Monday Muse: On Music

I cannot wait for Star Wars to come out this December. OK, so I can wait, and I will, but you know what I mean. Like 95% of the internet, I am eagerly looking forward to the day that I can sit my ass in a theater seat and watch as the words scroll up the screen. Because you know JJ Abrams isn’t stupid enough to begin one of these movies in any other way.

But you know what? These feelings of excitement, anticipation, and serious attempts to keep my expectations in check are all somewhat abstract. They’re there, but it’s all somewhat vague. And it’s not until one thing happens that I know the joy is going to spill over in an irrational exhilaration of nostalgia and expectancy, and that is this:

Yes, the music. Of course the music. The lifeblood of emotion. The bringer of tension or hilarity; the sweeping strings of romance, or the ominous horns of evil. The epic music of battle meant to evoke glory and loss and necessity all at once. Music is absolutely integral to a movie. The best music is the kind that so fits the scene and is so much a part of the ambiance that you almost don’t notice it. It doesn’t take over the scene but makes it what it is.

For example, to keep with the Star Wars theme, here is the “Imperial March”:

You know when I mentioned the ominous horns of evil? I was talking about these. There is a reason the score to Star Wars was chosen as the best movie score of all time, and this particular theme had a lot to do with it. Darth Vader  and the Empire are menacing and powerful. There is no softening here, no cello to cry mournfully or flute to trill the voice of man. This music is harsh and dramatic, its rhythms evoking grim efficiency and almost mechanical precision. The “Imperial March” belongs to marching armies and dehumanizing regularity. It would be just as appropriate over shots of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will as it was over the looming of Darth Vader and the columns of Storm Troopers. (Note: this is likely because Nazi Germany was a noted influence upon George Lucas, and Triumph of the Will in particular.)

Don’t believe me how important music is, and how much it influences our reaction to characters/situations/themes? Watch the below video.

It’s Darth Vader’s initial entrance in 1977’s A New Hope. Note the deliberate evocation of what we’ll later know is the “Imperial March”; the way the horns play tight chords in a pounding rhythm. It screams, “Hey! This is a bad guy.” Even if Vader weren’t wearing all black and a helmet design that pretty deliberately evokes the German stahlhelme, we would know he is the bad guy. Why? Listen to the music.

(Also, just for funsies, let’s look at how the 1938 Sergei Eisenstein film Alexander Nevsky designed *its* helmets for the invading–and evil–Germans. See this picture?

Look familiar? There’s a reason. Star Wars doesn’t just have an amazing soundtrack, it is also a huge love letter to some of Lucas’ favorite films and directors. Akira Kurosawa also had a huge impact.)

Anyway, just for fun…play the former video again, but turn the sound off and play the video below with the sound up. Sit back and enjoy.

Darth Vader seems a bit silly now, even with his black and his cape and his Hitler helmet, doesn’t he?

Now, music can tell us more than how to feel. It can also be used as a continuity device. Think about the opening of the first Hobbit film, when we are reintroduced to the Shire. What music is playing? Howard Shore’s “Concerning Hobbits”, of course. In an instant, these films are connected to the first three; we are, indeed, in the same exact world. Yes, the image of the Shire helps, but it is the music that seals the deal. At the end of the third movie, when Thranduil is telling Legolas to seek out Aragorn (without naming him of course because he was going by a different name at the time), we hear the theme of Gondor and we don’t need to hear a name. At the end of Return of the Jedi, when Vader dies, we hear his theme one last time, this time played so mournfully by a harp; gone are the heavy horns and the sweeping power, replaced by a single instrument playing one string at a time. In one of the few brilliant moments in the prequel, we hear the very EARLIEST twinges of the “Imperial March” at the end of the second movie, when Anakin Skywalker marries Padme Amidala. He has a metal hand now; the very beginnings of his darkness stir.

Why am I going on and on about music in this way? Well, because I want to and because I realized the other night how much I *adore* the “Imperial March”. I already knew I did, of course, but sometimes fun things happen and you can’t ignore them. I was listening to Dvorak on Pandora, trying to get some writing done, and then…the stirrings. The deliberate evocation of Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War” in the beginning rhythm repeated at ever louder intervals until BAM, here come the horns. And I couldn’t do any writing until that song was done. All I can do was sing (and conduct) along like an idiot as I was reminded of the first time I heard that theme as a child. The wonder at seeing Star Wars for the first time and my irrational love for all the wrong characters (seriously, Han Solo was the only good guy I really liked) because they had the coolest music. And I remembered, in that moment, just how much music shapes our emotional response to situations. How much it can take even the friendliest of greetings and tinge it with the most insidious of shadows, or the saddest of deaths and lighten it with hope.

Add music to your writing, if you haven’t already. Add it to your stories. Give your characters a theme. It can include words, if you want, but I find that they often take away from the emotion (since the words sometimes don’t match the feeling of the piece) you’re trying to evoke. Find the song that makes you feel the way you want your reader/viewer to feel and infuse your writing with that feeling. Hell, do this for your sculpture or your painting, too; if you’re trying to express something, music is an amazing way to do it. It helps you feel what you want to feel. Then just describe that feeling. What you create will inevitably reflect what was going through you at the time and, thus, what you wanted that creation to be.

And, on that note, I leave you with this, which was absolutely John Williams’ inspiration for a great deal of Star Wars. I mentioned it earlier. It’s Gustav Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War” from The Planets. Enjoy.

On Friday, we booze!


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