Music in Film: Ideas on Analyzing Narratives and Creating Themes

Themes. They are what give a musical work it’s signature. They’re what people hum when they exit the theatre, and they can help give your score structure unity. Whether abundant or few, simple or complex, themes can add a compelling layer of meaning to music for moving pictures.

The word “theme” can also refer to ideas, metaphors, and symbols used in narratives. The relationship between literary and musical themes is an important and fascinating intersection in film music, and something worth exploring in depth if you work in this field.

The Function of Themes

What’s This Thing and What Do I Do With It?

When looking at music’s function in film, TV, or media, we are really talking about how it works in the context of telling a story. Themes can relate to, and make a musical statement about, a character, idea or concept, or other aspect of the film. A good theme will recall emotions and ideas, lending structure and a feeling of continuity while helping the story advance and leading the audience come to deeper a understanding of the events and characters and how they are connected. But where does a theme come from and what are some methods to generate themes that resonate effectively with the film?

Film as Literary Form

You Are Not What You Say You Are

As a film composer, you are not really a composer at all. You are a filmmaker who specializes in music. It’s important to keep this in mind as you are in fact taking your cues not from your imagination (freely expressing yourself as an artist), but rather responding to what is already there – the story as told by the film. Composer Leonard Roseman had the following to say of music in film:

If this is the case, our first job as a filmmaker is to get a firm and deep understanding of the story and all its elements.

Music in Film - Story

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Analyze This!

If you consider yourself a filmmaker who is an invested and collaborative contributor to the film, you’ll want to take in and analyse as much material as you can with the goal of finding your way in to the film’s heart – its hook. Before you write any music you need to absorb all you can. The script and the working cuts of the film are your primary sources, but even costume and set design can help in deepening your understanding of the story. There may be things which will trigger you to do your own research during which you might uncover an aspect of the production that you can use to draw from, musically. Ultimately, you’ll want to come to the spotting session with a deep understanding of the story: its themes, symbols/metaphors, arcs, the characters and their relationships, and be ready to bring a new layer to the whole. In order to do this and to communicate your ideas effectively, you’ll need to speak the language of the filmmakers – not the language of music, but the language of emotion and storytelling.

You should have a solid grasp of screenwriting theory, the 3 act structure that most films adhere to, and the narrative pattern referred to as the Hero’s Journey or Monomyth. Not only will knowing these help you understand the story and communicate with the director, they will help you find your voice in the film and help guide the writing process, ultimately making it more fun and effective. As with composition and orchestration, becoming versed in analysis is a matter of practice. Once you have a handle on the concepts listed above, try applying them when you watch films and read fiction. You’ll be amazed at how much more quickly you’ll grasp the structure of a story simply be applying them as a template – maybe even shocked at how formulaic many stories are!

What now, Mr. Freud?

Considering the Aspects of Story and Applying Them to Themes

Once you have thoroughly analyzed the film and done any additional research, you’ll probably be brimming with ideas which you can use to start formulating initial thematic material. It’s usually a good idea to start big and then work your way down to smaller chunks and sub-themes.

  • Is there a central, over-arching motif that unifies the film?
  • Will it be conceptual, personal/emotional, or a combination?
  • Does it relate to a theme, a concept, a character, or a combination of these?

The first main overarching theme might be related to the main theme/metaphor/symbol of the film, which may also relate directly with the main character and his/her central conflict – the driving motivation. Really getting this theme to work is important because it will be your bread and butter – if it’s strong and flexible enough you can write an almost endless number of variations, casting the idea in different light each time. From here, you can “zoom in” and consider other parts of the story from which themes might be derived, including plot, character, setting, and style.

The When and Where

Time and Place

Music in Film - Time

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A mode, scale, or style of composition/instrumentation might be appropriate to lend a sense of time and place to the theme, but not necessarily. Be sure that whatever decision you make is appropriate and in line with the story. Just because your story is set in China does not automatically mean you should write your theme in the style of traditional Chinese music, especially if the story is about an expat who longs to return his native England. The emotional core of the story would lie with him in this case and his theme should speak to that. It may also be that while a story is set in medieval times, you wish to convey that the ideas presented by the film are modern or timeless and therefore use a contemporary scoring style.

The Who

Characterization and POV

The idea of motifs for characters is often referred to as Leitmotif; a term made famous by the operatic works of Wagner. Will the characters have themes, perhaps more than one? Is the musical perspective omniscient, all-knowing, or from the POV (point of view) of the audience – naive, perceiving everything for the first time? Or is the music from the character’s point of view? This is an interesting point – consider the role of music in the following scenarios:

  • a character knows something the audience does not
  • the audience knows something the character does not
  • the character believes something untrue, but the audience must initially believe this to be true as well.

In each case music’s role may be either to slowly clue the audience in, or to purposely keep them in the dark or even trick them into believing something which is later revealed to be false – for instance, we may believe a character to be a villain until it is revealed that they are in fact a heroic double agent. The music might help this untruth by playing it from the protagonist’s point of view, supporting the initial belief that this person is evil.

A Note regarding Complexity and Number of Themes

Whether to court or avoid complexity is an important consideration for a number of reasons, but it really boils down to what is right for the film in terms of style, genre, aesthetic, and the taste of the filmmaker. There is always a balance to be struck between interest and change versus familiarity and repetition. If you restrict yourself to on over-arching theme and repeat it verbatim ad nauseam, you will run the risk of boring your audience (to avoid this use variation, which we’ll look at later). On the other hand, if you have a giant number of themes in your work it can sometimes loose a feeling of unity. Even though Howard Shore wrote a staggering 80 themes for his The Lord of the Rings scores, he made sure they were thematically unified:

“Shore uses, for instance, a rising three-note phrase to connect three of the most influential themes in The Fellowship of the Ring, subtly reminding audiences that there are connections at every level between the hobbits, the world of men, and the evil ring, among others.”

Music in Film - Complexity

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Additionally, it’s easy to go overboard with leitmotifs, if you choose so use them. Simply quoting them whenever the character appears on screen will quickly make the film seem a farce, so you want to be sure you have an emotional justification for quoting a theme and are making use of variation:

“Beyond simply the structural considerations for each theme, Shore also changes the personality of each idea masterfully, depending on the guise needed for a particular scene in the film. Tempo alterations and the swapping or addition of notes to denote times of play or lament consistently keep each theme fresh to the ears.”

Further Reading

A wonderful resource is available for free download online, and for further reading I recommend it. These are annotated scores which detail the various cues and use of themes in Howard Shore’s music for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (in PDF format):


  1. Burt, George. (1994). The Art of Film Music. Boston: Northeastern University Press
  2. Clemmenson, C. (2005). The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Howard Shore)
  3. Williams, J. (1999). John Williams Talks The Phantom Menace part II
  4. Clemmenson, C. (2005). Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (John Williams)

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