Sunday, July 17, 2011

What a Glockenspiel and E Minor did for Harry

Thursday night, or, technically, Friday morning, I felt like my childhood was over. Melodramatically, of course. No, I didn’t turn 18 or go through some Salinger-esque loss of innocence. I saw the last Harry Potter movie.
I may not be a die-hard, spell-casting Potter fan, but I did feel a large era of my life come to a close when that movie ended. I used to play Harry Potter on the playground in kindergarten. The Chamber of Secrets was my first midnight premiere of a movie. The Prisoner of Azkaban was the first book I read in a day. Due to these deeply planted roots, these following words could easily spin out of control into a phonetic scrapbook that 99% of the world most likely doesn’t want to hear. So I’ve decided to focus on something that is probably a major reason we all love those movies, and it goes like this:

This may as well be the universal sound for “wizard” since 2001. First composed by John Williams, “Hedwig’s Theme” is the music associated with Harry Potter. Though the eight movies have had different composers, this theme has been used in every movie. Just like the Harry Potter franchise itself, “Hedwig’s Theme” will probably be one of the most immortal pieces off a movie soundtrack in the 21st century. In the last movie’s trailer, the notes of the iconic music are chopped up like a skipping CD and are paired with blinks of ambiguous clips from the film. It’s been made into ringtones, arranged for practically every instrument and ensemble, and seems to represent more than just a book series. Harry Potter has been said to have “taught a generation how to read,” and has infected the lives of millions. “Hedwig’s Theme” is to Harry Potter what “I Have a Dream” is to MLK.
John Williams, the composer of “Hedwig’s”, is a legend in film music. Not only did he create the Academy Award-winning score to “Star Wars,” but he also scored music for the films “Jaws,” “Indiana Jones,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Schindler’s List.” Though I am not a huge fan of Williams in terms of his symphonic music, his talent really blossoms in the scores of these legendary movies. They’re movies that need music like his.  
So what makes the Hedwig motif so iconic? For one thing, it’s a basic melody that can be remembered and hummed, unlike an ostinato or long, drawn-out accompaniment. It is in a familiar key, E minor, and, like most catchy melodies, doesn’t pull a Schoenberg and stray off of that key too much. The melody clearly follows a steady pulse (I think it can be thought of as either a more playful waltz or, in a darker way, a slow 4/4), but it subtly winds around it, like a wire wrapped around a pole. But the motif goes beyond the tangible aspects. To place an E minor theme on a glockenspiel juxtaposes two different moods—darkness and playfulness. It’s slow yet suspenseful, calm yet foreshadowing. It works equally well on that small glockenspiel or with a full-sized orchestra. To strike a balance like this is, in my opinion, the perfect way to embody something grand, for the theme can apply to the many different aspects of whatever that thing may be. You may not be a fan of Harry Potter, but you have to admit that it has gained a place in this world where it has to please millions of people, in terms of the necessities of art. If the music to the film series didn’t measure up, the movies would not have the impact they do to parallel the books. Even if the music was commendable, if it didn’t have an iconic theme, there would be much less to latch on to. “Hedwig’s” is like a burr in your sock.
Then, does this mean all movies need an infectious theme? Most definitely not. The Harry Potter franchise is one whose success is largely due to the small details in the books and movies such as wizard candies, spells, and dozens of minor characters. This is almost a formula for creating a cult series. Harry Potter certainly has themes and characterization, but not as much as, say, “The King’s Speech” or “The Social Network,” films that were nominated for the Best Score Academy Award in 2010. “The King’s Speech,” a film about King George VI and his stammer, needed music that added a time-appropriate mood and wasn’t too overly present. Alexandre Desplat gave that to the score. “The Social Network,” whose score I have written about before, was about loneliness and the conflicts between humans. It therefore needed an internal, lonely, buzzing soundtrack. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross accomplished that, and it won them the well-deserved Academy award. Harry Potter is a franchise that infects the childhoods of teenagers like me because of the fact that it has so many memorable aspects. We can dress up in hundreds of different costumes, play Quittich, and cast spells on each other. We can become so familiar with the main characters we feel like family to them. This is why it needs a piece like “Hedwig’s Theme.” Without that magical, slightly dark glockenspiel that blossoms into a full orchestra, we would have one less, large thing to latch onto.

File:John Williams tux.jpg
Williams--Photo by TishTash
After the last shot of Daniel Radcliffe’s face faded off the screen, I just knew that I was surrounded by crying audience members. Yes, they will miss Harry, Ron, and Hermione. They will miss the rush of going to the next premiere. But they will definitely miss hearing that familiar “B E, G G flat E, B A, G flat” in a new setting for the first time. They just might not know it. 


  1. Very interesting article. As a movie fan, I am always interested in learning more about scores since I am lacking in musical knowledge. While I recognize the great movie scoring achievements of John Williams, I have been told by musician friends that he has a tendency to "borrow" from many classical pieces. One friend compared his "Star Wars-Imperial Theme" to that of Holst's "Mars." I was curious in your opinion of this since you know so much more about music than I.
    And in case you're interested, I enjoy the movie scores of Bernard Hermann and Marvin Hamlisch.

    -Scott David

  2. Scott--

    This issue is very present in the music of Williams, but also in the music of every composer. I think it is almost impossible not to borrow ideas from other composers, no matter how much one tries. Williams's "Imperial March" definitely sounds eerily similar to "Mars"... just listen to those ominous beginnings! However, many composers do similar things. I've heard opinions that one of Leonard Bernstein's pieces sounds like the end of Aaron Copland's "Billy the Kid." John Mackey's piece "Aurora Awakes" openly quotes the beginning of U2's song "Where the Streets Have No Name." Anywhere you turn, there will be borrowing, whether it's obvious, subtle, intended, or accidental. Williams just happens to do it more than once!
    (Thanks for those recommendations--my three favorites are Yann Tierson, Joe Hisaishi, and Osvaldo Golijov)

    P.S. Congrats on your CSM partnership!

  3. Elena,
    Congrats to you to. Thanks for the info. I've had many discussions with musicians about borrowing and I think it may just come down to the fact that there are only so many notes in the human range of hearing so there is bound to be similarities between many pieces of music. Us movie fans have similar discussions about plot lines and characters being reused and rehashed whether intentional or not.
    Thanks for your recommendations. I'll have to check out some of their movies.

    -Scott David