first place.
The solo voice section right at the beginning is effective to be sure, but only in contrast to what comes on
bar seven. Music is built on a series of actions and reactions. Listening is a reactionary pursuit. All roads in
this piece lead either to or from bars seven to ten. This is the section of the piece that comes again and
again and to which people gravitate when listening. If a few seconds of this song is used for a film or other
project such as dance music, it will be bars seven to ten. Everything is heard in context of this short section.
In terms of analysis the first thing is to look at is the subtle difference in voicing between the synth and
vocals. The subtly different voicings and inversions mean that both sounds don’t occupy exactly the same
harmonic and sonic territory all the time, which means their various textural qualities still penetrate
individually. The sounds are similar but not identical, complimentary but not indistinguishable.
1st inv
1st inv
2nd inv
2nd inv
1st inv
Given that bars seven-ten are the song it’s interesting to note that, in all probability, bar eight (boxed) is the
epicenter of this section. It displays the most extravagant harmonies and is the longest and most exposed
chord; vocals state an inverted major chord with an added 9th whilst the synth plays a low-voiced min7. The
two chords are similar versions of each other and work beautifully together. The top B vocal note
represents the highest note in this small section. The top vocal line following the long B, are B, A and G#.
This maneuver has inherent warmth because it ends on the major 3rd of the E chord. The vocal hasn’t hit the
major 3rd up until that point.
This might seem like spectacularly indulgent analysis but these are the reasons music manage to create a
sense of emotion and meaning. We all respond in different ways to music but there are inherent similarities
in the way we all react to certain things and the way we experience some elements of music. To understand
these is to understand how music communicates.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The original theme was beautifully and expertly arranged to capitalize on the rural feel of the music.
Unfortunately various reinterpretations over the years have brutalised the original theme to the point where
essentially they represent different experiences. Music is a product of its sound and what it is – e.g. the
music itself. The theme from Emmerdale Farm (later to become simply Emmerdale) has been rearranged to
the point where the original intricacies and nuances which defined the music have been all-but lost. The
show is a popular and critically acclaimed long-running British soap drama broadcast since 1972. It is set in
a fictional village in West Yorkshire, England. Music for the show was written by prolific composer Tony
Hatch. Key to the success of the music is the way it reflects the rural nature of the show. How does it do
this? Once again it’s a combination of sound and music. The ‘rural instrumentation’ lay in the use of
strings, piano and oboe as the lead instrument. This accords the piece a Pastoral air. The gentle lilting
pedestrian nature of the orchestration also helps. But if this is the case, what gives the piece its dramatic
edge? This is, after all, a drama, not a farming documentary. Tony Hatch carefully weaves a collection of
lines and contours that hit specific intervals which have subtle but definite characteristics. A surface level
analysis reveals a two-bar motif which basically drops a tone each time, excepting a couple of note
changes. The oboe melody effectively takes off where the distinctive arpegiated piano intro leaves off at the
end of bar one. On beat three of bar two the accompanying chords raise to a 1st inversion, which they do
again in bar four. This heightens the drama.
Audio - Original theme from Emmerdale Farm
However, a more thorough analysis reveals that the theme features some unconventional intervals. Over a
Dm chord (bar two) the lead line settles for the longest amount of time on the 4th (the G). It could be
argued that this is not conventional and represents one of the ingredients which create a slight and almost
imperceptible drama. Then over a C chord (in bar four) the melody settles briefly on the 4th again, which
this time is the note of F. This is particularly interesting because it is not a sus4 but an add4; the 3rd exists in
the accompaniment. This is theoretically the most dissonant aspect but shrouded as it is in cotton-wool
orchestration, this slight and brief ambiguity adds to the overall drama and romance of the music without
creating real dissonance.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The 4th appears again in bar six as an Eb. This great chord change from a root positioned Bb to a 2nd
inversion D chord is exquisite, more so because the Eb melody line bleeds over into the D chord,
functioning eventually as a romantic b9. The descending bass line (root of the Bb down a semitone to the A
of the D chord) works well too, creating its own journey. The bar after each statement of a 4th the melody
line resolves to a major 3rd to highlight and consolidate the romance of the theme. So not only is there
rhythmical consistency in the melody; there is also harmonic consistency; the 4ths are highlighted below by
circles and connecting lines. The equally prominent major 3rds are highlighted by triangles and perforated
connecting lines.
The arpegiated piano intro is dramatic and provoking, bleeding into the melody itself in bar two. Indeed the
arpegiated line works in a similar way to the drums at the beginning of EastEnders in that it functions as an
ear-catching sonic logo. Whenever you dig deep into a theme or a song that has captured the imagination
and attention of millions of people, there is always something there which you wouldn’t expect. It is usually
this that gives the piece distinction. This is not to say that something that gives a piece specific distinction
is always odd or weird or ‘off the page’. It could merely be a particular group of intervals used in certain
way; it might be slightly odd intervals juxtaposed by soft orchestration and pedestrian delivery, which is
essentially one of the endearing aspects of Emmerdale.
As I said earlier various re-arrangements and re-imaginings of this theme have been commissioned over the
years, so much so that it has lost much of its initial impact. Some of the internal harmonies and
counterpoint have been lost to history in the remakes, as has the distinctive Pastoral orchestration. Worse
still newer versions have increased in speed. Diversely different figures in music, Bob Marley and
Beethoven, both said that ‘music dictates its own speed’, meaning that there is an ideal, almost natural
equilibrium in music – a speed at which a piece will ‘work’ and ‘sit’. This is usually the speed it has been
conceived at. The arpegiated piano intro is one aspect which has been retained in the newer versions.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The X-Files is an American science fiction television series created by screenwriter Chris Carter. Seen as a
defining series of its era, The X-Files tapped into popular culture and on a different level to a general public
mistrust of governments and large institutions. It was perhaps the ultimate conspiracy theory TV drama, the
central tenant of which was the crusade to uncover the existence of Alien life. Mark Snow composed the
music for all the X-Files television series and films and has been nominated with over twenty awards and
nominations. Why? This music is perhaps one of the most widely recognised television themes of the
1990s. It is utterly distinctive and instantly recognised. What aspects of the music make it so potent?
Audio – The X Files theme
Snow created some arpeggios through an echo device. A melody line was quickly generated, whistled by
Snow’s wife and doubled up with the ‘whistling Joe’ sound patch from the Ensoniq Proteus synth module.
The resulting piece of music, received at first with great uncertainty at Fox, became iconic and one of the
key selling points of the show. Why? Melody is how we ‘hear’ music; it is how we engage on a peripheral
level. But what we listen to, what affects us deeply, is often something we’re not aware of, can’t rationalise
and therefore presume isn’t important. With this in mind forget the whistling melody, effective though it is.
Counterpoint is everything in this theme. Let’s look at the arpegiated sections below. The reoccurring
counterpoint melodic pattern is a classic example of the effectiveness of horizontal harmony. It is delivered
in a linear sequential way but we listen to the cumulative effect – the implied chord.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
To the left we have what the sequence would look like if
the top interval of the arpeggio was the octave. It’s dull,
traditional-sounding and obvious.
The major 7th on top of the minor arpeggio is arguably too
jarring; too dissonant for thematic material. It overstates
the case.
The implied m7 chord is too loose, jazzy and casual.
The maj6th in context of a minor arpeggio is perhaps to too
filmic and overcooked.
The min6 does something different - it exists in the middle
of the extremes. There is a dissonance at the top between
the 5th and minor 6th but it is not extreme and grating. The
semitone between the 5th and m6th sounds strange and,
given the texture of the sound, almost dreamlike.
It is faintly discomforting, which works to create suspense and intrigue. These two intervals would
normally not be found occupying the same chord. If they were it would normally create rather obvious
tension. If, however, they appear side by side in quick succession, a slightly different context and dynamic
has been forged. You have gotten inside the cracks of harmony. The great thing about how arpegiated
horizontal harmony functions is that its effects are graduated, subtle and understated; inferred rather than
stated. Normally all the notes in a chord are stated at the same time. However, ask yourself which bar
below (fig.35) you think works.
Less obvious and more subtle
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
When creating music for comedy TV shows composers are usually attempting to italicize and exaggerate
the comedic elements or are instead ‘playing it straight’; juxtaposing the visual and narrative comedy by
writing music which plays the drama and ignores the comedy. There is obvious comic potential in certain
instrumental characteristics. For example, earlier we looked at Mr Benn, which makes excellent use of the
Bass Clarinet. Also some instruments assume a comedic quality when used out of their natural
environment. Thus it is the context which is funny, not the instrument per se.
There are some harmonic sequences, characteristics or situations which display natural comic potential
because their oddness is more ‘quirky’ than unsettling. In the next few examples we will look at instances
where the harmony, melody and/or instrumentation have created comic effect and we will analyse why and
how this is achieved.
SOAP George Aliceson Tipton
Soap was an American sitcom, created as a parody of daytime soap operas, presented as a weekly half-hour
prime time comedy. Openly controversial and addressing a number of taboo subjects, it poked fun at the
whole Soap Opera genre but ‘played it straight’. The music wasn’t overtly comic from an instrumental
perspective but with the chord sequences created a kind of playful sardonic humour. How can harmony do
Audio - Theme from ‘Soap’
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Seen in the correct harmonic environment with Bb as the key centre, below (fig.37) we can see the chord
possibilities in this key. As described in much greater detail in the chapter entitled Music Theory in Action,
the perforated circle contains the ‘usual suspects’; the chords usually found in the majority of music
relative to the key centre. Chords outside the perforated circle to the left or right represent those which
work in a less obvious way.
Bb Eb Ab Db
Am Dm Gm Cm
With this in mind, look again at the chord sequence in the theme from Soap. The first chord change from
Bb to G takes the song outside its key centre. This in itself is not odd or particularly noteworthy, except that
this chord change is the first one in a cyclical series (the whole sequence is Bb, G7, C7, F7 - Bb) which
delivers the chords in a seesaw motion, (a 4th apart each time) as it travels back to the centre chord.
There is a light-hearted unavoidable inevitability to the sequence. It is a colourful and unsubtle sequence
but one which finds its way into jazz, blues and Gospel music. The semitone movements (highlighted in the
perforated boxes) capitalise on the jazzy / bluesy feel.
RED DWARF Howard Goodall
If we look at Howard Goodall’s theme to Red Dwarf, below, the relationship and effect of the C to A7 (via
Gm/Bb) has a similar effect to the Bb – G sequence in Soap.
Audio – Theme from Red Dwarf
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The following sequence is from British comedy Keeping up Appearances. The show centres round socialclimbing snob Hyacinth Bucket (who insists her surname is pronounced Bouquet). Bucket is an insufferable
name-dropping bragger who likes to pretend she is better than everyone else. Over and above the obvious
slightly comic woodwind (including the ascending bassoon line at the start) and the jaunty rhythmic nature
of the melody, harmony and counterpoint, are there any other ‘comic’ signifiers in this piece, part of which
is transcribed below?
Audio – Theme from Keeping up Appearances
Audio – Theme from ‘Keeping up Appearances’
Think back to the areas where we have discussed how ‘the denial of expectation’ affects the listener. We
have previously looked at this concept in connection with dramatic music for big films, but one of the ways
comic music communicates is by replacing something we expected with something we didn’t; catching us
unaware. You might ask how can replacing something with something less expected work well in straight
drama and TV comedy? The answer lies in the overall context in which the ‘denial of expectation’ is
delivered. Music that might be somber and heavily textured which suddenly does something odd or abstract
will create surprise. Whereas if we have something jaunty and traditional and very British, which suddenly
does something a little out of harmonic character, the surprise we experience will be different; the context
will make it lighter, more open to comedic interpretation.
Consider the piece below, which is a transcription of what the Keeping up Appearances theme might have
been like if the composer was ‘playing it straight’. If the composer had been trying to evoke authentic
pomp and ceremony and not illicit irony or comic effect, this is how he might have written it. The delicate
quaver melody is not interrupted by a 2/4 bar. Also, other than the passing chords, the harmonic structure is
rooted to the C chord.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The actual theme, below, is skewed in the third bar of the melody by the chord of G7 (made more obvious by
the prominent B note*) and by the fact that most of the quaver woodwind parts don’t correspond to the G
chord underneath. It is the harmonies in this bar which illicit some of the comedic effect of the piece because
they represent a skewed, almost silly version.
The Odd Couple was a film and TV comedy based upon the play of the same name
written by Neil Simon. Felix and Oscar are two divorced men with opposing lifestyles
who live together in an apartment. The theme is a curious melancholic mix of humour
and sad resignation, which is a spectacular success because that’s an exact copy of the
Odd Couple narrative. But how does music achieve this? Can music really create within
listeners feelings such as ‘sad resignation’?
Audi – The Odd Couple theme
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
First let’s look at the light-hearted elements, which are essentially created by the playful, jaunty animated
theme, played in octaves the first time round and playing a 4th apart the second time round. The dotted
quaver/semiquaver rhythm of the melody is easily digestible, creating a ‘happy, bouncy’ feel. Bars eleven,
thirteen and fifteen have the gorgeous empty beat at the beginning. I say gorgeous because a piece like this
proves the old notion that empty space is music if it exists in a musical context. This is probably the best
example out there of an empty beat being so poignant and important (the other one might be the end of the
iconic brass fill in Rosanna by the band Toto). On bar eleven / thirteen / fifteen the first beat is ‘empty’
with the emphasis on the second beat; this is made more effective by the fact that the preceding phrase
leaves nearly two bars melody-free prior to the ‘empty beat’ thus making it more pronounced and exquisite.
Looking toward the harmonic accompaniment, below, we observe what may account for the melancholic
poignancy of the harmonies. The Fm7 to Bb9 chords (bars three to ten) lay a 4th apart but in the specific
tight sax voicing of bars one-eight, only one note physically changes.
What is without doubt is that the Bb9 is an ‘extension heavy’ chord; it has a higher than normal number of
extensions in ratio to primary intervals. When extensions begin to outnumber primary intervals chords can
sometimes lose tiny elements of their basic identity which can create a slightly entrancing and absorbing
sound. Most of the five notes of each chord do not move physically but move in terms of what we perceive
to be their intervallic context. On surface level we hear static notes which appear to work as two completely
different chords. This sometimes creates a slightly mesmerizing feeling. The Bb9 is, effectively, in terms of
voicing at least, simply an Fm6 over a Bb bass played by the bass guitar. So in essence we can hear the Bb9
as a Bb9 or an Fm6, which means it slightly blurs the usual harmonic certainties which pervade music.
Fig.44 shows the intervals
belonging to a Bb9 chord,
whereas the self-same notes
in fig.45 now belong to an
Fm6 chord.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig.46 shows how the intervals in the chord change of Fm7 to Bb9 evolve independently of the notes
themselves, most of which remain physically static.
Ab (3rd) to Ab (7th)
F (root) to Ab (5th)
C (5th) to Ab (9th)
Ab (3rd) to Ab (7th)
The contours underneath displays the notes as
intervals relative to the chord the chord
The contours underneath displays the
individual note movement from the saxes
during the Fm7 – Bb9 manoeuvre
Similar movements happen in the second half of the piece although the chords are more varied this time.
Bar nine (of fig.42) enjoys some spectacularly effective voicings with minimal movement; although the
chord and intervallic qualities of the notes change significantly, the notes are absolutely static. In other
words, what forces the intervallic context of the notes to change is the bass underneath that moves from Ab
to Db.
The sound
The note movement
The interval movement
F (13th) to F (b10th)
C (3rd) to C (7th)
Gb (7th) to F# (3rd)
F (13th) to F (b10th)
C (3rd) to C (7th)
Gb (7th) to F# (3rd)
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BROOKSIDE Dave Roylance
Brookside became notable for its tackling of realistic, controversial and socially challenging storylines and
was most popular in the 1980s and the early 1990s. It is especially well-known for broadcasting the first
pre-watershed lesbian kiss on British mainstream TV, as well as a domestic abuse storyline resulting in the
abuser being murdered an buried under the patio. The theme music was dramatic and powerful. The
harmonised melodic figure in particular carried the main thrust of the musical drama by implying Ab and
Gb chords over an Ab chord in the first two bars. This brief, almost imperceptible tension nevertheless
creates a real identity. The same characteristic is used in reverse in bars five and six, where the Ab is
implied by the harmonised melody, this time over a Gb chord. The overarching net harmonic result is a
slight blurring of Ab and Gb chords.
Audio – Theme from Brookside
If ever we needed proof that TV music is a product of its time we can see the uncanny likeness between
Roylance’s theme and a Jean Michelle Jarre’s tune from his internationally famous Equinox album. I do not
for a moment suggest plagiarism, but I do suggest influence in order to draw on dramatic instrumental
popular music of the time.
Audio – Equinox (part five)
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EastEnders is a long-running British television soap which began in 1985. It has always drawn millions of
viewers and is one of the most watched shows in the UK. Storylines chronicle the domestic and
professional antics of people who live in a fictitious Albert Square, in the equally fictitious London
Borough of Walford. The theme tune is heavily based on a synth / piano melody with percussion elements
too. A 2008 poll by the PRS said the theme was one of the most recognised tunes in Britain, beating the
National Anthem. It was nominated for an Ivor Novello Award in 1985 for Best TV Theme.
Audio – EastEnders theme
Easily the most distinctive elements are the famous drums in the bar before the melody starts. These are
practically iconic and have become immersed into popular culture. Similar but more dramatic, the function
of the drums is to prepare the listener for the ‘tune’ in the same way the arpegiated piano prepared listeners
for Emmerdale Farm. The drums are dramatic obviously because of their sound but also for another reason:
the pace quickens through the bar – the first two notes are worth a 1 ½ quavers, the next three are worth a
quaver each and the last four notes are semiquavers. The ‘size’ the notes get progressively less as the bar
progresses (see fig.51).
Many commentators have derided the theme for its simplicity, as if simplicity is demeaning or in some way
not worthy. But don’t be fooled: this piece comes from the pen of one of Britain’s foremost composers,
Simon May, for whom there are no accidents, no mistakes and no coincidences. Everything is there for a
The melody itself is stark, scalic and ascending which means it communicates instantly. Audience
perception and rationalisation is instantaneous. However, if the piece remained this simple throughout it
would not sustain people’s interest or work as a musical mirror for the visual drama. The melody contains
two 9th intervals in bar five. This harmonic element acts to soften the melody up, shave the edges off and
make it more appealing. The major 7th in bar 9 does the same job, creating an almost relaxed feel.
The final piece of the dramatic jigsaw that makes the piece exciting is the inversions (
allow a distinctive steppingstone-like dramatic ascending bass line.
) which work to
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There is nothing quite like an ascending bass line to add drama. It gives the bass its own narrative function;
its own journey. It’s almost like an alternative melodic arc which fits under the actual melody.
THRILLER Laurie Johnson
An important British television drama from the 1970s was Thriller. Stories were usually set in the affluent
English ‘home counties’ and most episodes featured at least one American character so as to appeal to the
American market. The original introduction featured a sequence of shots through a fisheye lens, bordered in
bright red. A trademark of director Brian Clemens work was to hook the viewer with a simple yet totally
baffling situation, something later done to some degree in Jonathan Creek. Clemens cited Hitchcock as a
major influence and the shows definitely possess an eerie strangeness.
Audio - Theme from Thriller
Harpsichord /
Synth /
The music, by Avengers composer Laurie Johnson, featured an array of percussive instruments which gave
the music a sound which took it outside the boundaries of most conventional TV drama themes. The
instrumentation made it cold, quirky and abstract but the harmonies also contributed. The first chord of
each bar was the classic minor chord with a major 7th. This unique chord tends to create tension because
two distinct and normally separate elements fuse together.
Traditionally a major 7th interval normally creates a slightly ‘easy listening’ feeling. This is because of the
relationship between the major 3rd and the major 7th. If you replace the major 3rd with a minor 3rd, the
interval between that and the major 7th is an augmented 5th. To add to this Johnson has placed a 9th at the
top, ‘octaved’ by a 2nd at the bottom. This creates extra tension between the low D and the note a semitone
up, the minor 3rd Eb.
Also there is more than a whiff of polytonality; the top stave in bar two features the Cm9
chord but
without the Eb the chord would be an inverted G chord. Thus we have a chord which sounds slightly like a
completely different chord.
Based on the successful Andrea Newman book of the same name, this is another classic British middleclass television thriller, this time set around the uber-dysfunctional Manson family, which is torn apart by
daughter Prue, who becomes pregnant at University. Prue’s worryingly unhinged father has an obsessive,
unhealthy and ultimately destructive love for his daughter which creates tensions which lead to violence
and tragedy. As if that were not enough Prue’s lover begins an equally steamy affair with Prue’s own
mother. The critic Clive James famously wrote “by the end, everybody had been to bed with everybody
else except the baby”.
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Audio – Theme from Bouquet of Barbed Wire
On surface level the theme reflects the sensual, sexually charged narrative of the drama perfectly by virtue
of the Fender Rhodes piano, electric bass and major 7th chords everywhere. But, as always, if we are to
probe how and why this music was so fitting for Bouquet of Barbed Wire, we have to penetrate the
harmonies beyond surface level analysis. The major 7th chord is voiced slightly dissonantly with a semitone
between the low C# and D of the piano chords. Bar three also contains the same style voicing, this time
with the semitone interval between the F# (major 7) and G (8) of the Gmaj7 chord. The point is that it is
slightly unusual to score the major 7th a semitone apart from the octave. Normally, but by no means always,
we would try and score it a little more sensitively to capitalise on the warmth of the maj7th.
In addition to all this we have the continuous, unbroken and incessant bass riff. The bass riff is interesting
not just because it creates a slightly mesmerising quality in the sound but because it also creates a little
harmonic ambiguity in bars three and seven. The chord of Gmaj7/D is punctuated by the D bass riff moving
upward from the D to the A.
Normally inversions sound sonically compact because one chord is played over one bass note from the
chord. By playing a root-and-5th bass riff we effectively hear a Gmaj7 over not just a D bass note but the
root and 5th of what would be a D chord.
Thus there are almost ‘too many notes’. This means the chords in bars three and seven are not absolute or
completely defined, but temporary, transient and to a degree, ephemeral and evanescent.
OWEN MD Johnny Pearson
Owen M.D. was a spin-off of The Doctors series and ran for two years from 1971 to 1973. The music was
by Johnny Pearson recorded as library music for KPM.
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Audio – ‘Sleepy Shores’ - Theme from Owen MD
Ac. Gtr
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There are a few aspects, characteristics and features which make the heavily romantic theme from Owen
MD so effective. Post intro, the melody essentially breaks down into four motifs which together constitute
the theme. Within this the melody explores a regular lilting triplet feel and a more extravagant semiquaver
feel. As I have stated elsewhere, we tend to assume that the most important aspect of a piece of music is the
aspect we can most easily rationalise. The melody in this piece is easily the most visible and audible aspect;
it has an intoxicating lyrical structure which ebbs and flows; but it is by no means the only reason this piece
works as well as it does. Leaving aside the leaps in the bass part, the harmonic direction of each 4-bar
phrase is distinctly downwards. It is this harmonic characteristic, this momentum, inertia and inevitability
which creates a major captivating element.
The bass line from Owen MD
This captivating element (the downward trajectory of the bass) allows for the kind of indulgent melody that
wouldn’t be possible with a more static or uneventful bass line. The same type of upward or downward
bass movement has effected hundreds of theme tunes over the years, because it remains a great way to
create drama, independent of, and as well as, the actual melody. We can see this characteristic at work in
the following, rather different, theme.
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BLAKE’S 7 Dudley Simpson
Blake’s 7 was an iconic and popular BBC science fiction drama series, chronicling the exploits of a group
of political renegades, consisting of characters Blake, Vila, Gan, Stannis and Avon. They occupy an
abandoned spacecraft called the Liberator with, perhaps inevitably, a computer called Zen. The series never
quite achieved the iconic status of Dr Who or Star Trek but ran for a number of years, generating a loyal
fan base in the process.
Audio – Theme from Blake’s Seven
Although we rationalise the dramatic and majestic trumpet melody, what creates a sense of inevitability and
structure, and therefore what contextualises the trumpet solo so well, is the ascending bass momentum.
If we look at the melody line itself we can see how it generates feelings of romance and drama. The rhythm
of the melody on bars two to nine is dotted quaver followed by semiquaver, giving the theme a clipped,
militaristic air. The melody line goes from F to E in bars two, three, four and six, but each time the
accompanying chords give a different intervallic meaning to the notes, as detailed below.
4th 3rd
min6th 5
maj 6th
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DYNASTY Bill Conti
Legendary TV Producer Aaron Spelling, who also produced Starsky and Hutch, Charlie’s Angels, The Love
Boat, Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart and many, many others, brought substance to Esther Shapiro’s original
idea of the complicated life and times of a rich and powerful American oil family. Shapiro claimed that an
inspiration for the show was I, Claudius, a fictionalized depiction of Roman emperors. The iconic
music made the series even more glamorous and intriguing; the music encapsulated the ostentatious,
extravagant exuberance of the 80s.
Audio – Theme from Dynasty 0.05
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How does the music capture the glitz and excesses of the rich and powerful in this American television
drama? Certainly the instrumentation and orchestration answer part of the question. The main fanfare-style
opening trumpet theme creates a feeling of reverence and tradition. The trumpet line is copied, almost
fugue-like in the opening bars; the trumpet intervals (root to 5th) convey power, authority, gravitas and
heroism. The 5th interval appears again in bar two by virtue of the F to Bb. The opening is softened up a
little by virtue of the counterpoint horns which feature the 2nd (bar one) and the maj 3rd in bar two (see
figure 59).
9th 5th
2nd 1st
3rd 2nd
The majesty and splendor of Dynasty is captured by the graceful and sweeping melodic arc (detailed below,
Perhaps one of the most captivating and emotionally communicative elements of the piece is its Baroque
influence. Conti is well-known for his love for Baroque, something he integrated into his score for the film
Rocky, which put him firmly on the map as a composer. The effortless and emotionally encapsulating
harmonic beauty of Baroque music is captured most obviously in the middle section
Audio – Theme from Dynasty 0.47
The inherent beauty of this style of delicate and complex writing is that the listener almost hears two
melodies, not one. The transcription below in fig.62 is a simplified version of the line in fig.61. In fig.62
the melodic lines and contours are a lot easier to see and rationalise.
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What we listen to when we hear the real version (fig.61) is the melody below (fig.62) but with
embellishments. The only way the complex version above would or could be understood is if listeners
rationalised it in a different way to how it actually looks and reads. In other words we prioritise the salient
points; the obvious contours, and the rest is elaborate filler. This is an important point generally for
composers; that they understand which bits of their music communicate and which are flourishes and
trimmings. Composers often write one thing to illicit the illusion of another. If Conti had written the line
ala fig.62 it would have had the feeling of having no flourishes.
People often cite the elaborate complexity of Bach’s composing as being its most enduring characteristic,
but what defines Bach’s music is that it communicates on several levels. Behind the complex artistry lies an
‘easy listening’ version. This forms an important message to composers. If your music only has one way of
being understood and rationalised, you only have one shot at it.
DALLAS Jerrold Immel
No study of music for television would be complete without mention of the theme from Dallas, one of the
most iconic and remembered television shows in TV history. The Dallas theme encapsulates and mimics
the ‘Western’ aesthetic perfectly. How does it do this? One of the ways this piece communicates so vividly
and so quickly is the complete lack of 3rds – an issue we have looked at elsewhere. The stark, barren
harmonies feature a sequence of sus4 chords, all heavily orchestrated with brass and strings. The chords of
Absus4 to Bsus4 to Gsus4 to Esus4 offer no real emotional resting place. The high string semiquaver lines
which punctuate the sus chords are suggestive and implicit of a hundred Western themes but it is the ‘sus’
sequence which really establishes the drama.
Audio – Theme from Dallas
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ZEN Adrian Johnston
Zen is a British BBC drama series filmed in Italy and based on the Aurelio Zen detective novels by Michael
Dibdin (Vendetta, Cabal and Ratking). The music has a distinctly European feel and there is definitely a
nod to The Persuaders. It has an intoxicating whiff of the kind of lush, romantic themes prevalent in much
older films and TV series. It fits effortlessly into the 60s/70s European TV crime vibe and accords the
series a sense of history, culture and rich context through music. There is a mixture of playful exuberance,
dark mystery and tension clearly present in the music. Just like The Persuaders the ‘Europeanness’ exudes
from a mixture of time signature, instrumentation and harmony. The haunting and mildly sensual voice
takes the music back forty years in time and the chords are filled by Hammond Organ towards the end of
the excerpt transcribed.
Audio – Theme from Zen
The success of the 3/4 rhythm is complimented beautifully by the use of brushes to give
the drums a light, jazz lounge feel. The descending bass line over the first seven bars,
along with the distinctive dreamy textures of the instrumentation, helps ‘date’ the piece.
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Just like The Persuaders the piece features the distinctly filmic and mildly European major 7th over a minor
chord. The perma-high string line lends the piece a real feel of the type of lush sensual orchestration so
prevalent forty years ago.
ER James Newton Howard
ER is an American television series created by novelist Michael Crichton which follows the emergency
room of fictional ‘County General Hospital’ in Chicago. It became the longest-running medical drama in
American television history. Composer James Newton Howard wrote the distinctive theme tune and the
first two-hour pilot episode with weekly scores by Martin Davich. Listening and looking, we ask the usual
questions to help us gain insight into why the music worked so well and how it was written: Which bits
work? How do they communicate? What do they communicate? Why do they communicate?
Audio – Theme from E.R.
What are the central dominating characteristics of this piece? For a start, when listening we have some
difficulty in rationalising the precise timing and rhythm of the melody and chords at the beginning; the
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
absence of drums/percussion (until bar eight) makes it hard to gauge where ‘1’ is. This makes it less
inclined to be ‘obvious’ and more inclined to be a little ambiguous and ‘dreamy’. The syncopated piano
and off-beat slapped bass add more rhythmic uncertainty. There is harmonic ambiguity too via the interplay
between the Bm and A chords; the addition of the 4th (E) and 7th (A) into the main body of the Bm synth
pad chord gives the chord real colour but also references obliquely the A chord. Effectively we almost hear
two chords (A and Bm) which adds to the dream-like ephemeral characteristics. To juxtapose this we have
two strong characteristics; the frantic semiquaver synth line and the top synth line which has slight
connotations to a police siren. Both of these fundamental lines have an element of urgency which work
brilliantly with the softer, ambiguous tendencies.
POIROT Christopher Gunning
Christopher Gunning’s music for the TV drama Poirot is arguably one of the most instantly recognisable
themes in UK television history. This is partly due to the way in which the character Poirot himself seems
to be embedded in the music. By this I mean that the music manages to reference so many of the show’s
cultural, historical and geographic characteristics that it literally becomes undistinguishable from the show
itself. When a theme so personifies the show and its main character we realise the full power and potential
of a good theme tune and of truly great writing. More than most television themes, when you hear the
music you are instantly able to recollect the show. How? What distinctiveness, what uniqueness, what
personalities from the show are present in the music – what are they, how do they function and why do they
function musically? The music, just like the character, has an air of cheeky melodrama. It’s easy for us to
rationalise how the show’s narrative achieves this but perhaps less easy for us to understand how
specifically and strategically the music works.
Audio – Theme from Poirot
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The ‘add2’ interval
The ‘add2’ interval creates drama in the Gm chord
(clashing subtly but distinctively with the minor 3rd in
the chord). But the way the interval is delivered and
contextualised via rapid piano quavers lurching up and
down into different octaves accords the piece a sense
of quasi urgent melodrama.
The quirky sax and the use of the 4th and #4th
The distinctive alto saxophone is a key element, as is the precise style of its performance. The instrument
itself is synonymous with jazz of the 1920s and 30s – the period in which Poirot is set. Imagine the theme if
all quavers were ’straight’ and not ‘swung’; it would completely redefine the piece stylistically. It would
not have the distinctive ‘dainty’ and ‘cheeky’ feel. It is the dotted quaver followed by the short, clipped
semiquaver which gives the melody its distinctive ‘bouncy’ feel. This characteristic buys into the ‘cheeky
melodrama’ narrative. On a deeper level the theme makes repeated use of the 4th and #4th intervals. These
are too often to be irrelevant; if we’re looking to analyse the harmonic character of the piece the 4th and #4th
play a big part for subtly different reasons.
The #4 is denoted by circles above the note whilst the 4th is denoted by squares. The #4 is more obvious in
terms of the way it communicates. It creates palpable tension. As we’ve deduced before in numerous
examples and excerpts, the #4th communicates a slightly strange harmonic characteristic, whose specific
colour is, in the final analysis, defined by the context in which it is used. You can find pieces as varied as
epic sci-fi scores and television comedies making good use of the unique characteristic and colour of the
The 4th is interesting because although it’s a perfectly valid interval to use, it’s not usually an interval which
is dwelt upon, melodically. Although in a minor chord the use of the 4th is slightly easier than it would be in
a major chord (a 4th melody note used on a major chord would clash with the maj 3rd, a semitone lower, but
against a minor the chord the clash is lessened because the interval between min 3rd and 4th is a tone instead
of a semitone) resting on the 4th is always going to be a little odd. The G note (3rd beat of bar three) is stated
over a Dm inverted over the F, so the link and relationship between the G note and the bass note (F) two
octaves lower slightly offsets the strangeness.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The underlying fact, however, is that the usual absoluteness of the Dm is challenged and tweaked and made
effective by a combination of the 4th interval melody and the inverted bass. Therefore we are not
responding to a melody note, but to the relationship the melody note has with the chord and its bass note.
In music when we think we’re responding to a note or a chord or an instrument or some other kind of
specific musical event, we’re usually responding to how that event reacts with something else. We react to
the context; we respond to the combination of events and how they exist, rarely just to one event.
Inversions and the bass directions
In reference to the previous point about music usually being a dynamic of reactions of relating events, it’s
interesting to note how many themes are viewed, rationalised and understood purely in terms of their
melody line. This is understandable but can sometimes hide the real reasons music communicates. It would
be easy to contextualise the success of Poirot purely in terms of its melody, especially since it is so
distinctive and strong. However, when we listen to Poirot we hear the melody, but because the melody is
quite busy we listen to something a lot simpler – the descending bass line.
The things we listen to or are attracted to don’t always have to be simple; in some situations what
captivates us is something more complicated but more interesting. Effectively we are given a choice of
contexts and narratives from which to choose.
Although we don’t ‘hum’ it or appear to be focused on it, the descending bass line is the binding context
that stops this piece becoming far too complicated to rationalise. It binds the piece’s various characteristics
together. Each of the main 4-bar phrases are linked by a falling bass; these do not happen automatically –
they have to be conceptualized and written in, often at the arrangement stage to offer more drama and
colour. As we have discussed elsewhere in this book, inversions are one of the great composing tools; they
dramatise, italicise, exaggerate and embellish chords, but they also enable smooth downward or upward
bass contours, which in turn serve to mediate chord sequences which might otherwise be difficult or stale.
In the edited excerpt below look at how the chords and voicings enable a smooth transition.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The pedal note is, again, another harmonic device which creates a real sense of drama and gravity in music
because once again we’re slightly distorting a listener’s expectation.
The pedal note of F comes toward the end of the original
phrase. Highlighted (left, fig.70) this section is
particularly effective because it contains inversions and
‘slash’ chords side by side. Again, we hear the melody
line but the real gravity, the real drama, the thing that
affects us, is the context of the F note – a note which
seems static but only seems that way; the rapid intervallic
direction between 3rd and 7th represents the movement we
don’t always hear but listen to
Harmonic dissonance and the flat 9th
The dissonance created by the Ab/G chord is hard to sustain without becoming uncomfortable to listen to.
In Poirot is alleviated by the arrival of the b9 chord – a rather distinctive and ‘obvious’ chord synonymous
with dance band music of the 30s.
The emotional contour (left) displays the chords in
terms of how ‘normal’ or ‘expected’ they might have
been. The Ab/G is a massive surprise which is why it
heightens the tension in the piece. Both times it is used
the b9 delivers the sequence back to the ‘normal’ safe
territory of a minor chord we might conceivably
In music everything can be explained
If we understand how music communicates a sense of meaning we understand how some television themes
manage to be so vivid and so effective. Specific harmonic devices create responses within us which convert
to feelings and ultimately meanings. With Poirot we have found that ‘signifiers’ embedded within the
music are just as able to be understood and rationalised as the perhaps more obvious characteristics of the
drama itself.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The ‘add2’ in context of a minor chord offers substantial drama and is used right at the outset to establish a
sense of urgency and importance. The alto sax gives Poirot its history with the specific ‘bouncy’ rhythm of
the sax being responsible for a sense of cheeky melodrama within the music. The inversion and slash
chords give Poirot a sense of drama and gravity whilst the 4th and #4th offer identity and colour which are
added to by the specific context of their delivery. The dissonance and subsequent b9 chords offer a timely
distraction from what preceded them.
MATCH OF THE DAY Barry Stoller
In 2010 the PRS revealed that Match of the Day was the most recognised theme tune in Britain so it seems
fitting to end this chapter with such a monumentally successful piece of instantly recognisable music.
Millions of people grew up to this tune. It was, and still is, the ultimate fanfare of football. There is, as you
might imagine, more than one reason why this tune communicates so well. Obviously it is a tune which is
short, to the point and easily digestible. But beyond that, most of the success is because of the sound. The
success is a product of the mix and the arrangement, not so much the harmonies. You only have to hear the
tune being ‘covered’ or hear the many different recordings which don’t match the original. The triumph of
the sound is everything. Firstly everyone always assumes the main melody is carried by trumpets alone.
Listen carefully and you will hear a fairly dated string synth sound doubling the melody. Both the string
synth and trumpets have lots of reverb, which makes the two sounds ‘swim’ into each other. It is this
specific and identifiable sound which everyone knows and responds to. The Latin-style heavily percussive
rhythm section is also heavily reverbed.
And then there’s the weird ending. How many pieces of music do you know that last 40 seconds (or 36
bars) which - just when you think it’s all over - change key for the last 4 bars? The quirky weird ending is
an enormous emotional signifier. If the tune had ended where we expect it to, on the last A chord (*), it’s
actually quite a dull anticlimax because the melody is ascending. It would end on a whimper. The tag on
the end changes the key and lifts the tune; the trumpets signal their Haydn Horn Progression motif (*) and
that’s that.
Audio – Theme from Match of the Day
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
They think it’\s all over…………..
………It is now
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Chapter 9
In this chapter I would like to examine some notable music for television dramas and documentaries. Key
to the chapter is how music serves and enhances the narrative of the film and in particular how specific
compositional styles, contexts, harmonies, textures and production methods work.
Music analysed includes: 24 (Sean Callery) Waking the Dead (Paul Hart) Spooks (Jennie Musket)
Torchwood (Ben Foster and Murray Gold) Survivors (Edmund Butt) Six Feet Under (Thomas Newman)
Band of Brothers (Michael Kamen) Police Squad (Ira Newborn) This Is Your Life (Laurie Johnson) Vincent
(Rob Lane) Sherlock (Michael Price and David Arnold) Rubicon (Peter Nashell) Walking with Dinosaurs
(Ben Bartlett) Batman (Neil Hefti) Click (Kevin Leavy) Who wants to be a Millionaire? (Keith Strachan
and Mathew Strachan) Frost (John Hiseman and Barbara Thompson) Golapogas Documentary (Paul
Leonard Morgan) The Onedin Line (Aram Ilyich Khachaturian) GBH (Richard Harvey and Elvis Costello)
In every successful composer’s work there is a consistency of stylisation, approach or method. Even within
the most seemingly eclectic and varied music for television and film there is a consistency; a recognisable
thread running through it. This consistency is usually the reason for a composer’s success. It’s not just that
they are ‘good’ (because, in the final analysis, what is ‘good’?) it’s that they have a style which is effective,
works and which is recognisable. Often a specific and identifiable harmonic approach is embedded in the
score, and this can leave a composer relatively free to explore and utilise a different instrumental textures
and sounds. Similarly if the recognisable aspect of the music is the ‘sound’ the composer might be free to
explore a range of different harmonies. Listen to any television score and you’ll notice a defining identity,
which is probably one of the following:
A style of instrumentation or ‘sound’ / density of textures
A specific type of production and/or use of technology
A specific and identifiable harmonic approach
What often qualifies as being ‘recognisable’ sometimes goes beyond the music itself. Often the
recognisable feature relates to how, and in way, aspects of a film are being dealt with by the music, e.g. the
function of the music. Sometimes what’s important is not what the music is but what it represents; what it
means in context of the film. This is its function. Sometimes when people refer to film or TV music being
‘good’ what they mean is that the function the music provided was good. Decisions about where to score
music and what the music is actually supposed to be doing are as important as the music itself. As an
example, the music for the television show Lost (which we examine in detail elsewhere) mainly plays the
humanity and intrigue and not so much the science fiction. The show is science fiction only on surface
level. Underneath it is about people and situations. This is what the music plays. This means the music is
rarely guilty of needless italicisation and duplication. By contrast, the music to 24 mimics the show’s tense,
real-time narrative.
24 Sean Callery
Sean Callery spent his first post-degree working life as a product support specialist for Synclavier, which
brought him into close contact with some major names in the music industry and film music industry such
as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Alan Silvestri and Mark Snow, for whom he worked as an arranger,
programmer and assistant. Often part of his specialist skills enabled him to develop hybrid sounds,
something which came in useful on 24. To work on the show, Callery converted part of his property into a
home studio, from which the music was created and recorded. At the core of Callery’s setup is a collection
of mostly analog synths and samplers. While he uses dedicated high-end software such as Symphobia, it is
in his analog gear that comes in most useful for 24.
Callery is usually asked to write 41 minutes for typical 44-minute episode of 24.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Between receiving the episode to delivery to the dubbing stage, Callery has only about five days to work.
He says “If you have a three-minute scene, you cannot just continue the same idea for the whole three
minutes; you have to contrast it, introduce new sounds. It’s a matter of finding the right textures and using
them sparingly, and not fatiguing the ear.” Callery’s distinctive musical style lies in his integration of
instruments and sound effects, some of which are created through elaborate sample manipulation. There are
also elements of electro acoustic music. One of the most profound characteristics of the show is its realtime narrative. The musical solution to the ‘real-time’ nature and rapidly shifting narrative, which often
comes with a split screen showing two simultaneous scenes, is to create a constant linear score throughout
the pivotal scenes with few rises and falls. Music is therefore not impaled on a strict visual accompaniment
and instead functions almost as generic ‘mood music’. The music on 24 was used almost as an extra level
of sound design. It combines traditional harmony and melody with more abstract sounds, processed by
samples and synths. The ‘time’ and ‘clock’ idea defined the show from an audio perspective. This was
Callery’s idea; instead of a theme at the start we have a ticking clock. Some of the show’s music contains a
great sense of propulsion and urgency. How does it do this?
24 – Season 1 - Episode 1 – 00.14.55
Fig. 1
This motif comes in during a
visual edit around 00.05.50 in
episode 1 of series 1. The idea
comes numerous times in 24 and
functions almost as a sonic logo.
It is typical of the music which often accompanies the frantic dual-screen narrative of 24. The anticipatory nature of
some of the phrase underpins its effectiveness in this kind of scene and yet there is more in terms of understanding the
harmonies which accompany the rhythmic elements
Fig. 2
F#m chord implied
The main notes in the phrase are transcribed as simple
crotchets in fig.2. The intervals that bring colour and
therefore context to the phrase are the 9th and 11th. Without
these the rapid, urgent rhythmic nature of the phrase would
be fairly lost. The rather mesmerising and repetitive phrase
begins on the 9th.
The example below, 32 minutes into episode 1 of season 2, displays Callery’s writing style for a scene in
which explores a subdued, reflective and evolving narrative. The only hit point is on bar five, where the
Horn arrives at the same time as Jack Bauer arrives in the room. The music displays Callery’s more abstract
writing and the harmonies used to evoke and stimulate listeners whilst not distracting them. Look closely
and you’ll see there are no actual ‘tunes’ or passages that could be rationalised or digested as complete.
Instead we have small bite-sized statements which glide in and out.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig. 3
24 – Episode 1 – 00.10.00
Jack Bauer walks into CTU situation room
Horn line (cont)
Low strings
If we look closely we can see the piece contains many compositional devices and approaches which can be
rationalised, understood and evaluated. I have analysed several aspects of this short transcription to expose
and highlight various reasons this piece communicates so well. Below I have isolated the string / synth line
which utilises bare, almost parallel writing. The two-note line lacks formal harmonic identifiers (3rds)
which prevents the piece becoming too ‘musical’ and distracting.
Fig. 4
(nc) (nc)
(nc) (nc)
(nc) (nc) (nc) (nc)
(nc) (nc)
The piano line underneath which accompanies the string parts, again, does not settle on any particularly
identifiable melodic pattern. It stays clear of notes which would create (combined with strings) a clear
Fig. 5
The first actual ‘chord’ doesn’t appear until bars six, seven & eight.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig. 6
The chord on beat 1 of bar nine (fig.7) is an F#m but beyond that the harmonies are more ambiguous both
theoretically and in terms of how we hear them aurally. Beat 2 features what could be the 9th and 11th of the
F# chord minus its 3rd. Or the same two notes (G# and B) could simply be the major 3rd and 5th of an E
chord over the F# chord minus its 3rd. This potential ‘duality of perception’ isn’t just an idle theoretical
debating point – it blurs our actual aural perception.
Fig. 7
C#m D
In bar eleven the bare 4th interval
(C# - F#) forms the basis of what we
rationalise as an F#-based chord,
over which we then hear chords of
D, E, C#m and D. This subtle poly
harmony is as effective here as it is
in Thomas Newman scores such as
American Beauty
Horn line (cont)
Low strings
The theme from Waking the Dead is one of the most recognisable and communicative music themes in
recent British television history. Below we have a transcription of the basic theme plus harmonic context.
As always the question is, why does this piece communicate? What are the emotive factors? How do the
melody, harmony, instrumentation and production capture the imagination of the viewer and give a sense of
urgency, excitement and drama?
From a purely structural perspective, we can see the piece is divided up into two ideas, the first of which is
the frantic dramatic semiquaver motif highlighted by perforated brackets. The second, different, motif is in
bars six and seven and features dissonant harmony (bracketed). The original idea returns on bar nine and on
bar thirteen we have both ideas simultaneously.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Audio – Waking the Dead theme
Fig. 8
Idea 1
Idea 2
Idea 1 again
Idea 1 and 2 together
On a surface level there are two significant ideas/motifs, which I have imaginatively titled ‘idea 1’ and
‘idea 2’. On a basic level we can see how they evolve, culminating in both ideas being played
simultaneously in bar 13.
As we will see when the theme is analysed in greater detail, there is much more to this theme than two
simple motifs; I have highlighted the simplicity of the initial ideas simply to show how thematic music can
communicate on different levels simultaneously. The simple structure in fig.8 is what dominates the
landscape of what we hear. It also acts as a template on which to craft more intricate harmonic patterns
which also communicate but in a much more subtle way. We hear the melody but sometimes ‘the stuff
underneath’ is what we listen to.
When a melody line is going as fast as this, sometimes all you hear is the suggestion, the hint; a few salient
points where the line penetrates. With this in mind let’s look at the notes in the melodic line, and
specifically, which ones penetrate. As we can see, each entry has a melodic contour; a consistent recurring
pattern (highlighted by lines above the melody).
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig. 9
The first and third notes (boxed) in the first bar are the G (min3). On bar four and five the first and third
notes are the A (4th). Notes one and three of bars nine and ten (when the melody reappears) are both Bb,
which represent the m7 interval. The important points here are twofold: the melodic line initially begins on
a 3rd – a descriptive interval easy to digest and understand. The second time the phrase is played the salient
notes are the 4th – not as obvious, less easy and sounding edgy and skewed. The third time the motif
appears in bar nine and ten the first and third notes are the 7th. The overriding point is that beyond the
surface-level melody, there is an overarching melodic arc which takes the first and third notes of each
phrase gradually upward from the min3 through the 4th and to the 7th.
Fig. 10
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
So, although the phrase is perceived as identical to the ‘naked ear’, in fact it has an arc and also it never
states the same first and third opening notes twice. These factors are what give it a unique harmonic
character, together with the rough ‘edgy’ sound, instrumentation and production. As is nearly always the
case, TV music subverts; the kinds of melodic patterns we find in TV and film are often not the kind of
ideas we’d find in song. The music below is a transcription of a scene from a Waking the Dead episode
called A Simple Sacrifice, where the team reopens the 25-year-old case of a woman who was convicted of
double murder on the basis of her own confession but who may be innocent. This specific scene is where
the Annie Keel (the prisoner) receives a visit from her solicitor. The opening bars feature the solicitor
walking to the reception area of the prison. As there is no dialogue the music is quite ‘busy’. The music
remains static as the solicitor arrives at the reception desk and says “Reece Dixon, solicitor for Annie Keel”
(the empty ‘bar three’, below). The movement returns when he stops talking (bar four) until the point at
which, becoming impatient, he says “is she in?” (where it pauses, bar six). In bar seven, with no dialogue,
the movement begins again.
Fig. 11 Waking the Dead – A Simple Sacrifice – 00.12.34
for Annie
“Is she in?”
Dialogue forms part of the music just as music forms part of the Drama
This is an excellent example which proves the rule that in general composers don’t need to write busy
music over dialogue, especially in television drama, which perhaps lacks the visual spectacle of a darkened
cinema theatre. The section in fig.11 shows how, on a very real and practical level, dialogue forms part of
the music just as much as your music forms part of the drama. The actor’s words have become melodic just
as surely as if it were an oboe or a clarinet.
Looking now at how the intervals work to shape the music and define its character, take a look at the
intervals contained in the harmonized melody of the same cue (intervals written underneath the notes). The
intervals move from the 2nd & 7th (which are not strong primary intervals and essentially blur the chord
slightly) to the min3 and 1st (strong and defining intervals). The notes move too fast for them to be
rationalised and digested coherently. All we hear is a faint blur; a mixture of the two sets of harmonies.
This lends the music a slightly skewed, introspective air and, when put to specific images, lends the scene a
faintly ethereal and troubling context. Without music the scene is just a guy asking if someone’s in; but
with the music it is subtle and dramatic. If the music had been more obvious and dramatic it would be
‘melodramatic’ - something entirely different.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig. 12
2 m3 2 m3 2 m3
2 m3 2 m3 2 m3
7 1
7 1 7 1
m3 2 m3 2 m3
m3 2
1 7
7 1
7 1
7 1 7 1
In the same film there is a scene where the son of the imprisoned killer (now grown up, working as a
nursery teacher) is visited by a social worker he hasn’t seen in many years. As he looks up and sees the
woman, the first chord in bar one (below, fig.13) begins. The cold characterless dissonant chords work well
in underscoring the scene and play the man’s fear and apprehension at seeing someone from his distant
past. The b5 interval between the D and Ab causes most of the dissonant feel, but also the chord possesses
no 3rd, which heightens and italicises the dissonance and exposes the interval. Right at the end of bar three /
beginning of bar four the scene cuts to a prison cell to show the man’s mother, killer Annie Keel, writing a
letter she has written to the social worker. The music from bar four-seven has a more poignant, reflective
and unthreatening feel.
Film - Waking the Dead (A Simple Sacrifice) 00.21.13
Grown-up son sees social worker
for first time in many years
Fig. 13
G (no 3 )
Scene cut to prisoner writing a
letter to social worker
G Gm Abmaj7
Piano /
G (no 3rd)
F Fm Eb
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The G melody line at the beginning of bar four, as a single note, would represent a root in the mind of the
listener, in absence of anything to contextualise it. In absence of a chord we default to an assumption that a
single note is the root note. By the 2nd beat of the same bar this presumption is confirmed but by beat three
the G has become a major 7th of the Abmaj7 chord. This drip-fed, evolving harmonic context is key to the
success because it delivers the harmonic character not as an absolute statement but as a ‘moving target’.
Fig. 14
The unexpected
context change
The harmony we
Beat 3 on bar four and five are crucial points of
communication, emotionally. The G note becomes the major 7th
in bar four and the F note becomes the 9th in bar five. These are
both intervals which evoke emotion. These were not initially
stated, but were ‘arrived at’.
Single note
The fact that the ‘killer in the cell’ generated reflective, sad and poignant music whilst the playground
scene (between the man and his former social worker, for whom he has much affection) was accompanied
by fearful and apprehensive music is important. In both cases the music, on face value, appears to play
contrary to the scene. In fact if you examine the narrative for the episode and the scene more closely the
music plays what the characters feel, which is not always obvious visually. That’s why music is so crucially
important. Its not always simply a case of providing music that ‘works’ in an obvious visual sense or
simply ‘sounds appropriate’; the relationship between moving pictures, narrative, dialogue and music is
deeper than most realise. Sometimes the music can essentially tell you how to feel. The music can guide
your intuition and inform your perspective.
Finally on this excerpt, although the relationship between the ‘reflective and poignant’ music seems to be
unrelated to the darker ‘fearful and apprehensive’ music, the link is from the Ab note (minor 3rd of the Fm
chord) to the Ab (flattened 9th) in bar three of the excerpt below. It is worth mentioning because this is a
great example of how music binds together, harmonically and how that binding agent helps the scene itself
become more emotional.
Fig. 15
G (no 3
The next section of music from Waking the Dead is a regular feature in the show, and features in scenes ‘in
the lab’ where the forensic pathologists and scientists pour over the minutiae of biological and DNA detail
in a bid to uncover wrongdoings and expose the guilty. Lab scenes are inevitably tense and often solitary,
with one person examining bones and body tissues searching for clues. Where one person is featured in the
lab there is by definition no dialogue. The music is all the more important for these scenes. The
transcription below is the most widely used musical accompaniment to the lab scenes.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig. 16
Piano /
From an obvious perspective the note
of C unifies the Am and Fm chords,
evolving from a min3 (of the Am) to a
5th (of the Fm).
But in a much more subtle way there are ‘note-bleeds’, where the ‘ghost’ of one note is
still heard in context of the chord in the next bar (in which it doesn’t physically feature).
The memory of the G melody from bar 2 ‘bleeds’ into bar 3 where, even though it is physically not there
anymore, it ‘functions’ as a 9th of the Fm. This tiny extra harmonic context is enough to inject tension into
this piece, especially given the soft dream-like sound textures created by synths and samples. The harmonic
tension between bars six and seven is greater because the predominant note that ‘bleeds’ from bar 6 into 7
is the A (root note of the Am chord but major 3rd against the minor 3rd Ab in the chord of Fm).
Fig. 17Am
Although on ‘first listen’ there appears to be nothing to compare the ‘Lab’ piece above with dramatic, hardedged intro to the show, if we examine the melodic contour of the ‘Lab’ music and liken it to the intro
music, we can see a consistent pattern.
Fig. 18
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Spooks Jennie Musket
Spooks is a BBC TV drama series, the title being a popular colloquialism for spies. The series follows the
work of a group of MI5 officers. The show is fast-paced and exciting but the underlying narrative is often
sinister and dark. The series has sparked controversy during its run for a portrayal of explicit violence.
Musically the approach centres round the careful use of a small number of samples and distinctive textures
which are used consistently in a series of stylistically different dramatic and evocative musical contexts.
Indeed this show, just like Waking the Dead and other notable television dramas, contains finely crafted
musical templates which function like brands. By this I mean that although the music cues are varied,
basically the same harmonic raw material is present in nearly all of them.
Fig. 19
Fearful &
This need for music to have a palpable textural and/or identity is nothing new but it is certainly now much
more obviously part of the overall ‘brand identity’ of a show and the narrative. Music is much more high
profile now but with the added importance has come a certain degree of homogenisation. Some TV dramas
feature a small number of ideas which can be revisited in specific styles. So when you compose a theme
you have to be aware that it may be required to function in a multitude of different ways, as the diagram in
fig.19 shows.
If we look firstly at the central theme for Spooks, which is as iconic as the show itself, we can distil
structures and characteristics which are effective in promoting the quicksilver narrative and style of the
Fig. 20
Audio – Spooks Theme
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The first thing we notice is the lack of any absolute defining harmonic accompaniment. Most of the
harmonic context is buried in the movement; harmonies are essentially implied and inferred; none are
actual. Most of the definable harmonies are contained in the melody so essentially the harmony is
horizontal not vertical. The melodic lines are fast and prone to being rhythmically off-beat and disorienting.
This combined with the harmony being delivered horizontally rather than vertically is what lends the music
its tremendous sense of pace and urgency. The ‘harmony’ centres round F#m with the min6 playing a
prominent role. The sequence of notes which creates the F#m in bar one (F#, G#, A, D, C#) are delivered,
bullet-like, by layered string samples, but the sequence and its effect are nothing new. Numerous film
scores have made use of the harmonic minor oriented melodic figure, perhaps most notably in recent times
Danny Elfman’s Batman theme (below)
Fig. 21
Fig. 22
Moving onto the intensely rhythmical melodic figure in the intro as a whole, we can see by looking at the
transcription and listening to the audio just how anticipatory and disorienting it is. The urgency of the
theme is embedded not just in the fact that the notes are semiquavers or that they subscribe to the
aforementioned harmonic minor scale, but mainly because of the curious and peculiarly anticipatory nature
of how the notes fall in relation to the four beats in the bar. In the transcription below I have highlighted
(with arrows) where the silent beat falls on each entry. The arrows in fig.22 denote (in bars one, two and
three) where beat 3 is. In bar four the arrow denotes where the 4th beat in the bar is and on bars five and
seven the arrow denotes where ‘1’ is.
Each semiquaver entry is on a semiquaver off-beat. This makes ‘feeling it’ incredibly challenging and thus
exciting. It is almost unnerving. As musicians trying to ‘count it’, upon first listening we hear the initial two
bass crotchets on beats 1 and 2 of bar one and naturally assume the semiquavers land on beat 3 of the bar,
as transcribed below.
Fig. 23
Our assumptions are guided by tradition, precedent and knowledge, but on assuming this, the rest of the
sequence then doesn’t ‘add up’ or seem to ‘sit right’. It seems as if there aren’t enough beats in the bar or
that we’re not counting it right. Then maybe we assume the first semiquaver comes after a quaver rest
(fig.24) but again this doesn’t seem to add up.
Fig. 24
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
One reason why we don’t automatically assume the first semiquaver comes after a semiquaver rest is
because of the contour of the line itself; the predominant note, the apex of the phrase, is the D, which falls
square on the 4th beat of the bar. Any semiquaver oriented phrase which started after a semiquaver rest
would normally continue to be rhythmically anticipatory or unsettling, hitting off-beats. This line doesn’t; it
begins on a semiquaver upbeat but the fourth note of the phrase lands square ‘on the nose’ of beat 4
(below). The emphasis seems to be all wrong. These factors conspire to ensure that this is a rhythmically
uncomfortable and, in context of the textures which deliver it, exciting phrase.
Fig. 25
The anticipatory context continues on bars five, seven, nine and eleven (highlighted). Again, the arrows
show the main (but unstated) beats.
Fig. 26
Returning briefly to harmony; if we observe the top string line on bar nine (fig.22 and fig26) we can see it
plays the same F# harmonic minor scale as the melody does in the main theme, but in reverse, thus
reinforcing the scale as a major harmonic identifier.
Fig. 27
Having examined both the harmonic context and the rhythmical interplay, we can understand precisely
which elements combined and singularly, are responsible specifically for the sense of urgency in the piece.
The benefits of writing a melodic figure using scalic elements are obvious when you examine how easily
the Spooks phrase works with other chords (fig.27).
1 2 3 b6 5
3 #4 5 1 maj7
5 6 7 10 9
6 maj7 1
4 3
The same scalic phrase can be played over all the chords above, each time producing a subtly different
character because of the different intervals the notes strike each time.
Spooks episode 3 of series 2 has some particularly interesting incidental composing.
In the episode MI5’s computer systems are under attack, threatening the safety of virtually all classified
information. A scene in the ‘grid’ features a meeting between boss Harry Pearce and main operatives Tom,
Danny, Zoe and Ruth, in which the infiltration is discussed. The scene is tense and features some wellcrafted evocative and emotive music which evolves as an accompaniment to a part of the scene.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
I have featured it because it is a classic example of how composers of music for the moving image tend to
evolve chords rather than move from one whole chord to another whole chord. Definite, absolute chord
changes may work in ‘normal’ music, but often such conclusive harmonic shifts italicize and highlight
complex scenes too much, especially where dialogue is present. Such music, because it is so similar to the
way in which ‘normal’ music is constructed, is something that we’ve heard a thousand times before and
doesn’t engage us or surprise us or create an emotion that binds us closer to the visual experience.
Spooks, Series 2, Episode 3 – 00.06.27
Fig. 28
A (no3 )
A (no3 )
A (no3 )
A (no3 )
This piece is effective not just because the chord ‘evolves’ and changes but because it gradually becomes
more obscure and densely harmonic. The only actual perceived dissonance is between the E and the F (a
flattened 9th above) in bar six. If you were to play that bar alone, or first, the dissonance might be too brutal,
but coming as it does in bar six after a few bars of gradual harmonic growth, it is more effective. It has
created a journey which mirrors the drama unfolding on screen.
The other thing to mention here is that by the time this excerpt gets to bar six the chord is ‘extension heavy’
so its initial harmonic identifiers (the root and 5th) are somewhat buried under the B, D and F (9th, 11th and
b13th). This density causes some ambiguity because those same three notes (B, D and F) also function
polyharmonically as a Bm (b5) chord. This means that there is almost a ‘duality of perception’ for listeners.
Listeners do not need to be aware of the names we give to groupings of harmonies in order to be the
recipients of the effect they create. A great way of changing key midway through a scene to add drama and
gravitas and ensure harmonic momentum is displayed in the transcription below which comes from the
same episode of Spooks. The speed and pulse of this excerpt is aurally a little nebulous so the transcription
is not rhythmically completely accurate. What binds this piece together and allows the link from Am to
C#m to sound more natural is the linking note of E.
Spooks, Series 2, Episode 3 - 00.07.50
Fig. 29
(E = 5th)
(E = min3rd)
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
On bar eight we ‘expect’ the F note to resolve to an E note over an Am chord because this is what it did last
time. But the E note in bar eight actually constitutes the min3rd of a C#m chord, representing a modulation.
On bar thirteen we would expect the B note to be the 5th of the Em – this is what it seems to be clearly
leading to. If that had happened it would pretty much tie the phrase up and ‘normalise’ it. That this doesn’t
happen is, again, what propels it harmonically. If the chords in this excerpt (e.g. Am, C#m, G#m) were
unsupported by the particular melodic figure they would sound more chromatic and/or odd. The natural
scalic characteristics are what normalise the sequence and make it more musical.
This melodic idea is carried on in another scene a few minutes later. This is worth taking a look at because
it is a classic example of the benefits of contrary motion, when used to enhance or italicise a harmonic
passage. The viola sample (top line) moves upwards whereas the cello sample (middle) moves downwards.
The bass stays on the F.
Fig. 30 Spooks – Series 2, Episode 3 – 00.10.49
The way in which the chord evolves from the
presumption of an Fm flavour (in bar one) to the
inverted Db chord (in bar 2) is achieved by the
upward and downward lines.
What also makes it more effective and emotionally communicative is, once again, the ‘duality of
perception’ in terms of the interpretation of the top line. We perceive the F and G as 1st and 2nd of the Fm
chord, which is what they are. When the notes of Ab and Eb appear in bar two, with the ‘ghost’ of the Fm
perception lingering, we can think of them as min3rd and 7th of Fm or (by virtue of the cello sample Db note
on the bottom stave) we can perceive them as 5th and 9th of the Db chord, which is what they actually are.
Because the Fm harmony evolves into Db/F so subtly by virtue of just two contrary moving lines, harmonic
definitions are not absolutely clear-cut, which can make them more ethereal and emotionally
The following transcription is of a distinctive piece of trailer music for Spooks. It has several distinctive
features. Examine it carefully and you’ll see it has very few 3rds, which, from a harmonic perspective,
creates a stark, square, parallel feel. Regarding the rhythmical feel, the melody begins on the off-beat at the
start of each bar. Although the piece is littered with quaver triplets, the strong, plodding ascending
downbeats in the bass and the way the triplet quavers are performed very ‘laid-back’ on the recording
prevents the piece ‘feeling’ like it’s in 6/8.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig. 31
Intervals in context of the implied chord created
by the accompanying bass line
1 2 5 6 maj7 6 7 #4 3 2
1 2 5 6 maj7 6 7 #4 3 2
1 2
6 7 #4 3 2
1 2
6 7 #4 3 2
Fig. 32
3 maj7
1 maj7
2 1 maj7
#4 3 2
6 5 #4
#4 3 2
As the piece evolves we can see
more parts enter the harmonic
equation. As before the bars are
quite low on 3rds – the defining
harmonic context is stark.
The harmonic context and the
rhythmical interplay discussed
earlier are what define this piece
and make it so dramatic and
The narrative of Spooks is not all fast-paced, urgent and immediate, as the transcription below shows. In the
scene from which this piece is taken (series 9, episode 7) Harry and Ruth discuss their personal feelings and
how they have effected their professional judgment. The scene itself owes part of its power to the music
which weaves itself into the emotion of the dialogue to the extent that, without it, it is doubtful the scene
would have anything like as much power and gravitas.
Fig. 33
The soft, heavily pedalled and reverbed layered piano sound (similar to Thomas Newman’s approach in
key parts of American Beauty and Road to Perdition, Pay and others) works well in italicising the moment
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
in the scene where Harry and Ruth’s conversation is at its most emotional. The music is lead into by the Cnote string sound and even this seemingly innocuous fact is important. When Thomas Newman writes in
this style, there is often a leading note which prepares the way. This is an important observation because it
gives listeners a focal point; a point from which the rest of the piece is heard. Why does this piece, and
similar music written in this style, communicate so effectively? Why and how does it convey such a
plausible and inherent dreamlike, mystical quality? Is it just the sounds, or is it the harmonies?
When we think we hear two chords, one after the other, we almost hear three: we hear the first chord, the
‘second’ chord, but in between we hear the transition – the relationship, the sonority. It is this supposedly
nebulous harmonic X-factor, the interplay, which dictates how we perceive the actual chords. All music is
a reaction. You could almost call the ‘reaction’ between two chords a ‘third chord’. The expression pedal is
of course essential in creating this dreamlike sound in that it heightens, exaggerates and italicises the
sonorities and relationships between chords.
Fig. 34
The Bb and G still function as 7th and 5th respectively.
The chord has no 3rd but we ‘remember’ it from the first
chord. The harmonic identity of the second chord is,
therefore, implied.
Because of the lingering sense of
Cm7, the F in this chord
functions both in an obvious
sense as a 5th of the Bb chord and
in an ‘appropriated’ sense as am
11th of the original Cm7 chord
The D functions in an obvious
sense as a 3rd of the Bb chord and
in an appropriated sense as a 9th of
the original Cm chord
Torchwood Ben Foster and Murray Gold
Torchwood is a British science fiction spin-off from Russell T Davies’ successful revival of Dr Who.
Torchwood deals mainly with fighting extraterrestrials. Its main character is Captain Jack Harkness, an
immortal from the distant future who lived on Earth since the 19th century. Much of the show features a
fast-paced action oriented narrative but there are also important and occasionally subtle moral and ethical
overtones. Much of the music for many small-screen dramas makes great use of filmic-sounding
soundtracks; Torchwood is no exception. Ben Foster and Murray Gold have provided some memorable
moments of high drama and emotion which helped Torchwood become a cult show.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The chord sequence below, the type of which we have examined before in other chapters, features the
common note of Eb / D#.
Fig. 35
Fig. 36
One of the reasons it communicates so well as a sequence is down to the evolving
context of the Eb / D#, which moves from functioning as a min3rd (within the Cm
chord, bar one) to functioning as a maj3rd (within the B chord, bar two). The ‘note’
stays the same; the sound remains constant, but what it represents switches from
min3rd to maj3rd. Aurally this creates a slightly skewed harmonic feel not least
because the manouvre depends on our aural cognitive involvement.
The sequence in fig.36 shows this type of chord transition in action, in an abbreviated memorable cue from
the film Signs, which we look at in much more detail elsewhere in the book. The music from Torchwood
makes use of this type of harmonic interplay in the first episode of series 1. This is a scene where the
Torchwood team are introduced to the viewer for the first time, racing to the scene of a death in order to
test alien technology which supposedly brings dead people temporarily back to life. As Police are hastily
side-lined, the famous Torchwood vehicle (Range Rover) arrives dramatically on the scene, accompanied
by pulsating, dramatic and urgent music (transcribed below).
Fig. 37
Torchwood, Episode 1, Series 1 - 00.01.44
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
As I have highlighted in bars one-four and nine-twelve the chords fluctuate between F#m and F. The
perforated line represents the note of ‘A’ which is common to both and which ‘functions’ as a minor 3rd and
major 3rd despite not actually moving (displayed by the up-and-down lines).
How to create ‘urgency’ in music: melody and syncopation as punctuation
The following transcription (fig.38) displays how rhythmic and syncopated writing can create a strong
sense of urgency. There are no accompanying chords in this sequence; however, the melody infers a G#m
harmony by virtue of the note of D# note (which would be the 5th) and particularly the E note (min6th,
which would be in the G# harmonic minor scale but not in the G# major scale).
The harmony is inferred, implied, which is something we encounter several times during the course of this
book; getting the maximum music with the fewest notes by the power of association. From a rhythmic
perspective, although virtually the entire sequence is syncopated and nothing falls square on the first beat of
any bar, the urgency is specifically articulated in the highlighted section (boxed). We ‘feel’ the beats that
aren’t stated but the melody instead highlights the off-beats.
Fig. 38
Torchwood, Episode 1, Series 1
In keeping with the fertile and progressive imagination of Torchwood creator Russell T Davis, the series
explores many issues normally underrepresented or taboo in much mainstream television. As an example,
in the same episode, the alien device which briefly reawakens the dead is used on a victim of crime (the
idea being that, in future, victims would be able to identify their killers). As the confused man comes
briefly back to life, Captain Jack Harkness asks him at one point “what was it like when you died?”, adding
“what did you see?” The clear subtext is, what lies beyond death, which potentially strays into deep
conceptual / religious territory. The man eventually realises he’d died, been brought back, and that there
was ‘nothing’ after death. He panics and says “oh my God, there’s nothing”. This poignant scene is scored
deftly and sensitively.
Torchwood, Episode 1, Series 1 - 00.04.55
Fig. 39
Nothing; I
saw nothing”
What was it like when
you died? What did you
MAN: “Oh my
God, there’s
Emotional contour of the
scene / drama / dialogue
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The C#m to C# chord definitely raises the drama; the 3rd is the most descriptive and exposed interval in a
chord in that it literally determines the colour. Raising a min3 to a maj3 transforms the sequence in a much
more obvious and exciting way that, for example, a C#m to relative major E sequence would have done.
The chord of C# is outside the key centre of C#m, which makes the manoeuvre sound ‘surprising’. The
chord of F#m represents the conclusion of the first three bars; the chord change from F#m to C is one of
only two points in which every note changes.
This absolute, definite chord change has a ‘freshness’ to it but is also quite dramatic, because the memory
of the F# note from bar three lingers into bar four, where it would have, and therefore slightly does,
function as a #4th. This drama is mirrored by the emotional contour of the dialogue / scene, which can be
seen by looking at the line underneath the transcription in fig.39.
Are specific Chord Extensions implicit of specific genres?
Most of the really potent chord changes, extensions and tensions in music are genre-less; they can often
communicate subtly different meanings dependent on stylistic and contextual surroundings but their power
to communicate something is a product of the way in which we interpret what harmony is, thus according it
a kind of meaning.
Fig. 40
Looking at fig.41 we can see the ‘minor chord
with major 7th’ in what might be considered its
generic environment – a Latin-flavoured chord
sequence. The chord sequence of Am, Am(maj7),
Am7 and Am6 is one of the most instantly
recognisable, especially when contextualised
within a Latin performance and articulation
As an example if we look at the chords in fig.40 (the same
chord voiced three ways), we see the obvious harmonic
tension in the major 7th interval in context of the minor chord
which frames it. There are two tensions that create the
distinctive sound of this chord: the first one is the obvious A
to G# (root to major 7th) interval, although this is largely
secondary to the tensions created by the C and the G# (min3rd
and maj7th). The reason for this tension is that the interval
between the min3rd and maj7th is itself an augmented 5th. This
is one of the reasons why the Am(maj7) sounds odd but the
Amaj7 doesn’t.
Fig. 41
Perhaps one of the most recent television uses of the minor
chord with maj7 is Douglas Cuomo’s iconic theme to
HBO’s television series Sex and the City (below)
Fig. 42
Audio - Sex and the City theme
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
However, the minor chord with
maj7 extension is not only limited
to a Latin environment. Given the
right harmonic surroundings and
instrumental context, the chord
possesses an entirely different
dramatic effect.
In this scene from the first episode of Torchwood, in which PC Gwen Cooper walks towards the reception
area of Torchwood, posing as a Pizza delivery woman, the music (transcribed below, fig.43) manages to
articulate the mystery, fear, intrigue and apprehension of the main character. Crucially the music addresses
these emotions before they are entirely visually apparent in the scene.
Torchwood, Episode 1, Series 1 - 00.18.10
Fig. 43
She enters the ‘reception area’
There are two areas of interest in fig.43; firstly the filmic orchestration (Celeste, high strings) and the
success of the minor chord with the maj7th extension. This chord is made even more acute by the careful
use of inversions. These things combined make it quite Danny Elfman in style. The B over the G#m (maj7)
in bar one ‘lifts’ the sequence and compliments the chord. The reason the minor chord with a major 7th
extension works so well in both the radically different environments we’ve analysed is because dramatic
harmony lends itself to dramatic or acute environments; the major 7th interval over a minor chord creates a
harmonic feel which can be interpreted dramatically in different ways. In order to fully realise and interpret
the music specifically we need the dramatic context of the visuals. Thus a specific image can interpret the
music in a specific way.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The second thing to mention appears in the second section (bar five, fig.43). This is the ‘James Newton
Howard moment’ (separately transcribed below) where:
The chord lowers from F#m to F
The note of A stays the same
Intervallically what the A represents moves upward from representing the minor 3rd (of the F#m
chord) to the major 3rd (of the F chord).
Fig. 44
If you listen to the phrase above or any of the moments in film music which make use of this specific
harmonic event, and wonder precisely why it possesses such a strangeness, this is why: What fig.45
(below) is a visual representation of what you’re listening to in this complex chord manoeuvre. In this
harmonic context your senses have three realities; the note, the chord and what the note represents as an
interval in each of the chords. It sounds strange because in many ways it is almost akin to an aural version
of an optical illusion.
Fig. 45
The ‘A’ note
The ‘A’ as
an interval
Fig. 46
One of Elfman’s (and his orchestrator, Steve Bartek’s) trademarks is the careful use of inversions for
dramatic effect. This is nothing new but the context and the use in a modern filmic context is new to a
different generation of listeners.
The chord sequence to the left is
simple but effective. However, by
the third bar it sounds predictable
and limiting
The sequence below features the same chords but with inversions added to bars two and three which allow
for a gradual ascending bass line. Although the chords (Am to B) still go up and down, their inverted state
causes an upward bass contour, which creates a feeling of consistent and inevitable ‘climb’, which can
create real drama. Musical drama is created by inversions because they reframe chords, altering their
natural dynamic. We are very subtly used to hearing chords in their natural state so any kind of
rearrangement of the basic order of harmony can create a feeling of drama or ‘lift’.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
In the example below even the type of inversion itself climbs from 1st inversion to 2nd inversion.
Fig. 47
1st Inv
1st Inv
2nd Inv
2nd Inv
The transcription below is from the continuation of the scene in episode 1 where PC Gwen Cooper enters
the Torchwood complex, posing as a Pizza delivery woman. This music and the preceding transcriptions
from this scene are heavily reminiscent of Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands for precisely reasons outlined.
Torchwood, Episode 1, Series 1 - 00.18.50
1st inversion
Fig. 48
Continuing on to the theme tune itself, if we first examine the three chords below (from the theme) we can
see they evolve upward in a seemingly stark, chromatic ascending fashion from Gm through Bbm to C#m.
Closer scrutiny tells us there are common notes between chord one and two, and between two and three.
When we listen to ‘normal’ music we are much more attuned not just to relating notes between two
successive chords, but to a wider sense of key centre in which one note from the chord in bar one might
feature in a few of the successive chords; that is, after all, how music engenders a feeling of relationship
and key centre. In the case below although there is a ‘local’ note connection between the chords in bar one
and two and then between bar two and three, there is no connection between bar one and three. This is why
the piece manages to retain a skewed feeling of unnatural oddness. There is also a curious sense of contrary
motion between the chord and the intervals; although the overall ‘feel’ is of chords rising (highlighted with
bold lines), the common notes between chord one and two and then two and three from an intervallic
context represent in each case a min3 dropping to a root.
Fig. 49
Minor 3rd of Gm becomes
Minor 3rd of Bbm becomes
Root of Bbm
Root of C#m
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
When we look at how these chords are delivered horizontally like bullets out of a gun in the actual theme
itself (fig.50) if these chords hadn’t possessed any commonalities (if, for the sake of argument, they were
Gm, Am and Bm, or Gm, Abm and Am), the sequence would not work as well.
Fig. 50
The transcription below (fig.51) is from a scene from Torchwood (episode 2 of series 1) in which a woman,
unknowingly infected by alien life forms, kills people by stealing the ‘life force’ from them whilst having
sex. Following a sexual encounter the victims simply disappear, leaving behind only a pile of dust on the
floor. Torchwood catches the woman and takes her into custody. The woman herself knows nothing about
her killings and is bewildered and distressed by her incarceration. The music below plays lightly as the
woman scans her cell and asks why she is being held. The music highlights the vulnerability of the woman
extremely well by virtue of this simple motif
Fig. 51
Torchwood, Episode 2, Series 1 - 00.10.00
There is no accompaniment or harmonic support because the melody is harmonically self-supporting, or as
we sometimes call such melodies, ‘bullet proof’. Each of the notes hits crucial key intervals in the chords of
Bbm then Ebm (see fig.52). The use of pedal accentuates the sonorities; the harmonies appear like falling
snowdrops. As we allude to elsewhere there is always more than one way to deliver harmony. Stating a
chord conventionally, vertically, is just one way. When harmony is implied rather than stated, inferred
rather than unambiguous, implicit rather than explicit, sometimes the results can be more refined and
subtle. Like an impressionist painting whose visual clarity is not immediate, so harmony that communicates
shape, form and function horizontally can be understated. Things which are implied rather than stated can
often communicate on a deeper level because they depend on our interpretation.
Fig. 52
1 3 3 5 9
1 3 3 5 9
1 3 3 5 9
1 3 3 5 9
1 3 3 5 9
1 3 3 5 9
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Motion and Movement
The previous theme is expanded and varied in the piece below, which comes a few moments later in the
same episode.
Fig. 53
The beauty and effectiveness of this section is its subtlety. The minimal and contrary lines of harmony are
key to the success of the cue. Harmonies are created by a few lines, and when there are fewer lines, they
can often be disproportionately more important.
Fig. 54
Bar 1
Bar 2
Bar 3
Bar 4
Up then down
Up then down
Top line
Middle line
Bottom line
Survivors Edmund Butt
Survivors is a 2008 science fiction television drama; a reimagining of a series of the same name from the
late 1970s – both loosely based on a novel by Terry Nation. The series dramatises the lives of a handful of
people who survive a type of flu which has wiped out most of the human race. The opening visual and
musical sequence is perhaps one of the best examples of music to picture in recent sci-fi television. The
pictures and images in the 1.10’ intro sequence are emotionally varied, being initially grand and majestic
(showing pictures of the earth from Space – bars one-three in the music) before becoming more rapid,
quick-fire, eliciting apprehension, fear and paranoia (bars four-ten). Eventually the music breaks out into a
more emotional, thematic, dramatic and uplifting section (bars eleven-nineteen) before returning to the
apprehensive and dramatic feel (bars twenty-twenty two) which closes the intro.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Musically underscoring these varied visually emotional images with suitable music is not easy. There is no
dialogue on which to ‘hang’ the music. The sequence is too quick and the emotions too visually embedded
for the composer to be able to tread an alternative narrative path. So how do you write music which
dramatically (but not melodramatically) italicises the visuals, weaving in and out of different emotional
narratives following fast-moving pictures without a) missing the target or b) overemphasising and
Fig. 55
Survivors opening theme
Looking at and listening to the opening music, it’s plain that producers clearly wanted the ‘Hollywood
sound’ and Edmund Butt delivers it extremely well, recontextualising it for the small screen. But how?
What exactly is the Hollywood sound in a modern context? Two characteristics of the modern sound of
Hans Zimmer are, firstly, the use of semiquavers strings to heighten the drama and also the use of low
voiced brass harmonies (both in the example below, from a small section of music from The Dark Knight).
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig. 56
Audio, 01.34 ‘A Dark Knight’
This abbreviated example from the beginning of the theme from Survivors shows not just the prominent use
of Hans Zimmer’s ‘dancing semiquavers’ but also the employment of low voicing in the brass. Specifically
the low major 3rd (G#) in the E chord (bar two) and the low major 3rd (B) in the G chord (bar three) work
well in appropriating and highlighting the ‘crunchy’ crisp trombone sound so popular in modern
blockbuster scoring. The crisp low voicings are a particular Hollywood favourite because they lay at the
very edge of what will work sonically. If the brass (and the 3rd in particular) were scored any lower the
sound would become difficult. The specific sonic characteristics of the Zimmer sound and Survivors too,
draws the attention of the listener.
Fig. 57
The crisp low trombones are aided also by the beautifully dissonant chord in bar four (transcribed
separately in fig.58, below) in which the Cmaj chord is built over the #4 in the bass of the chord. Although
at first glance and on first listen this may seem a needlessly dissonant chord to employ, it works well
because it references the #4, of which there are plenty later on in the piece.
Fig. 58
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The abbreviated transcription below highlights generally the propensity of #4s on strings.
Fig. 59
The ‘middle bit’ of the theme (reflective, emotional, dramatic and uplifting) features a melodic line (bars
one-four of fig.59 below) the first bar of which is referenced again in bar five. The first time the A note
appears (in bar one) it comes on the third beat of the bar whereas the second time the line appears (bar five)
the A note comes on the first beat of the bar and the melodic phrase takes up less space. This is classic
motif development and evolution where an idea reappears for a second time, slightly changed and
abbreviated, which represents the necessary juxtaposition between stability and variation; familiarity and
development. The other notable feature of this middle section (and another beautifully voiced chord) is in
bar seven of the transcription, where the melodic lines on beat 1 and 2 states the 2nd and 4th of the D chord.
Normally the surrounding harmonies would also reference the sus 4 by omitting the 3rd. However, the chord
on the bottom stave of bar seven is a straight D, complete with major 3rd. This doesn’t clash with the 4th in
the melody due to the rich voicing of the D chord, but the ever-so-slight almost inaudible harmonic tension
is still there. This is not dissonance as such; more subtle tension, eased by the careful and brushstrokes of
Fig. 59
Abbreviated version of the
melody in bar 1
The 4th causes almost
inaudible tension
between itself and the
3rd in the chord
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Let’s look finally at the sync points between the visual edits and the music. The picture edit points
are denoted with black arrows.
Fig. 60
The picture edits stack-up with the beginning of each bar (apart from bar eight where there are two sync
points and bar nine where there are none) until bar eleven. The pictures and the music are both so busy in
this theme that if there weren’t any obvious sync points between music and picture it would make the
music intro slightly harder to navigate as a viewer. In the reflective/motional/dramatic and uplifting section,
however, the sync points change. In bar eleven there are two sync points (beats 1 and 3) but in bars twelve,
thirteen, fourteen and fifteen the sync points fall on beat 3. The reason I mention this is because in the same
way music affects the way we perceive the pictures, the pictures affect the way we listen to the music. The
two are essentially one given that their ultimate function is as one. With this in mind the uplifting nature of
the music from bar eleven is aided by the change in ‘pulse’ of where the pictures fall, musically.
Six Feet Under Thomas Newman
Six Feet Under is an award-winning American comedy drama surrounding the lives of several characters
that run and work in a funeral home. The drama deals with relationships, infidelity, religion and death in a
fresh, enlightening and original way. It explores the issue of death through prisms of philosophy and
religion, with characters reflecting on their current adventures, tribulations, fortunes and misfortunes. Dark
humour and surrealism pervades the show’s narrative throughout. This show has, perhaps, one of the most
instantly recognisable theme tunes in modern US television which means essentially that there is a separate
musical dimension to its existence; a harmonic context which with which people associate the show.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
People have two ways of remembering it. The music is from the fertile musical mind of Thomas Newman,
whose subtle yet distinctive touches of harmonic distortion has been responsible for numerous defining
film soundtracks, some of which are addressed elsewhere in this book.
How exactly does Newman find the right abstract musical sound for a show like Six Feet Under? –
because, when you think about it, it can’t be easy. One would imagine it is quite hard trying to find a
musical voice for a show which essentially dramatizes and parodies death through abstraction and dark
humour. Where would you start? Comedic writing risks cheapening the drama; serious music risks missing
the abstract black humour. As is nearly always the case, you would need an instantly recognisable
harmonic flavour, for it is this more than anything else that truly characterises music and makes it
either unforgettable or forgettable.
Fig. 61
The two opening chords at the top of the show opening are the most
instantly communicating aspect of the music. The top stave piano chord is
stark, severe and austere, because firstly it lacks the defining interval of the
3rd. But also it contains a (barely audible in the mix) #4 just underneath the
top Bb (5th). The combination of the lack of any 3rd, plus the #4, plus the
percussive sound of the piano and the actual tuned percussion that copy the
line, is what makes this chord work immediately. On the bottom stave there
is a soft sample sound which does hit the 3rd but which is barely audible. It
acts as a kind of musical ‘glow’ which only becomes noticeable when the
percussive piano sound has dissipated; thus the whole and complete
harmonic flavour is gradual.
One of Newman’s most instantly communicable and recognisable characteristics therefore is that his music
leaves so much to the imagination. So much of it is interpretative and understated. And yet, ironically, it is
an instantly recognisable style. Looking at (and listening to) a section of the introduction music (fig.62), it
is interesting to see and hear, in retrospect, which bits communicate. The chords that we already discussed
are present throughout punctuating the beginning of every other bar. The second stave ‘glowing’ synth pad
chord in particular gives a minimal and subtle harmonic flavour to every two-bar sequence. Newman
makes a virtue of the relationship between the #4, 5th and maj3rd by placing them in each plucked string
motif (3rd stave -bar three). The alternate plucked violin motif in bars eight, ten and fourteen are subtly
different and feature, amongst other, the Db (7th) and A (#4); these two notes, which appear regularly, are
key to the success of the music.
Fig. 62
Audio – Theme from Six Feet Under
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
English Horn
The first plucked motif starts on the #4 (note of A, bar three) and the main English Horn melody starts on
the 7th (Db, bar 13). The harmonic constituents which are so effective in the theme are the 7th and the #4. In
this abbreviated consolidated transcription below (fig.63) we can firstly the initial ‘Six Feet Under chord,
followed by a bar containing an example of the melody, after which, in bar three we distil just the #4 and
the 7th. In bar four we show the #4 (A) again, and underneath the Db as a C#. Enharmonic adjustment
shows most an A chord. Thus one of the best aspects of this piece is the subtle polytonality, not delivered
within the same chord in the same bar, but gradually, subtly and horizontally.
I suppose it could be said you could conjure up any theoretical possibility by cherry-picking notes from a
piece to prove a particular point, but these two notes (the A and the Db) come regularly throughout and
form major parts of the melody and harmony. They are thus responsible for much of the colour within this
Fig. 63
A note (#4)
note (#4)
A A(#4)
A note (1st)
Db note (7th)
Db note (7th)
C# note (3rd)
There is almost a manic quality to Newman’s theme music for this show, using a variety of quirky off-beat
rhythms and phraseology. Clear textures permeate throughout but the colourful harmonic clarity speaks the
loudest. These are precisely the kinds of subtle, polytonal harmonies which conspire to create the Thomas
Newman ‘sound’ – a sound which is open, see-through and communicates in a whole manner of different
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Band of Brothers Michael Kamen
Band of Brothers was a 10-part miniseries chronicling the real-life exploits of several key characters. The
shared experiences of the soldiers and the moral and physical hurdles they face are central to the story.
Produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, inevitably comparisons are drawn between Band of
Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. With this in mind, Kamen’s music for Band of Brothers was bound to
be compared with John Williams’ score for Saving Private Ryan. That said, although there are a few
inevitable similarities (war films do tend to attract similar traditional and reverential musical approaches)
Kamen provides some memorable and emotive music; certainly the thematic music which bookends Band
of Brothers is more simple and more obviously and quickly communicative than Williams’ thematic music
for Saving Private Ryan.
There are, as ever, several reasons why Kamen’s theme is so effective. It is serene, tranquil, soothing and
has a notable hymn-like simplicity.
Fig. 64
Audio – Theme from Band of Brothers
One of the most
how the music and
orchestration work
together effortlessly
to bring the theme
to life.
I say this because
too many themes
tend to be tunes
instrumentation and
Good orchestration embellishes the melody and makes the ‘tune’ sound as if it was always part of the
orchestration; as if it were conceived that way. The melodic contour line over the top of the first few bars
displays how the theme is whole of its orchestration and counterpoint. Without the arpegiated cellos in bars
2 and 4 the theme would be far more static. The ‘melody’, after all, is simply a function. It is not implicitly
an instrument or a stave or a sound – it is simply a role. In Kamen’s theme the melody is not confined to
one instrument or to one stave. Similar to John Barry’s theme for Chaplin - discussed in chapter seven,
‘The Harmonic Power of Music’ -it is everywhere. Another thing to observe is how the romance manifests
itself in the major 3rds. Nothing penetrates and communicates like a 3rd. I have highlighted where the 3rds
fall ( ) to draw attention to how they bookend some of the two-bar phrases. It is also notable that most
3rds fall on the first beat of the bar for maximum emotional impact.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The counterpoint in bars nine and ten is particularly effective as the F/A resolves to the Bb; the last quaver
harmony of bar nine / first harmony of bar ten contain the Eb and C harmony. The relationship between the
F/A and Bb chords is all the more hymn-like because of the C-Eb harmony passing between them. In fig.65
I have transcribed two possible outcomes for bar ten; the first is the one used, and the other one is an
alternative which often gets used, containing the E-C harmony.
Fig. 65
The E functions as the #4 in the secon
example. The #4 would not function as well
as the 4th because it doesn’t fit as comfortably
with the traditional Hymn-like harmonic
setting Kamen has established. The #4 has
many uses, but it safe to say it isn’t found in
many Hymns.
The appropriation of harmonic devices
The following transcription is from the opening of Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express. There are many
songs, film themes, big band pieces and other musical environments which have made great use of the type
of harmony displayed here. Trans Europe Express is probably one of the better examples. The reason why
this harmonic approach is so successful is because it is dramatic, striking and almost theatrical. It has an
unresolved feel. The top intervals rise in fourths which gives is a ‘square’ unresolved feel.
Fig. 64 Audio – Trans Europe Express – Kraftwerk
comp. b9th
The reason this sequence sounds so
dramatic and striking it that as the
harmonies compound and stack up,
all the intervals are a fourth apart.
The chord never really resolves
itself and arrives anywhere.
This is precisely the pulling power of the sequence; it avoids resolution.
Fig. 65
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The main reason this kind of sequence is so distinctive is precisely because the intervals are not easy to
rationalise or place. This makes it seem a little odd, ‘square’ and ‘quirky’ but not dissonant. It is interesting
and quite abstract but not so much that it would be completely baffling. Harmonies identical to the ones
above from Trans Europe Express were used at the beginning of spoof cop show Police Squad.
Police Squad Ira Newborn
Police Squad was a spoof American cop show, made by some of the team that brought us Kentucky Fried
Movie and Airplane. Although Police Squad was cancelled after just six episodes (allegedly and bizarrely
because the public had to ‘watch too hard’ to ‘get’ much of the humour), it did spawn a series of successful
Naked Gun films.
The show was a parody and so, in context of the show and the images contained in the show’s intro, was
the music. The distinctive approach in the first few bars (as we can see in the transcription below) sets up
the Big Band piece perfectly. The theatricality and melodrama work well. Although the music, when heard
alone and independent of the show, can be rationalised and enjoyed as Big Band music, when it is
performed alongside the opening segment of the show it takes on a completely different context and
meaning. This is the inherent beauty of music for film; that the pictures become part of the music. It is the
situation which is comic, the context, not the music.
Fig. 71
Audio – Theme from Police Squad
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Looking beyond the intro now and into the slightly exaggerated and caricatured Big Band sound contained
in this piece, there are, as always, several harmonic and rhythmic identifiers which are worth knowing in
case you’re ever required to provide this kind of exaggerated pastiche of a Big Band. The sax lines are
constantly anticipated throughout which lends the piece a wonderful ‘shuffle’ feel which compliments the
rhythm. Also the sax voicing is quite explicit and deliberate. Close-part voicing with the 3rd on top and
underneath (on the Bb9 chords) is designed to exaggerate the effect of the 3rd interval, add a little harmonic
colour and avoid root-position voicing. The voicing of the Eb9 chord expands a little with the baritone sax
playing the root, for variation.
The caricatured and exaggerated contours of the brass
The main ‘tune’ is carried in harmony by trumpets and trombones. The chromatic quaver passing chord to
the main chord at the beginning of bars four-eleven is an exaggeration of a classic big band stylisation
which involves the employment of a sliding passing chord built a semitone under or over the main chord. In
this context what the passing chord does is ensure that the ‘main chord’ in each of the bars between bars
four and eleven always comes on the off-beat. This, with the off-beat Saxes we have already seen, adds to
the rhythmic stylisation.
If we look closely at the voicing we can see the trumpets are stacked with the 9th extension on the top and
the 3rd on the bottom of the chord i.e. 3, 5, 7, 9. The trombones are stacked (from bottom to top) 5, 7, 9
and10th). This is an important point because it ensures the voicings are not identical from section to section
and are not simply duplicates an octave higher or lower.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
It also ensures the top note of the trombones and bottom note of the trumpets are both thirds, which brings
out the colour and radiates through the chord. This simple trick ensures you extract maximum colour from
the instruments and makes sure they penetrate and are heard. One section which is deliberately designed to
sound a little too elaborate and ‘rushed’ is the line in bar five, specifically the semiquavers followed by
quaver triplets, played as they are by eight instruments (4 trumpets, 4 trombones). This hurried and slightly
untidy articulation is part of the great plan. In arranging and orchestrations things are rarely accidental or
the result of good luck.
Fig. 72
This is your Life Laurie Johnson
One theme which, again, was instantly identifiable was Laurie Johnson’s theme to This is your Life. The
show involved famous or successful people being surprised by the show’s host and subsequently being
brought into a studio with a live audience, where the guest’s life was condensed into a half-hour show.
During the show people in the guest’s life would appear from behind a famous sliding door. The British
show was imported from the successful American format.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Laurie Johnson’s theme (like his Avengers theme and others) could be sung to the title of the show. The
first two bars were the most musically communicative and were delivered in fanfare style but using classic
‘light entertainment jazz’ harmonies and voicings.
Fig. 73
Audio – Theme from This is your Life
But for the spectacular harmonies in bar two on brass and strings this might be a fairly ordinary ‘easy
listening’ piece. It is these chords which define and shape our perception of this theme and so defined the
show. Who doesn’t remember the show without also remembering (and being able to hum, to a degree) the
theme tune. The chord in bar two is key to the success of the theme because it provides an exciting centre
of gravity for the listener. Why is this chord so effective?
Fig. 74
b 9th
The main factor that makes this chord so colourful is that it is
massively ‘extension heavy’. Extensions bring colour and
harmonic vitality and variation but they sound effective
because they create internal dynamics between each other
within the chord. Colourful extensions rely on the existence of
the regular harmonic building blocks. Too many extensions
mean the chord can become abstract and confusing. A C7
chord has three main components and one extension whereas
a C13(#11) chord has three core components and four
extensions; so it sounds more colourful and involved.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
If we look at the chord itself (fig.74) we can see the extensions heavily outnumber the basic components.
The lack of the 5th ensures various extensions like the b5 and 13 are freer than they would otherwise be.
The 5th would, harmonically and sonically ‘get in the way’ of these extensions. However, the lack of a 5th
means the only two ‘normal’ notes in the chord are the low A (the root) and, a tenth above, the C# (maj3rd).
There are two basic components and four extensions. Even one more extension or addition would render
the chord virtually aurally impossible to rationalise. This is as close as the chord can get before it becomes
abstract aural and sonic gibberish. And this is, of course, its great strength.
Although we have looked at harmony in this way in another chapter, below is the ‘This is Your Life’ chord,
turned from vertical to horizontal, spread over as many bars as there are notes in the original chord.
Fig. 75
Fig. 76
To the left we see
the harmonic events
purely in context of
how they relate to
the first note of the
chord – the A (root)
in bar one.
This time (fig.76)
we see the harmonic
purely from the
second note of the
chord – the G - in
bar two.
Fig. 77
In fig.77 we now see
the harmonic events
from the third note
of the chord – the
C# (3rd) in bar three.
Fig. 78
In fig.78 we now see
the harmonic events
from the fourth note
of the chord – the F#
in bar four.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig. 79
harmonic event comes
from the relationship
between the fifth note
of the chord – the Bb in
bar four, and the final
note – the Eb
In fig.80 we see a
cumulative analysis of the
harmonic events which are
at work in this chord. There
harmonic relationships at
work in this one chord.
This in itself is not
particularly odd, but the
fact that none of the notes
are octave duplicates of
any of the other notes is
worthy of mention. This
means that each of the
harmonic events are unique
Fig. 80
I use these seemingly abstract and theoretical examples in order to show that in fact they are far from
theoretical; when people listen to a chord like this, the reason it speaks as it does is because has exquisite
and specific harmonic colours and characteristics which are almost, but not quite, baffling. The fact that the
overwhelming majority of people are happily unaware of these issues does not lessen their effect; it just
means they’re being affected by something they don’t understand in a way they can’t fathom. And this is
music’s great strength, its great charm; people are in their element and out of their depth.
Sherlock David Arnold and Michael Price
Sherlock is a contemporary update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, taking place in 21st Century
London. The music is by Bond composer David Arnold with much of the incidental writing being done by
Michael Price. One of the most interesting features of the theme music is how immobile the melody is,
featuring a succession of semibreves. The melody almost functions as a sonic ident on which to impale the
main driving propulsion in the music; the effective cross rhythmical writing. In this piece we hear the
melody but we listen to the rhythmic elements, which consist of the almost constant, relentless interplay
between crotchet triplets and quaver triplets.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig. 81
Audio – Theme from Sherlock
Keys / Gtr
Harmony plays its part too; the A pedal throughout is effective in that, although the note remains constant,
what it constitutes from an intervallic context changes. This is something we’ve look at many times.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig. 83
A note (bass)
If we look at the intervallic context
of the bass, we see a contrary
motion between it and the melodic
line. The A note starts out as the
root of the A chord and becomes
the 5th of the D/A chord.
A as an interval
Once again this highlights the importance and relevance of the intervallic context. Looking at music purely
in terms of its notes will only ever tell you half the story and therefore it may only explain half of why any
given phrase sounds the way it does. Looking now to the first televised episode of Sherlock, one of the first
scenes is interesting from a harmonic perspective. The scene where Dr Watson, an injured war veteran
(suffering from post-war stress) wakes up in a cold sweat in his apartment is made much more sombre and
evocative by the music. Are there any characteristics about this music which subtly create emotional
meaning of the scene and wider narrative; and if so, how and why is this happening?
Fig. 84
Sherlock Episode 1 (A Study in Pink) 00.00.30 – ‘War’ (soundtrack album) 00.30
Once again we turn to Thomas Newman’s influence to explain the ‘sound’, which constitutes part of the
success of this cue; the light-touch heavily reverbed piano does its job admirably. But the sounds are
nothing without the music, and this piece speaks loudest when it speaks harmonically: the first circled
chord features the 6th and maj7th together. Such a seemingly innocuous fact explains a lot.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
You would never normally see a 6th and maj7th in the same chord. They are both extensions but they have
fundamentally different functions and provide different harmonic characteristics and effects. Although you
might regularly have chords which have two or more extensions simultaneously, their groupings are quite
traditional and predictable. You might get a 6th and a 9th in the same chord because they ‘go’ together.
Equally you might get a 9th in the same chord as a 7th or maj7th. It’s highly unlikely you would see a b10th
in a chord without a 7th; the stark gap of a 4th between the 7th and b10th draws out the harmonic quality of
the 7th and the b10th - it italicises the moment. If we heard a C7(b10) we would be forgiven for attributing
the colour to the 7th and the flattened 10th and how they relate to the root without for a moment attributing
some of the credit to the gap between the two intervals.
With all this in mind, although the 6th and 7th work okay together, it is not traditional or ‘usual’ to see or
hear it. In a final subtlety the composer places the chord over the inverted bass (Bb). This creates a further
change in the harmonic dynamic which constitutes the finishing touch to an exquisite chord. Delivered
softly with the deft touch of the reverbed piano, the oddness of this combination (6th and maj7th) is
forgotten. The chord does its job without people even being aware it has happened. The chord is not
dissonant and yet is odd enough to tickle our senses and make us reflect, which is what the scene needs us
to do. This is how harmony does its job. The scene itself is quite slow and languid; the lack of dialogue
gives extra strength to the subtleties of the music. The second chord circled contains the maj7th (D) and the
root (Eb) side by side. This slight dissonance is partially extinguished and made more subtle, once again,
by the inversion.
The last chord I have highlighted is interesting because it contains elements of two chords. The melodic
line which has characterised the piece thus far (Bb, D, C and G) is altered this time to simply Bb, D and C
with the C landing as the 5th of the partial Fm chord (right hand). Underneath this partial Fm chord is a low
G, D and G underneath. This exquisite tension really underscores the scene and the angst of the narrative.
The Bb, D, C motif comes in several places in the show, normally to underscore the vulnerability /
emotional state of the Dr Watson character. It is of course a restatement of the show’s main theme tune.
The transcription below (fig.85) is from a lighter scene where Sherlock introduces Holmes to his landlady.
The music finishes on an incomplete sustained chord as Sherlock and Watson climb the stairs and enter
Sherlock’s apartment. This is an important point because it highlights how a great deal of music for TV
drama is used as edit music to smooth over scenic transitions. Such chords frequently need to dissipate and
digest into the scene. Sus chords or non-chords are used heavily in these environments. ‘Complete’ or
absolute chords can often draw attention to the music and occasionally appear awkward.
Fig. 85
Sherlock Episode 1 (A Study in Pink) 00.13.29
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Vincent Rob Lane
Vincent is an ITV drama series starring Ray Winstone as an ex-cop-turned Private Investigator hired to spy
on people. The music for this show really sets the scene and underscores perfectly the tough, solitary and
forlorn existence of the lead character. The music manages to convey a shady, introverted and depressing
narrative and, with its laid-back feel, guitar lines and jazz piano chords, sounds almost like ‘twisted’
cocktail music.
Fig. 86
Audio – Theme from Vincent
The first thing that’s worth noting, as with many other shows we have examined, is how the music
possesses an excellent sense of architecture, placement and economy in terms of its instrumentation and
arrangement; if we examine the interaction between the bass, guitar and piano (below) we can and hear
how both have space to breathe. The guitar, piano and bass don’t overly crowd each other. The
arrangement has space.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig. 87
Fig. 88
Also, within the actual melody line (guitar)
between bars one and two there is a link.
The chords of G and Abadd2 have no
common notes but the melody makes a
virtue out of the brief passing note of C
(which functions as a sus4 over the G
chord and a maj3rd over the Ab chord).
This link is a lot more important than might be thought; it is the highest note in both bars and really helps
prevent the chords sounding more chromatic and ‘square’.
Turning now to the middle section (below, fig.89), it’s interesting to observe how it evolves. Essentially
there are two contexts; the one we assume is solely responsible for creating the interest and the other one
which we probably don’t hear but we listen to. In other words, as discussed elsewhere in this book, the
reasons we think music communicates are sometimes not always the great communicating factors we
imagine, whereas the aspects of music which do affect us are sometimes not things we can easily
understand, rationalise or in some cases even realise. As an example we always assume melody is the
biggest communicator because it’s the one thing we can quite easily rationalise; we can hum it or sing it. It
exists as a separate stand-alone entity. If we were told that an inversion could articulate and communicate
emotion in some situations more profoundly than melody we would find that hard to believe because most
people don’t know what inversions are, can’t hear them and certainly don’t walk down the street humming
them. Even most musicians who do know what inversions are would find it hard to believe its importance
was as great as it is.
The middle section of this piece has two contexts; the obvious one - guitar theme – and the less obvious
and much more subtle one – the inversion. The inversion literally lifts the piece and injects a sense of
drama and gravitas. Also if we look at the salient hit points of the melody (highlighted with arrows, below)
we see that the overall thrust of the melody is downward. In contrast the bass line is upwards, which causes
a delightful sense of barely perceptible contrary motion. We hear the melody line in an obvious way but
listen to the bass line in a much subtler way. In one respect you don’t even have to ‘hear’ the contrary
motion; it is not something we neccasarily hear anyway. It is something we experience as part of what
music is. As I have stated elsewhere, contrary motion can be described as the ‘way music breathes’. We
find it easy to see a sense of forward momentum and trajectory in music but horizontal movement is often
less easy to see and certain less easy to appreciate aurally. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not there or that it
doesn’t matter.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
We can’t possibly hope to digest all the notes; we
digest the salient points – the ones which have
identity, purpose, direction
Fig. 89
Rubicon Peter Nashel
Rubicon is an American ‘conspiracy thriller’ style television series, which centres on the concept of a secret
society which manipulates world events on a grand scale. The theme music, by Peter Nashel, was described
as ‘abstract and edgy’. Listening to and looking at the transcription below, how is it edgy or abstract?
Fig. 90
Audio – Theme from Rubicon
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The first thing to note is that the initial chord change from C to Eb is not an entirely easy transition unless
you italicise the G note (common to both chords). When a common note between chords constitutes the 3rd
in either the destination or original chord the link will always ‘ring through’ more clearly. The G note runs
through both chords but what it represents from an intervallic perspective, changes. This makes the
transition easier, less square; the G note becomes the maj3rd which transports aurally better than any other
interval because it is the component that defines the chord as major. The G note doesn’t just feature in both
the first two chords; it also features as a ‘throbbing’ off-beat quaver note in both chords.
Fig. 91
In the case of the theme from Rubicon (bar three to four) the Eb chord also takes the C note from the
previous chord which becomes the 6th of the Eb chord. This means that although the two chords sound
different and come from different key centres they contain two of the same notes. Essentially a completely
different chord has been achieved in the manouvre between C and Eb6 but maximising the potential of
minimum musical note movement (below) has made it all the more interesting and subtle. This represents
good smooth chord voicing; good arranging, both of which are essential components in composing.
C 6th
G 3rd
Bb 5th
Eb 1st
G 5th
C 1st
G 5th
C 1st
F maj3rd
C maj7th
F maj3rd
Ab 5th
Db 1st
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The C note (which constituted a root in bar one, two and three and a 6th in bar four and five, continues on
into bar six and seven as a maj7th of the Db chord. This forges an important link between the Eb and Db
sequence. The other important aspect is that although the chord manoeuvre from Eb to Db is downward,
what the linking note represents from an intervallic perspective (6th to maj7th) is upward. That the vast
majority of listeners are happily oblivious to this doesn’t mean they’re not the beneficiaries of the inner
contrary motion created by the harmonies/intervals. Even some composers who create the link to foster a
better harmonic relationship and harness an easier transition between chords might be unaware of the
‘contrary motion’ aspects between sound and interval. Regardless this is an important point to observe. It
proves that it isn’t just the ‘linking note’ which makes the transition easier; it’s what it represents.
As we can see in the transcription in fig.92, which is
of bars six and seven, the #4 of the Db chord paves the
way for the subsequent drop to the chord of C in the
next bar, where the same note will constitute the 5th.
Fig. 92
I make all these seemingly small observations because together they show that Nashell’s attempts to make
potentially odd chord sequences gel better is extremely effective in making the abstract work; in making the
implausible plausible. The one really obvious (but equally compelling and captivating) section of
dissonance is the melody line from bar eight of the piece (transcribed separately below). The melody in bar
eight and nine navigates an interesting but harmonically safe path through the chords. Exactly the same
melody line comes again in bars eleven and twelve, but with bar twelve featuring an F# chord, the effect is
dissonant and unsettling. Granted it does sound strange but the extreme dissonance it should have created is
offset by the context; because the melody is a repetition of bars eight and nine, we know it - we understand
it and we’ve heard it already. The dissonance is still there but not to the degree it would be if this were
literally a melody line from nowhere.
Fig. 93
maj3rd b9th
The kind of effortless abstraction and dissonance this theme creates is extremely effective, but more so
because it is delivered with the velvet gloves of great arranging and voicing and sympathetic production.
The very end of the theme features an urgent, manic-sounding string/synth line which is quite distracting
but very effective. If we look at the detail of the arrangement we can see and hear the effect of the contrary
motion between the direction of the chords and arrangement and the melodic line.
Fig. 94
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The abbreviated transcription in fig.95 is from a scene in episode 2, series 1 of Rubicon. The same
harmonic idea comes several times during the show and is one of a number of filmic harmonic approaches
featured in the series. This particular scene is where one of the characters is looking round a house for
clues. Visually the scene is simply shot but the music adds a definite and palpable extra attractive and
compelling dimension of mystery, intrigue and plot.
Fig. 95
Rubicon Series 1, Episode 2 00.05.18
The reason the piece communicates so well is similar to something we’ve looked at numerous times; how
the changing intervallic context of one key note can create a strange effect. The notes in fig.95 are scored
out as vertical chords below (fig.96).
Fig. 96
The note of Bb goes from being a min 3rd of
a Gm to being a 5th of an Ebm.
On face value and in root position the chords of Gm to Ebm have a downward direction. But because the
first chord is scored in root position and the Ebm chord is inverted over its Gb the overriding harmonic feel
is expansive, e.g. ‘outward’ creating contrary motion.
Similar devices are used by many composers, perhaps most notably Hans Zimmer in the film The Ring
(below), which bares strong resemblance to Fig 95 from Rubicon.
Audio - ‘The Well’ from ‘The Ring’ (Hans Zimmer)
Fig. 97
Typical of Zimmer’s style, bars four and five are ‘skewed’ in that the lower arpegiated line features the A
note (maj7) over an inverted minor arpeggio. There is some friction between the A note and the Bb melody
note in bar four; also there is a whiff of polytonality in that the E melody note in bar five, together with the
A (maj7) in the arpegiated piano line and the Db in the same arpegiated line, creates a feel of the chord of
A. If this is the case it is the F note which is the ‘fly in the ointment’. This duality of perception is key to
the dreamy feel of the cue.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Walking with Dinosaurs Ben Bartlett
Walking with Dinosaurs was a six-part BBC documentary series. Capitalising on the interest created
fictionally by Jurassic Park it initially aired in Britain and was eventually shown all over the world; it was
one of the most successful TV documentaries ever made. It used the type of CGI which had previously only
been available in high budget feature films. The documentary didn’t feature ‘talking heads’ style interviews
but made excellent use of top scientists and palaeontologists. The transcription below is from the episode
entitled ‘Giants of the Skies’ and comes in just after the main 30 second introduction theme.
Fig. 98
Walking with Dinosaurs – Giants of the Skies – 00.00.30
Interplay and interaction is the key to almost every example of successful and effective music. Specifically
the relationships that exist between different harmonies are responsible for a great deal of what we then
interpret as colour and emotion in music. Spending hours looking for the elusive ‘great chord’ is, in the
final analysis, a worthless pursuit unless that chord has something to relate to. And if it does have
something to relate to, it won’t be either chord that is ‘great’ but the relationship and interaction between
them. In the opening of Ben Bartlett’s music for this episode we see a classic emotional relationship
between two types of chords; one ‘normal’ and the other skewed. The first harmonised bar (bar two)
features an F#m whereas bar three features a more captivating and intriguing chord, conveying mystery and
foreboding: this is a minor chord with a maj7th extension and is a classic James Bond chord. This pattern is
then repeated in bars five and six.
Fig. 99
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Neither of the two chords used is spectacular. Even the ‘Bond’ chord needs an antidote. If one were to play
nothing but minor chords with maj7th extensions they would become firstly tedious and then irritating, very
quickly. It is the light and shade that creates the dynamic. At the beginning of the new phrase (bar seven)
the relationship between normal and skewed is reversed. Normally two skewed chords (bars six and seven)
in a row would be too much, but the chord change (Am to Fm) alters this dynamic. If we now look at a
transcription of the accompanying harmonies, concentrating on the chord voicing, we can see and hear to
what degree they smooth these transitions between ‘normal’ and ‘skewed’. Although F#m and Am are a
minor 3rd apart the voicing does not move a minor 3rd. It moves in varied degrees.
Fig. 100
C 3rd
A 1st
E 5th
A 1st
C# 5th
A 3rd
C# 5th
F# 1st
Although the chordal move is a minor 3rd the top note moves a semitone down (C# to C) and the second
note stays the same (A to A). It is the bottom two notes (F# to A and C# to E) which make the minor 3rd
adjustment. This is a simple but important observation about how accompanying harmony needs to be fluid
and not chromatic in its movement. The note of A once again plays two roles (min3rd and 1st).
The other thing to observe about fig 100 is that the accompaniment creates contrary motion. The
manoeuvre from Fm to Am (below, fig.101) again features the same approach to voicing where, although
the chordal manoeuvre from Fm to Am this time constitutes a major3rd, the individual intervallic
movements of each accompanying voice are varied.
Fig. 101
C 3rd
A 1st
E 5th
A 1st
Ab 3rd
F 1st
C 5th
F 1st
This time there is no contrary motion because the top note remains the same. There are more notes in the
first chord than the second, but the top note (C) stays static (although what it ‘represents’ moves downward
from a 5th to a 3rd). The Ab moves to the A, the F moves to the E, the C to the E and the bottom F up to the
What’s interesting about analysing the movement of notes in chords is that the voicing is absolutely crucial
to how the chord sounds. Too many writers look at what they perceive to be arranging issues after the event
(of composing) not during it. Arranging, in particular, voicing, is a crucial component of composition.
Looking at the chord sequence between the Fm and Am (fig.101) there are several contexts to examine.
The overriding context is obviously how the sequence sounds. It sounds as if it is moving upward. But if
we look at the notes as music (fig.102, left) we can see that not all the notes move upward. If we look then
to the right of fig.102 and to the notes as intervals relative to the chords they are in, movements are
different again, with only two intervals moving up as intervals. This is important because the disparity
between what notes do and what intervals do represents the main reason chordal harmony sounds fluid and
not parallel.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig. 102
Take another look at the melodic passage (taken from bar fifteen-eighteen of the piece). Below we have the
notation, under which we have the physical musical direction of the notes. Underneath that we have the
intervallic context (what interval is being played in context of the chord which accompanies it). Melody
itself has two contexts; one is the obvious physical context and the other is the intervallic context of how
the notes relate to the chords that accompanies them.
Fig. 103
8 (octave)
I say all this to make the point that what we hear is a mixture of all these subtleties. Most people are
blissfully unaware of all but the most obvious contexts in which music exists but, as I have stated before,
they’re still the recipients and beneficiaries of all of them.
Batman Neil Hefti
Neil Hefti’s wonderfully captivating music to the original Batman television series is as iconic as the show
itself. Even now, in 2013, if you were to play the themes of Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal and Hans
Zimmer (composers of the various Batman films over the past twenty years) none of the themes, fabulous
as they are, would be as instantly recognisable as Neil Hefti’s theme for the 1960s television show. Indeed
the music for the television show in general has some iconic names attached to it with much of the
incidental music being created by legendary arrangers Billy May and Nelson Riddle. The theme itself is
built around a guitar hook, punctuated with the only lyric – “Batman” – sung alongside unison trumpets.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig. 104 Audio – Theme from Batman
(no 3rd)
(no 3rd)
(no 3rd)
(no 3rd)
(no 3rd)
(no 3rd)
Which components or aspects of the simple theme above are so distinctive and pivotal that they make it
stand out from the rest? There is, as ever, more than one single reason. Although the guitar riff is
prominent, fluctuating as it does between 5th, flat 5th and 4th you will see and hear that none of the chords
possess 3rds of any description. This lends the music a stark harshness which highlights and exposes the
5ths, flattened 5ths and 4ths. The repetitive nature of the guitar riff, set as it is against only three chords,
lends the piece a relentless air. Few people who analyse this piece reference the importance of the
vocal/trumpet line.
Forgetting the lyric, if we look at the close 2-part harmony we can see it features the octave note (8) and the
7. There are hardly any circumstances where you would normally see melody (or, for that matter, harmony)
articulated in this way, with the octave and 7th side by side. If a 7th was present alongside the octave it
would almost invariably have other notes too – the 3rd, 5th etc – to the break the rather harsh maj2nd interval.
Click Kevin Leavy
Every piece of music has emotional contours, contours created by the melodic journey and supportive
harmonies. Different chords or combinations of chords and melody possess different harmonic dynamics
which in turn can provoke different emotional outcomes in listeners. In order to highlight how this complex
process works I have deliberately chosen a short piece used by the BBC’s popular Click show, composed
by Kevin Leavy. The music has been described by listeners as ‘original’, ‘captivating’ and ‘quirky’. Why?
Quirky how? Let’s examine the piece in its full 7-bar entirety: if we listen to it first in terms of ‘impact’, we
can see that the piece is designed to have a ‘big’ opening 2 bars (featuring a Cm chord and notes from the
Cm scale (highlighted) and an exciting, strong finish featuring a run-up of quavers in the penultimate bar.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Fig. 105
Audio – Theme from Click
3 1
4 2
The chords in bars three and four are the main part in which to place any kind of surprise which will define,
evolve and direct the piece. The chords in bars five and six return us eventually to the tonic chord. So, in a
way, the piece is defined emotionally by its ‘middle’.
Fig. 106
Fig. 107
Climactic inevitable
Development, evolution, surprise
Any minor-to-major chord sequence is, to varying degrees, uplifting by simple virtue of the different
harmonic flavours of both types of chord. The chords in bar three and four are ‘soft chords’ - Abmaj7 and
Ab6 (with the melody italicising the softness by hitting the maj7, 6th and maj3rd) followed by Gm7 in bars
five and six, which is also ‘soft’ by virtue of the 7th. This natural warmth acts as an effective balance both
to the initial Cm chords and the eventual last chord.
Because we hear music in a linear and sequential way, we often presume that if a certain bar or musical
note makes an emotional impact, the reason for this impact is to be found only in the bar or note in
question. In fact music often sounds the way it does because of dynamics, relationships and reactions
between different elements within a composition which may fall at different points throughout the piece. I
make this point because although most musicians and composers realise the reason an Abmaj7 chord
possesses the characteristics it does is because of the dynamics created by the G note reacting to the rest of
the notes in the chord, few realise that similarly the only reason the chord works as it does within a piece of
music is because of the surrounding harmonic terrain; what feeds a chord and what comes subsequently
defines how that chord ‘works’.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
There is no such thing as a ‘great’ chord. In many ways because the effect of music is such a cumulative
thing, with the overall character of a piece being decided by various transitory and fluid factors, there is, in
a sense, no such thing as ‘now’, just as in a very practical sense within time itself, now is almost a concept,
not a reality. If you have a ‘wow’ / ‘now’ moment when listening to a piece, in all probability the reason for
that moment is tied up in several contributory factors, the culmination of which happens at some point
during the piece.
Who wants to be a Millionaire? Keith Strachan and Mathew Strachan
The music for Who Wants to be a Millionaire was composed by father and son team Keith Strachan and
Matthew Strachan. They were brought in with a brief to ‘create mood and tension’. Consequently they
decided to approach it like a film score with music playing almost throughout the whole show - a unique
approach for a game show at the time. Although the production values and the sounds were sometimes
lacking in real quality, the writing itself works brilliantly well with the show. Like much of the themes we
have analysed, the music is as popular as the show; it’s almost impossible to visualize the show
independent of its music. The transcription below is slow, dark, almost sinister sounding and is played
during the more pensive and stressful moments of the show.
Fig. 108 Who wants to be a Millionaire incidental music
The way the hypnotic mesmerizing melodic line interacts with the harmonies which support it is probably
the most important reason for the success. We have looked at this issue before, and here it is again: the
melody itself as a stand-alone line is repetitive but the intervallic context changes every two bars. We
therefore have the simultaneous sensation of a line that manages to remain physically static but change
what it means, not what it is.
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Fig. 109
1 3 2 3 1 3 2 3
3 2 3 1 3 2 3
3 5 #4 5 3 5 #4 5
7 b9 8 b9 7 b9 8 b9 7 b9 8 b9 7 b9 8 b9 1 3 2 3 1 3 2 3
Fig. 110
3 5 #4 5 3 5 #4 5
1 3 2 3 1 3 2 3
To the left we have the physical melodic
contour of the line, which is constant
To the left we have the intervallic contour,
which is a different story. That we hear both
of these realities together is part of what
defines how we hear, listen to and experience
music, and it certainly explains how and why
we find this encapsulating rather than simply
Looking now at the transcription below (fig.111) we again see the different layers of music: on the top
stave we have the urgent and frantic semiquaver counterpoint which we hear more rhythmically than
harmonically. Underneath this there are the rather cheap-sounding synth choir chords, and underneath that
lies probably the most harmonically potent and communicative aspect – the bass. Of the sixteen-bar phrase,
nine of those bars have inverted bass lines. The drama caused by inverted chords used in this context
cannot be overstated. Although the bass note of C states the same phrase for the first three bars, in each bar
it constitutes a different interval of the chord it supports (as highlighted under the bass line). The inversions
also allow for a smooth downward bass line for the first few bars.
Fig. 111
Who wants to be a Millionaire? - incidental / thematic music
C = 1st
C = maj3rd
C = 7th
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
If we examine whether the chords of Cm, Ab/C and D have any naturally in-built dramatic emotive
characteristics we find that they have; in fact we find them in Danny Elfman’s main hook from Batman.
Fig. 112
If we look at the beginning of the ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ phrase from bar nine (of fig. 111) we can
see and hear that once again the dramatic inversion plays a large part with the first four bars of this section
being inverted. Not only that; the bass line of this crucial four bar phrase lurches up and down from the C
to the F (down a 5th) up to a B (up a #4) back down to an F (down a #4). This intensifies and italicises the
inversions, making them ‘stick out’.
Perhaps the other great communicative section is to be found in bar eleven of fig.111 (featured separately
below, fig.113) where you can literally sing the title of the show to the theme. There is also drama in the
penultimate bar which features a melodic run-down featuring the notes Db, C, G, Db, C, G, Db, C, G, Db,
C, G and C. This is enormously effective and spine-tingling for two quite distinct but different reasons.
Firstly the scalic manoeuvre includes flat 9s which are quite theatrical melodramatic intervals. There are no
thirds on the way down which would have helped identify the chord and ‘normalise’ it. Without the thirds
the line remains stark and dramatic. Secondly, although the piece as a whole has been rhythmically and
percussively characterised and identified throughout by a kind of ‘sixteens’ quasi disco rhythm, the
penultimate bar features quaver triplets which has the effect of suddenly interrupting the flow and pulling
the piece to a grinding halt, but dramatically so. If the run down had been semiquavers it would have been
too fast and frantic; if it had been straight quavers the half-time feel would have been too pedestrian. The
quaver triplets spectacularly bring the piece down to its dramatic pause.
Fig. 113
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When listeners and television game show viewers hear the famous theme, it draws them into the world of
‘Who wants to be a millionaire’. Musicologists tend not to discuss a piece like this; because of the massmarket appeal of the show (and therefore the music) and because it is not high art or intellectual, they
assume it is not clever. In fact the music for this show is extremely cleverly and expertly put together and
succeeds fantastically well in its primary objective; people remember it and they associate it with the show.
The show has a musical dimension that it clearly now could not do without. In the same way that Match of
the Day is absolutely, indelibly and forever the only real lasting musical context for football, this music is
now embedded in the public consciousness as the ultimate quiz show music.
A Touch of Frost Barbara Thompson
A Touch of Frost is a popular television detective drama series produced by Yorkshire Television which ran
for nearly 20 years. It features Detective ‘Jack Frost’, another television cop who clashes with superiors,
has alternative opinions but is, as is nearly always the case, proved right in the end. The theme music,
featuring the sax playing of Barbara Thompson, is particularly distinctive, featuring a driving, heavily
reverbed rhythm section. It has an unpolished rough-edged sound, similar to Waking the Dead.
Harmonically the theme is quite distinctive in many ways. The initial motif is played ‘A capella’
(unaccompanied). As eluded to elsewhere in this book, even when a melody is played unaccompanied it
will be suggestive of a specific harmonic context and colour, by simple virtue of the notes collectively
implying a certain scale or chord. The overall harmonic feel of the intro is Dm (highlighted below)
Fig. 114
Audio – Theme from A Touch of Frost
7 min3
m6 4 min3
1 3 4
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When the introduction line stops on the note of F in bar five, by now this note is rationalised by the listener
as the min3rd of the Dm chord, even if, in most cases, people wouldn’t know it or even care.
It is not just musicians or people who can understand harmony that experience the fact that it ‘feels’ a
certain way (like a minor 3rd); people who don’t have the faintest clue about music or musical terminology
are also aware of the suggestive harmony leading them in that they benefit from the feeling of a harmonic
colour. There is a feeling that it makes sense. They too know the sax has stopped on what appears to the
minor 3rd. They just don’t know they know. What they and all listeners are all beneficiaries of is the false
trail that the intro leads us down. When the intro lands on the note of F on bar five, this note has two
harmonic identities; it sounds like the min3rd for the end of the intro phrase, but it actually constitutes the
root note of the new chord which, when the thumping bass enters with the root-min2nd-root motif, implies
Fm. Two bars later the piece starts properly with the whole band plus sax. One interesting thing to note in
this piece is the effective architecture and placement of the melody line and accompaniment; both giving
the other space to breathe. These are highlighted by the grey boxes.
Another interesting aspect to note is the distinct ‘busy’ performance oriented style of the melody. The line
has all the character and articulation of a melody which is performance-lead with real hints of on-the-spot
improvisation. If you look at the notes which come after the first G melody note (bar eight) to where the
line settles on the C note briefly (bar nine), it really comes across more as a ‘journey’ than a melody. It has
a loose, rugged organic feel to it.
GOLAPOGAS Paul Leonard Morgan
Golapogas is a three-part BBC nature documentary series which explores the history of the Golapogas
Islands, referencing the relevance of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. It was one of the first
documentary series to be filmed in HD and included impressive and breath-taking photography. The theme
music was by Paul Leonard Morgan and itself is a beautiful example of musical architecture, for several
reasons. The following section of the opening theme comes 0.43 second in. One of the main structural
devices in music (particularly Moving Image) is repetition of melody over different chords. Listeners and
viewers get the same melody but differently. This can create a slightly mesmerising emotion which is ideal
for music in which picture is a major component of the music. It creates familiarity and is easy to digest.
The 14-bar excerpt below essentially makes great use of the repetition of a two-bar hook over evolving
Fig. 116
‘Golapogas Islands’ intro 00.00.43
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The piece features some subtle tensions by virtue of the use of the 2nd, 4th and 6th intervals in bars one-four.
Such intervals in the melodic line raise the tension because they are a little different to what we’re used to
in ‘normal’ music. The fact that the melody manages to touch this many intervals/extensions whilst simply
repeating the same melody three times is essentially testament to the ability of the supporting chords to ‘do
the talking’ and contextualise the melody differently each time the phrase comes in. This is where the
conventional wisdom of melody being of more importance than harmony is turned on its head. Harmony
will nearly always be the reason for melodic success; in this piece it is simply more obvious. Melody is a
wonderful thing, but it is also a very limiting device. It helps us engage with a piece of music but it is not
always the only reason for music’s potent ability to communicate on a deep level.
Also, once again in this piece we see the power of melody and counterpoint; melody is simply a function in
music, and as such this function can be spread wherever it is needed. In the Golapogas theme the melody is
split between the top strings and the cellos underneath (highlighted below).
Fig. 117
Melody and counterpoint – how music breathes and keeps momentum
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THE ONEDIN LINE Aram Ilyich Khachaturian
The Onedin Line was a British historical TV drama set in Liverpool in the 1860s. Although fictional, it
deals with the rise of the shipping lanes and associated historical issues such as the change from sailing
ships to steam ships and the role ships played in international politics. The title music is taken from the
ballet Spartacus by 20th Century Russian composer Aram Khachaturian, and features some memorable
romantic orchestral writing and lush harmonies which reflect the romance and high emotional drama
contained in the narrative, pictures and story.
Fig. 118
Audio – The Onedin Line - 2.06
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The ‘intro’ to the TV show version of this famous piece begins with this quaver run-up which is enticing,
captivating and delivers the listener to the first bar of the melody in bar three in a climactic burst of
emotional energy. The line begins with cellos/violas with violins joining in unison before the line breaks
into octaves during bar two in the final lead-up. However, in order to locate the emotional impact we have
to look at the harmonies created by the quaver run-up, particularly the first three notes (7th, octave and b9th).
The 7th and b9th give the line a diminished feel. The flattened 9th – a very potent, emotional, theatrical
interval – is particularly crucial to the specific colour and emotion of the run-up. Similarly the b9th happens
again in bar 2, as does the theatrical (in this context at least) #5 (E).
Fig. 119
8 b9 3
5 #5 6
Looking beyond the intro, the Db, Dbmaj7 and Db7 sequence (bars three-eight) is particularly emotionally
captivating because when the Dbmaj7 appears after the Db, there is a tremendous rush of expectation that
the next two chords (and four bars) will be Db7 and Gb, which of course they are. This delicious selffulfilling prophecy which harmony sometimes delivers – that a listener knows the answer before it’s given
– is kind of a speeded-up version of the experience a reader has when they gradually understand the plot of
a detective novel before it’s finally revealed.
Fig. 120
Everybody will feel this inevitability irrespective of musical knowledge or understanding. Although as a
composer it’s unthinkable that you would fail to learn and understand the vast complexity of harmony, the
wonderful thing about music is that, as a listener, you don’t necessarily have to understand music to benefit
from the harmonic interplay and dynamics it creates.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
From where the melody begins (fig.118, bar three) there is an almost constant pedal note of Db. This helps
particularly when the chord reaches Gb6/Db because it prevents the harmonies becoming too predictable
and adds a little extra inverted harmonic dynamism into the chord.
As we can see below (fig.121) in the boxes highlighted, another great piece of harmonic interplay is the
enharmonically intervallic change in the notes in bars nine/ten and eleven/twelve. In bar nine the melody
notes of Ab and Gb are copied straight to bar eleven, where they appear as G# and F# because the harmony
underneath has shifted. If you played the chords of Gb/Db followed by D/F# there is not a great deal of
natural bonding excepting the Gb-F# relationship; however the composer has not only capitalised on that
enharmonic relationship, he has also used the Ab (add9) in bar nine, which, as a G# in bar eleven becomes
the #4 of the D chord.
Fig. 121
C#m7 to Eb/Db
A similar event happens in the final few bars of the cue (fig 118, bar 15 and fig.122 below) a chord of
C#m7(b5) appears. The following bar is an Eb/Db so the same bass note can work with both chords. What
they represent as intervals of the chord they belong to, moves from root to 7th. Moving the 7th of a chord to
the bass always creates gravity and drama but when the previous chord featured the same note as a root, the
harmonic change is palpable and effective.
Fig. 122
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GBH Richard Harvey and Elvis Costello
GBH was a British television drama series centring round the brutal and bizarre antics of borderline
psycopathic political leader Michael Murray. The character was allegedly based on the then leader of
Liverpool City Council, Derek Hatton. The music for the show is often dark and abstract but the opening
theme glides effortlessly through several styles and is set to still photographic images, graphics and a credit
roll. Without the accompanying music the pictures are visually quite ornate; the music, moving through
three definite but different stages, offers variation, drama, darkness and light.
GBH intro sequence – Audio - ‘The life and times of Michael Murray’.
Fig. 123
Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1 Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The piece starts on an inverted Eb/G chord, moving to Dm. The inversion is a great dramatic device; a
‘straight’ root positioned Eb chord to Dm manoeuvre would sound a little obvious and clinical. The bass
movement from the Eb/G chord to the root positioned Dm (i.e. G to D) makes the sequence a little more
interesting. Similarly the move down from Db/F to Cm (bar three to four) is helped and made more
dramatic for the same reason. The move (from bar four) from Cm to Eb to G to Am again lifts, highlights,
italicises and dramatizes; normally listeners are used quick chord changes featuring related chords – chords
that fit together easily and require little mental agility to decode and interpret. ‘Difficult’ or out-of-keycentre manoeuvres normally feature chords that sound for longer, so the change can be established and
digested. This move from Cm to Eb to G to Am is rapid and slightly disorientating.
The second section (bar six) consists of a slightly melodramatic preamble on horns and trombones which
leads to a completely different main theme – a delightful and catchy tune on glockenspiel and piano.
In bar nine (the bar before section 3) the two octave notes of Bb and F# are worth mentioning; we hear and
see the first note as a Bb due to the bar before containing Bb harmony, but in harmonic reality the lone Bb
in bar nine, in all-but name, actually functions as an A# - maj3rd of an F# root note, to which it moves
before navigating logically to the Bm key.
The constant and rapid juxtaposing of styles creates a tangible quirky unsettling sense of dramatic emotion.
If the piece had accompanied actual moving pictures the subtle interplay and dramatic tensions between the
three sections would not have worked as well but working with a simple selection of still images and
graphics, the music brings real context to the sequence.
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Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Chapter 10
This chapter will discuss a whole range of practical, creative and historical areas and issues and is
designed to help and inform composers who want to write for film and television. Most of the
contextual issues involved in composing music for the moving image have been embedded into
chapters within this book; the following pages contain more general information which could be of
interest to scholars and professionals alike.
The chapter will be divided into the following areas
Subverting the norm
How do we make music fit the picture?
How do film composers manage to turn it round so quickly?
The main reason the audience knows more than the characters is because of music.
When does drama become melodrama?
When music is overcooked
Orchestrating over the din
Scoring around dialogue
Audience concentration and the role of music
Whose point of view do you play?
How to stimulate your intuition
Music and Image
Classical Film Scoring
The authenticity of the film score
Placement, Architecture and Economy
Basic tips and tricks
Transition between time and place
Sampled versus the real thing
Number crunching
Relying on the click
Common mistakes
Stylistic cohesion
Practicality and pragmatism
Composer as storyteller
Aural logo and sonic signature
Composing as frozen improvisation
The hand of history
How should film music be heard?
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Subverting the norm
One of the fundamental reasons film music works at all as a concept is that it successfully engages the
emotions of the listener / viewer. Life doesn’t come with its own musical accompaniment; it doesn’t
need to because we’re living it. But when we go to the cinema we are asked to suspend our own reality
and instead believe in someone else’s reality; quite literally to live someone else’s ideas. In this context
music works well to bridge the emotional void which separates us from the two-dimensional images on
a screen.
Sometimes music is merely meant to be a polite addition to the images, to help people digest the
emotion properly, but sometimes the most memorable uses of music are where it skews our reality and
confounds our expectations, exciting us, drawing us in and taking us ‘somewhere else’. Many of the
examples we look at in this book are where the music subverted and challenged what we expected to
hear. Our aural cognition and musical judgment, just like every part of our life, is based on our ability
to classify and categorise what we hear. We do this by often subconsciously comparing it to music
we’ve heard before. This is how we arbitrate the vastness of what music is. If we had no mechanism of
classification or categorisation visually and aurally, the world would be a permanently disorientating
and chaotic place. Every experience would be ‘the first time’. Therefore to challenge someone’s
expectations musically is potentially a potent but subtle form of manipulation.
Film music sometimes works because it simply confirms what we expected and wanted and therefore
fulfills an aural need. But some film music also succeeds because it often offers us things we didn’t
expect, didn’t see coming and hadn’t prepared for. Extreme examples of this might be serious
dissonance, which often has the effect of making us feel uncomfortable. This may make us more
receptive to the visual stimulation of a film simply by setting an appropriate tone. Much more subtle
ways of offering us aural situations we didn’t expect might make us feel unsettled, disorientated,
perplexed or confused. The more we examine how successful film music is constructed in terms of its
use of harmonic, melodic, rhythmic or instrumental tradition, the more we realise that some of the
greatest examples of film music communicate so well precisely because they don’t conform to what we
Commercial songs are the same in some respects, but although the current misleading ethos is that
songs ‘all sound the same’ because they have to pander to precise methods of construction and systems
of production even to get heard, if we seriously analyse most successful songs we will find that there is
nearly always something special, something we didn’t expect, something that attracted our attention
and fired our emotional responses. People would like to pretend that these small, slight and subtle
distortions in patterns, chords, melodies or production are peculiar to each song. People also sometimes
like to believe that any song’s ability to communicate with listeners is so embedded in deep abstract
psychological and metaphysical issues that it is virtually impossible to rationalise, much less derive any
general meaning which might apply to everybody who listens to it. These views perpetuate most of the
myths which surround the art of composition and succeed in shrouding it in mystery. It’s only a
mystery why and how music communicates if you choose not to find out. True, we are all different and
we listen in subtly different ways according to our emotional intelligence, experiences and intellect, but
still the vast majority of the reasons most things musical communicate in the ways they do are
completely understandable.
How do we make music fit the picture?
Thomas Newman said “Less definitely is more. People are watching in real time, but you’re not writing
in real time”. This is one of the great truisms about how music is created. We listen to music in real
time and we listen from left to right, from start to finish. Listening is a linear experience with a
predefined time limit, unlike, for example, visual art; there is no time limit on looking at a painting. In
music things are not replayed for us physically unless we stop and reverse or fast-forward the
recording. We cannot keep returning to one particular section as a matter of course; we do not have
complete control and the context of our comprehension is not wholly our own. I say this because, by
complete and stark contrast, this is not how we write music. We compose in sections and we compose
at a radically different pace than the eventual product is heard. The biggest problem therefore is
constantly trying to conceptualise what the ‘real-time version’ will sound like whilst still creating it.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
When you get close to an impressionist painting it sometimes becomes a blur. But from a distance it
makes sense. Artists therefore had to constantly ‘zoom out’ and evaluate how it would look to the
viewer. Composers have to do a similar thing with their music. They have to zone out of ‘relative time’
and into ‘real time’ to see if what they’ve created sounds good at the speed of its eventual delivery and
in context of its eventual surroundings. Because composers lack the ability for the speed of
conceptualization and creation to match the speed by which the music is consumed, there is sometimes
a mismatch in the process and a disparity in how the piece communicates. Therefore part of the job of a
successful composer is converting their ideas into something which will be understandable for what it
was meant to be. The message takes ages to perfect but is relayed in real time; we have to ensure the
message does not get lost in translation.
One of the reasons budding film music doesn’t always work as well as it might is because it can sound
contrived, unnatural, forced and occasionally clumsy. Sometimes composers are trying to say too much
in the relatively brief amount of time the piece has. Sometimes potentially effective music might be
spoiled by clumsy delivery or indulgent orchestration or production. Maybe in many ways there is
often simply too much music in music. Certainly the music of Thomas Newman, John Powell, Craig
Armstrong, Michael Nyman and the numerous other great film composers who understand how to slow
the ‘rate of music within music’ down, seems to regularly hit a nerve with viewers. One of the reasons
films like United 93, Road to Perdition, Gatacca and many, many more, communicate so vividly is
because they contain music which seems to deliberate; to ponder. This does not mean such music is
necessarily ‘going slower’; merely that it is constructed in a way which allows its nuances to breathe
and be heard and allows listeners to the luxury of interpretation. Sometimes music needs to allow us
the time to listen, not just hear. It needs to allow us to appreciate, to comprehend, to reflect and
understand; this is when music becomes an experience rather than simply an event.
Clearly this kind of approach cannot work for every type of film but there is a general feeling that
perhaps sometimes music simply tries too hard. Music is an extension of someone’s thoughts and
opinions, someone’s point of view and it is also sometimes an extension of ego. In songwriting this is
entirely fitting but with music for the moving image your music fulfills a function and serves a
purpose. Indulgence and ego therefore are not the dominating forces in film music that they are in
songwriting. ‘Good’ film music is perceived as good because the function of it good; what it’s doing is
good. Film music is ‘good’ because it succeeds in immersing itself with the pictures and creating ‘one’
experience. Therefore the kind of musical ego needed to write songs has to be supplanted with a more
pragmatic and functional imagination which can carve ideas into specific units of time, forgetting how
it stacks up as ‘music’ and concentrating instead on how it works functionally. Perhaps in many ways
what Thomas Newman and other expressive composers have managed to do is to take excessive ego
and opinion out of the music and allow these to be a product of the listener.
Composer Jerry Fielding said “Bad film music intrudes and italicizes moments that have no need of
such emphasis”. This is very true and always has been. Certainly it’s much more obvious in older films
where subtlety was rare but in some ways it’s just as much of a problem now. In 1940 someone
listening to the kind of music Craig Armstrong wrote for World Trade Centre or John Powell wrote for
United 93 would find it hard to figure out how such music would succeed in italicizing the emotion.
This is because people, and audiences, were guided on how to feel much more aggressively than they
are now. That said, sometimes immensely emotional scenes and situations are spoiled by having music
which succeeds in intruding and highlighting rather than increasing the emotion. Thankfully some
modern films allow the viewer the freedom to interpret and one of the vehicles for this is the music
they use. They feature music which leaves many doors open for interpretation.
How do film composers manage to turn it round so quickly?
As a composer of music for the moving image you can’t wait for the great inspiration. Conceptualizing
is essential but you cannot simply sit around waiting for it to show up. Your time is limited. Typically
film score composers might get anything between 4 and 6 weeks to complete a score, inclusive of
orchestration, production and recording. As I have alluded to elsewhere this horrendous lack of time in
which to perfect your ideas can be stressful but it can also create its own dynamic. It highlights the
need for discipline and the clear need for a fundamental grasp of music structure and harmonic
dynamics. What most film composers have as standard is a huge bagful of ideas, concepts, approaches
and methods. Any number of these may form the basis of the initial ideas for a new project.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Into their existing templates which reflect their understanding and methodologies come new ideas
which might give one particular score a specific identity. Having an approach and a style forms the
basis of a composer’s identity. This is how composers turn it round so quickly. So when James Horner
talks about how a film speaks to him being at the core of his conceptual process, this is the point where
he decides on a basic approach, which in turn triggers more specific ideas in terms of instrumentation
and harmony, which Horner often interprets as ‘colour’.
Little of this process is genuinely random or to do with spontaneous unbridled inspiration; it is the
result of an immense database of knowledge, distilled through an eclectic and vivid imagination. This
is how and why composers such as Horner turn it round so quickly and develop an identifiable style.
This is also how Beethoven and Mozart and the rest of them turned it round so quickly. I do not mean
to suggest that each new piece they write is simply a different version of the last piece; merely that
what enables them to carve out a successful and distinct identity is to do with supreme ability, almost
limitless understanding and imagination and, finally, process.
The main reason the audience knows more than the characters is because of music.
As a composer of music for film you are not simply writing to accompany moving pictures; you’re
sharing in the telling of the story. You tell the story in a subtly different way to the pictures, but you are
sharing the storytelling duties nonetheless. People use their eyes better than they use their ears; because
people have a greater understanding of moving images they find it easier to rationalise a moving
picture. Their understanding of how to interpret music is usually not as strong because, for most, music
lacks a visual dimension: they can’t see how it does it. They can’t see how or why it affects them. This
is why music is so powerful; because its meaning is not quite as absolute as pictures or words it is more
open to subtle interpretation. Whilst composers retain the power to be direct and unsubtle, they also
have to power to tell a story more subtly, in a vague, oblique way.
When does drama become melodrama?
We cringe when confronted by hammy overacting. When we look at older films, although we may love
and cherish them, we have to occasionally acknowledge that some of the acting, composing and
directing techniques are, by today’s standards, rather too obvious. One of the principal ways in which
films can be ruined is when the music turns the drama into melodrama. How much is too much? How
much is enough? For composers of ‘normal’ music, e.g. music written for commercial consumption as
music, this is perhaps not as much as an issue, because there is only music; you will hopefully know
when enough is enough. You will know when you’ve overcooked it. But for composers of music for
the moving image where the music is part of a larger construct, it is often difficult to underwrite, to
understate. It’s easy to be seduced into going too far. The effect needed from film and television music
is supplementary, and in addition not just to the image but the sound design and dialogue. You go too
far when you overstate your case musically; usually this is instrumentally, melodically and in context
of orchestration. You go too far when you crowd the drama.
In the distant past, film music tended to be mainly duplicative in nature and function. Film music
precedents, rituals and traditions were, and to a degree still are, important; without the defining
techniques and approaches of pioneers like Max Steiner there might not have even been a film music
industry. Film music carries with it the burden of heritage from the so-called ‘golden era’ where music
was inherently descriptive and almost universally duplicative. Its job was to carve out a musically
emotional dimension for the film to accompany the pictures. Seemingly there was no other context to
music; no greater role. Some movies still require the same model today but increasingly new
generations of film composers are providing often subtle emotional commentaries on the film, rather
than simply a sequence of cues designed to fit the picture. They are telling the same story but in a
different way. This is not to say that this is an entirely new way of thinking and working; there are
many films from the past where music is used in different ways. The point is that in the past a majority
of directors and producers used film music in an obvious, descriptive and often clumsy way; they had
quite rigid formulaic ideas about what the role of music was. As a result young aspiring composers can
often over-score when they essentially follow an old scoring model, which far too many directors will
want them to do.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
One of the great problems is that many student directors tend to listen more to film music than ‘music’;
at university level new and aspiring directors are taught about all aspects of a film but pitifully little is
taught to educate and enlighten would-be directors about music. This is an important observation
because if student directors simply listen to existing film music and end up giving composers temp
tracks to inspire them, film music risks becoming a specific genre, a style. I say this because the real
strength of film music has traditionally been that it was inclusive of many musical styles and
When music is overcooked
Part of the baggage from the past is the concept of ‘hit points’ in moving image where a composer
faithfully ‘hits’ (or acknowledges musically) every big or obvious visual change. Some movies need
this kind of approach but again, increasingly directors want more from music and composers are
finding new ways of matching the on-screen dynamics without literally hitting or duplicating
One of the principal ways descriptive or duplicative writing has become cliched and overdone is to be
found in TV nature documentaries. Initially such programs weren’t scored; it was considered a little
distracting to have ‘music’ (seen as ‘entertainment’) within nature documentaries. When eventually
directors experimented with music its use would be sparing, perhaps limited to intro, outro and edit
points or scene changes. Today nature documentaries are wildly successful commercial products which
enjoy huge budgets and high worldwide viewing figures. They often have wonderfully filmic, crafted,
lavish full orchestral scores. But not everyone supports this; some think that the constant, rousing,
densely orchestrated classically romantic music detracts from the power of the documentary, rather
than supporting it. Certainly specialists in nature recording (people who spend days crafting techniques
which enable them to record distinctive sounds of nature) are sometimes not overly keen on how their
work has been devalued and demeaned by the brash, sweeping brushstrokes of orchestral music. Chris
Watson, a renowned specialist in nature recording, told me of situations where he would, for example,
spend days perfecting a series of small microphones built on a coat hanger, which was placed in the
ribcage of a dead animal in order to capture the sounds of predators feeding. This is the level of detail
to which specialists go in order to capture the sound to match the pictures, but such specialisms are
increasingly cast aside in favour of an increasing tendency towards the heavy orchestration and
unsubtle brushstrokes of brash romanticism. Such writing invariably includes a reliance on ‘mickey
mousing’ – a term first coined to describe the way cartoon music follows every important piece of onscreen action.
Orchestrating over the din
One way music can crowd a film is not necessarily in terms of composition but in terms of
orchestration. Don’t forget that your music is entirely notional until it is applied to the sounds and
instruments which bring it to life. In this respect arranging, orchestration and production are crucial;
they represent the ultimate prism through which your music will be enjoyed and understood. How
music sounds is the ultimate, final and only arbiter of how music is. If you score a scene which
includes children’s voices with mid-to-high instrumentation, you might be crowding the dialogue.
Equally if you’re confronted with low, resonant voices, you have to orchestrate and/or mix your way
out of sonic trouble. Hans Zimmer’s contribution to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight utilizes his
trademark low and textured mixture of orchestral instruments and sampled sounds, which work
brilliantly well; but what is also a triumph is the production, which navigates the often dense textures
of the sound design and the sibilance of Christian Bale’s voice.
Scoring around dialogue
In early films composers simply avoided placing music over dialogue. Music was used where dialogue
wasn’t. The perceived artificiality of music was considered at odds with the naturalism of human
speech. Music’s job was to punctuate scene changes and score over ‘establishing shots’, scene changes
and other edits. It was assumed that the public couldn’t possibly concentrate on dialogue if there was a
‘racket going on behind it’, and it was also assumed that the use of music over or under dialogue would
lead to diluted, dull music that would then cheapen the art form.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
It was okay for music to accompany image, but not dialogue. This was of course wrong. Good writers
can create effective music that conveys extra feelings the dialogue cannot deliver. Also they were
wrong about the audience; for the most part people do not need two brains and two sets of ears to
interpret music and dialogue together. They interpret it as one, because it has been conceived as one by
the composer. If the composer has done a bad job the public will be confused and irritated by the bad
mix of music and dialogue. The most important thing is that two different forms of expression can coexist if they’re not created in ignorance of each other.
The ability to score round dialogue is important. You have to write the kind of music which doesn’t
need to keep having enormous holes carved out of it in order to accommodate the dialogue or sound
design. Music which is continually dipping in and out can become tiresome, distracting and
predictable. Also audience concentration is something composers have to bear in mind. Music is
usually the last creative element to go onto a film, so the job of a composer is not just knowing what to
write, but, as Jerry Goldsmith said, ‘knowing where to write it’. A sense of architecture is paramount.
As an extremely general rule of thumb (and as the simplistic diagram below, shows) it’s best to avoid
big, complex music when the scene has lots of talking or heavy dialogue and/or sound design. Scenes
where there is plenty of talking or other sound which is important to the plot, are best scored lightly.
if the film is…
Music can be…
High emotional impact; busy;
Lots of talking etc
Emotive, Complex, Romantic, Big, Grand,
Luscious and Thematic
Medium emotional impact
Moderately emotive music
Low emotive music; uncomplicated music;
simple ideas; long chords
Visually simple scenes
Audience concentration and the role of music
When the audience sees lips move as well as hearing the character’s voice, the music may be
fractionally easier to apply. When people see what they hear they tend to understand it more. But when
viewers can hear a voice but cannot see the lips moving (such as in off-screen dialogue or narration)
they perceive the movie and the dialogue separately and then join the two together; this means they
have one more thing to concentrate on. Be observant of the textures of the speaking actors. As we have
established elsewhere, the term ‘music to moving image’ is a little misleading or incomplete. You’re
also writing music for existing sound, which is just as much of a challenge to navigate as writing to
moving picture. ‘Speaking’ tends to have a moving, evolving texture which mostly manages to
punctuate music and stand out against the more consistent textures of instrumentation; but still its best
to avoid something as distracting as melody during important dialogue. Composer Alex North referred
to ‘orchestrating out of the vocal range’; we need to interpret this as ‘scoring around the dialogue
Solos tend to take your mind away from the spoken word. They both tend to be singular, particular and
unusual. In any case irrespective of solos, avoid extreme highs and lows over dialogue. Music that is
too demanding to listen to will distract the audience, especially where something visually important is
happening, or under dialogue; but that needn’t always be a bad thing. Sometimes you want to distract,
to confuse and befuddle. But in general, unless you are attempting to make some bold point or
deliberately trying to wrong-foot the audience, needlessly complex or demanding music might not
work with dialogue.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Whose point of view do you play?
We have looked numerous times in the book at this issue, in much detail and in many cases specific to
the movie we’re analysing. But in general terms it’s important to realise that movie music has a
multitude of possibilities. It can play the story or the fiction: the two are not always the same thing. The
fiction refers to the on-screen events and depictions whereas the story can often be much more
complex, deep and meaningful. This book contains numerous examples where the music plays the
underlying story; something which sometimes the film is not always capable of articulating or wants
deliberately to leave to the undergrowth of audience interpretation. Music can play the character, it can
play the scene or it can play the overview. It can play it long or play it short. Music contains the
potential for more possibilities in terms of what it says than any other aspect of the creative process of
How to stimulate your intuition
Intuition is not, despite its inference, something that always flows naturally, spontaneously and without
provocation. People talk about intuition as if it is a naturally occurring phenomenon or even a ‘gift’, but
this can be misleading. Sometimes you need to stimulate your intuition by not ‘overthinking’
something or accidentally blocking naturally creative instincts with intellect. Try to respond
emotionally and react as an audience member, then translate your emotions into music. Sometimes it’s
better to watch the images again and again, making notes about general issues like what kind of
approach you might employ, what kind of instruments / samples you might use. These general
observations will enable you to make good creative decisions. Too many composers simply rush to the
keyboard with the pictures rolling and try and immediately carve out a response. You need avenues,
methods, structures in place to channel your intuition and emotion into cold, hard, actual music
Sometimes a large part of the initial process is not about writing, it’s about conceptualizing; sorting out
your emotional responses and what you as a person and an artist see in the pictures. Also, try to avoid
too much detail in the early stages of composition. This may block you in, creatively. Try to avoid the
quicksand of detail until there is a need for it. Once a musical genre / approach for a specific film is
established a composer should blend in his or her own aesthetic tendencies; making it their own and
adapting it into something unique. The importance of analysing the film before you jump into writing
music is important. Most successful composers spend hours conceptualising. Writing music is only
partly about writing music; mostly it’s about thinking. Composing is an act which sometimes needs to
be the result of a process, not its beginning.
Many filmgoers say they don’t often consciously notice the music, but that doesn’t mean their
subconscious mind isn’t reflecting on the interplay and thematic connections between the music and
the film. Indeed a common mantra amongst film watchers is that they ‘don’t hear the music but they
would notice if it wasn’t there’. This seems to give currency to the notion that whilst they aren’t often
conscious of hearing music, in all probability they listen to the interaction, which is a different, deeper
process.Filmgoers tend to be aware of music when it is at its most obvious. Visual edits and / or
crossfades can be used as a narrative device to indicate a transition in time or place. Most of these
require music and such music tends to be heard and listened to.
Music and Image
The first step toward understanding existing film music is to hear it as music and then see it in its larger
construct – with the image. Try not to think of ‘great music’. Film music does not exist in a vacuum; it
is not written to neccasarily function as a stand-alone musical experience. If it was, the self-same music
may fail as film music. Music purely for listening carries the burden and expectation of being
entertaining in its own right; it carries the burden of having to function on its own. The type of music
often used for film does not always function brilliantly well simply as music; it is not meant to. Film
music shares with the image and other sounds to shape an overall composite perception.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Classical Film Scoring
Classic film scoring techniques, which have remained largely unchanged in 80 years, did not simply
spontaneously appear with the development of movies. They inherited a legacy of the concept of
musical accompaniment which dates back thousands of years. Accustomed though we are to speak of
the films made before 1927 as ‘silent’, the film has never been, in the full sense of the word, silent. The
main use of music in film, initially, was to drown out the awful noise of the projector. ‘Film Music’
was not initially seen as an artistic benefit to a film experience. Its use was pragmatic; its role purely
functional. Music removed the strangeness of a silent film; audiences were unused to the collective
intimacy of a darkened room and to a degree music helped this situation. The interesting aspect of all
this is that music not only neutralised distracting noises, it also neutralised technical flaws within the
film itself. This aspect of its heritage is arguably still intact. Music was used for its form rather than its
content. It was used for what it did, not what it was. One early alternative to music was the ‘film
explainer’ – a person who would narrate the film. The interesting thing is that we tend to think of this
idea with the same sense of absurdity as early film pioneers probably thought of music.
The authenticity of the film score
The majority of silent films were shot without any thought of music. Most times when you hear a silent
movie with an accompanying score, it is not really authentic. Some had music added after the event,
whereas some silent films, made after the possibility of synchronisation, were made with suitable gaps
to accommodate music. Thus the early relationship between image and music was not about context or
synchronicity or art. It was about crude function and commerciality. That said, Irving Thalberg, an
MGM producer in the 1920s, was remarkably complimentary about the inclusion of music in the silent
film era, saying, “There never was a silent film. We’d finish a picture, show it in our projection room
and come out shattered. It was awful. Then we’d show it in a theatre, with a girl down in the pit
pounding away at a piano, and it would make all the difference in the world.” adding, “without music
there wouldn’t have been a film industry at all.” When silent films turned into ‘talkies’ studio heads
brought over some of Europe’s most prominent ‘classical’ composers. They became advisors and
orchestrators, involved in rescoring existing classical works. So, even back then, nobody had seriously
envisaged specially commissioned original music. People thought only of ‘music’, not specially
commissioned music. This wasn’t because they couldn’t afford commissioned music; it is simply
because nobody had thought of it. People take the concept of specially commissioned film music for
granted, but this is only because it has established itself as a concept. We have Max Steiner, arguably
the godfather of film music, to thank for this. People say that often the first person to suggest
something or do something or invent something receives disproportionate praise for something that
would have been done eventually anyway. This is because we look at the great ideas and inventions
through the flawed perspective created by the passage of time; we simply assume someone would have
done it eventually.
Even now most people think it absurd to suggest that the film/music relationship ought to be the other
way around (movies put to music). We think it odd that directors would devise a plan for a film around
the emotional contours of a piece of music. Although this has been done it is very rare. And yet, if it
were the norm, we would probably accept it without question.
Eventually Max Steiner (who had been an advisor to film companies regarding the use of classical
music) convinced producer David Selznick to let him compose some original music. The
‘commissioned film score’ was born. But still there are critics of the use of film music and even critics
of the use of sound in films. Inevitably such critics tend to be ‘cultural theorists’ or occasionally crusty
academics that mainly inhabit a vast ‘paraworld’ of their own thoughts and opinions without giving
real credence to the world in which everyone else lives and functions. Cultural theorist Rudolph
Arnheim said, in his book ‘Film as Art’ “it is obvious speech cannot be attached to the immobile image
(paintings, photography), but it is equally unsuited to the [silent] film, whose means of expression
resemble those of a painting. The essence of cinema is basically visual. Every sonic intervention ought
to limit itself to a justified and necessary act of integration.”
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Placement, Architecture and Economy
Max Steiner said in the 1930s: “the toughest job in film scoring is knowing when and where to place it
[music]”. In other words it’s not always what you do but where you do it and even if you do it. This is
because the primary reason for film music is its function. It isn’t simply there as music; it’s there for a
reason. The reason is why it works. Therefore if the function or placement of music is wrong, the
music itself will sound wrong. When music sounds wrong it is usually the placement which is bad, not
the music; after all, what is bad music? It is often the judgement of what the music does which is at
fault, not the music. Essentially there is no such thing as ‘bad music’; there is only interpretation and
judgement. The interpretation and judgement of film music is invariably tied up in how we hear it in
conjunction with the pictures, in other words, the function. The problem of overuse of music in film
still exists today; Danny Elfmann said, “Very often the biggest disagreement I have with a director is
simply them wanting as much music as they do”. Certainly if we look at the modern film industry
music tends to be overused. It’s interesting to note that many films whose music lives on actually had
comparatively little music. Perhaps a good example of this is Out of Africa, which won John Barry an
Academy Award despite having just over thirty minutes of music for a two hour film. Does over-usage
of music affect the value of music? Of course it does; therefore part of your job is to say ‘no’. Part of
your job is to protect the heritage of film music and protect its future by defending it against hostile
When, for their excellent book ‘On the Track’ by Rayburn Wright and Fred Karlin, film directors were
asked how music affects a film, there were some frank and interesting views expressed. Francis Ford
Coppola said “Music is a big factor in helping the illusion of the film come to life - the same way
music brings back different periods of our lives”. This is an important and astute observation.
Whenever we hear music we remember, the memory it triggers is of something tangible, whether it’s a
place or time or a person. The use of music in film can exploit that same kind of emotional power; the
power music has to remind us of a feeling. Director Alex Cox said he thought music was overused and
suggested that “someone should do a film without any music at all”. This is a common mantra amongst
many directors but it is probably down to frustration over the way music is used and how much is used,
not the actual concept of music’s inclusion in film.
Commercially successful films without music tend sometimes to be documentary-style, hand-held
camera oriented projects where the inclusion of music would be absurd when trying to present
something as if it were documented fact (such as Cloverfield). Cameron Crowe, who made Jerry
Maguire and Almost Famous said “The best soundtrack music by-passes your mind and goes straight to
your soul.” This is reminiscent of the famous TS Elliot quote in which he said “true art communicates
before it is understood”. This is an important point; as we discussed before, perhaps one of the main
reasons music does communicate is because there normally is no tangible or rational process of
understanding, of comprehension. For most cinemagoers, film music just is. The effect it has on us is
not something we can easily rationalise; this is its most endearing characteristic and its great strength.
Guy Hamilton, who directed, amongst others, such notable films as Battle of Britain, Goldfinger, Force
10 from Navarone said, “I cannot improve on Maurice Jaubert’s [quote] ‘We do not go to the cinema to
hear music. We require it to deepen and prolong in us the screen’s visual impact”. Of all quotes this is
probably the most profound and the most correct. The problem of music’s inclusion in film, therefore,
is probably the amount used. The composer inevitably gets the blame for this but in essence these are
usually directorial and production mistakes, not musical ones. Sidney Lumet said [music] “should be
treated as another leading character.” This is another interesting observation and indeed in many films
which contain landmark scores, the music’s inclusion was so profound that it did function almost as a
character. Reportedly when asked who played E.T., Spielberg replied “John; he played the Shark too”
[in Jaws]. Martin Scorsese said “music and cinema fit together naturally. There’s a kind of intrinsic
musicality to the way moving images work when they’re put together.” This is the first quote where a
director has acknowledged the real creative kinship which exists between music and image. There is
indeed a musicality (a pace, tempo, emotion) to most films, visually. Rather than music being seen as
‘in addition to’ film, it could be argued that film’s most natural partner is music.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Basic tips and tricks
When you look at a scene you intend to score, think about the moment you want to music to make its
point – to become ‘well established’ – then work back from there to work out the best spot to bring in
the music initially. Divide the lead-up into bars and beats, which will show you structurally how long
you have in terms of the ‘relative time’ of music until the hit. This will make the hit sound ‘in context’
and not sound forced or contrived. The audience probably won’t notice the cue starting and stopping,
but they are aware that it is crafted to make its point at a particular moment.
Film music is not conceived or constructed like other music. Although it is experienced sequentially it
is rarely composed sequentially, even within a specific scene or cue. Musical changes during a scene
will have a great deal of emotional impact on the content but equally music which remains aloof from
visual subtleties can be effective; visual angles and perspectives change within a scene so sometimes
music is the one constant factor which binds a scene together. Sometimes if a scene is ‘still’ or nothing
of note happens visually, the music may be required to make the difference – the music’s function
becomes narrative.
Film and television drama scores can sometimes appear to be filled with dissonance and complex
harmonies. It’s interesting to note that music which is complex harmonically is often simple
structurally or rhythmically or texturally. For music to be dissonant in all ways may present a
challenging listening experience. Try to remember where your music fits in the grand scheme of things.
Remember, this is not ‘real’ music; this is not music for music’s sake, this is music to accompany
picture. This is music which, over and above everything, has to have a salient function. Your music is a
part of that film, not the other way round.
Transition between time and place
Music can help to tell a story by underscoring the transition between time and place.
Given that very few films occur in real-time, music’s job is to accentuate often massive shifts in time
and place which means its impact can be pivotal to a film. When musical changes happen a moment
before the visual cut, they have the effect of drawing us into the change – preparing us, as it were.
Musical transitions which are frame-accurate will have more of a segmented and regimented feel.
Sampled v ‘the real thing’
For years the central narrative regarding the use of synths and later sample libraries was ‘are they as
good as the real thing’. The giant shadow cast by the development of ever-more sample synths,
modules and samples was obsessed with one issue: how close to reality was it? There was an almost
limitless pursuit of sonic perfection; as if that was what ‘musical reality’ was. The breath-taking irony
is that now we are at a point in history where samples are so utterly perfect, so devoid of the tiny,
almost imperceptible nuances that make music human, that they have in some ways ceased to sound
‘normal’. To sample a note is not to sample its use but its unilateral sound. So much of the character of
music is tied up in performance, so using sample libraries has to go hand-in-hand with a detailed and
realistic knowledge and understanding of what real instruments sound like.
The obsession with sonic perfection tended to overshadow the much bigger issue of how and why we
use sounds and instruments in the first place. What is their function? What do they do? As with many
technological advances the primary motivation was ‘can we do this?’ not ‘should we do this?’ The
point I make is that from a ‘film music’ perspective technology is used to serve the music. That is its
primary function. Why and how and in what situation or context we use instruments (real or sampled)
are questions arrangers and orchestrators constantly ask. But often composers with a small grasp of
arranging can have a romanticised idea about instrumentation, almost as if the reason for the success of
a particular instrument is merely its inclusion; that all it need do is exist.
As an arranger or orchestrator you constantly ask yourself what the function of the sound or the
instrument or the section is. As an orchestrator you do not simply and spontaneously envisage groups
of instruments on an indulgent whim. Function is the primary guiding principle. What gives an
instrument its inherent beauty is what it plays, not what it is; in other words, its function.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
What gives an instrument its function is a combination of the player and the composer, arranger,
orchestrator and/or producer. It’s never about the sound; it’s about what we do with it. Technology is
the same; it is an instrument.
Regarding the use of samples, people were understandably preoccupied with getting the most realistic
sound possible but often this was to the detriment of an understanding of why they wanted the sounds
in the first place. One cannot simply throw an instrumental texture at a piece of music and hope for the
best just because it ‘sounds real’. Similarly, often would-be arrangers and orchestrators are preoccupied
with instrument ranges and understanding the intimate workings of every instrument, almost as if
arranging and orchestration is purely a science. Knowing ‘how’ to write for an instrument in terms of
its limitations is easy compared to knowing what to write. Being armed with technical knowledge does
not in itself make an arranger out of you. What makes an arranger out of you is using your imagination
to develop ideas and carve out an instrumental identity. The quality of professional orchestral sample
libraries is now so good that it is no longer a debate about whether the sounds ‘sound real’, it’s once
again a debate about what we do with the sounds; whether we use them at all and if we do, how?
Play or click?
One simple observation is that strings always sound better when ‘played in’, not ‘clicked in’. If you
click the notes in you can often spend ages trying to manipulate the kind of relationship between two
successive notes (by overlapping audio samples) which would be entirely natural in performance. If
you closely examine your fingers when playing a simple slow string line into a keyboard there is
sometimes a crossover when briefly, both notes are being played. This imitates the string section
insofar as when, for example, eighteen 1st violins move from one note to the next, there are invariably
subtle differences in articulation resulting in a tiny, almost imperceptible blur. To an extent this is part
of their sound, so performing string lines on a keyboard using fingers tends to replicate this. Nonkeyboard players sometimes say that ‘clicking’ is the only way, but even if keyboards are not your
instrument, as a musician you will be able to ‘mock up’ a successful rhythmic interpretation of the line
even if melodically it is wrong. When you’ve successfully played in the rhythm, simply change the
actual notes in midi.
A mistake that some people make when using sampled strings is quite simply the number of voices
they play at any one time (when playing a chord). If you were arranging a chord for a 40-piece string
of, say, Cmaj7, even with 40 people you would spread the voicing only between four and six parts.
Even with a 60-piece string orchestra you wouldn’t normally go beyond 6 note chord voicings. The
inherent beauty of hearing a chord is directly relevant to experiencing a combination of the individual
notes and the composite sound they produce. This is in essence why harmony works; because it
communicates a combination of several notes and an overarching identity relatively easily; it transmits
an intrinsic uniqueness. If, on the other hand, you were to score a 20-part chord, no one voice would
penetrate; we might hear the top, the bottom but simply a blur in the middle.
Most importantly, whether you’re using fantastically accurate samples or not, if you don’t voice strings
like real strings are voiced, you will end up with a sound which sounds like it’s a synth. This tends to
happen quite a lot; budding film score composers who lack arranging skills will use top quality samples
by way of attempting to short-circuit the need for knowledge of chord voicing. The unavoidable reality
remains that irrespective of the quality of the string samples you use, they have to be scored as ‘real’
strings would be in order to sound like ‘real strings’, just as actual string players would need to play the
right kind of voicings for the chord to ‘work’.
As an example, if you simply laid both hands on a keyboard triggering string samples and played a
chord of F with all ten fingers, immediately you lose the authenticity of a ‘string sound’. Whereas if by
comparison you played proper voicings, even with a texturally limited older synth string module, you
can sometimes achieve convincing results. Authenticity isn’t always about the ‘sound’. Also, using
sampled sounds gives you the ability to mix any sound louder than another. An orchestra does not; it
has a natural dynamic between instruments and sections. If you are trying to mock-up an orchestra and
you mix sounds in a way that does not replicate a natural acoustic environment, again you will lose
some authenticity. To an extent an orchestra is a self-mixing environment where the size of instrument
group is in ratio to the size of another instrument group.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
People sometimes assume that getting the best out of sampled sounds is solely about production and
mix, but the best way is to learn the way an orchestra sounds is to listen to it in its natural environment.
The mix is less about personal choice and much more dictated by tradition. This sounds like an obvious
statement to make, but if you want to score string samples realistically, listen to real strings recorded
and also listen to real strings playing acoustically.
Often the benefit of ‘real’ instruments is romanticised. People will doggedly use real pianos rather than
sampled sounds or digital pianos, but unless you’re on a pristine acoustic piano often the sampled
sound works better sonically and in context of consistent action. There are issues to think of when
using samples of brass or woodwind, which don’t tend to always work as convincingly as strings. For
example real trumpets and trombones don’t always have the same attack at the beginning of every note.
The first note of a phrase is attacked slightly differently than the third or fourth note in a line, which
will often sound smoother. But sampled sounds invariably capture a note not the third note or fourth
note in a phrase. The note will sound like its being played for the first time because as far as the sample
is concerned, it is. You can easily end up with quite a caricatured, mimicked and raspy rendition of the
sound unless you use the software to alter the attack.
Instruments chosen for a midi orchestra using sampled sounds are limited only by your imagination,
your sequencer and the recording tracks available. This leads people to imagine that any orchestral
combination can work in the real world. Real orchestras are much more limited. If authenticity is what
you’re after there are specific combinations that work.
Number crunching
Particularly with strings, people often midi-orchestrate using too many tracks – too many sounds, too
many instruments per section and too many fingers on the keyboard. The success and authenticity of
the string section is about ratio, size and perspective.
A 60-piece string orchestra
would be divided up:
A 40-piece string orchestra
would be divided up:
16 people playing 1st Violins
14 people playing 2nd Violins
12 people playing Violas
10 people playing Cellos
8 people playing Basses
12 people playing 1st Violins
10 people playing 2nd Violins
8 people playing Violas
6 people playing Cellos
4 people playing Basses
A 40-piece ‘studio’ string
orchestra would be divided
12 people playing 1 Violins
12 people playing 2nd Violins
8 people playing Violas
8 people playing Cellos
A 23-piece string orchestra
would be divided up:
8 people playing 1st Violins
6 people playing 2nd Violins
4 people playing Violas
3 people playing Cellos
2 people playing Basses
Technology can give you a false sense of reality. For example, Midi can make all instruments audible
no matter what range they’re in or what type of instrument they are. Real orchestras don’t work that
way. Also, sudden changes in tempo whilst sampled sounds are in the middle of a complex passage are
easily achievable but real orchestras would rarely do this. Traditionally tempo changes are usually
written to happen at convenient musical times – when little is going on. This is something which is
embedded into the way music is written for orchestras; this is authenticity at work.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
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Most modern sequencers such as Logic or Cubase have the ability to create gradual tempo changes that
will slow down your music and land on a certain bar / frame. This means they will divide the BPM
slowdown by the number of bars/beats available and deliver a perfect slowdown. This is almost
impossible to do with a real orchestra and is therefore something you’d never hear. Therefore it is
complete unauthentic. To produce it synthetically may well work technically but it might sound odd
musically because it loses its sense of reality. In reality orchestral slowdowns, speedups and even
normal performance is littered with small almost imperceptible inconsistencies.
Sampled sounds, along with ever-more precise sequencers, have created their own ‘perfect’ dynamic
which is often at odds with what music can actually do and what people are used to hearing. To be
clear, this is not an anti-technology rant; if your idea is to create new and bold musical environments,
fine. Hans Zimmer and many other composers have successfully merged real orchestras, technology
and synthesis and in doing have created whole new textures and filmic experiences. But if your idea is
to replicate a ‘real orchestra’ it’s best to keep within the limitations of what a real orchestra is capable
of. Even Zimmer, with all his technology, uses an orchestra mainly in an authentic way. The extra
textures he employs create a secondary sonic gloss but the initial instrumental harmonies and groupings
are largely untouched. Obviously there are exceptions such as parts of his score for Hannibal, in which
he used a string section of cellos and basses playing at the extremes of their ranges.
The big problem with the overuse of technology is that, in the same way musical styles and genres tend
to dominate the landscape for a limited period of time, the overuse of specific technological aids can
lead to music sounding formulaic. There has been a tendency amongst sample makers to create evermore perfect libraries; this is to be applauded but it has led to a worrying trend of recording and
sampling a deluge of fully-formed cliched filmic orchestration tricks, lines and loops found typically in
many movies. This represents an evolution of the sample library concept from merely producing
accurate renditions of notes to producing caricatured and cliched musical sequences. This is similar to
the evolution of home keyboards for the amateur market which often contain full, 8-bar grand intros
and outros to help the amateur performer produce something which gives the impression that the player
is better than they are.
Relying on the ‘click’
The existence of the ‘click track’ inherent in sequencers is important and invaluable, but it tends
towards a situation where most composers now rely on it perhaps more than they ought to. Obviously
when syncing music to picture the click-track is particularly important. But a device designed to enable
multi-tracking and keep us all in time has in some ways ended up making some composers succumb to
a lure of a regular beat even when perhaps there is no need. Especially when dealing with orchestras,
rigid timing can sometimes be a hindrance and can once again create problems when trying to create
authenticity. Real orchestras are rarely exactly in time. In concert conditions there is no click track and
most of the time the emotion generated by an orchestra comes from the human element of real
musicians and the direction of the conductor. Metronomic sequences (used when mocking-up an
orchestra) can lead to music having an unreal rigidity. This is especially relevant when dealing with
slow, expressive sections which attempt to emulate a real orchestra. In such circumstances the
existence of a click-track (even though it’s obviously not heard on the finished version) offers a level of
rigidity and precision that simply wouldn’t be there in a real orchestra. So much of the character of the
orchestra is tied up in the swelling of textures and the subtle, almost undetectable rise and fall of
When using sequencers and orchestral sample libraries to emulate a soft, slow or expressive sound, ask
yourself whether the click is needed. Also, when producing such music, try to play-in the instruments,
not click. The humanity, emotion and expression inherent in the act of your performance will create a
more natural result.
Common mistakes
Great music, great film; awful combination: too many young composers think primarily of their music
purely as ‘music’ which means they try to craft something which is ‘musically’ good or musically
impressive. Often music which is successful for film and TV doesn’t work well in its own right.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Normally when people write music they design it to be listened to, understood, rationalised and
enjoyed as entertainment and/or art. Although this may seem like an obvious statement, as we have
said before music for the moving image is shared with the image and other sounds to create one
experience. Viewers do not focus on the music, so the music needn’t pander to the usual structural
niceties which are so embedded in ‘normal’ music. Make sure that structurally your cues are right in
terms of length. There is nothing worse in music for the moving image than the music for a cue
sounding rushed, artificial or contrived. Often this can happen because you’ve written the kind of
phrase which sounds like it belongs in a longer piece of music. Whatever theme or chord sequence you
employ has to sit comfortably.
Beethoven and Bob Marley both said: ‘music dictates its own speed’. What they meant was that music
will almost stubbornly refuse to ‘sit right’ if it exists, even slightly, at the wrong speed. Odd though this
sounds composers don’t really write music as such; they uncover or discover that several pre-existing
notes and chords sound well together. Composers do not invent notes or chords; they simply place
them in the right order. Essentially composers are, first and foremost, musical architects. Certain
combinations of harmony, melody and instrumentation will work better at one speed than another
speed. This is often a dynamic that we can’t control. There is almost a natural equilibrium to music,
some of which can’t be changed without the consequence being that it doesn’t sound authentic or ‘sit
right’. Sometimes the biggest mistake a composer can make is to rush the piece; take it too fast.
Composers sometimes discard music they presume isn’t working, when all that’s wrong is something
within the phrase isn’t sitting right.
Stylistic cohesion
Any good film score will have stylistic cohesion. While a score may have many different musical
elements and styles to accompany different scenes, there will nearly always be a strong bond. This
bond can be in terms of a common and consistent harmonic approach or common and consistent
instrumentation and texture. ‘Sonic palette’ is important. If every cue sounds texturally different there
will be no sonic signature, no textural consistency or aural personality. This does not mean you have to
write every cue to sound the same or that you can’t have diversity; simply that there is normally a need
for a palpable musical consistency and identity. Even the best of films have problems building tension
without the aid of music, but if music overplays these tensions it can sound melodramatic and
overstated; caricatured and exaggerated. There are moments when a whisper speaks louder than a
scream. Sometimes total understatement and writing contrary to the scene actually tends to italicise the
emotion more.
Practicality and pragmatism
Whenever you start a new project, whether it’s a big-budget film or a low budget television
documentary, there is a need to put your thoughts, opinions and plans into words. There is a tendency
to rush to into the studio and begin responding immediately. There is a tendency to romanticize the
process of composition and presume it’s down to naked and unprovoked inspiration, but given the time
span accorded to most moving image projects you cannot simply rely on being inspired in the right way
every time. Music for moving image is primarily about function; how does the scene function and what
can music bring to make it function better. Whether music sounds ‘cool’ or ‘awesome’ as music is
secondary. Given this, the approach to composing has to be practical and pragmatic. When I first
started doing TV I was unused to the tight turnaround so inevitably rushed straight to the studio.
Eventually I learned that, even if all you have is three days, its best to spend a decent amount of time
deciding the kind of thing you think will be appropriate (in terms of style, instrumentation etc) before
you actually start writing. Music for the moving image lives or dies according to how good the idea
was; the music is an extension of the idea, it is a consequence of the plan.
As boring as this may sound, it is a good idea to list all the scenes you have decided to score / have
been asked to score in sequential order. A second list, which sorts the scenes by what you want the
function of the music to be, is a good idea. This will acclimatise you to the concept that film music
lives or dies by its function. A third list, sorting all cues into whether you envisage melody, harmony or
texture being the dominating force, is also a good thing to do. Try to find out exactly how much music
is required in total.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Then you’ll have a feel for whether the project allows you to have several themes or just the one, and
whether it allows you to have two sonic / textural / harmonic templates or one singular template which
arcs over the whole film. Remember that the film has to have a musical identity – it’s not going to have
one if you’re sweeping from one style to another – electronic to jazz to classical. Try to decide on a
‘template’ which is beneficial to the film in general.
Composer as storyteller
When you drill down to the heart of what we do, as creative artists, you realise that we tell stories. In
songs, in poetry, in books, in paintings, what we say is ‘what if…’ Music for the moving image helps
carve out a road map for the telling of someone else’s story. Your music, even down to the tiniest cue,
is a journey. Music, like life, is linear, not random access. A song or a symphony or a film score is
revealed to the listener one note, one chord at a time; one bar at a time. This is why pacing is so
Sometimes as a composer doing TV or film drama projects, you might be required to tell the story that
hasn’t been told. I have worked with directors who would talk about what the fiction was and what
story was and which one they wanted the music to address. Sometimes they say that the underlying
subtext is too hidden; the music can unlock this and allow the viewer to realise what the film is really
about. Because people can easily digest and understand what they see, pictures are frequently less able
to encourage interpretation from the viewer. What people see is more definite and obvious than their
experiences of hearing and listening to music. The emotions and meanings music seem to suggest
within us, whilst existing, are more open to suggestion and interpretation, and in a filmic sense this is
their great strength; the subtle nuances of a discreet narrative subtext are perhaps better delivered when
they are implied, suggested and insinuated by music – something people are affected by but don’t know
how or why.
Aural Logo and Sonic Signature
Thematic music in television creates an aural logo at the start of the show. In many ways the
introductory theme has become an endangered species in recent times, certainly for television drama.
Its directly communicative capabilities to create a distinct mood are sometimes now at odds with the
current desire for subtlety and introspection. Theme tunes give a show an almost caricatured and
exaggerated identity – the theme is used all through the series and becomes just as identifiable to the
audience as any of the characters. Writing a theme tune is therefore a different process to writing
material within a TV show or drama. Your music is required to present an aural equivalent of a ‘still
picture’ of the show. Theme tunes are especially important to identify ‘Soaps’. The drum intro for
EastEnders is iconic, as is the original arpegiated piano intro into Emmerdale. Coronation Street
without its musical introduction is unthinkable. The music prepares the viewer and it partly frames the
context in which the show is seen and heard. Successful American shows which play the world over,
such as Dallas, Dynasty, Hill Street Blues (to name only a few) would never travel as well without the
music. The music is a unifying experience. Introductory theme music for more subtle TV drama may
have to be designed to ‘bleed into’ the opening scene. Opening themes are frequently written without
an absolute identifiable musical ending. These considerations have to be factored into the
conceptualization process. Themes which are in need of a definite ending but don’t have one will sound
odd. The lack of an absolute ending doesn’t just affect the ending; it dictates how you construct the
whole thing.
Composing as ‘frozen improvisation’
Stravinsky once described composing as ‘frozen improvisation’. This is true; although prior
conceptualization liberates the thinker in you, try not to go to the keyboard with a completely ‘done
deal’ in your head. Allow flexibility. Be open to the sound you never expected but discovered
accidentally. That said, for quick turnaround projects it is advisable to work with a sonic palette set up
– one you have conceptualized from watching the pictures but before you’ve written anything. Simply
walking to the piano or sequencer without any firm preordained idea is dangerous for quick projects.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
Try and decide on a template and then work towards it. What composers need in as much abundance as
inspiration and imagination is a pragmatic realistic sense of economy, purpose and focus.
The hand of history
The ‘Studio System’, in place in the 1930s and beyond in America, was a highly developed system of
what amounted to ‘divided labour’. This ensured that music departments worked at optimum capacity
on a many films simultaneously. Within music departments there were ‘chase’ specialists and ‘main
title’ specialists. But the division between composer and orchestrator has stood the test of time and still
exists today. During the so-called ‘golden era’ copyright usually rested with the studio. Often
composers did not appear in the credit roll. Composers were considered craftspeople not artists. Many
composers were able to orchestrate but were effectively prevented from doing so by powerful unions.
Max Steiner and Erich Korngold established fruitful relations with their orchestrator Hugo Friedhofer
and we can probably thank him more than anyone for the success of orchestral music in film.
Orchestrators wield tremendous artistic power over composers by helping them define their artistic
voice. It is hard to envisage how successful Danny Elfman would have been in articulating his unique
and distinctive voice without the help and support of Steve Bartek. Equally one cannot overstate the
importance of Herbert Spencer’s interpretations of John Williams’ arrangements on films like E.T and
Close Encounters. Orchestrator Edwin Powell’s influence on the entire Twentieth Century Fox ‘violin
heavy’ sound shouldn’t be underestimated either. Given that Hollywood film music was, and still is to
a large extent, dominated by the orchestra, one of the main ways composers achieve a distinctive voice
lies within how they interpret and use the sounds the orchestra has to offer and/or how they use new or
bold harmonies and melodies within an orchestral context. Bernard Herrmann was one of those
composers who took the basic model of orchestral music but interpreted it in a bold and innovative
way. Although most orchestral composers followed the system of strong conventional melodies and
lush harmonies (derived from the symphonic traditions of the romantic era) Herrmann tended towards
short phrases.
He said, “I think a short phrase has certain advantages. The short phrase is easier to follow for
audiences, who only listen with half an ear. Don’t forget the best they do is half an ear. I don’t like this
tune business. It has to have 8 or 16 bars, which limits a composer. Once you start you’ve got to finish
– 8 or 16 bars. Otherwise the audience doesn’t know what the hell it’s all about”. There are no ‘tunes’
in Psycho and yet it remains one of film’s greatest scores. People do not walk down the street humming
the music from the shower scene and yet it remains one of cinemas most iconic musical moments.
Music does not have to be simple or melodic in order to be remembered; it simply has to be simple and
melodic in order to be repeated. Despite writing music which lay outside the norm, Herrmann is
remembered as being one of Hollywood’s most pivotal composers. Quite how this would have worked
out if he’d been made to work with an orchestrator all the time is an interesting question.
His music for Psycho has been absorbed into pop culture. George Martin said his string
accompaniment to the Beatles song ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was inspired by Herrmann’s score to Psycho.
Unlike traditional Hollywood composers who tended to load films with music, Herrmann scored
sparingly and pointedly avoided emotional underscoring. Legendary Hollywood composer Miklos
Rozsa said, “One of the things I quickly came to realise about Hollywood was there simply was no
style as such. Many of the early people working in Hollywood were former Broadway conductors,
songwriters and vaudeville artists. The general idiom was conservative. I introduced certain rhythms
and harmonies which wouldn’t have caused anyone familiar with serious music to bat an eyelid [but in
the opinion of a Paramount executive] the only place for eccentricities was Carnegie Hall not a film
So the ‘golden age’ was perhaps not as golden as we’re lead to believe. It was golden in terms of the
money made by the studio but in terms of artistic freedom and innovation it was perhaps more
‘bronze’. The studio system was a well-oiled and fabulously efficient method of producing music
quickly, where musical directors, composers, orchestrators and musicians were simply kept on staff to
produce, at short notice, whatever was asked of them. But the studio system was backward-looking,
patriarchal and institutionalized.
How Film & TV Music Communicate – Vol.1
Text © Brian Morrell 2013
The way music was used – what I have referred to as the function of music – more often than not
served to reinforce established idealistic historical and societal narratives, which made some of the
music into a kind of subtle censorship (something I discussed in the chapter entitled ‘The Meaning of
Music’). The use of music in film within the all-powerful and dominating studio system became a
symbol of western dominance. Herrmann was never a darling of the studio system, not least because he
insisted on orchestrating his own music, something which didn’t sit well when working within ‘the
If Hollywood film music is still formulaic this is at least partly due to the fact that most composers do
not orchestrate their own music. It is often the orchestration which lends film music more than a whiff
of formula and the mix which gives it the distinctive Hollywood sheen. If you resist the urge to give
your music to someone else to interpret instrumentally and texturally you may retain more of your
original ‘voice’. Composers like Michael Nyman and Wojciech Kilar are often paraded as examples of
composers whose music lies outside the ‘Hollywood sound’. This is seen as a comment on their use of
harmony and melody and in many ways it is, but one of the things which really distinguish the palpable
individuality of their music is the sound – the orchestration – which does not have the usual Hollywood
How should film music be heard?
With ‘normal music’ the weight of the experience is carried by the music (and usually lyrics). But
when musical cues within film are punctuated by large portions of dialogue, sound design or simply
‘time without music’ and when the length of a music cue is not determined by the composer, music
often cannot be structured in a ‘musical’ way. Leonard Roseman said “the form is that of the film.
What we are dealing with is a literary form, not a musical one.” As a composer of music for the
moving image your job is to respond to a literary concept. David Raksin said that the purpose of film
music is not to be ‘noticed for itself’. He said that “music’s great usefulness is the way it performs its
role without an intervening conscious act of perception.” In other words when we write music to
picture we ought not to be demanding that people attempt to perceive and rationalise the music alone,
only as part of a greater construct.
Many commentators have suggested that part of the problem all composers inherit today is that music
has become triumphalist; that music has become bigger than itself. Music’s function in society has
become enlarged and engorged; we hear 70% more music than we did forty years ago but there is not
70% more time in each day. Music has, some believe, degenerated from being a listening experience to
becoming an almost permanent soundtrack to our lives. Everywhere we go we hear music. Music is
used much more aggressively in general and it tends to be used more overtly in film, sometimes
rendering the combination of film and music an indulgent unsubtle act resembling a pop video rather
than a motion picture.
If music is used in this italicised way, up-front, in-your-face, like as if it is the latest piece of
technology, it risks suffering the fate associated with any temporary passing fad. In music the word
‘counterpoint’ is applied to situations involving two or more lines where each line has a sense of
independence or integrity of its own. But when combined they make a statement that is infinitely
greater than the sum of their parts because we – our interpretations - are involved in the process. Music
and film, being different media, both possess a sense of singularity; but when they are played together a
great deal more is expressed than either could have managed on their own. This is what we have to