Sunday, February 12, 2012

Manipulative music

In a fascinating piece, Bear McCreary explains the pattern and physics behind the theme music of some famous science fiction movies such as “Star Wars”, “2001 : A Space Odyssey”, etc.

When you think about science fiction theme tunes, chances are there are a few that are especially stirring and heroic. Star Wars. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Star Trek: The Next Generation. Superman: The Movie. And all of these theme tunes have something in common: they rely on the same basic intervals.

We talked to music experts — including legendary composer Bear McCreary — to find out why so many famous theme tunes use the "perfect fifth" for their hook.

Most people will instantly recognize the first few notes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was originally known as "Also sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss. It starts with a low C, and then goes up five notes to a G — that's a perfect fifth right there. And then the next note is another C, up an octave from the first C.
Once, this ‘perfect fifth’ was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it registered in people’s mind as “ the musical characterization of the cosmos or transcendence or generally mind-blowing scenarios in film." That series of ascending intervals "acts as an iconic symbol of things that are uplifting, progressive, bold, active - all heroic traits associated with space explorers and adventures”.

We have similar musical characterization in Indian movies as well. Early mornings are depicted with the music of flute wafting by usually in a certain ‘morning raaga’ ( Bhupalam in Tamil), or the haunting violin melody that formed part of the signature tune of All-India Radio. Tamil devotional movies relied heavily on the sound of the veena when showing the actor praying to God. As Charulata Mani wrote in a piece in The Hindu:

In moments of quietude, I wonder, “If a raga were to be given a form, what would it look like? A beautiful maiden or a handsome man?” This form that we conjure up in our mind's eye on listening to the melody of a raga defines its personality, and thereby the mood that it conveys. That's why certain ragas like Shubhapantuvaraliare used to highlight sad scenes in movie background scores while ragas like Bilahari are used to bring out cheer and brightness (recall Omana Penne from Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya).
 Amazing how music can be used to manipulate our moods and emotions.

Do you have any insights to offer on the techniques used by music composers to characterise certain situations or circumstance?

Update 13-02-12:

In this WSJ article titled, “Anatomy of a tear-jerker’, Michaeleen Doucleff explains

“Though personal experience and culture play into individual reactions, researchers have found that certain features of music are consistently associated with producing strong emotions in listeners. Combined with heartfelt lyrics and a powerhouse voice, these structures can send reward signals to our brains that rival any other pleasure.

The tear-jerkers contain a musical device called an "appoggiatura."

An appoggiatura is a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound. "This generates tension in the listener. When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good."

Chills often descend on listeners at these moments of resolution. When several appoggiaturas occur next to each other in a melody, it generates a cycle of tension and release. This provokes an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow.

Chill-provoking passages shared at least four features. They began softly and then suddenly became loud. They included an abrupt entrance of a new "voice," either a new instrument or harmony. And they often involved an expansion of the frequencies played. In one passage from Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 (K. 488), for instance, the violins jump up one octave to echo the melody. Finally, all the passages contained unexpected deviations in the melody or the harmony. Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern.


Shruthi said...

Found this fascinating. Thanks.

Raj said...

Shruthi, glad you liked it.

Priya Sivan said...

Ilayaraja tweaked Carnatic music raagas to suit the situations in tamil films by changing a note or two. Here is an interesting analysis I happened to read :

Raj said...

Priya, what I had in mind was music that was used to manipulate our mood.