The Musical Motifs that Anchor us

Music and story are a potent combination.

There’s a certain degree of dorkiness that comes with admitting one’s affinity for film scores—namely, the presumption that maybe you were sheltered too much as a child to appreciate “real music.” But I tend to believe instead that the fusion of music and visual storytelling is simply a very potent experiential combination, and one that leaves lingering effects.

I could talk endlessly about the best and worst albums (I could point out, for example, that Clint Mansell’s compositions for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain are masterworks that nearly surpass their own movie, or that the same composer’s follow-up Noah score underwhelms in almost every way.) But musical quality is a secondary concern; the real question isn’t what, but why. Why keep revisiting these virtually ubiquitous themes, many years after they’ve ceased to be “cool”?

Upon reflection, I find that the soundtracks that have impacted me the longest are those closely linked to “seasons of life.” For example, the seven-note “Force motif” of the Star Wars films instantly draws me back into the frame of thought where I first experienced the series: a frame overwhelmed by the mystery, wonder, and potential of life. (Few movies are better fodder for a kindergartener’s imagination!)

My tastes changed a few years later. The Lord of the Rings scores, with their ethereal instrumentation and bombastic choirs, still conjure up a distinctively preteen longing for adventure, nobility, and a sharp clarity between good and evil. Howard Shore’s soundtrack was stellar then, and remains so today: a soundscape of interwoven themes that constructs a visionary world all its own.

And I’m not sixteen anymore, but the crashing drums of the Prince Caspian score, juxtaposed with images of young people standing alone against powerful threats, still remain inextricably linked with my dawning awareness of adult responsibilities just over the horizon. In short order, I knew at the time that I too would have to face challenges largely alone. But those challenges could be overcome.

Years after I first saw these and other films, I get paid to review and analyze movies. There’s a kind of lost innocence in that, the development of a critical eye that endlessly breaks things down into their constituent parts. In becoming able to dissect the films and narratives I loved as a child, I lose (to some extent) the ability to revisit familiar sources of awe and amazement.

But somehow, despite this tendency, the music endures. Whether I’m running on a hotel treadmill at 5:30 AM or drafting a legal memo in the middle of the day, I have only to hear these motifs and my mood is reoriented. There’s something deeply elemental about the gift of music, something that sidesteps our rational frameworks of thought and quickens much more primal emotions. And I’ll always be grateful for those fleeting moments of return to wonder.

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