Creating excitement in film: the music of Giacchino and Shore

October 31 2021, by Kamran Akhavan

The duty of every composer is to evoke emotion in their listeners, a concept especially apparent in the case of film composers, whose score establishes the emotional context of any given visual foreground. These two selected pieces were composed by Oscar-winning composers to promote a sense of exhilaration and excitement in the listener.

The first piece is the Marvel Studios Fanfare, by Michael Giacchino, a composer known for his work in Ratatouille, Up, Rogue One, Batman and many more. The piece serves as the infamous opening theme to every Marvel film and television series within the franchise. Its purpose is to both accompany the opening logo whilst also grasping the audience’s attention, creating excitement and anticipation for the film to follow. The other chosen piece, The Lighting of the Beacons, by Howard Shore, accompanies a scene from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in which one of the protagonists, Pippin, secretly lights a beacon so that a nearby kingdom Rohan may come to aid them in battle. Shore creates a sense of excitement to illustrate the prospect of hope in the face of an inevitable war. How then, do these composers create such a clear sense of excitement in the audience?

The Marvel fanfare immediately seizes the audience’s attention by opening with the strings, energetically playing a static chord in tremolo; the flutes imitate the strings in staccato, and the extensive use of percussion creates a strong sense of rhythmic character over which the melody will soon be played. Within the first few seconds, Giacchino has already established a clear rhythmic character, and the clear pulse of the music gives the piece a defined sense of exhilaration and restlessness.

The melody is played triumphantly by trombones and horns, accompanied by even more percussion. By subdividing notes into shorter ones, Giacchino conveys a sense of agitation and restlessness. The disjunct and unpredictable melody helps to elicit a sense of spontaneity. The melody is decorated with arpeggios and scalic figures in the brass, and a glissando in the harp introduces the second melody. Here, Giacchino changes the pulse from 4/4 to 3/4 and changes the key, subverting our expectations as listeners. The percussion becomes even more pronounced, and Giacchino changes key twice before landing on the original key. Two accented notes in the drums begin the final section, now back in the original 4/4 metre. The percussion is more prominent, pitched in the melodic line, and the piece ends with an abundance of cymbal clashes on the final notes, finishing on an orchestral tutti chord.

Giacchino’s way of provoking excitement, therefore, is to establish a pronounced rhythmic character over which quick, spontaneous brass and string melodies are played. The abundance of percussion and repeated melodic phrases enhance the overall effectiveness of the piece, and the constantly shifting harmony and metre create an unpredictable and excitable tone.

Howard Shore’s The Lighting of the Beacons immediately grasps the audience’s attention through the introduction of loud arpeggio figures in the strings, accompanied by chromatic chords played by the brass. The seemingly infinitely ascending and descending string passages establish a distinct 4/4 pulse, akin to Giacchino. The strings are accompanied by a chromatic brass part, regularly changing key. Like Giacchino therefore, Shore seems to elicit the same sense of restlessness by rapidly changing key. Just like the former fanfare, a cymbal swell introduces a repeated melody in the trumpets.

Eventually, the strings stop playing arpeggios, and instead play static notes in 3rds, provoking a sense of anticipation. The tubas then begin to play ascending scalic patterns in quavers over a dissonant chord progression which yearns for resolution, which comes with the Gondor leitmotif. The motif is played here more triumphantly than in any other point in the film and is introduced by brass and the returning arpeggio figure in the strings. The motif is heard three times, and on the third culminates in a dissonant cluster in the brass.

There are clearly many similarities between the two pieces. The major differences, however, seem to be Shore’s unyielding quavers in the strings and Giacchino’s use of percussion. Both however, undoubtedly convey an overwhelming sense of restlessness and anticipation through instrumentation, creating vast excitement in the listener.

Both the selected pieces, therefore, demonstrate some of the most effective ways of producing excitement in an audience. Both Shore and Giacchino utilize distinct, triumphant brass melodies over a clearly defined pulse. The ff dynamic of both pieces immediately captivates the audience, and each piece culminates in an orchestral tutti. The use of clusters and fast string phrases elicits an overall sense of restlessness, drawing in the audience and enhancing the on-screen action. While Giacchino establishes his melody in large, disjunct leaps and percussion, Shore characterises his in fast string harmony. So, if you want to create excitement in your audience, look no further than some of the most iconic film franchises of all time.

Kamran Akhavan, U6

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