Friday, December 29, 2017

Harmony series 3, triad pairs

Scott Murphy has published four thorough and insightful articles on film music composition and expression. (See the list at the end of this post.) In one of those articles, a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies, he examines pairs of major and minor triads and documents their appearance and functions in recent film underscores. (By recent, I mean mainly post-1980.)

You'll need strong music theory knowledge to read and understand everything in Murphy's four articles. To see what they're like, you might start with the last one in the list below, as it's easily accessible through the journal Music Theory Online (link).

On the other hand, the effects of harmony that he talks about are easy to hear in the films he discusses.

The "triad pairs" that are presented in Murphy 2014a are abstract categories representing every possible pairing of major and minor triads. Here is a simple example: M2m in his notation is a major triad -- like C major in the examples below -- followed by a minor triad (D minor here) whose root is two half-steps higher (C to C# is one step, then C# to D is the second step). The effects created by use of any triad pair vary widely, of course. At (a) a relatively brief minor triad is tucked in-between two major triads, an incidental effect or neighbor chord. At (b) the two chords are equal in length, but there is a definite element of contrast, as the upper voices and bass move in opposite directions, following the requirements of older tonal voice-leading rules. At (c), on the other hand, the chords are spread out -- we hear more of each one -- and all the voices move in the same direction. Finally, at (d), we hear C first, then the chords are mingled and we either hear them as layered or as a complex chord over the C bass (it would be a C13 chord with a diatonic 11), then the C chord layer disappears.

Reference: articles by Scott Murphy on film music:
1. Murphy, Scott. 2014b. “Scoring Loss in Some Recent Popular Film and Television.” Music Theory Spectrum 36(2): 295-314.
2. Murphy, Scott. 2014a. “Transformational Theory and the Analysis of Film Music.” In The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies, edited by David Neumeyer, pp. 471-499. New York: Oxford University Press.
3. Murphy, Scott. 2012. “The Tritone Within: Interpreting Harmony in Elliot Goldenthal's Score for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.” In The Music of Fantasy Cinema, edited by Janet K. Halfyard, pp. 148-174London: Equinox, 2012.
4. Murphy, Scott. 2006. “The Major Tritone Progression in Recent Hollywood Science Fiction Films.” Music Theory Online 12(2). link.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Harmony series 2, postscript

In his main title cues for Warner Bros. films from about 1938 through the 1940s, Max Steiner almost always opened with his studio logo passage. I talked about its harmonies in Casablanca in my previous post (from October).

Here it is in Mildred Pierce (1945). (We discuss this film at length in Chapter 8.) The opening two bars are identical: mostly C or Cadd6 with some shorter elaborating neighbor chords (see the October post for details), plus a shift to Ab major. From that point, Steiner is likely to do almost anything (but always moving toward the main theme): from a simple diatonic continuation to some ear-bending dissonances and chord changes that I don't recommend trying at home. In Mildred Pierce he piles on both. The bass in bar 3 shifts down a whole step, from C to Bb—already an unusual progression (so much so that in traditional music theory it's sometimes called a "retrogression," with the negatives that term implies). The Ab chord changes from major to minor (see the black notes in the bass clef) and the upper parts add a Cb major triad. When the note Cb goes down to Bb in bar 4, it's a suspension resolution (Cb-->Bb over the Bb bass, or 9-8 in counterpoint language).
This 9-8 move—I've isolated it at (a) below—is identical to the last bit of the progression in Casablanca, at (b), or just as the "Arabian theme" starts.

In Mildred Pierce though, Steiner is not done yet. For reasons known only to him, the main or "Mildred" theme is in Db major, a half step up from the C major he starts with. It would have been much easier to stay put in C, but then the drama of the progression in bars 3-8 would have been lost, of course. Mildred Pierce is a woman's name -- in Hollywood at that time, that's an announcement that it's a women's film (sometimes lumped in with melodrama, though the two are distinct), but the rich harmonizations and lyrical melody we expect in this genre are missing and we get instead a cue (pun intended) that this film is really a tragedy: it doesn't end well, as Mildred's daughter is arrested for the murder of her (Mildred's) former husband.

Steiner liked to write a lot of music for a film, if he was allowed to, but he also paid an extraordinary amount of attention to details, especially those that could affect the viewer's understanding of the narrative.