Using film music in the classroom
Using film music in the classroom

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Using film music in the classroom

1.2. Motifs and memorability

One of the reasons that we find film music memorable is that it uses distinctive melodic motifs to ‘catch’ the main characters it describes. The James Bond theme is a good example of this, but a modern composer who has had great success with memorable motifs in all his scores is John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars, Harry Potter). Click here to read an interview with Williams from 1998.

‘[We can] take themes and reshape them and put them in a major key, minor key, fast, slow, up, down, inverted, attenuated and crushed, and all the permutations that you can put a scene and a musical conception through.’

John Williams on Star Wars, quoted in Thomas, T. (1991) Film Score: The Art and Craft of Movie Music, Burbank, CA, Riverwood Press, pp. 334–335.

Activity 2 has components suitable for younger and older pupils to explore their abilities to identify and interpret memorable film music motifs. For younger pupils it will be enough to link instruments, rhythm, and tempo to how they feel about the characters. For older pupils, the activity explores how motif design reflects character personality.

With the activity for older pupils, you may also like to click on the icons below and use the video extracts from an interview with George Fenton, composer on Gandhi (1982), Memphis Belle (1990), Anna and the King (1999) and Sweet Home Alabama (2002).

Click "play" below to watch George Fenton dicuss musical ideas for film scores.

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Transcript: Video 1

George Fenton
Yes, I mean I think that nine times out of ten I think that movies scores, film scores are based on one or maybe two quite short musical ideas, maybe a theme or a rhythmic idea or something like that, and I suppose at its best it becomes a development of that, and at its worst I suppose it's a series of repeats of the same idea without really developing it.
Trevor Herbert
Right George, at this point I think we have to come clean and own up to the fact that I've set you a task in which you are asked to... prepare a fairly short melody with very simple harmonies specifically in C major, specifically with the three primary triads of C major: C, F and G. And we're going to see the effects that we can get by manipulating your skills in that particular context.
End transcript: Video 1
Video 1
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Click "play" below to discover how George Fenton creates a theme.

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Transcript: Video 2

George Fenton
Given that the chords, there only 3 chords that I can use which in some ways is an unusual limitation to have, but given that there are only 3 chords to use, um, I tried to think in terms of writing a tune where I could, sort of, perhaps add a bit of tension to those three chords so the tune in a way depends on the harmony as much as the chords are a way of harmonising the tune.
End transcript: Video 2
Video 2
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Click "play" below to learn about the type of theme created and hear the tune with harmonies.

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Transcript: Video 3

Trevor Herbert
That's fine. I should say it's a 16-bar tune which is one of the most common sort of structures for um, for example 4 melody, is made up really of four phrases of four bars each, a sort of 'A A B A'...
George Fenton
Yeah, absolutely – this is really the simplest – I think the simplest – structurally the simplest type of melody one could write which as you say is one phrase basically a repeated phrase with a slight variation, then a development of that phrase which becomes like a 'B'... yes a contrasting phrase, and then returning to a version of the original phrase to round it off.
Trevor Herbert
You can tell the shape from the melody then, now let's hear it with the harmonies.
End transcript: Video 3
Video 3
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Click "play" below to learn how George Fenton inserts tension into the theme he has written.

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Transcript: Video 4

Trevor Herbert
There's a very nice point in the piece, in the B section, where you put a B natural very briefly against an F major chord, just there, can you just play that bit for us...
It's just a sort of bitter-sweet...
George Fenton
Yes, yes, just, er, just, I think it's a sort of... perhaps that's the most, that's the most tension I could get out of that particular, that particular chord because it's playing a B against a, against an A below, and um, in a way it's a very interesting exercise to try and write things given something as restricted, because in fact as one works on it, you begin to realise that actually it's not a restriction at all, it's really something that in a way, because of its limitation is what can in the end make the piece interesting. I think, you know, one's always looking for some kind of structural sense so that if you set up a little bit of tension in the first phrase that as much as you um, contrast that phrase in the third phrase, and develop it, that you should also develop the idea of – if there is an inherent tension between the melody and the chords that you should develop that as well. And um, resolve it each time so that it feels that it has a complete shape.
End transcript: Video 4
Video 4
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Click "play" below to hear the first variation of the original theme.

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Transcript: Video 5

Trevor Herbert
Yes, it certainly does. Right, now that's the basic piece we are going to work with, but I did ask you to give me a couple of sort of variations on this little piece. What have you come up with?
George Fenton
Well, um, I tried various things, I thought it might be quite interesting to play it and change the note values of the melody slightly, and by doing so sort of pull the melody ahead of the bar-line at certain points so that it would sound like this.
In a way perhaps a bit more lyrical than... previously, and I was thinking in terms of, if I was writing it for another instrument other than the piano, then perhaps if it was played by a solo wind instrument such as a flute or an oboe or something like that, that it would be, it would be probably more effective if there was a little bit more rhythmic interest in the tune itself.
Trevor Herbert
That's right, and the syncopations provide that, don't they.
George Fenton
Yes, that's right, the synco... and so not only is there a bit of tension in the harmony with the chords, but also, because things are moving at a slightly different moment, that gives it a bit of extra interest as well.
End transcript: Video 5
Video 5
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Click "play" below to hear the second variation.

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Transcript: Video 6

Trevor Herbert
Now I know that you’ve come up with another version of this as well.
George Fenton
What I’ve done is just written a little figure, rhythmic figure for the left hand which is, um, which stays on the pedal note of C the entire time, and by putting the, er, some chords, again the same three basic chords, in the right hand, you get a quite different effect. So this is the rhythmic figure.
Etcetera. And if you put the tune over the top of that, it comes out sounding quite differently – quite different.
And that’s, um, that’s the same three chords, but again, but one can imagine it beingorchestrated with a totally different flavour and, um, but again, not a vast, not really a vast difference from the original tune.
End transcript: Video 6
Video 6
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Activity 2

Part 1 (all pupils)

Play the main character motifs from a number of films (such as the James Bond theme, Hedwig's theme from Harry Potter, or the Jaws theme) to pupils. Ask them to write down the type of character or film which they think the motif might be associated with. Afterwards you can name the films and characters for each motif.

Part 2 (younger pupils)

Ask pupils to identify some of the qualities of the motifs that make them effective in those films, e.g. what is sinister about the Jaws theme? What is energetic and driving about the James Bond theme? What is mysterious about the music from Harry Potter?

Part 2 (older pupils)

Develop with pupils a list of four qualities for each key character.

Part 3 (older pupils)

Discuss with pupils the motif designs, concentrating on interval size, rhythmic patterns, diatonic/chromatic language, major/minor modes, range of pitches, and repetition of motifs in the theme.

Part 4 (older pupils)

Finally, ask pupils to match qualities of the character with design features of their motif (you may like to use the sample answers given here as a basis for developing your own answers).

Click 'View document' below to open Film music motifs – indicative answer sheet

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