The Importance of Movie Music (The Hobbit)

If you’ve ever watched a movie with a bunch of musicians, you know we pay attention to the music pretty closely. It’s what we’ve been trained to do and it’s a hard habit to break. Movie-music composition is a big industry and whether or not you’re sensitive to it, the music makes a huge difference in the emotional effect of the movie. You may not know why a certain moment in the movie makes you tear up, or feel on edge, or gives you a sense of victory, but I’m willing to bet that it’s more than the acting and cinematography. The music in the movie provides a sort of emotional backup; it tells us how to feel based our associations with different types of music.  Here are some examples from the newly-released movie, The Hobbit. While you’re watching/listening, try to imagine these scenes with no music at all, and how that would change them. Did you notice these things the first time you saw the movie?

In this clip we hear “danger” music starting with a low drone around 0:05. This is then followed by brass leaps of 3rds and 4ths and the low rumble of drums. At 0:26 higher strings come in with Gandalf’s accusing questions, signaling urgency and suspense.

This chase/fight segment uses instruments with high spectral centroids (“bright, nasal” sounds, like brass) to cut through sound of fighting. In addition, brass have a connections to military music. The “chase scene” music has quickly paced bass notes overlaid with full choral sound and brass, lending an “epic” quality to the nature of the fight; they’re not just running away, they’re fighting for their lives. The suspenseful, dissonant chords we hear serve to put the audience on edge.

In this, we hear sustained strings preceding an moment of conference between Gandalf and Galadriel. At about 0:20, high strings come in at a suspenseful unison, followed by a quiet oboe solo, an effect that creates intimacy and underscores the importance of what Galadriel is saying. Then, representing a recollection of Gandalf’s, the hobbit theme comes in at 1:06 as a plaintive solo; it sounds distant due to relative volume and echo. We usually hear this theme as played by a string section in the movie, so this setting is particularly telling. The instrument choice and ornamentation makes it sound rustic as well; Bilbo is a simpler man from a simpler place. At 1:39 the strings return, stronger, lower, and fuller-sounding this time perhaps highlighting Galadriel’s faith in Galdalf and her promise of aid.

There is a notable absence of music until Gandalf mentions the Tooks at 0:18. Then we hear the hobbit theme, that transitions from a low, full, quiet strings to brass (connotations of adventure?).

In this clip we hear the “dwarf song”( in full orchestra. This, in combination with the scenes shown could be representative of the epic quest of the dwarves and the duration of time. The full orchestration gives the sound depth and breadth, and allows the story to continue through beautiful cinematography without much action in the actual plot.


Barber and the Associative Property of Timbre

The power of association plays a large role in how music affects us. Seems pretty obvious, right? If we hear something in a work that we can connect with something familiar, the work will seem more personal. Additionally, using types of music with which the audience has prior associations grounds the audience and helps them understand what the composer wants them to hear. This allows for a bit more freedom in composition because the composer won’t have to work so hard to get his or her point across.

Samuel Barber uses this technique in his cycle “Hermit Songs,” composed in 1953. The texts for this cycle were taken from translations of writings by Irish monks, ranging from the 8th to the 13th century. Their topics range from penance to promiscuity to cats! The cycle is gorgeous and highly rewarding for both performer and listener. But what makes this work particularly fascinating is the way Barber sets the text. In his settings, he both maintains reverence for the time period in which the texts were written, and updates them to his style of composition. The works are not tonal (though not altogether atonal) and quite challenging for both pianist and vocalist, but they’re fairly easy to listen to. This has a lot to do with the connotations Barber draws upon in his music. Here are a few examples of the most obvious references Barber makes in these songs:

1. St. Patrick’s Pilgrimage: In this song, we can hear the heavy plodding of the journeying pilgrim. This “walking motive” is evocative of songs of previous composers (think Schubert’s Winterreise).

3. St. Ita’s Vision: Following the declamatory recitative-like intro, this song settles into a delicate lullaby duet between piano and voice. By suggesting a lullaby, Barber gives this song an incredibly personal touch and paints the picture of mother with child. His use of the piano in this song is very telling as well—he avoids the noisier lower notes in favor of the middle to high range, and his articulations call for smooth and gentle lines.

6. Sea Snatch: The rollicking chords of this song hint at a sea shanty, or a storm-tossed boat, but the uneven meters keep it from descending to banality. Barber also uses the lower, noisier, rumbling notes in the piano, conjuring rough seas.

8. The Monk and his Cat: This song includes jazz references that speak to the monk’s easy relationship with his cat. Additionally, Barber uses different articulations to represent the two “characters.” The monk is symbolized in flowing, arpeggiated lines while the cat often appears in the chopped, impulsive, blocked chords. The cat can also be heard “padding” chromatically upward through the piano in the brief interludes.

The cycle was originally written with soprano Leontyne Price in mind. She premiered them, with the composer at the piano, at the Library of Congress in 1953. If you have access to a music library or a resource like Spotify, listen to the Price/Barber recordings; they are amazing and you can be sure that these are the closest to what the composer himself intended. Unfortunately, most of the Price recordings on YouTube are of poor audio quality.  The only complete recording I can find is Gerald Finely’s. While it is an excellent recording, the fact that he is a baritone changes some aspects. Obviously, the vocal timbre of a baritone is very different from that of a soprano. Merely by virtue of this, he can’t sing these songs as a soprano would. Yet no two sopranos will sound the same either.  That is why the comparison of vocal works can be so interesting from a timbral perspective; with each new performer comes a new instrument.

If you can, listen to the recordings of Leontyne Price or Barbara Bonney

If not, here are some YouTube links:

An example of Price singing the 3rd song of the cycle:

Barbara Bonney singing the 5th song:

The entire Gerald Finley recording can be found here:



Edgard_VareseThe notion of timbre is frequently elusive. This is particularly the case for pieces in which melody or pitched material plays a large part. When listening to music, our ear naturally follows the melody, and we’re less inclined to focus on what is producing that melody.  But in an all-percussion work, there is no melody. There is hardly any pitch. This forces the listener to concentrate on the subtle differences in sound between the various percussion instruments in order to ascertain how the work was organized.

Ionisaion, composed by Varese around 1930, uses thirteen percussionists and three dozen different percussion instruments. These range from bass drums to castanets to sirens, and Varese organizes them based on what they are made of (primarily metal, skin, and wood). If you don’t know what to listen for in this piece, and you’re not a percussionist, it can be hard to decipher exactly what’s going on. After all, even if you can identify a certain percussion instrument, what is it about the sound that you’re noticing that makes it different from another?

An Abbreviated Guide to Telling One Percussion Sound From Another: Instructions for Something We Usually Do Without Even Thinking About It

  1. Range: most percussion instruments can’t play the pitches on an even-tempered scale, but they do have a specific range of sounds they can achieve. Ex. Castanets are higher than bongos, which are higher than bass drums
  2. Envelope: how a sound changes over its duration, usually measured in frequency over time. Some sounds will start out loudly, then fade away very quickly, while others, like a gong, will increase from the initial attack before slowly decaying.
  3. Attack: the very initial sound that occurs. In percussion instruments, this is usually the primary part of the sound, as opposed to an instrument like a violin where the attack is just the slight crunch of bow hair on string before the tone is produced.  This can be manipulated in percussion instruments by switching the type of mallet used.

So now you know why you’re hearing what you’re hearing, but how does that help in understanding this work?  Ionisation can be broken down into three parts, and while the divisions I make may differ slightly from what some scholars have written (if you’re curious, see the Jean-Charles Francois article on Ionisation), I do share some of their ideas on how the work is structured. In this brief analysis I draw from Francois’s article in particular.

Part One: 0:00-2:40

Aspects that define this section include a clean rhythmic line and alternation between instruments made of metal and those of skin, while sustained sounds play in the background.  I hear this as almost a conversation between the various instruments—they each take what the first has “said” and build upon or answer it.

Part Two: 2:40-5:00

This section is decidedly more chaotic and rhythmically complex as it has many more lines and ideas occurring at once.  Additionally, it includes a lot of references to city life, and in parts I hear sirens wailing, horses clomping down the street and the general bustle of modern life.

Part Three: 5:00-end

Here, the majority of the pitched percussion instruments are introduced for the first time. Snippets of ideas that were heard earlier return, but I hear a great sense of finality in this section. I attribute that to the “bell tolling” sounds and the use of the gong.

I’m not a percussionist and I know little about these instruments, but the more I listened to this work, the more I appreciated and enjoyed it. I hope you will, too!

The Piano Guys

I am newly obsessed with the group “The Piano Guys,” ( and featuring their work in this blog is perfect because so much of what they do involves timbre. Using just a piano, cello, and sometimes vocals, they recreate popular songs and perform mash-ups of popular and classical works.  Though they restrict themselves in the number of instruments used, they overlay tracks and use the instruments in non-traditional ways to create a wide range of sounds. For example, some of the videos show extended techniques such as plucking the strings of the piano or using the body of the cello as a percussion instrument. In doing this, they create an array of sounds that when combined enables them  to imitate a huge variety of sounds.

Take, for example, their rendition of One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” I find it to be far and away the most interesting version of this song. It’s just under 3 minutes long, so if you have time to listen to it twice, I suggest listening the first time without watching the video. See how many different sounds you can pick out. It will make your second listening (while watching how they created the work) that much cooler.

First, the obvious: IT’S ALL A PIANO! (With some vocals toward the end….) This turns the traditional idea of the timbre of a piano on its head.  Sure, I can tell it’s a piano if you strike a note for me, but if you pluck or slap (or bow?!?!) a string? Or strike the soundboard? Or thump the side? No way. It completely changes the meaning of “playing the piano.” This touches upon one of the current problems in defining “timbre,” because with all the extended techniques invented in contemporary playing, the timbre of an instrument now depends entirely on how it is being played.

But what I found really amazing about this is the way they imitated and expanded upon the original version of the song. For example, using delicate pizzicato piano at the beginning, they set a very intimate, personal tone for the muted “first verse” to enter upon. The original version does this to an extent as well, adding instruments/tracks until the refrain. Yet the dramatic contrast is greater in the piano version because, miraculously, they found more timbral nuances to work with than the “pop music” version, though they are merely using a piano.

Listening to the way “The Piano Guys” alternated between the subdued moments and the more extroverted ones got me thinking about how timbre is used to convey emotion and to build to a climax in a song.  It’s more than dynamics. I tried to pinpoint what exactly I was hearing in the more extroverted sections of version and decided that contributing timbral aspects included a more sustained sound, more harmonics, a greater range (both upper and lower), and more overall noise. I guess that these characteristics of musical high points can actually be applied to most songs, but here, as you can see on the graph, the dichotomy is HUGE. In retrospect it seems fairly obvious, but I usually don’t take the time to dissect the sounds I’m hearing in a piece of music; I mostly just follow the melody. I can tell you that the climax of a Mahler symphony is loud. But really, that doesn’t capture the half of it.  Volume alone doesn’t bring down the house.

piano guys graphic

O King: A Memoriam

Luciano_BerioThe first piece I’d like to look at is one I spent a great deal of time on last semester: the second movement in Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia.  Titled, O King, Berio wrote this work in 1968 as a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He composed it originally as a piece in its own right, re-orchestrating it later that same year to fit within his Sinfonia. Give it a listen: initially it may not seem super interesting, but at least it’s not prohibitively atonal.

 (not my favorite but the best version I could find on YouTube)

Quick Look

Listen for:

  • progressive build-up of noise and volume from beginning to end
  • voices (on vowels) and instruments sounding as one collective instrument
  • his instrument choices for different moments and effects
  • sustained sounds moving to iterative (disregarding the bell-like sounds)
  • increasing use of consonant sounds in voices

Musical Meaning:

  • eerily quiet combination of voices and instruments sounds like a collective “wail” of mourning voices
  • impulsive sounds are bells tolling for the death of a great man
  • increasing noise component as well as the gradual build of volume represents the increasing intensity of mourning and the progression of the grieving process
  • the last great tolling of the bell (climax) can be seen as the moment of acceptance
  • confusion and cacophony following the climax mimic the confusion and loss felt by the Civil Rights movement: they must find a new leader and rebuild

I could sit here all day and talk about all the cool and “intelligent” aspects of this piece, like how Berio used tone rows, rhythmic rows, and even vowel rows to compose O King.  But as interesting as all those things are, they don’t really offer a compelling reason to listen to this as a piece of music.  Mathematical constructions of tones may be beautiful and brilliant, but they rarely move us to tears. And even though the work is strictly arranged by rows, it is also organized in a musical manner by timbre.  Timbre can have all sorts of definitions when applied to music, but here it will describe the total sound. It is through timbre that one can best understand the musical meaning of the work.

I believe the best way to define Berio’s organization of this work is by noise. Noise, in this context, refers to the non-tonal part of a sound. If you clap your hands or bang on a drum, that’s noise. If you play a note on a flute, the noise components are the initial “attack” sound of blowing air, the click of the key, and any rasp or breathiness in the tone. O King devolves gradually; it begins with sustained sounds in unison, then moves to layering increasingly dissonant instruments and pitches, then finally, following the climax, tonal components hardly matter at all: the sounds we hear are mostly non-pitched.  One can see this in the spectrograph analysis of O King. The spectrograph charts the sound that it picks up through time. The horizontal axis is time, the vertical axis is frequency (Hz), and the colors represent intensity (volume) of the sound being charted.  Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 5.56.01 PMThe farther along in the work one looks, the fewer horizontal bands there are (vertically stacked horizontal bands mark pitches and their upper partials) and the more noise appears (noise being all the material not organized into horizontal lines). Here are some snapshots of various places in the work:

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It is very easy to tell where one is in the work by examining the noise component of a particular moment on the spectrograph.

Another really interesting way Berio organizes this work by noise is in his use of vowels and consonants. The vocal material in this work is derived entirely from the sounds in the name “Martin Luther King.” Berio begins by using only the vowel sounds. Then he adds more and more consonant sounds, beginning with the ones that are the least noisy (the nasal consonants like “n” “m” and “ng”) and progressing until the climax of the work on the very noisy “k” sound of “King.” Following the climax (when the piece descends into a cacophony of noise) the voices begin to layer consonant sounds on top of each other. The very end of the work marks the noisiest vocal moment as, for the first time, all voices simultaneously sing a different syllable of the name.

It is impossible to touch on all the amazing aspects of this work here, but I would highly encourage you to listen for yourselves and see what you can pick out! Though this work has not been organized in a traditional form, nor can it be considered melodic or even tonal, it nonetheless offers a moving musical message. You just have to know where to look.