heart and heaven

It can singe and melt the icy sinews of your heart… or…

… it can feather-float you to the heavens.

I’m talking music.

We all know that the occasions, the special moments of our lives- the melancholy, the joyous, the romantic, the heartbroken – are marked, like scratchy tick marks on a jail cell wall – on our interior core by the music scent wafting through our ears at the time.

But aside from those life-marking events, music is also a crucial ingredient of our enjoyment of the artistic media we consume. And so, I’m pondering today about movie or TV music that has penetrated deeply to our inner core in barely recognizable ways.

You may have already reflected on this and designed your own soundtrack “favourites” list, or perhaps you’ve coasted along merrily, experiencing and enjoying without a conscious awareness.

I bring this up right now because I’ve grown aware lately – almost like the discovery of a hidden cave grown over with vines – that the beginning theme music to the Netflix show House of Cards has me entranced.

There’s a symbolic weight that presses into my chest when it starts up. It needs playing at high volume to feel the mass and ravenous teeth of Jeff Beals’ score.

It grabs on and transfixes me immediately. Just listen carefully to its incessant, droning undertrack of alternating bass notes interspersed by a haunting trumpet line that screams POWER.

It’s like JAWS music – duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn duun… duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn dunnnn … set to modern political intrigue… what could be more ironic, more iconic than a music score that impels us to think of sharks and dangerous power. It’s obvious if you think about it.

A few years back I took an online songwriting course through COURSERA where instructor Pat Pattison brought to me a new word that has changed my approach to songwriting as well as listening to music.

The word is PROSODY.

Prosody is matching the rhythm and sound in music as you would in poetry. Melodic synergy.

Musically, this means coordinating the meaning and sound of the music to the meaning and the sound of the lyrics… in other words… making musical poetry.

In soundtrack music, the meaning doesn’t always come from words. It’s possible to make the case that the meaning of words are more powerfully affected by the sound of music than by the other way around.

The challenge of writing music that achieves prosody is no easy feat. Most TV and movie soundtracks leave no audible footprints in the sand, no languorous aftertaste.

But there are quite a few notable and memorable movie and TV music themes that invoke the feelings and the emotions that coax a good story into becoming a great story…

GREASE

Rocky is better because of the music, Cheers was better because of it: MASH, The Sopranos, The Godfather, Chariots of Fire, Hawaii Five-O, The Muppet Show, Forrest Gump, Grease were all elevated by the accompaniment of their music theme and score.

Just as an aside, many people might add the multitude of movie scores produced by John Williams to their memorable list.

You’ll remember the Star Wars franchise, the Indiana Jones features, ET and many more, but I’ve never been a huge fan of his over-produced symphonic knock-you-over-the-head scores.

While not bad obviously – he’s made a ton of soundtracks and a ton of money for himself – but they’re not on my list.

I find a lack of nuance and variety in his writing that detracts from the potential, the prosody.

But now that I’ve knocked him down, I have to turn around and resurrect his status because the theme music he composed for Schindler’s List is nothing short of a lifetime masterpiece. I can’t listen to the stream of mournful violin notes without tearing up and envisioning the solitary, red-coated little Jewish girl. Overwhelming prosody.

Strong music themes generating harmonic prosody become a deliciously lingering earworm that when absorbed, bring a flood of cinematic ripplings through our minds, often tied to inner smiles or touches of melancholy. They’re beautiful, disturbing, bliss-inducing, unescapable.

House of Cards means more to me, has a weightier meaning because of the background theme. It makes gravity feel 3 times heavier than normal.

Now THAT’s prosody.

Prosody

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