Why Can’t I Hum the Score?

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?
Producer/Director: Yes!
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.


26 thoughts on “Why Can’t I Hum the Score?

  1. Well, I don’t think this shift to sonic wallpaper has made movies any better, so hopefully someone will get brave and hire a real composer to go old school with a score soon and it’ll become trendy again. There’s just no reason a lush, great piece of music can’t still bring a movie to life like it used to in a Hitchcock movie or a Rozsa biblical score.

  2. I understand your use of the standard “hummable” but that doesn’t necessarily always equate to “memorable.” While hummable tunes are a concern, is this issue not also related the quality of the movies themselves? I wonder if the pics that tell a great sweeping story often have those more hummable themes, while the movies that are depictions of gritty modern experience tend to be more fractious and more about sound and impression. My favorite scores are the older Thomas Newman movies (Little Women), but I have to admit a fondness for Desplat currently. As far as television, although I hardly watch it anymore, Downton Abbey has a very hummable theme, which has been going through my head this last week!

    • Very thoughtful comments. Thank you.

      You are probably right. Grand epic historic or romantic movies do have more melodic scores, while edgy modern action thrillers have more angular rhythmic scores, the former being more “hummable” than the latter.

      I agree wholeheartedly that “Downton Abbey” has one of the most memorable AND hummable scores on television today, yet the composer only receives a tiny credit on a card with other craftspeople during the end credits rather than a solo card at the top of the show. Too bad. Bravo, John Lunn

  3. A friend of mine in “the business” vented to me that as society cuts art and music from schools you see it being cut out of the budgets of film and television (which arguably has gotten very dumbed down in terms of the kind of programs that are on TV today compared to say the 80’s or even 90’s.)

  4. I was struck while watching Charlie’s Angels (the reboot) this past week that using new top 40 songs is probably a bad idea– I think it alienates viewers and dates the episode, so that when the rerun plays it’s already tired just a couple months later.

    This is another thing that I think The Simpsons does so well–when existing music is used, it’s chosen for message and/or rhythm, not because it’s a new, hip tune. (Like “Watch Your Step” by Elvis Costello used in season 20).

    • One other observation … sometimes, a studio or producer will actually dub TWO versions of the music for a show or TV movie for economic AND future sales reasons. In the second version the hit song(s) is/are replaced with less costly, more generic song(s) or underscore. This keeps down the cost of the initial license fee and “helps” keep the show from sounding dated in the future (assuming the show has a future).

  5. Nice post, man. Alf’s themes are great.

    Lately, I have also noticed that the songs have been disappearing as well, especially on television. Many theme songs are now just 10- to 20- second pieces of music, and forget about inserts.

  6. Pingback: Two Links: Characters and Theme Tunes | The Animation Anomaly

  7. That does make more sense, thank you. It actually harkens back to the educational background we share, in classical music, where opera themes were carefully used for specific characters and… er, well, themes… to capture and re-visit particular emotions – not to mention quoted in brief, elongated, turned into fugue subjects, etc.

    I’ll tell you what, though, as much as I liked it when I first heard it, if I never hear the pennywhistle theme from Titanic again, it will be fine with me. ‘Nuff said.

    • One more thought on “hummability”. Earlier today I was listening to a CD entitled “Sondheim on Sondheim” where selections of his music and songs are interspersed with commentary in Sonheim’s own voice about his career, beginnings in musical theatre, etc. When discussing “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” he introduces us to the song “Forget War”. It was the song he originally composed as the opening to “Forum”. The director, George Abbot (washed or unwashed?), said he didn’t like the song because … wait for it … he couldn’t hum it. Sondheim then wrote a very hummable tune called “Love is in the Air” but it was a sappy ballad that didn’t open the show with rousing emotion. It misled the audience as to what the show was about. Jerome Robbins was then called in for advice. Robbins said that the opening number needed to tell the audience that the show was a baudy, low comedy show. Sondheim complained that he had already done that in “Forget War” but that Abbot hated it. Robbins then replied, “You have to write another number that tells the audience what it’s about that George Abbot will like.” And “Comedy Tonight” was born. Maybe Abbot was on to something 🙂

  8. Oh! Juicy debate at hand! I love your observations and they make me want to clarify something. You are SO right that the music should NOT distract from the story at any time. An old saying goes something like, “If you come out of a movie and really enjoyed the music, the composer failed at his job.” Themes and motifs should be used to help support the story by attaching themselves to characters or actions. This way they can be threaded throughout the film, giving the audience a subliminal extra layer of story. If all a cue does is support a character in scene “A”, then a totally different cue supports that same character in scene “B”, and different again in scene “G” then there’s no connection, no through-line, just a collection of trees but no forest.

    As for your Sondheim example I have two comments. First, I totally agree that so much of his music is wonderfully hummable (“Send in the Clowns”, “The Ladies Who Lunch”, “Not While I’m Around”), but to many of the “Great Unwashed” Sondheim’s music on the whole is rather heady and unaccessible. But hey, you and I can hum Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”. Maybe we’re some of the “Great Washed” 🙂 Second, Sondheim proves my point exactly many times over in his scores. Themes aren’t used once and discarded. Every song and interlude is one brick after another in a great pyramid that builds to a perfect peak at the show’s climax. Something today’s film scores (for the most part) just don’t do.

    Thanks for your comment. I loved it!

  9. Hmmm. (see how I did that?)

    I recall a conversation I had with a colleague many years ago. He had just given a talk about the history of The Crucible (totally unrelated, don’t even try to relate that to this topic, heh), and afterward was discussing modern theatre with several of the participants. The subject of Sondheim came up, and he expressed his disdain for those musical offerings, saying, “You can’t hum along!”

    This was someone with musical background, btw, so I was a bit surprised to hear him say so. Not wanting to show him up in front of his audience, I waited until they had all departed, and then I engaged him in a discourse, shall we say. One of the first things I did was sing a line or two of “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods, along with several other Sondheim snippets. As he had no rebuttal, I went on to ask where it had been written that musicals had to be “hummable” by the Great Unwashed. Don’t we go to the theatre to be transported beyond our more humdrum existence? (And yes, I know the humming jokes are getting old, sorry.)

    Your subject strikes a similar chord to me. (Yikes, can I not get away from musical imagery???) When I think back on movie and film music I have enjoyed, my distinct feeling is that when I am able to focus on a specific melody, I am immediately removed from the reality of the presentation. And isn’t the purpose of television and film scoring to reinforce rather than take away from the story that’s being told?

    Oh, and the main title from “Game of Thrones” is running through my head right now – perfect example, by the way. The graphics in that opening are really spectacular, but what I remember is the music.

    I’m not sure if I completely disagree with you on your observation, but I needed to present this viewpoint. I’ll close now before I end up with more musical punditry.

  10. Did you watch Human Target at all? The first season score from Bear McCreary featured a giant orchestra and great themes, both exceptions in today’s TV. Of course, after the first season, budgets were cut and McCreary (along with his orchestra, thematic style, and the producer that asked for it) wasn’t invited back, so we may have a clue as to why it’s so uncommon lately…

    McCreary’s opening theme:

    • No, did not catch HUMAN TARGET. Shrinking budgets certainly have a lot to do with the declining quality of music production (shorter composing schedules, smaller or no orchestra) but could it really have an effect on themes? I guess it could if the production can only afford less talented or experienced composers.

  11. Yes, I agree Chris – All the films you mentioned have those memorable motifs – I thought of Newman’s ‘How the West Was Won’ even though there are a lot of songs quoted in that score. I think we need you guys involved in more film scores along with your Simpson’s work 🙂

  12. I can hum Pirates immediately. Most likely as it’s one of the few movies to HAVE a distinct theme.

    Lord of the Rings did as well.

    Cloverfield too. Just the one track but a truly epic one for a movie that has no actual score.

  13. We love Alf’s melodies and they sound great because of you! You’re lucky to work on the show and we’re lucky to have the show and you guys working on it. Thanks, Chris!

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