Music Theory Through the Lens of Film
Issue: Vol 5 No. 1-2 (2012)
Journal: Journal of Film Music
Subject Areas: Popular Music
The encounter of a musical repertoire with a theoretical system benefits the latter even as it serves the former. A robustly applied theoretic apparatus hones our appreciation of a given corpus, especially one such as film music, for which comparatively little analytical attention has been devoted. Just as true, if less frequently offered as an motivator for analysis, is the way in which the chosen music theoretical system stands to see its underlying assumptions clarified and its practical resources enhanced by such contact. The innate programmaticism and aesthetic immediacy of film music makes it especially suited to enrich a number of theoretical practices. A habit particularly ripe for this exposure is tonal hermeneutics: the process of interpreting music through its harmonic relationships. Interpreting cinema through harmony not only sharpens our understanding of various film music idioms, but considerably refines the critical machinery behind its analysis.
The theoretical approach focused on here is transformation theory, a system devised for analysis of art music (particularly from the 19th Century) but nevertheless eminently suited for film music. By attending to the perceptually salient changes, rather than static objects, of musical discourse, transformation theory avoids some of the bugbears of conventional tonal hermeneutics for film (such as the tyranny of the “15 second rule”) while remaining exceptionally well-calibrated towards musical structure and detail. By examining a handful of passages from films with chromatically convoluted scores—Raiders of the Lost Ark, King Kong, and A Beautiful Mind—I reveal some of the conceptual assumptions of transformational theory while simultaneously interpreting the scenes and films that these cues occupy. Ultimately, it is the notion of “transformation” itself—as a theoretical keystone, an analytical stance, and an immanent quality of music—that is most elucidated through this approach.
Author: Frank Lehman
Abbate, Carolyn and Roger Parker, eds. 1989. Analyzing opera: Verdi and Wagner. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Bailey, Robert. 1977. The structure of the Ring and its evolution. Nineteenth Century Music 1, no. 1: 48-61.
Bribitzer-Stull, Matthew. 2012. From Nibelheim to Hollywood: The Associativity of Harmonic Progression. In The legacy of Richard Wagner, 157-84, ed. Luca Sala. Turnhout: Brepols.
Buchler, Michael. 2007. Reconsidering Klumpenhouwer networks. Music Theory Online 13, no. 2.
Burke, Edmund. 1757, 1998. A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful, ed. Adam Phillips. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cochran, Alfred. 1986. Style, structure, and tonal organization in the early film scores of Aaron Copland. Ph.D. diss., Catholic University of America.
———1990. The Spear of Cephalus: observations on film music analysis. Indiana Theory Review 11: 65-80.
Cohn, Richard. 1998. An introduction to neo-Riemannian theory: a survey and historical perspective. Journal of Music Theory 42, no. 2: 167-80. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/843871
———2004. Uncanny resemblances: tonal signification in the Freudian age. Journal of the American Musicological Society 57, no. 2: 285-324. http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/jams.2004.57.2.285
Doll, Christopher. 2011. Rockin’ out: expressive modulation in verse-chorus form. Music Theory Online 17.3.
Eaton, Rebecca. 2008. Unheard minimalisms: the functions of the minimalist technique in film scores. Ph.D. diss., University of Texas Austin.
Gollin, Edward and Alexander Rehding, eds. 2011. The Oxford handbook to neo-Riemannian music theories. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195321333.001.0001
Goldsman, Akiva. 2002. A Beautiful Mind: the shooting script. New York: Newmarket Press.
Halfyard, Janet K. 2010. Music afoot: supernatural horror-comedies and the diabolus in musica. In, Music in the horror film: listening to fear, ed. Neil Lerner, 206-23. Abingdon: Routledge.
Hatten, Robert. 2004. Musical meaning in Beethoven: markedness, correlation, and interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Horner, James. 2002. Interview. A Beautiful Mind. Produced and directed by Ron Howard. 135 min. Universal Studios. DVD.
Hunt, Graham. 2007. David Lewin and Valhalla revisited: new approaches to motivic corruption in Wagner’s Ring cycle. Music Theory Spectrum 29, no. 2: 177-96. http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/mts.2007.29.2.177
Kant, Immanuel. 1790, 1987. Critique of judgment. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
Klumpenhouwer, Henry. 2006. In order to stay asleep as observers: the nature and origins of anti-Cartesianism in Lewin’s “Generalized musical intervals and transformations.” Music Theory Spectrum 28, no. 2: 277-89. http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/mts.2006.28.2.277
Lehman, Frank. 2013. Transformational analysis and the representation of genius in film music. Music Theory Spectrum 35, no. 1 (Spring): 1-22. http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/mts.2013.35.1.1
Leinberger, Charles. 2002. Thematic variation and key relationships: Charlotte’s theme in Max Steiner’s score for Now, Voyager. Journal of Film Music Studies 1: 63-77.
Lewin, David. 1987. Generalized musical intervals and transformations. New Haven: Yale University Press.
———1992. Some notes on analyzing Wagner: The Ring and Parsifal. 19th-Century Music 16, no. 1: 49-58.
Murphy, Scott. 2006. The major tritone progression in recent Hollywood science fiction films. Music Theory Online 12, no. 2.
———2011. Scoring loss in recent popular film and television music. Paper presented at the Sixth International Conference on the Arts in Society, Berlin.
———Forthcoming. Transformational theory and the analysis of film music. In The Oxford Handbook of Music in Film and Visual Media, ed. David Neumeyer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Neumeyer, David. 1998. Tonal design and narrative in film music: Bernard Herrmann’s The Trouble with Harry and Portrait of Hitch. Indiana Theory Review 19, nos. 1-2: 87-123.
Neumeyer, David and James Buhler. 2001. Analytical and interpretive approaches to film music (I): analysing the music. In Film Music: Critical Approaches, ed. K. J. Donnelly, 16-38. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Rings, Steven. 2011. Tonality and transformation. New York: Oxford University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195384277.001.0001
Rodman, Ronald. 1998. Tonal closure and design in the Wizard of Oz. Indiana Theory Review 19: 126-43.
———. 2000. Tonal design and the aesthetic of pastiche in Herbert Stothart’s Maytime. In Music and Cinema, ed. James Buhler, Caryl Flinn, and David Neumeyer, 187-206. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press.
———. 2010. Tuning in: American narrative television music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rosar, William. 2006. Music for Martians: Schillinger’s two tonics and harmony of fourths in Leith Steven’s score for War of the Worlds. Journal of Film Music 1, no. 4: 395-438.
Taruskin, Richard. 1985. Chernomor to Kashchei: harmonic sorcery; or, Stravinsky’s “Angle”. Journal of the American Musicological Society 38: 72-142. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/831550
Thomas, Tony. 1991. A conversation with John Williams. Cue Sheet: The Journal of the Society for the Preservation of Film Music 8, no. 1: 12.
Wagner, Richard, 1879, 1994. On the application of music to the drama. In Religion and Art, trans. William Ashton Ellis, 175-91. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.