Working with thematic material presents several challenges. Do you make a character theme? What are they thinking? How do you state this theme, if needed, at this moment? Good theme writing starts with an understanding of the common tropes associated with various character types. Even if some are stereotypical and “tired” tropes. You have to try to remind yourself that we’re telling a story through sound. We don’t have the visuals to show the hero or the villain or the written word to describe them. Yes, we accompany the visuals of the film but in order to organically (early 2000’s buzzword) work with the picture our musical language needs to be seamless with the story. Today we’re going to talk about theme building ideas and characterization but let’s get some things out of the way. There are tired old descriptors for various themes that just don’t apply much anymore. Terms like “masculine” and “feminine” are incredibly useful and more often than not accurate to the tone of the melody. They work well and really haven’t been associated with one gender or the other for a very long time. Basically, bold themes are deemed masculine and light themes are classified as feminine. Really though it doesn’t mean the theme is male centric or female centric — it’s describing bold/daring vs. light/emotional themes. The terms are common and originated from descriptors in classical literature analysis.
Should we use them? I think we can use them just fine but I’ll refrain simply to get a fresh take on it.
To start off we need to take a look at what is considered to be heroic and powerful. The first place many composers go involve what intervals you’re using. Interval leaps of a second, fourth, or fifth are the first indicators of strength and power in many famous themes. Obvious examples include, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, there’s also a leap of a fourth three notes into the Fellowship theme from Lord of the Rings so it’s pretty common. If you have a strong character it’s a safe bet on those intervals. They sound militaristic to a listener which stems from centuries of bugle calls based on the harmonic series. If you need an example of that listen to any bugle call on youtube, they’re always in one key and follow the harmonic series since old brass instruments could only play those notes. So given the close association with military and battle it makes sense that these intervals seem powerful and heroic to the listener.
Another indicator of strength in a theme is the chords being used. In Howard Shore’s score for The Fellowship of the Ring he uses bold major chords under a minor melody to establish boldness and bravery. This is a super easy way to create a melody with heroic tones but also gives your melody an air of anticipation. Be cautious when using this trick though, your chords have to follow the melody very closely, often times your melody HAS to be a chord tone or it clashes in a nasty way.
Even easier than either of these is your instrumentation. We’ve already established that brass is practically de facto heroic fare so simply writing your hero’s melody in the brass gets the job done more-often-than-not. Bold strings playing octaves can achieve the effect as well but it’s definitely a lighter touch than brass. You can alternatively place the melody in octaves in the brass by section (often trombones, then horns+trumpets 8va) and accompany with chords in the strings. Loads of options but instrumentation is almost always tantamount to the desired tone, hence why professional orchestrators are always in demand. Great example of playing with tone for different weights in a theme: anything from Star Wars. John Williams weaves his themes in and out and it’s pretty common to not hear the same theme treated the same way twice throughout a film.
If seconds, fourths, and fifths are indicative of powerful themes it stands to reason that lighter/more emotive themes are the other intervals. This is usually the case although seconds make an appearance in there as well. Relying on these ‘richer’ intervals often evoke more emotion. Thirds are another obvious choice as they are the major/minor indicator. Richer still are sixths all the way up to tenths but be cautious of venturing too far away, the larger the leap gets the harder it becomes to balance your melody (although maybe that’s what you’re going for). A great example of these richer intervals being used to pull emotion from music – combined with delicate orchestration – is ‘Married Life’ from the film Up by Michael Giacchino (Juh-Keen-Oh!). The delivery of the emotion is two-fold. For starters he takes the melody through soft leaps of a third up before descending downward. This creates an insecure nature almost like the light playfulness is fleeting at best. Finally the melody makes an unsure leap a seventh up before jumping up to that note yet again from a more confident fifth. To take things further, the orchestration is done in a classic style evocative of old musicals like Singing In the Rain or Holiday Inn. The melody and the nostalgic orchestration effectively creates a whirlwind of emotion when combined with the picture.
Larger interval leaps tend to show romance. It’s kind of a trope of sorts but it’s a very effective one. Major sixths are a major player when trying to create romance. John Williams once talked about how in the old days of music sex had to be implied musically because they weren’t allowed to show much more than a kiss (then the curtains blew across the camera and fade to black). Because of that history these surging leaping tones are closely tied to romantic feelings within the narrative. They don’t always have to represent that — it really depends on the way the music is put together. In the modern era this sound is getting a little less associated with romance because…well…people are doin’ it and filmmakers are allowed to be pretty explicit (PG13 is so different from when I was a kid). You can just as easily use this kind of sound to evoke a character who may be open hearted or naturally loving.
When writing for a character you should take these tropes into account because writers are getting braver and characters are becoming more complex. There will always be hero characters and villains but there’s also a wealth of deep fleshed out ones too. We’ll delve deeper into applying these ideas to characters in Part II of this series in (hopefully) a few days.