Editor’s note: this piece took first place in this year’s Larry L. Stewart Prize For Critical Essay On Entertainment. Thanks again to everyone who entered the contest!
What does it mean to “read” a soundtrack? What information about a movie or television show is revealed via music? A melody, especially when interwoven with other melodies, can reveal key connections, emotions, and relationships between characters and sometimes places. Additionally, music can be used to foreshadow future events or reference the past.
“Reading the soundtrack” is what I call it when I listen to the score of a movie, often before I have ever seen the film, and am able to piece together much of the plot, action, and character relationships just by reading the track titles and listening for themes within the overall score. I first started doing this when I was about fourteen and began purchasing movie soundtracks with my allowance. Memorizing music and musical themes was something that I had been doing for most of my childhood — I grew up listening to Broadway musicals and classical music, as well as a lot of 80s rock.
When my dad gave me the Star Wars Trilogy Original Soundtrack Anthology when I was a kid, it opened up an entirely new way for me to enjoy movies. The four-CD box set came with a booklet in which each track was described in detail in terms of instrumentation, themes, and what was going on in the movies during that track. I spent that Christmas break with my Walkman, some earphones, and a blown mind as I discovered that when people and places have their own theme in a movie, those themes can be mixed together, played on different instruments and at different tempos to convey the action on the screen. I was already pretty obsessed with Star Wars and I was a music lover — I played violin and did choir and orchestra in school. I had the necessary tools to use that booklet like a textbook and study the variations and possibilities in connection to the story, and this became a tool I used with other soundtracks and continue to use. The track titles that are concert arrangements of themes are useful in that they are an excellent launching point for further exploration. For example, once you know what Han and Leia’s love theme sounds like, you can then recognize it within other tracks, like the part of the movie where Han Solo is being frozen in carbonite and they have their famous, “’I love you.’ ‘I know,’” exchange. The track title is “Carbon Freeze/Darth Vader’s Trap/Departure of Boba Fett,” and it is nearly twelve minutes long. The track contains pieces of the Imperial March (often referred to as Darth Vader’s theme) as well the Jedi Fanfare often associated with Luke during action scenes. Also present in this track is a battle-ready version of Yoda’s theme, which we first heard played softly and sometimes playfully during the scenes where Luke is training under Yoda on Dagobah. Yoda’s theme is used to represent the Force and to make the viewer call to mind that Yoda was not too keen on Luke flying off to Bespin to save the day, thereby warning the savvy viewer that things are not going to go well for our hero. The swelling strings of Han and Leia’s theme provide the emotional payoff of this track. If you’ve seen the movie, the use of that theme, played in that way, during that scene does more than just tell the viewer that this is supposed to be sad — it brings the past and present together for the characters and for the audience as well.
Another example from the Star Wars soundtracks is the Imperial March. It is introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, and although its official title would seem to imply that the theme represents the Empire as a whole, the theme has become synonymous with the character of Darth Vader. I believe that this was intentional, and was therefore meant to suggest that the Empire needs Vader more than he needs the Empire, making his change of heart near the end of The Return of the Jedi even more convincing. Composer John Williams went back to plant the seeds when he composed Anakin’s theme for The Phantom Menace. What starts out as an innocent theme song for a sweet little boy has an ominous musical “tag” at the end. A small piece of the Imperial March is present, suggesting to the viewer/savvy listener that this kid already has some dark tendencies hidden within. In The Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader is dying, the once-powerful Imperial March is played softly on a harp. The theme is shown to be as volatile and changeable as its owner, providing a character sketch in musical form.
Armed with the insights I picked up from my study of the Star Wars soundtracks, I began to apply my knowledge to other movies as well. The Pirates of the Caribbean movie scores provided a new playground for me to practice my movie and musical analysis skills. Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer collaborated on the scores for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, often working with each other’s themes and arranging them into the score. Captain Jack Sparrow’s theme, first introduced when he has stolen the small boat and sails to Port Royal, can be interpreted to be almost an internal soundtrack-ing — it sounds like what Jack Sparrow would want his soundtrack to sound like and adds further evidence of his character as dramatic, often a bit full of himself, but ultimately heroic. In fact, Jack Sparrow has at least two different theme songs; Jack Sparrow, and He’s a Pirate. One is the character’s idea of himself and the other represents how others see him. Jack’s theme(s) are used throughout the trilogy+1 and are interwoven with other themes as Jack himself crosses paths with the characters those motifs represent.
Place themes are often used to call to mind not only a physical place itself, but also to evoke the memories of what that place might represent to different characters. The Cloud City theme from The Empire Strikes Back sounds regal and safe, and calls to mind the image of Lando Calrissian in his billowing cape. However, as it is revealed that Cloud City is not what it seems, the track is interwoven with the Imperial March, illustrating Cloud City’s entanglement with the Empire.
In The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, composed by Howard Shore, the theme of the Shire, called “Concerning Hobbits,” is often used to evoke the safety and peacefulness of Shire life. By the end of the trilogy, the motif that symbolizes the innocence of the Hobbits and of the Shire has also come to represent Frodo’s knowledge that he does not belong in such a place any longer. The theme, like the Shire, is mostly unchanged; however, Frodo has changed, and this is why he must go.
If, after reading this article, any of you might be interested in trying out some soundtrack reading of your own, I recommend the Lord of the Rings soundtracks. After familiarizing yourself with the character and place themes, listen to the score from The Hobbit and see if you can find evidence of Peter Jackson’s decision to integrate the story of The Hobbit into the first trilogy via familiar characters, scenes, and sounds. The soundtrack acts as a prequel, just like the narrative, and evidence of this can be gleaned through paying attention to the musical motifs, and where they occur in the movie.
Learning to read the soundtrack will help the viewer to predict possible outcomes of a movie or television show and gain deeper insight into the connections and motivations of the characters, enhancing the overall viewing experience.