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Unresolved Chords: How Film Composers Shape Our Feelings

In the trailer for "X-Men: Days of Future Past", the music is recognizable before we see any mutant. The string instruments hit familiar notes before an extreme close-up of an eye ball, and the trailer already feels significant. The music is the reason why: simple and elegant, it lingers on the notes and builds momentum through a haunting, repetitive piano melody. This music was not made for the trailer; in fact, the piece is from another movie entirely.

John Murphy's "Adagio in D Minor" was originally written for the 2007 science fiction thriller "Sunshine", and it has appeared in many, many trailers since then. The repeated use of this music tells us much about the power of musical minimalism to enhance the emotional impact of a film.

A generation ago film composers took a different approach when they wanted a score to sound significant. Compared to Murphy's "Adagio," David Newman's score from "Hoffa" sounds cloying: at the two-and-a-half minute mark, the orchestra overstates its case with high notes and a cacophony of percussion. Randy Edelman's corny, relentless "Fire in a Movie Theater" sounds dated—anyone who went to the movies in the 1990s will wince when they hear the opening bars. There are some film scores that still sound fresh—James Horner's score for "Aliens" is pulverizing, and John Williams' work will always stand the test of time—yet there has been a sea change in film scores from complexity toward simplicity. This is because composers trust canny audiences to feel an emotional response when abstracted melodies contain an aural space for significance (or what feels like significance).

I talked about the power of simplicity with composer Nicholas Britell, who composed all the musical arrangements performed by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in "12 Years a Slave" (The rest of the score of the film is by Hans Zimmer). After studying neuromusicology at Harvard, Britell became deeply aware of, "patterns that trigger cascades of feeling." The ability to invoke such feeling is instrumental to a composer's work (pun intended): the best ones do not manipulate, exactly, and instead want their work to reflect what happens on screen.

Still, a conversation about feelings and patterns do not explain what it is about the notes that provoke a strong reaction, so I asked Britell to give an illustrative example of powerful music. He thought for a moment and suggested François Couperin's "Les Barricades Mysterieuses," a baroque piece for the solo piano Terrence Malick used in "The Tree of Life." According to Britell, the key to the piece's power is the dissonance.

"Throughout the piece, there are certain times where the lines continue a little longer (i.e. "suspensions"). The harmony changes yet they're still holding an old harmony and then they quickly resolve. This process is something I always find very beautiful. It's the main technique of a lot of music, where something overstays its welcome by a millisecond then resolves."

Listen again and it's easy to hear what Britell is talking about: as one melody continues, the notes from another evaporate as if the music is breathing. It's easy to see why Malick used "Les Barricades Mysterieuses" in "The Tree of Life."

The piece appears when Jessica Chastain's character, absent her husband, experiences moments of pastoral joy with her children.The ethereal nature of the music augments the goofy, youthful fun, suggesting that these fleeting moments will take on added significance once they're the subject of reflection. The suspensions are also there in "Adagio in D Minor," except it's one melody that resolves. In fact, the suspensions in the "Adagio" last for seconds, not milliseconds, so the sound is all the more potent. "Fire in a Movie Theater" and the "Hoffa" score have the same technique, except they're cheapened by the clash of drums.

While suspensions and their subsequent resolution are beautiful, their absence can have the opposite effect. Steven Price, the composer for the film "Gravity", was deeply aware of suspensions when he composed "Debris," one of score's more harrowing tracks. While it has more in common with traditional scores like James Horner’s for "Aliens," the track builds layered sound around a powerful, elegant technique that deliberately unnerves the viewer.

Price explained how he would, "take these notes played by the orchestra and cut them off. Your brain expects a certain decay of the note, which means there's this unsettling quality to ['Debris']." The lack of resolution happens throughout the piece: around the two minute mark, the strings do not have the opportunity to finish and Price piles on another searing melody. It is intense music, and it's meant to reflect Alfonso Cuarón's style: "In this film more than anything I've done, the music was influenced by how the film was shot. There are these long, continuous shots, and weightless of the camera was a total influence on the way I wrote the score."

But for all the dense sounds that help define the score for "Gravity", the music is at its most powerful when it is spare. The track "Aurora Borealis," which occurs when Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is at her most hopeless, is a minimalist triumph. The distant, pulsating piano almost sounds like a lost beacon, and the abstracted melody is a series of suspensions that are given ample time to resolve. Price adds, "It didn't feel right to be too complex [for 'Aurora Borealis'], so the minimalist approach creates pure emotion and resonates. My job was to be there for [Dr. Stone], rather than force things upon the scene." Unsurprisingly, this track sounds the most like Arvo Pärt's "Spiegel Im Spiegel," which is in the teaser trailer for "Gravity". The resonance of the notes reflects the austere beauty of space, so we project feeling onto Bullock's character. This is manipulation in reverse: instead of telling us what to feel, the minimalism creates an opportunity for feeling and the image does the rest.

Midway through the "X-Men: Days of Future Past" trailer, the music switches from "Adagio" to Hans Zimmer's "Time," which he wrote for the 2010 film "Inception." It's another ubiquitous piece of minimalism, with just the right amount of bombastic orchestral flourishes. Like "Adagio," Zimmer's piece is full of lengthy suspensions that have time to resolve. But right at the very end, there's one final note has no opportunity to decay. It's cut off short. Do you want more? That'll be one ticket.


Find the music cited in this article in a Spotify playlist.

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