The Character Of Film Music

A response to Dan Golding’s excellent response to Tony Zhou’s excellent video on film music.

Every Frame a Painting’s Tony Zhou published a video essay examining why Marvel’s Cinematic Universe films lack memorable music. Tony’s argument centers around the use of Temp music becoming evermore prominent in scoring films:

Dan Golding responded with A Theory of Film Music, wherein he explores the difference in melody versus texture of film music, and argues that Marvel’s films mostly use a textured landscape of music, versus some other films’ melodic landscape. Dan also explores the role of computer-aided composing software in modern film scores, which I found very interesting.

I absolutely love both video essays, but… it did surprise me when neither gentleman addressed something I expected to be featured quite heavily: character.

Film (and TV and video game) scores are diverse and varied, and while most are forgettable, some are memorable for reasons that go beyond our ability to hum them on a backdrop of Vancouver. Tony Zhou’s method of proving his point actually sidesteps the question he’s really asking: asking people to hum a film score (or more precisely, its melody) is not the same as asking if people found a film score memorable. (Plenty of music is hummable, especially when based on four simple chords.)

You and I may not be able to hum the scores of Inception and The Dark Knight off the top of our heads, but we’d likely describe those scores as very memorable. This is where Dan Golding’s focus on texture versus melody makes sense, and is, I suspect, why he too did not dive into the topic of character.

Themes, Tunes, and Humming-ability

When you look at the tunes people were able to hum, they have one thing in common: they are all themes. The Star Wars theme, the James Bond theme, the Harry Potter theme. You could reduce the meaning of a theme to “a distinctive melody,” but there is a little more to it:

theme (in music): frequently recurring in or accompanying the beginning and end of a film, play, or musical.

There are a lot of themes in film scores. For Star Wars, John Williams names most of them after the characters he writes them for: Luke’s theme, Leia’s theme, Yoda’s theme. But practically speaking, themes are much more commonplace than the ones we name as such, and most of the unnamed ones are generally not memorable either, despite being themes.

So I propose another metric to answer Tony Zhou’s question. The reason Marvel Cinematic Universe films are not memorable is because they lack character. And I mean that almost in a literal sense.

In the director’s commentary of Serenity, Joss Whedon talks about how Serenity, the titular Firefly-class ship of the show and movie, is like the tenth character. It doesn’t have speaking parts (with one entertaining yet false exception), it only has a name and it simply “is”. It’s a location, a setting.

But Serenity is a memorable ship not because it became the name of the later film, but because as a ship it has so much character. If you’ve seen the show even just once, you’d probably still be able to describe roughly what it looks like. The firefly-inspired design, the layout of its main interior sections, the cargo hold… these are all details that are forgettable about most space ships in film and TV, but Serenity bucks the trend. It has character.

These principles hold true for the musical score in media as well. The themes of Star Wars, James Bond, Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Indiana Jones… they all are rich in character. They evoke a certain personality, and they’re particularly great examples because they capture so much of the actual characters they accompany. James Bond’s theme captures a sense of lethalness, stealth, danger and cunning. Harry Potter’s theme captures the character of a magical world full of wonder, that takes you back to the best moments of your childhood (which, shoutout to J.K. Rowling for brilliantly accomplishing that in the first place).

The Inception score is vivid in its character. It captures the essence of the film, the premise, the plot, all of it. It is powerful, captivating, eccentric, surprising, masterfully executed, and entertainingly thought-provoking. Am I talking about Inception the movie, or its score? The fact that there is not a pronounced distinction between the two is what makes it capture the character so well.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe films are awash with character. Whether it’s Robert Downey Jr.’s billionaire Tony Stark, Scarlett Johansson’s assassin Natasha Romanoff, or Chris Pratt’s bounty-hunting Peter Quill, if there’s one thing we cannot fault the MCU films about it’s the richness of their on-screen characters. They are so overwhelmingly dominant, in fact, that adding a distinct character in the film score might even be overdoing it. (I disagree, but you could argue it)

So while both Golding and Zhou have made excellent points and taught us (or at least me) many interesting new things about film music, I feel that the biggest thing truly missing from Marvel Cinematic Universe film scores is character.

To close my argument, I present the central theme from Inside Out, scored by Michael Giacchino. The music’s distinctive character leads you into the emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust, and takes you on a journey through the magical-feeling world of the mind. If you were to anthropomorphize the theme of Inside Out, most writers would end up with a pretty similar character.

And that’s how I think music becomes memorable: when it evokes the same sense of feeling and personality for different people. When it has character.

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