Skip to content

Shaken and stirred? Blending the familiar and new in Bond’s music

Updated Monday 5th October 2015

With all the talk on who will be the next James Bond, we get shaken and stirred about the music in these iconic films.  

Smoking gun Creative commons image Icon jcoterhals under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license With the release of SPECTRE, the 24th film in the long-running series that follows the exploits of secret agent James Bond, it’s an opportune moment to think about the role of music in this quintessentially British cinematic institution.

We can certainly consider the musical richness of Bond’s world and the composers who have written for the series. But two things immediately spring to mind: the songs that accompany the main title, and the Bond theme.

The former can be used as a barometer of public taste in popular music, and has become increasingly important to the films’ commercial strategies. Over the years themes have been sung by Shirley Bassey, Paul McCartney & Wings, Duran Duran, and Madonna. SPECTRE’s title song is performed by Sam Smith and is the first Bond theme song to shoot to number one in the charts.

Continuity

The James Bond theme itself, however, remains virtually unchanged, or is at least always recognisable (complete with twanging electric guitar, moody horns, and strident trumpets). It provides a degree of continuity across the decades even as Bond’s own face morphs to fit the actor currently portraying him.

What is the role of this theme? The subject of contested authorship claims between Monty Norman and the composer of many of the early Bond scores, John Barry, it has come to instantly identify the character in the popular imagination.

Although its arrangement may alter to match the period of the film, it suggests a musical calling card, something akin to the operatic concept of leitmotiv (or leading motif) employed to such good effect by composers like Wagner, Strauss, and Puccini, and also used in much film music.  

Talismanic

But who wields the Bond theme? Is this music the sign of a narrator figure identifying the character (rather obviously) for us? Or might Bond himself use the theme as a kind of talismanic protective blanket; as a way to ward off bullets in the actions scenes in which it’s commonly used? It’s open to interpretation, of course.

Bond certainly recognises his own theme, commenting in Octopussy that it’s a “charming tune” when a fellow agent, disguised as a snake charmer, plays it to attract his attention.

This is a classic example of what academics might refer to as postmodern self-reflexivity—though that’s not to say it shouldn’t also be thought of as a joke!

Beyond these two standout elements—the title song and the Bond theme—the films are often musically rich in other ways, however. The Living Daylights, for instance, featured a cellist as Bond’s love interest, which was an opportunity to present a brief extract from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Rococo’ Variations in concert.

Opera

Quantum of Solace, though, went one step further by including a remarkable scene at the opera. We see part of a production of Puccini’s Tosca—an opera that with its themes of violence and political conflict shares something in common with the plot of the film.

Indeed, according to musicologist Marcia Citron, the opera scene in Quantum of Solace offers us a detached, isolating experience, one that is entirely appropriate to Daniel Craig’s broken and cynical Bond.

Undoubtedly, though, the unique atmosphere of a Bond film is often dependent on the sound of its score, which reflects the individual musical style of its composer as much as the character of Bond.

Sean Connery’s Bond, for instance, is instantly associated with the horn- and string-rich melodiousness of John Barry’s music, musical features that characterise many of Barry’s other notable film scores (such as Out of Africa, The Ipcress File, or Dances with Wolves).

Tension-inducing

Barry continued to write for the series until 1987, though other composers contributed the odd entry. Marvin Hamlisch, for instance, provided a score influenced by 1970s disco for The Spy Who Loved Me, an extract from which can be seen in the second video in this OpenLearn free course extract.

In recent years, David Arnold has assumed the bulk of the duties. His is an approach that often relies on music as a tension-inducing texture, and is heavily dependent on contemporary percussion sounds.

For Skyfall, however, a new composer will take over the scoring duties: Thomas Newman. Newman is part of a great film-composition dynasty that includes his cousin Randy, his uncles Lionel and Emil, and his father, Alfred Newman, who was head of music at 20th Century Fox in the 1940s.

Bond has survived not only the Cold War but also a string of actors and composers, remaining both musically current and yet part of an identifiable tradition. With Newman on the scoring stage, it will be fascinating to see (and hear) just what SPECTRE offers in terms of this blend of the familiar and new.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Using film music in the classroom Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

Education & Development 

Using film music in the classroom

There are many approaches to using film music in the classroom including: a focus on pupil experience; a focus on the structure of composition; a focus on the relationship between music and image. This free course, Using film music in the classroom, explores them all.

Free course
8 hrs
20th century composers: making the connections Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license activity icon

History & The Arts 

20th century composers: making the connections

Explore the world of 20th century classical and avant-garde music through the composers and the fascinating connections that exist between them.

Activity

Science, Maths & Technology 

Composing with MIDI

In the last 50 years, developments in technology have had a profound effect on the production, recording and manipulation of music. The 8 video tracks in this album introduce Simon Whiteside, a television and film composer, explore his recording studio and explain how he uses MIDI to create music for films and television programmes. Using an example of one of the programmes he has worked on, Simon illustrates the technical and creative processes involved. This material forms part of TA212 Technology of Music.

Audio
45 mins
Debate: Ambiguity Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jupiter Images article icon

History & The Arts 

Debate: Ambiguity

Professor Dennis Kurzon takes issue with Darren Barenboim's Reith Lecture contention that music has ambiguity lacking in real life.

Article
Scoring the Shoreline Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

Scoring the Shoreline

George Revill considers the synergy between sound waves and ocean waves - how the coast of Britain has inspired the nation's musical heritage.  

Article
The music from An Introduction to Music Research Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team publicity shot audio icon

History & The Arts 

The music from An Introduction to Music Research

If you're studying the free course An Introduction to Music Research, this is the audio for section one.

Audio
Debate: What about the tone deaf Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jupiter Images article icon

History & The Arts 

Debate: What about the tone deaf

Forum visitor Garry Ladd heard Daniel Barenboim's suggestion that music could bring peace. But he had a worry...

Article
Debate: Musical education Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jupiter Images article icon

History & The Arts 

Debate: Musical education

Forum member MissTambourine was inspired by the 2006 Reith Lectures - but wondered if music gets the attention it deserves.

Article
The Great Fall: Berlin’s ‘Freedom’ concert Creative commons image Icon Allan Warren under CC BY-SA 3.0) license under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

The Great Fall: Berlin’s ‘Freedom’ concert

How did the Berlin 'Freedom' concert come about after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and what significance has music played in Germany's past?

Article