Let’s talk about film music. Editor Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting — a great video series that I love– has just posted a new video about a question that a lot of people have been wondering about for a while now: Why is Marvel’s superhero film music so forgettable? And he’s right. Marvel’s film music IS forgettable Tony Zhou makes some great points Especially about directors using music from other films as temp music. — as guides for their composers. But his explanations don’t fully work for me So this video, it’s a RESPONSE, and it’s a THEORY of FILM MUSIC So in the video, Tony Zhou has people singing things from memory Starting with the Star Wars theme Bummm bummm ba-dum-ba bummm bummm [scatting the Star Wars theme] This is an interesting choice because, although everyone thinks of Star Wars as one of the most memorable themes ever written, it’s not particularly original. Star Wars was actually temp-tracked really closely And it still shows. Take a listen to the main theme from King’s Row by Erick Wolfgang Korngold. Now, if I were to take that and edit in a few percussive hits from a western theme… like How the West was Won I’d get something a lot like Star Wars This is no accident though. Star Wars–it’s a movie that self-consciously looks back to what made the films of the Golden Age of Hollywood so successful. It’s the king of what postmodern theorists, Frederic Jameson, called “The Nostalgia Film” Reworking all the traditions is how Star Wars works. The music is no different. The opening theme wants to tell us that what we’re about to see comes from a different tradition of film, that it’s a Golden-Age-Hollywood adventure romance… set in space. It’s working creatively with unoriginal pieces. [sounds of lasers blasting and engine working; no music] Temp tracks were actually used for the whole film George Lucas even had to be convinced that there was a need for original Star Wars music at all. Originally, he wanted to be like Kubrick in 2001 and use classical music. That reliance on temp tracks still comes through Particularly in the desert Tattooine scenes where we’re basically hearing a reworking of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring Note. for. note. Using temp tracks wasn’t a new practice, even in 1977 It dates back to the earliest film sound tracks Up until 1937, the head of a studio’s music department would get the Oscar for best soundtrack, and not a composer because dozens of people actually worked on a film’s music creating a patchwork of preexisting, adapted, and new music. So temp tracks aren’t actually unique to contemporary film They aren’t unique to contemporary blockbusters and they certainly aren’t unique to the Marvel’s symphonic universe. They’re as old as film music itself. So something else is going on here. Temp tracks do not explain why Marvel’s music is forgettable. So film music has actually always faced this critique That it’s unoriginal, that it rips off other people’s work In 1947, Theodore Adorno, the critic, wrote that [text above] and that, “[quote above]” Adorno’s general idea was that film music acted like a brand: recycling little ideas that work well for certain situations over and over again My favorite example of this is from a composer called James Horner Check out how he uses the same musical idea for danger in Troy in Enemy At the Gates [clip: “He always managed to lead us to victory”] in The Wrath of Khan in Avatar And here’s my favorite version of it in Rachmaninov’s First Symphony The question of originality is, in fact, one of the defining questions of film music, full stop. Film music is an embrace of rampant unoriginality and to think about how film music works, we need to think of new ways to talk about these questions, rather than just saying, “It’s a copy.” So if originality is normal for film music, maybe the problem, today, is that the pool of influences that composers draw from has grown smaller. In Star Wars, we saw that we had everyone from Korngold, and westerns, and Stravinsky, and Holst(?) pull together in this pot. But as Tony Zhou argues, today’s blockbusters tend to reference and rework themselves. Today, a temp track is more likely to be from Transformers or The Bourne Ultimatum, than the (seahawk?) or a symphony But the other important factor–for me, THE most important factor here–is techonology I wanna talk about this guy playing keyboards at the back of Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star. This guy changed film music, pretty much forever–it’s Hans Zimmer. He’s important because he pioneered the use of computers to make music. He did this right from the beginning This is Driving Miss Daisy–it’s pretty goofy, but it’s all digital, 1989 Here’s the thing: traditionally, film music was a problem for Hollywood. It cost a lot. Imagine paying all of those musicians the professional rate for a month of recording. It was technical. Here, John Williams is working with an editor to check the tempo of a scene, and run through it in their minds, before taking it to an orchestra and it had to be the last thing done. Editing music was difficult, and re-recording it was expensive, so when the score was done, the movie had to be done as well. No more edits, no more changes. If the director hated the music, this would be the moment where they found out. Sometimes, they would just have to live with it–too bad. Or they could fire the composer, and hope the replacement did a better job. Jerry Goldsmith famously wrote Chinatown in just ten days, after the previous composer was fired. So here’s why computerized composing was a revolution A director could hear the music as it was being written They could request changes, get more involved, and continue to edit the film at the same time. It’s also cheaper, and it’s quicker. So along comes Hans Zimmer, and a lot changed. Here he is again, talking about the Dark Knight Rises in 2012 “The writing in the computer, the way I do, is that you perform every note At one point or another, every note that is in the score, has been played by me.” Okay, so let’s hear a standard piece of today’s action music–could be in any film. Now here’s the thing: I actually made that piece of music on my computer with no actual recording or instruments involved I listen to a lot of music, and I think that sounds okay to me. It doesn’t sound fake or really pre-fabricated. And that’s just me working by myself–I’ve done a game soundtrack and a few small projects, but I don’t have the resources that someone like Hans Zimmer has. It’s just me, in my room, at home. So this is how most film soundtracks are written today. Some go on to be recorded or re-recorded or augmented and edited together with a full orchestra but some don’t. For someone like Zimmer “You perform every note” which is then massaged by all of these people– you’ve got sound designers, synth designers, people who are there just to program these digital instruments The end result is music that is created for a computer to play and the computer makes music lean in different directions Early on, the easiest sounds to get right were short and sharp sounds Things like percussion [drums sound plays], stabbing brass [stabbing brass plays] rhythmic strings [rhythmic strings play] These are much easier to simulate than the lyrical, slow flute or a solo violin. And so the end result is this: you get twenty years of percussion and heavy brass in film music, lead by Hans Zimmer The Zimmer sound is one of rhythm–it’s like a rock band playing through an orchestra And as a composer using these tools, you actually fiddle with each note and each sound more. You end up creating a landscape of sound rather than melodies and harmonies It’s time to talk about superheroes again, because Hans Zimmer is really the one responsible for their current sound He did the Batman trilogy, and the new Superman films and he gave them his digital sound. There it is. No hummable melody, but a texture full of distorted and manipulated strings to represent the Joker For Man of Steel, it’s the same No huge melody to draw you in, but the texture of a drumming ensemble and a pedal steel guitar, which are added with digital instruments later. And this is why Marvel’s music isn’t hummable. Each film has a musical landscape, but they’re different not through melody, but through texture. This is the impact of digital technology on film music. So are we in an era where composers are told to play it safe? To be invisible? To copy temp tracks? Yes. But most of that isn’t new. Remember, Hollywood film music isn’t about originality. It’s about new ways of working with proven formulas, and digital technology has changed that hugely. It’s creative unoriginality for our era of Hollywood.