Film Music Themes: Analysis and Corpus Study

By Richards, Mark | Music Theory Online, March 2016 | Go to article overview

Film Music Themes: Analysis and Corpus Study


Richards, Mark, Music Theory Online


[1] Themes are one of film music's most memorable and iconic elements. Not only do they fulfill an associative role that adds emotional depth to characters, relationships, places, and the like, but from a broader perspective, they also become part of an entire film's identity, to the point where they are often referred to as "the theme from" the film in question. While the associations and meanings of film themes, usually in the form of leitmotifs, have been given much attention in the scholarly literature, most recently in Bribitzer-Stull 2015 and Audissino 2014, rigorous study of their phrase structure remains virtually unexplored territory.(1) In this article, I therefore propose an analytical system that expands and adapts Caplin 1998 in order to categorize the gamut of film music themes in some detail. In particular, due to their sheer abundance in the film repertoire, I focus on themes whose structures fall into beginning-end halves, identifying four large classes that may each take three forms. As a result, there are a total of twelve distinct theme types.(2) The first and larger part of this article is devoted to establishing the distinctions among these twelve theme types, not only to provide a methodology for the analysis of film music themes but also to support the findings of the article's second half. There, I apply this system to a cross-section of 482 film music themes ranging from the early 1930s to 2015, primarily from Hollywood films. In doing so, notable divisions appear around 1960 and 1990, times that coincide with historical trends that drastically affected the composition of film music in general.(3)

[2] The emphasis of this study is on what are commonly called main themes, that is, passages that sound as a cohesive unit and are given special prominence through a statement in the main title, end credits, or elsewhere in the film. This broad definition allows for the tracing of compositional patterns in the main theme--one of film's most important constituents--and hence draws in themes as radically diverse as Henry Mancini's jazz/pop-style "Moon River" from Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), James Horner's atonal opening theme for Aliens (1986), and John Barry's Romantic-style main theme for Dances with Wolves (1990).

[3] But how might "theme" itself best be defined? First and foremost, a theme must in some way be characteristic in order that it may be recognized as an important element in a film. As Bribitzer-Stull puts it,

a theme must employ (and retain) a variety of identifiable musical parameters. These may include, but are not limited to: contour, rhythmic content, pitch content, length, orchestration, texture, register, tempo, harmonic progression, harmonic function, and contrapuntal framework. (2015, 34)(4)

Themes may be divided into three broad categories according to their components' relationship to the musical temporalities of beginning and end.(5) Most film themes fall into two halves which correspond to a kind of statement and its response, or a beginning and end, in that order. These include the period with its antecedent/consequent halves, the sentence with its presentation/continuation halves, and several other theme types I describe in more detail in the next section. Due to their similarity to literary sentences, I call these grammatical themes, and because they constitute the vast majority of film music themes, they are the focus of this study. Familiar examples include Henry Mancini's main theme for The Pink Panther (1963) and Nino Rota's opening theme for The Godfather (1972).

[4] In other film music themes, the melody consists only of a single motive, a few motives combined into a short idea, or two or more ideas combined into a larger unit. The material of such themes remains in a statement- or beginning-mode throughout, never reaching a responding second half and instead creating a kind of musical motto. …

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