How Many Times the Theme?
How many times do we state a theme in a film? Once? Twice? Most director really don’t pay attention to this, and that’s fine, because I do (and your film composer should, too) so they don’t have to.
Some films take more melody than others, such as fantasy films, animation and similar genres, but for the sake of example, I’ll take the first Harry Potter film.
I am choosing that film because it’s a great example of a recent score where the theme became very well known. I have taught piano and guitar for many years and that theme was often requested when the film came out, and it still is today. How many films do that? John Williams knows something about themes, not just about writing them, but where to put them in the film.
Here are the instances of “Hedgwig’s Theme” in the first act of Harry Potter.
- 0:00 Hedwig’s Theme over the Warner Brother’s logo
- 0:25 Magic theme
- 2:10 Hedwig’s Theme full
- 2:50 Hedwig’s Theme under dialogue
- 3:45 Hedwig’s Theme in celesta
- 4:02 Magfic theme over credits
- 7:25 Quidditch theme as snake escapes
- 7:50 Hedwig’s theme
- 8:36 Hedwig’s theme
- 9:20 Quidditch theme
- 9:33 Hedwig’s theme
- 10:05 Magic theme
- 10:58 Hedwig’s Theme
- 11:58 Magic theme
- 12:40 Family theme
- 15:09 Magic theme
- 15:53 Hedwig’s Theme
- 17:40 Hedwig’s theme
- 18:22 Family theme
We hear Hedwig’s theme a total of 10 times in the first 18 minutes or so. Not to mention that he also uses a few of the other themes that come back throughout the film for various cirumstances.
It’s a great theme that is for sure, but part of the reason we remember it is that he states it throughout the film at important points.
Here is Michael Kamen on themes;
When I was doing The Next Man […] there was a fellow named Carl Prager, who was the music head of United Artists Pictures, which was the distributor. He was an old hand, he had supervised film music for many years and he taught me a great lesson: He came to my house to listen to the themes that I was writing for The Next Man, and I’d say “now in this scene I want to use this theme.”
He’d say, “That’s a great theme, you could use that.”
I’d say, “And in the next scene, here’s this cue I want to use.”
I played it, and he said, “Well, where’s the theme?”
And I said, “I’ve just played the theme and now I have to do this.”
He said, “No, no, play the theme again.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, in film you play the theme, and then you play the theme again and then you play the theme and then you play a variation of the theme and then you play the theme…”
And it was very instructive; I had been writing it like a piece of symphonic music where Theme a comes and then Theme B and then the development section and you might even bring in another theme – not so in film. Monothematic, and with very few exceptions that is the rule of thumb for all films. If you have a melody you drive it home; if you have two or three make sure that they’re related to each other – or completely, starkly opposite.
PS: I would like to thank my two boys, Brandon (8) and Lucas (5) for helping me breaking down the themes in Harry Potter.