Sounds like Hans
You sit down in a movie theater excited to view the sixth sequel to your favorite superhero movie. The sounds of slurped soda and rustling popcorn fill the silent room in anticipation for the movie to start. Previews have just ended and you see the production companies’ logos. Some introductory scene emerges on the screen to set up the main body of the film. The picture transitions to the main title card while a slow and gradual crescendo from the film’s score fill the room providing growing anticipation for the title card. The title emerges and BWAAAAAAAAM. BWAAAAAAAAM. This is all you hear at the beginning in the film and is probably all you hear nowadays in today’s Hollywood blockbuster. You can thank composer Hans Zimmer for that.
His influence on Hollywood and the current trend of film scoring is undeniable. The music he has produced throughout his illustrious career has ignited this current trend of boisterous and bombastic energy within a film’s soundtrack, which has gone hand-in-hand with the kind of “realist” style that filmmakers produce in today.
Every major film era has always been defined by a trend and by composers who dictate what the Hollywood score will sound like. During the Golden age of cinema Alfred Newman and Max Steiner defined the soaring and sweeping strings orchestrations that are associated with classics like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and Wuthering Heights. The 50’s and 60’s were dominated by the film noir genre as composers like Bernard Herman captured the audience’s attention with his psychological thriller works in Psycho and Vertigo. John Williams, probably the most celebrated film composer of all time, brought back the classic Hollywood score with his fanfare style, convoluted counterpoint, and grand orchestrations as evident in the classic films Star Wars and E.T. What made Williams’ scores great, aside from the orchestral mastery of each of his cues, are the fantastical genres he was asked to write in. The 70’s until the very early 90’s were a Hollywood age of fantasy story telling thanks to directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Then comes along Hans Zimmer with this new approach to film scoring which emphasizes the growing use of sound design over harmony, the intensity of constant percussion, and blatant brass tones everywhere.
Sounds vs. Melody
Like any successful and influential film composer, Zimmer has found lasting partnerships with equally successful and influential directors in Hollywood, most notably Christopher Nolan. In Nolan’s reimagining of the titular character Batman, Bruce Wayne is portrayed in an even darker and more “realistic” manner than his more fantastical predecessors i.e. Tim Burton’s Batman. To properly accompany the realism Zimmer employs jarring and disturbing cues to enhance the psychological experience. Take a listen to the cue’s first 2 minutes attached below:
This cue serves as the main theme for the antagonist the Joker. Not your typical bad guy theme right? In fact you could argue that it’s barely a theme at all. What it might lack in distinct melody it makes up for by affecting the audience on a psychological level. The slowly crescendoing dissonance and upward pitch inflection exhibits chaos, anarchy, and pain – all things Heath Ledger’s Joker is associated with. This cue is a perfect example of the kind of techniques composers are writing. They are not bogged down by creating harmonic discourse through a series of dissonant chords, but have rather chosen to strip away the traditions of harmony in favor of an atonal sound creating a disturbing experience through the process (Maybe Arnold Schoenberg should have became a horror film composer).
Drums, Drums, and More drums
Another famous Hans Zimmer characteristic is the abundant use of percussion. Now as a percussionist myself I am fully on board with this current cinematic trend. Whenever Zimmer is asked to write a cue for an adventurous character or section of the film that requires intensity and power, you can expect a very strong underlying base of percussion establishing his music’s foundation. Take a look at one of his newer cues for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Here you have the “Wonder Woman” theme used as a major motif for the famous character. The basic components of this cue are: heavily processed strings, electric guitar, and a tastefully over-the-top addition of percussion underneath the main melodic material. Hans Zimmer has successfully harnessed the potential of the percussion section and has utilized to the extent that no other film composer has before him.
Compare the original orchestration to the Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl Suite composed by Klaus Badlet. Start at 6 min and 8 sec:
Now take a listen to that same thematic material but with the orchestrations of Hans Zimmer in all of the sequels following the original Disney film (start at 1:15):
Call it a bias opinion of a percussionist, but I think that the Zimmer’s orchestration possess more power simply through the use of percussion. The constant layer of percussion has me, a listener, more engaged along with the epic harmonies.
Other composers are taking note as well. Composer John Powell’s score for How to Train Your Dragon utilizes very similar musical techniques to enhance the energy in his cue. Take a listen below:
Powell possesses a completely different style from the Hans Zimmer “Wonder Woman” and “Pirates” themes but use the similar underlying percussion patterns.
Now it wouldn’t be fair to Zimmer without lastly taking a look at his famous (or infamous depending on who you talk to) low brass hits in the movie Inception. It was here that the idea for extremely low fortissimo brass tones was “incepted” (pun incredibly intended). Fans have dubbed the technique: BRAHHHHHHMS; though I’m pretty sure Brahms never did that in his own Romantic works in the Nineteenth Century. Take a listen to the cue “Dream is Collapsing” and hear the constant low brass tones driving the piece.
This has become one Zimmer’s most popular techniques and has made its way to almost EVERY trailer and large blockbuster movie today. The Godzilla remake and its trailer use not only the Braaahhhms but also the similarly disturbing techniques from the “Joker” theme. Take a look:
It is unquestionable that many scores today have followed the patterns and successes of Hans Zimmer. And this is not to say that scores like John Williams don’t still exist. There will always be a place for that kind of music accompanying the likes of Harry Potter and the continuing development of the Star Wars universe. But I encourage you, next time you’re at the movies, to listen to the music of the film and previews you’re watching and count how many times a movie BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMS. Could be a fun (or devastating) drinking game.