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Big Screen, Big Sound

Posted Tuesday, 08 November 2011

PhD student Frank Lehman takes a theoretical approach to the music behind Hollywood blockbusters like Jaws, Star Trek, and more.


Frank Lehman, a PhD student in musicology

















Frank Lehman is a G-6 music theorist in Harvard's Music Department. His research focuses on the analysis and interpretation of film music, particularly for blockbuster film scores such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture or the Jaws franchise. He co-writes a blog, Unsung Symphonies, on non-canonical 20th century symphonies and his 2009 talk on A Beautiful Mind, "Transformational Analysis and the Representation of Genius in Film Music," has been accepted for publication in Music Theory Spectrum.

In the mid 1970s, American film came to be distinguished by the emergence of the blockbuster—an easily franchise-able, widely marketed film whose soundtracks included not only a lot of music, but very prominent, complex music. And although film scores now furnish some of the most recognizable music we share as a culture, music theorists don’t yet have the language to talk about it.

“It’s not art music, but that doesn’t mean it’s less interesting or sophisticated,” says theory graduate student Frank Lehman. “When you talk about film music, there are two strange truths: film music is powerful, recognizable, and decisive in how you experience the film. And film music is supposed to be not heard, it’s meant to not distract you from the film.”

Lehman has been analyzing the musical structures of movie scores, the way themes, keys, and orchestral gestures collaborate with visuals to generate meaning. He’s interested in creating a methodology for analyzing film music in order to determine where harmonic patterns recur in music that have parallels in the action onscreen.

“I’m starting with movies I’m familiar with, like Spielberg or Lucas films—Jaws for example—the kind of film you’ll still see over and over late at night on TV. I start by doing an in-depth technical analysis, which isn’t as simple as it sounds. The physical materials I need to look at are either in studio libraries or in archives on West Coast. Or not available at all because they don’t exist; movie scores are made for just one use—the composer goes into a studio, shifts things around, and what results on film is not always what has been originally written. It’s a rarity for musicians to perform a film score in a concert hall, which is why I’ve been going to the Boston Pops for fifteen years—John Williams is the exception. You can actually hear parts of his scores performed live; it not exactly the same as hearing it in a movie theater, but it’s closer than others.”

The dearth of final scores means Lehman spends long hours with the playback function on his computer, transcribing music from movie soundtracks by hand. Afterwards, he constructs analytic diagrams. He’s found Power Point is best for making diagrams and animating their transformational structure.

“I’m using transformation theory to analyze and diagram the music. This technique comes out of David Lewin’s work here at Harvard; he was the mastermind behind transformation analysis, or Neo-Riemannian theory.”

Traditional music theory attends to things in music as if they were objects: chords, intervals, lines. Transformation analysis takes an alternate path by looking at changes and movement rather than objects. Not at points, but at linear transformation. Calculus, not geometry.

“Neo-Riemannian theory was a radical change in how we approached music. But so far it has been largely applied to a very localized repertoire, mostly 19th-century music and 19th-century chromaticism. And there has been some work done with pop and jazz, but nothing sustained. What’s great about the film music I’m working on is that it’s coming out of those 19th century traditions but no one’s applied this theory to it yet. I’m testing transformation theory on music that has yet to be analyzed.”

Take James Horner’s score for A Beautiful Mind, for example. There is a subtle musical pattern in crucial scene when the character, John Nash, is decoding a panel splattered with apparently random numbers: “He’s figuring out an equation and boom! He understands,” explains Lehman. “In the accompanying score, and maybe unbeknownst consciously to composer and listener both, there exists an ordered process with a logical end point. When Nash figures the pattern out, the musical pattern completes itself and reveals the underlying order. You couldn’t parse this with regular music theory; you need transformation theory.”

Did James Horner set out to build this into the music?

“Scores are written by people with deadlines; and often, they have to go into their bag of tricks. Maybe they’re not always aware of how a musical idea is working theoretically, but their tricks can be subtle. Horner, specifically, has a deep knowledge of classical composers.

“Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: The Motion Picture) fills his film score with progressions from the 19th century that had associations with the uncanny and wonder. Seen through the lens of transformation theory these major third chord progressions create a six-sided symmetry—a hexagon. The movie visuals are also strongly defined by six-sided things. What can these musical transformations tell us about experiencing the film? How do we take abstract musical ideas and put them in a film to evoke this perfect response? Goldsmith probably wasn’t thinking ‘I need something with six sides’, but it’s eerie the way they correspond.

“The diagrams of the analysis are really beautiful, too” Lehman admits.

Instinct, perspective, association, expectation—Lehman says there are a complicated mix of factors that blend together to create a movie music experience. And there’s a totally involuntary aspect as well.

“It often comes down to really simple, powerful categories, like familiarity/strangeness and major/minor. Sure it’s crude, but the biggest determinant for affect is major/minor. I can’t stress enough how important this is. Major/minor powers the machinery of emotion."


Story credit: Lesley Bannatyne