2019's Oscar Nominated Film Scores Loved Their Chords – Soundfly

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2019’s Oscar Nominated Film Scores Loved Their Chords

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By Hunter and Benson Farris

Another Oscars season has come and gone. Ludwig Göransson’s original musical score for Black Panther took home the naked golden man, and we’re pretty happy with that result. But the rest of the nominees for Best Original Music Score also blew us away this year — it was a great year for film music.

The nominees drew from so many different musical traditions and styles, making use of African polyrhythms and harmonies, East Asian scales and percussion, jazz, new age, and even early Disney. But despite all these disparate influences, each score fit pretty solidly within the language of Western film scoring tradition, so we wanted to take a closer look and figure out what exactly made these scores tick. Exactly how different are they from each other? And how similar?

But, rather than compare the full scores to each of these films, we decided to pull out the single song or variation that best represents and encapsulates the thematic material of the rest of the score. We consider the following tracks to be each film’s main theme or at least its most prevalent leitmotif:

  1. Ludwig Göransson and Baaba Maal – “Wakanda” (Black Panther)
  2. Terence Blanchard – “Ron’s Theme” (BlacKkKlansman)
  3. Alexandre Desplat – “Shinto Shrine” (Isle of Dogs)
  4. Marc Shaiman – “Theme from Mary Poppins Returns” (Mary Poppins Returns)
  5. Nicholas Britell – “End Credits” (If Beale Street Could Talk)

In the process, we learned that this year’s Oscar nominated scores weren’t necessarily focused on creating musical emotion and intrigue through certain colorful keys or tonalities, nor high intensity tempos (though rhythm played a big role); the scores focused instead on developing unique pathways to melody with sometimes very little other than a few well-chosen chords.

Let’s break it down.

*Note: Drake did not perform in any of these scores.*

Key Signature

Nobody could blame a composer for leaning into exactly which key signatures suit a film’s needs from moment to moment, and Black Panther’s “Wakanda” does just that. We hear Senegalese songwriter Baaba Maal singing in C before the song moves to the choir’s tune in A♭, and then to the orchestra’s melody in F.

In each of the other tracks we pulled out to represent their scores, no other composer modulated keys within the song. Instead, they sought to focus on simplicity, similarity, and stability. And funnily enough, though we expected to hear a wide range of keys, three of the five songs made use of A♭ major. Perhaps there’s a micro lesson in that about how dynamic and flexible A♭ major is to use in film scoring — take note!

Tonality

For similar reasons, we were a bit astounded to find out that four out of the five score themes were in a major tonality. There’s just so much minor in pop music today, we had expected to see some of the interesting ways contemporary songwriters use minor tonalities to create uplifting and complex moods, but for the most part, it stays pretty consistent.

“Theme from Mary Poppins Returns” was flooded with chromaticism, but it was still firmly rested in major. “Shinto Shrine” from Isle of Dogs was in natural minor, but, hey, Wes Anderson has never been the type to follow trends anyway. And when each of these composers picked a tonality, they stuck to it. Even when “Wakanda” changed keys, it stayed in major.

Meter

This category proved to be a bit of a dud. Every track used the most common time signature: 4/4. And none of the tracks ever changed their time signatures.

Tempo

The tempi were surprisingly similar (even more surprising than when I found out that “tempi” is the plural of “tempo”). All the tracks stayed within the 100-121 BPM range. Two tracks stayed within 3 BPM of each other, two others had exactly the same BPM, and no track ever changed its tempo.

Number of Motifs

Now, this aspect of the study would’ve carried over into some really interesting conversations if we were to take into account the entire score composition. As we are well aware, even the simplest film scores tend to vary quite largely when it comes to motifs to suit each scene and act, or each character or setting. But since here we’re only looking at the flagship theme to each score, it was perhaps expected for the motifs to stay singular.

Yet, once again, “Wakanda” surprised us here. It begins with an African cry and develops into the main thematic material for the world of Wakanda. It sets two separate precedents for variations to come elsewhere, and adds a bit of depth. The other tracks stayed relatively singular in how they functioned to communicate a clear musical message.

Chords

These themes really do catch our interest with their focus on chords, and here’s how. BlacKkKlansman’s “Ron’s Theme” used just two chords (F minor and A♭ major), but each is played with so many extensions that it keeps us interested throughout the pretty mellow piece. And it establishes a strong theme that gets extrapolated in infinite variations throughout the rest of the score.

In If Beale Street Could Talk, Britell’s “End Credits” also focuses on just a few chords, but they too are given so many extensions so we tend to focus on the ambience instead of the harmony. It’s a repetitive, mesmerizing loop that slowly moves us around a few subtle degrees of feeling.

There’s a good argument to be made that “Shinto Shrine” from Isle of Dogs doesn’t even use chords at all. Instead, it just doubles the main melody a fourth lower to create harmonies that one might expect to hear in a secretive, dark, temple on a hill. Perhaps this is the joy to be gleaned from this score though: Desplat’s ability to bring us to an imaginary non-place, and still set the scene emotively.

All of the tracks we just mentioned used around two or three chords depending on how you hear them. “Wakanda” broke the mold with six. But on the complete other end of the spectrum, the “Theme from Mary Poppins Returns” seems totally obsessed with pulling out new chords hidden inside the musical Murphy mattress. It used 17 chords… in under 100 seconds! Major, minor, diminished, augmented, no chord was off the table, and most of the chords came with extensions that made them almost impossible to categorize.

An approach at a conclusion

Now, obviously, the chords weren’t the only aspect of these scores that differed, but they managed to infuse enough distinctness such that their similar key signatures, tonalities, time signatures, tempi, and motifs didn’t need to catch our interest.

And this probably serves to prove that film music itself doesn’t need to be either virtuosic and complicated or accessible and sugar-coated. It follows a different set of rules than pop music, or jazz, or classical. It’s designed simply to help carry the story forward and build our relationship to certain characters and their challenges. If that happens to include a ton of variation, so be it, but here we found that composers often opt to tell stories via simplicity, repetition and harmonic clarity.

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Hunter Farris runs the Song Appeal podcast, which focuses on the psychology behind why we like the music we like. His podcast on music theory and music psychology has appealed broadly enough for Hunter to speak at Comic-Con 2018, and is instructive enough to be used as homework by a Music Theory professor. He currently teaches people to play piano by ear and make their own arrangements of other people’s music. You can find more from him on his podcast Song Appeal or on Twitter: @SongAppeal.

Benson Farris is from Phoenix, Arizona. He is a film producer who enjoys working on set and learning about the craft of filmmaking. He is a fan and critic of music from all types of media and manages “Go Soundtracks” online. He enjoys puns, cycling, and time travel. You can find more from him on Twitter: @GoSoundtracks.

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