How do composers convey emotion through music?

As part of my research, I wanted to explore one of my favourite genres; film scores.

The job of a film composer is to provide a suitable musical setting to the images, which can literally be anything; end-of-the-world destruction; the next new miracle ‘we-thought-we’d-never-have-a-child’ baby in a pram; a funeral cortege.  Anything goes.  And the skill of painting these images with musical notes is an incredible skill that I both admire and aspire to.

Given that my composition for my final year is going to be interpreting or more literally, painting a musical picture of Lewis Carroll’s most famous story ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, I thought I would try to ascertain how composers convey emotion through music.

Alan Silvestri – Forrest Gump; ‘Theme’

Forrest Gump
Forrest Gump is about the remarkable story of an unremarkable man who despite a simple outlook, manages to experience a rich and fulfilling life.

Silvestri’s ‘Feather Theme’ reflects the gentle, simple nature of the film’s titular character. It opens with a simple string pedal note that plays against a piano and harp rocking a perfect 5th interval; this perfectly matches the lilting motion of the feather floating and dancing on the air during the opening credits.

The theme broadens out to the relative minor where we hear a full, rich homophonic textured chord played by the strings and a further lightening of the melody with the addition of acoustic guitar.  The theme is then repeated but is richer in tone as the piano plays an octave lower than before.

Various harmonic lines move within the strings and Silvestri soon brings in the flutes playing at a high register to carry through to the next section which has a few bars bridge in which the clarinets echo the flutes. A glissando from the harp drives the modulation to a new key reprise of the main theme which this time is played in unison by the flutes and strings, putting the piano into a more accompaniment part.

It’s a very simple harmonic structure that doesn’t move far from the tonic.  Silvestri makes use of inverted chords to minimise the chord movements – the largest jump he makes is ii – V; the rest moves stepwise.  All reflecting Gump’s gentle and simple nature.

Alexandre Desplat – The Imitation Game; ‘Alan’

Imitation Game
The film tells the story of Alan Turing, the remarkable inventor of the machine that decoded the German’s Enigma machine and essentially won us the war.

A highly intelligent man, what Turing lacked in social skills he made up for in engineering genius.

Desplat’s third track on the soundtrack is entitled ‘Alan’ and from listening to this carefully, you can understand Turing’s complexity as an individual through the complex counterpoint and interwoven motifs.

An opening celeste plays a fast-paced ostinato that forms the main basis for the melody. The shape of this melody line reminded me not only of the code-breaking machine, the whirs and clanks of the cogs as it worked, but it also suggested to me the workings of a genius’s mind, constantly thinking synapses firing and sparking new ideas.

A french horn and a flute at very low register enters with a steady, slow melodic motif that contrasts against the celeste, almost bi-polar opposites really.  A very quiet, gradual crescendo tremolo string section joins the texture.

The piece is in a minor tonality, perhaps hinting at Turing’s frustrations at being so misunderstood and his invention so doubted.

Desplat allows the music to breath and to build with no melody for a few bars, allowing the listener to hear the carpet of texture underneath building whilst the celeste is busy, furious with its melodic pattern.

We hear another relate of the melodic motif first stated by the horns but this time with the flutes joining them in unison but in a very high register in unison. We can also hear the tremolo strings getting ever closer and louder, as though the mind is getting ever busier.

Cellos pick out bass notes in a light pizzicato pattern underneath this all, and the texture becomes more polyphonic, both melodically and rhythmically as more and more is added.

The horns play the melody and now echo the flute in their higher register. A minor third note comes through piercing the texture by the violins at a high register; it is very gradual, as though a though comes to mind.  At 1′ 19 the horns and strings come together for a brief moment of homophonic progression to a major key before returning back to the minor via a diminished chord.  By 1′ 59 we have returned to the minor key.

By now, Desplat has built the track to quite a pensive, thoughtful and almost ‘dark’ texture.  One feels that he has captured the workings of a very complex individual whose brain is constantly working and whose difficult personality belies an incredible talent.

Alexandre Desplat – The King’s Speech; ‘Lionel & Bertie’
Based on the true story of his King George VI overcame his crippling stammer with the help of an Australian speech and language therapist, Lionel Logue, and the subsequent friendship that grew.

The first track on the album is called ‘Lionel & Bertie’ (Bertie was the King’s nickname).  This is a very gentle, tender track that through it’s progression, grows in confidence and warmer in tone.  The relationship between the two men was difficult at first, with the King feeling ashamed, angry, frustrated at his stammer and Logue trying to instil confidence within his client which often heightened feelings of inadequacy.

The opening is very soft and quiet with a string quartet playing.  It’s very intimate, and the cellos have an almost shimmering soft tremolo sound.

The lines between the parts become more contrapuntal at 0’29 with the beautifully rich tone of the violas coming through.

The melody line is very poignant and at 0’37 Desplat adds a unison flute at a high register which subtly helps pick out the tune in the texture.  The bass line is a very steady pizzicato and keeps the tempo moving forward steadily and gradually; it has a subtle stateliness about it, too.

At 1′ 15 Desplat varies the tonality between major and  minor, as though switching between the strength and experience of Logue with the constricted, crippled King.

The piece moves harmonically through various chords and at 1’25, the piano enters with a beautiful reflective and decorative descending motif; it is simply gorgeous from here.  Homophonic string chords, pizzicato bass and piano melody.

I really like this track.  Desplat closes the track with a harp picking out an arpeggiated tonic chord.

Alexandre Desplat – The King’s Speech; ‘Fear & Suspicion’
I chose this track as it so clearly depicts two very negative emotions.

It opens with a low bassoon pedal note, which could be mistaken for strings.  Cellos then enter with a dotted melodic motif in a minor key and it’s very repetitive.  At 0’23, Desplat changes to give the violins the melody line from the cellos, and a piano plays a tonic note in a medium register that almost feels like a morse code pattern.

The basses then copy the rhythm of the opening melody with the first violins playing a very high register countermelody that is piercing and uncomfortable.  At 0’58 the piano’s rhythm is echoed in unison by the basses; it feels almost like a heart beating irregularly and at 1’09 we get a complete change.  A reprise of the main theme comes in which is very lightly played on the piano; it pauses after each phrase accompanied by diminished chords played by the strings.  The pauses feel very doubting, untrusting – suspicious almost.

At 1’48, the tempo picks up and the main theme is more certain.  There are no pauses.  We have pizzicato bass and string parts instead of the homophonic chords.  It’s lighter, ambivalent.  Desplat includes unison celeste to the piano’s melody line which aids the lightness.  The track ends with a ‘devil may care’ attitude.

Alexandre Desplat – The Queen; ‘The Queen’
Given that I have a heraldic theme to write for the Queen of Hearts in my composition, this titular track from Desplat’s soundtrack seemed a great place to listen for inspiration.  I was expecting lots of snare drums and heraldic trumpets; this is what we get:

A slow string note, soon harmonised a perfect 4th by further strings.  Then we hear tuned percussion (times) beat us into the next section which has an acoustic guitar playing arpeggiated notes, the strings playing homophonic chords, the french horn playing the slow simple melody line.

The timpani rhythm gets more interesting; at 0’28 we get a very flourishing glissando up and down on the harp acting as a bridge into the main theme played on the trumpets.  The strings remain the main harmonic foundation with the flutes dancing around its top register with pizzicato semiquaver decoration.

There is lots of brass underneath mainly from the french horn countermelody and the texture grows. At 0’51 everything goes silent and we almost enter another room at the palace.  Desplat brings in arpeggiated chords on the harpsichord with the timp still playing (slightly incongruously).  Then, we hear a harp playing arpeggiated chords with strings entering with a pedal note.

High strings play major 3rd chords with the timp still playing their semiquaver crotchet upbeat ‘roll’.  At 1’25 we get rich, full and dense thick string chords playing homophonically with the french horns picking out harmony notes through the middle.

I adore the timpani in this track and how their small but effective upbeat ‘rolls’ into each phrase bring about the regal feel without it sounding corny.  It’s certainly more effective and less obvious than snare drums.



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