An Approach to Theme Songs and the Impact They Can Have on an Audience


Jaws, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Star Wars; you can probably hum the theme song to all of these films. John Williams is the master of composing iconic and memorable themes that transcend time. Gladiator, Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Knight; Hans Zimmer's themes are immediately recognizable and stunning. Themes are an incredibly powerful tool in film. They can add another dimension of emotion, meaning, and interconnectedness to the story and characters if executed properly. This synergy creates an enhanced experience while the audience watches a world unfold before them on screen.

So how do you create a powerful theme song? Keep it simple, create a good foundation, play with variations while keeping it cohesive; but also, seeing music as a language of its own and utilizing the question-answer formula creates dynamism in a score. When a theme is associated with a character or concept in the film, and referenced effectively, it can have an incredibly powerful impact on the audience. Being aware of the different psychological effects music has when combined with the visuals will also help you carve out the perfect viewing experience for your audience.

Question-Answer Formula

When I started composing and researching music, my background in linguistics came to the forefront. I remember staring at my DAW and realizing how writing music can be likened to speech cadences and sentence structuring. And I'm not the only one seeing this connection. Daniela Sammler, Cognition and Neuroscience researcher at the University of Leipzig, has been conducting research into this topic and has found there to be an innate connection between music, language, and communicating. Now, you can do a deep dive into music theory and neurocognition in music, or you can try this experiment:

Try playing a song you've never heard before and pausing it in the middle. Does it feel resolved? How can you listen to something you've never heard before and know it's incomplete? It's similar to when you're half-listening to someone and you realize they've asked you a question. And why would you pick up on when someone has asked you a question? Have you ever noticed when someone asks a question there's an upward inflection at the end to denote this? Did your internal voice just go up as you read that? When you're half-listening to someone and there is a change in the speaker's intonation, your mind picks up on the difference. This same inflection transcends speech and can be applied to music in what's often referred to as the question and answer. Likewise, it can catch the audience's attention, just like a half-listening husband realizing his wife asked him if he has been listening.

The question-answer formula is a sequence of two distinct musical phrases, where the first phrase ends in a question inflection and the second phrase is a direct response or answer to the first. To accomplish this question inflection, you need to know your key signature and your home note or tonic. For instance, a C Major key signature would start the scale on C, and C would also be the home note. The question of a theme goes up (or down) from the home note of your scale, while the answer generates a completed feel as it finds its way back to the home note. Now this formula is meant to be played with, not a simple two-bar question, two-bar answer. You can have any combination of questions and answers, thus creating a conversation, and it could even end in a question if it fits the visuals. Being aware of this grammatical approach to music will add lyrical interest to any melody. So, explore the question-answer formula, know your home key, and try to create a conversation within your music.

A theme has the power to make an audience feel like they know something. Humans are creatures of habit and take comfort in the known. Even with key changes, different instruments, different intensity or tempo changes, utilizing a familiar melody makes the audience feel a sense of comfort because they feel like they know and understand the theme. The sense of understanding, of "home," or feeling a song is complete can be attributed to the intrinsic grammar of music. Maybe that's why the key signature's root note is called the "home" note.

Keep it Simple

The director and composer should always think of the score holistically. Having a consistent collection of instruments, using themes effectively and variations of that theme all create a sense of cohesion. While the concept of a theme is straightforward enough, the application can be very involved. It's great to have a question-answer melody that can be built upon, and generally the more simplistic the more memorable; just look at Jaws. While there is absolutely more to that score than the ominous two notes, those two notes are what everyone remembers. So…

  • Keep it simple. A simple tune provides an excellent foundation. You should also experiment with variations on that tune. Can you change keys, alter, loop, or delete bars to make the theme span different emotions or situations?

Build Connections

If a theme is associated with a corresponding person or object, the repeated union can build up a subconscious interconnectedness. Star Wars was able to have a theme for almost everything, for the overall film, for certain characters, and film motifs. It can strengthen the emotional attachments or help make mental connections, so if the visuals don't show something, the audience will think of it anyway, because the music acts as a stand-in for that character or object. Just think of the theme song for Darth Vader and the Empire. While it might be used as the ringtone for an in-law to denote dread, most people will immediately filter to a memory of Vader's dark figure walking the halls in that iconic helmet, breathing heavily. That's the power of nostalgia and effective theme songs.

  • What are you associating the theme with? A character, item, concept, feeling? You can have a theme for every character if you want, just make sure you can connect them and make them make sense as a story.

What Else?

  • Themes can also be simple musical elements. Hans Zimmer's theme for the Joker in The Dark Knight is a single elongated note, that just vibrates and fills the audience with discomfort.
  • Pick a main instrument. Having a consistent base instrument grounds the theme and makes any departure from that instrument more significant. For example, if you are using a piano for the main theme, and then create a variation of the melody while using violins to denote sadness, the audience will pick up on the shift.
  • Remember, a theme does not have to be repeated multiple times to be effective; use the theme when relevant and impactful.
  • Themes can be used for end of scene/transitions to create a sense of "to be continued…"
  • It's very effective to bring back the original theme song when there is a moment of conclusion in the film. This solidifies a sense of completion.

Theme Variations

If music is like a language, you know that people pause, stutter, get excited and speed up or elongate their words when they're sad. That same concept can be applied to creating variations of your theme. Alterations to the theme can be accomplished with augmentation, added complexity, melody abstraction, etc.

  • Change the key signature. For example, going from D minor to E minor creates a positive shift of sentiments with that simple upwards movement on the keys.
  • Move the melody up an octave to increase a sense of urgency or completion, move the melody down an octave to slow things down or create a sense of dread or sadness.
  • Double or halve the rhythmic values of the melody.
  • Change meter. This abstraction of the melody creates auditory interest while keeping the same color and tone of the original theme.
  • Alter harmonic progression.
  • Play with bitonality or polytonality by combining two or more keys together (ie. Stravinky's using C and F sharp major keys together in Petrushka).
  • Fragment or break the melody into pieces and reassembled in a different order. You might discover something really cool!
  • Change phrase length. For example, Playing two bars of the original four-bar theme; the audience will be anticipating the conclusion of the melody, but by cutting it short they know there is something more. For an even more subtle, yet incredibly impactful example, think of the end of Inception, when just the last note is cut short as the screen goes black on the spinning top. That minor incompletion of the melody plus the hard cut creates a gripping cliffhanger. Was he still dreaming?

A Second Narrator

Themes can be a powerful tool in a film. A successful score can magnify emotions, cue a sense of suspense, make the audience feel a profound connection to characters, and want to delve deeper into the world on screen. With the right questions and a handful of techniques, you can create and vary a theme to fit the evolving visuals. Utilizing the question-answer formula for construction and thinking of music as a language altogether can completely change the way you score a project. When you think of music as a conversation, you realize the score is almost like another narrator for the film. And when a score is given the latitude to be a complementary narrator working in tandem with the visuals, the partnership is electric.

If you are looking to learn more about composing for film, be sure to check out Part 1, for tips on what to do before you score, as well as Part 2, for tips and tricks for new composers.

Rosie Record is an New York City-based film composer who transforms emotions into soundwaves.