ma 09 sep 2019

Ancient and Modern: an appreciation of James newton Howard’s The Sixth Sense

Not to worry. Despite the loftiness of opening a book about film music with a line from Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, possibly the greatest of the Greek tragedies, this will not be a dry, academic dissertation on the history of dramatic music. Movies, when they move us, are anything but dry. They affect us because they have slipped past rationality and into one of the oldest parts of the brain, the moist, dark center where such emotions as terror, dread, anxiety, desire, reverence, wonder, and awe reside. The principal task of film music is to both clear and light the way into that ancient chamber.

In the scene excerpted above, King Oedipus of Thebes, the man who solved the Riddle of the Sphinx, realizes in a (literally) blinding flash that he is guilty of both patricide and incest. Unknowingly, but in accordance with a prophecy, he has murdered his father and married his mother. Throughout the play, which is spoken in verse, Oedipus plays the part of detective in his own crime story, trying to root out the cause of the plagues that have afflicted his state—plagues that are the wages of his own sin. The character of the detective, the solitary and often damaged man who seeks the truth, may be drama’s most essential protagonist, and certainly its greatest gift to a film composer. We’re going to meet a lot of them.

The key thing is that, until things begin to unravel, Oedipus has no idea that the man he killed at the crossroads years ago was his own father, or that the woman who has borne him two daughters is the same woman who gave birth to him. He has misunderstood the prophecy, and the drama in the story—still a nail-biter after nearly 2,500 years—comes from the slow but inexorable way the awful truth comes home to him. Sophocles may have created the world’s first noir.

In The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan’s remarkable 1999 feature debut, Bruce Willis plays the tragic protagonist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a man suspended between the living and the dead. Like Oedipus, he is unaware that the hand of fate has already dealt him his cards, and similarly, his sense that something has gone wrong leads him to investigate his own history. In this case, Malcolm, a celebrated child psychologist, is the victim rather than the perpetrator of a heinous crime, but otherwise the dramatic tension derives from the same relentless unraveling. He is dead. He just doesn’t know it, and it takes him a moody, terrifying, and beautifully crafted two hours to figure it out.

Both stories begin with their protagonists at the center of the labyrinth, and both stories develop as they attempt to backtrack to knowledge of how they came to be there. Both stories conclude with a tragic epiphany: the character learns the truth, but it’s not the truth that he’d hoped for. Both Oedipus Rex and The Sixth Sense rely for their power on heavy doses of guilt, dread, and portentous turns of event—all elements that play to that ancient core of the brain.

I’ve chosen to kick off this study of the film composer’s art with these narratives not just because they share certain dramatic values, but because they come as close as any I know to model candidates for great scoring. In fact, if after studying the craft, you can’t score a man coming to the realization that his fate is out of his hands, you may want to consider an alternative career path.


We know how James Newton Howard rose to the challenge of handling this primal drama, because we have his Sixth Sense score as evidence, and we can and will examine aspects of how he did it. Film scoring is fundamentally about solving dramatic problems in the same plodding way detectives solve mysteries, and there’s no better way to learn this craft than to study the successes—and failures—of those who’ve practiced it before. Scoring for the screen now embraces forms as diverse as video games and PSAs, and you may wonder what the plights of Oedipus or Malcolm Crowe have in common with a character in a digital dungeon preparing to face a boss with sixteen fire-breathing heads. The answer is: plenty.

At a minimum, your video game avatar will have to figure out how to defeat the sixteen-headed boss and get out of the dungeon alive. A protagonist + an antagonist = conflict, and conflict is the soul of drama. We’ve all had dreams of pursuit and narrow escape, and some would assert that the emotional meat of these dreams comes from a distant genetic memory of being on the savannah with a hungry predator at our heels. That is certainly what they feel like. Another universal dream involves being surrounded, as if by a pack of wolves, and feeling that “things are closing in on us.” That feeling might also describe the drama of your video game character, as well as that of both Oedipus and Malcolm Crowe. Things are “closing in” on all of them, and the increase in tension has a definite musical shape in terms of line, harmony, timbre, and dynamics.

Dreams don’t come with packaged soundtracks, but they do come with all the tonal values of a good cue. Imagine that we could take dictation in a dream state, or wake and go immediately to the keyboard while still in the emotional grip of the dream. Assuming we had the requisite technical skill, we would most likely end up after a couple of hours with a very useable sketch. This isn’t very different from the “sense memory” exercises that some actors practice to get into character, and the dramatic composer is very much like an actor, or perhaps more accurately, a medium. It doesn’t matter whether you’re scoring an A-level feature film, a backyard indie, episodic TV, or a video game. Your job, in large measure, is to occupy a point of view and employ your compositional skills to map the emotional terrain as experienced from that perspective. There are exceptions, of course, and alternative approaches, but in most of the cases examined in this book, that’s essentially what the composer has done.

We can’t know exactly what the music composed for Oedipus Rex sounded like when it was first performed in 429 BCE, but we know from the historical record that there was music, and that it played an important role. Certainly, it wouldn’t have been underscore in the sense exemplified by masters from Wagner to Goldenthal, but it wouldn’t have been background filler, either. Instrumentation would have been sparse: a seven-stringed lyre, maybe a kithara or a double-reeded aulos, and of course, the Greek chorus performing its stasimons, the “scene-break” compositions that summed up for the audience both text and subtext of the drama. Until relatively late in the classical period, the Greeks did not notate their music in any way that’s decipherable to scholars, but we can get an idea of what a typical melodic line sounded like from such pieces as the second-century BCE composition, the Seikilos Epitaph (which is as Mixolydian as anything by Thomas Newman).

The music was homophonic, modal, and rhythmically simple, but we can make a reasonable guess that it met the following three requirements:
• It entered and exited the scene at dramatically appropriate times.
• It was tonally appropriate (in the sense of both mode and color).
• It supported rather than intruded upon or conflicted with the story.

These remain, more than two millennia later, the basic criteria for dramatic music. If your music hasn’t met all of them, you can be sure that any director who knows what he or she is doing will object. But knowing this and doing it are very different things, and even after reading this book and all the others available, it may still take you a few thousand hours of scoring before you get the hang of it. Careful study of the scores excerpted here can save you a few hundred of them. Others, including Aaron Copland, Sergei Prokofiev, and such film music scholars as Royal Brown and Claudia Gorbman, have weighed in on the proper function of music in cinema (we can use the European term cinema because it simply means “moving pictures” and can therefore refer to any of the forms we discuss in this book). In coming chapters, we’ll consult them all. These and similar aesthetic guidelines tell you what your music needs to do, but they don’t tell you a great deal about what you, the composer, need to know to be able to write an effective cue. One of the most incisive sum-ups comes to us courtesy of Rolfe Kent, a longtime collaborator of director Alexander Payne.

Rolfe has scored such films as Election, Up in the Air, and Gambit. Rolfe contends that there are three things a composer must know before he or she sits down to tackle a scene:
• What is the point of view? (Whose perspective/experience does the music embody? It could conceivably be the director’s!)
• What is the energy level the music must convey? (Will it work with or against the pace of the scene and the editing? Is it active or passive?)
• Does the music need to tell us something that the picture does not?

With these three considerations in mind, along with the first three criteria, we’re ready to take a look at how a contemporary composer handles the drama of a character whose fate is closing in on him—a man whose time has run out. This will be a brief preview of the sort of in-depth analysis that will occur in the remaining pages of this book, a “hermeneutic” of film music that has served my students very well, and which I believe holds the key to a practical understanding of the craft. Hermeneutics, by the way, is a particular kind of study: the study of interpretations. It’s an ancient word that, fittingly enough, goes back to the Greeks and their god of communication, Hermes, and originally had to do with the correct way to interpret an oracle. Now it is used in the field of semiotics to describe a way of interpreting the meaning of signs in both verbal and nonverbal communication. Since it’s my contention that film music is a language of signs, it seems a good way to look at scores.

The fact that great film music often speaks in a tonally and harmonically ambiguous language akin to that of oracles is just one of those weird and happy coincidences!

Dit fragment komt uit: THE INTRODUCTION TO SCRIPTING THE SCORE, van Andy Hill.

Meer weten over de wetenschap van filmmuziek? Andy Hill geeft op zondag 29 september een Masterclass Muziek tijdens het NFF Professionals Programma 2019. Bestel hier je ticket.