If you’ll indulge me for a minute, I have a gripe about current film & TV scores: the lack of melody.
If you’re a film music buff then I’m probably not saying anything you haven’t heard or thought before. But for my readers who are just starting to pay attention to musical details in features and on TV, then I just wanted to get this off my chest.
I saw THE HELP with my wife over the weekend and while the score by Thomas Newman was lovely, delicate and emotional in all the right places, there wasn’t a single “theme” or “tune” that I could hang my hat on – until the End Credits with its obligatory (for CD sales or mp3 downloads and for Oscar-Best-Song consideration) song. Today’s scores are all about mood and color and feelings. Guitars strum, strings play chords (known as “beds” in the biz) brass and percussion accentuate, but none of the instruments “sing”.
I don’t know if, at some point in recent history, there was a conscious decision on the part of producers or directors to do away with melodies or if it was gradual, the way you slowly turn up the heat on a pot of water with a frog in it – the rise in temperature is so gradual, the frog doesn’t realize it’s being boiled to death until it’s too late. Melody has been totally boiled out of film scores. Was there just a NO MORE MELODIES edict one day or did producers and directors keep burying the melody and praising the “mood” during dubbing until they conditioned a Pavlovian response in composers to avoid melodies?
There’s a story that’s been going around in post-production circles for a few years now. Maybe only an urban legend, but it sure speaks volumes of truth.
Composer and Producer/Director are walking off the scoring stage together after a session
Composer: That was a great session, don’t you think so?
Composer: And what about that cue with the beautiful melody? The one that started in the strings and ended with that fabulous French Horn solo?
Producer/Director: Oh yes, I wanted to tell you something about that one.
Composer (anxiously awaiting his compliment): What?
Producer/Director: Don’t ever do that again!
When music students (especially composition majors) come to observe a SIMPSONS scoring session, during the Q&A session afterward I always warn them about this new development. I punctuate the point with a question. I’m curious what your answer would be. “Can you hum the melody or main motif from any film score in recent memory?” I have two restrictions: 1) You cannot choose a score by John Williams. His relationships with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are unlike any other composer/director relationships in film today. Spielberg and Lucas have proven over and over that they trust John to compose the perfect score and they have an appreciation for melodies in their movies. 2) No melodies from songs. Songs are rarely used as underscore, they sit out front and center and demand your attention. Also, words and music combine to make a powerful impression on the listener. Ever wonder why, as a child, you could learn the alphabet easier singing a song than just reciting a string of letters?
Go back a few years to great old films like EXODUS, THE GREAT RACE, IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, any Sean Connery or Roger Moore JAMES BOND movie, THE PINK PANTHER, THE GOOD, THE BAD and THE UGLY just to name a few. These scores have memorable main motifs you can hum. You might even be able to recognize parts of a current score like the main theme from the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise if you were to hear it. But without hearing it first can you hum that theme?
Anyway, I’ve said my piece. Thanks for letting me vent. Let’s get a SIMPSONS mention in here. Alf always gets to write clever and beautiful melodies for the show, either entirely original (Krusty the Clown’s theme, Sideshow Bob’s theme, Burns’s theme, Wiggum’s theme) or incorporating Danny Elfman’s quirky, humorous Main Title motif. Matt Groening wouldn’t have it any other way. Have I mentioned lately how lucky I am to be working on this show?
Share your opinions (or scores you can hum) in the comments.