Music Sets The Dramatic Pace: John Williams and Revenge of the Sith

Last year I had the privilege of being taught by the renowned composer and producer David Hentschel – yeah, the David Hentschel – when in one of his quizzes I answered that a music composer could in fact alter the pace of a film. Not to my surprise, my answer was marked to be incorrect, stating that while the director, film editor, and music editor – all of whom I had included in my answer – have this ability, the music composer does not. Most if not all technical literature reaffirms this, and the expected answer makes sense: The film composer can nurture the film with different emotions, but the pace is ultimately already there, as set by the director and editors.

Embarrassed that I had “missed” such a simple question, I decided to quickly put together a video to send Mr. Hentschel explaining what had influenced my answer. This was not a way of asking for more credit – which in fact I ended up receiving anyways – but a way of showing that I was not being a bad student: there was a reason behind my answer.

How did I prove that? And how does John Williams achieve that faster pace? Read on! But first, let me tell you what I mean by pace.

First Things First: What Is Dramatic Pace?

Quoting George Judy, my Directing professor – yes, I also studied directing in college, since the secret according to Bernard Hermann is that film composers are dramatists – the dramatic pace is given by the amount of information that the audience receives, per measure of time. Directors and writers use pace to their advantage, delaying the delivery of certain information to keep you yearning for more, and speeding up the pace when they feel that they need to increase or resolve the tension faster.

Fast cuts, actors talking faster, lines of dialog revealing crucial information, all of those would speed up the pace of a film. So how would music possibly do that? If you read my posts on Desplat’s nominated scores in 2015 here and here, you already know that:

A. Music can help put you in a particular place

and

B. Music can evoque feelings and characters (motifs) on its own

It may still be a stretch to say that music can change the pace, right? You are presented with imagery that shows you are in Spain when you are in Spain, and not just a Spanish scale and flamenco guitars. On the same note, you see the Rheinmaidens when you hear their music, or at least something happens in the plot to evoque a certain feeling. That is why the literature says that music can’t change the pace! But hey, what if music could actually give you more information in advance? What if it could put you at war when you still can’t see that you are at war? That’s what my video was about, with a specific example from Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith.

Battle over Coruscant

The most seasoned Star Wars nerds among you will know that the soundtrack CD had a different cue for the film’s opening sequence than the one you hear in the film. While the CD was shipped with what seems to have been John Williams’ original cue, the film had a (kind of noticeable) edit on that cue.

Why did this happen? Well, composers write music in relation to what the music editor logs in a cue sheet – which is written during a discussion between the director, composer and editors, called a spotting session. Composer John Williams was probably told that the introduction was all about a battle. The even more seasoned Star Wars nerds among you – and in case you haven’t realized yet, I fall under this category – will know the original script for Revenge of the Sith featured a longer battle sequence, which started before the action that we see in the film. Loud, bellicose opening was the name of the game.

There are between one and a million reasons why John Williams would have written a musical cue that ended up being different from what was finally featured in the film. The key here is that the editors and/or mixers took away everything but the drums from Williams’ score before putting it in the scene. They altered it considerably. Take a look at the same scene side by side. The first one has the original cue written by John Williams, while the second one has the cue the way it ended up in the film:

If you want to give the original cue a better listen, here it is, straight out of the soundtrack CD (skip to 1:16)

Do you hear what happens? Like all other Star Wars films, Revenge of the Sith starts in media res (the middle of the action), in this case with an epic space battle taking place over the planet Coruscant as the Jedi Knights attempt to rescue Chancellor Palpatine. Mr. Williams took this to heart and wrote a cue that portrays just that. Heck, even the title crawl that accompanies every canonical Star Wars film starts in this case with the exclamation “War!” – also referencing the news reels that, along intros from TV serials, influenced the saga’s openings. One would think that an all-out martial theme would be more than fitting. Williams’ original cue (the one on the soundtrack CD) gives us a lot more information than the one on the film, inferring that we are already in battle, without the need to show starfighters flying over us, or for us to see ships firing their cannons at each other. Look at it again. Can you feel the difference in pace? Here’s how he did it.

Tension, Tension, Tension

Here’s a C major triad, representing the Star Wars theme’s tonic degree:

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 10.21.49 PM

Resolving, solid, simple. To the point.

Now here is a C# major triad:

C Sharp

For reasons too long to explain here, these two don’t get along with each other. Think of it as two series of numbers in intervals of two. One is going to be made up of all even numbers, while the other one will be made up of only odd numbers.

0-2-4-6-8-10-12…

1-3-5-7-9-11-13…

They don’t touch each other, yet they are always awfully close. When your ears are used to western music, a semitone difference in pitch will sound funny and uncomfortable! That’s the difference between the two chords. But perhaps the thing that matters most here is that we are talking about a very dissonant chord, and dissonance creates tension. 

[Note: There isn’t just one way of explaining this: You could think of it as one dominant chord with added b9, natural 11th, and b13, and it would perhaps be closer to its function – and my favorite way of seeing harmonic degrees. The different explanations stem from the fact that original academic analysis didn’t think of harmonic intervals in this way, so different methods of analysis come in to explain things that happen in modern music. Where everyone agrees is that such intervals are dissonant to each other, meaning that (in a tonal piece) there is tension needed to be resolved.]

OK, let’s be more graphic! Imagine that C major chord being a hamburger. Yes, a solid, simple, and delicious hamburger.

Dear vegetarians: please picture a block of tofu

Dear vegetarians: please picture a block of tofu

 

If the C chord is a hamburger, then the C# chord would be a Bloody Mary, with its spicy, juicy, tingly and aggressive flavor.

Bloody Mary Coctail with celery stalk and pitcher.

Hi, I’m a C# triad in a C scale! I cure hangovers!

 

The C# chord is to a C chord what a Bloody Mary is to a hamburger. One is a meaty, straightforward bite, and the other one is a spicy flavor. Listen to the sounds again:

The hamburger…

…and the Bloody Mary.

 

Got it? Alright. So here’s what John Williams’ opening chord would be, following our analogy. This is what happens when you grab the two initial chords and play them together!!

 

Hamburger Bloody Mary

BOO-YAH! A MASSIVE Hamburger Bloody Mary

 

That’s the effect! If that doesn’t scream hypertension, I don’t know what does. War! The republic is crumbling, ships are shooting lasers, and an entire f***ing fridge worth of leftovers is going inside my drink. Now that’s a kick! See it again:

Hamburger Bloody Mary

And hear it!

Tension, tension, tension. All caused by harmony. Not instrumentation, not texture, not loudness. Harmony! Tiny wavelength differences between basic sound waves, which are far more powerful than you think. Because it is not always about being bigger or louder…

 

“I wonder how many tubas we can fit in this room if I move that dresser.”

 

it’s about how you choose your notes.

Of course, instrumentation also helps give the idea of war, and Williams uses it too. You know, woodwinds and trumpets playing upward slurs that are reminiscent of military marches…

… and low brass playing percussive lines, also reminiscent of military marches…

…all to the beat of the good ole’ military drum by excellence: the snare drum.

Snare Drum

Compare that to the much tamer and suspenseful introduction included in the film!

And this is not to say that the taiko drums don’t have a martial connotation. They do! They were in fact used in Feudal Japan as a call to war – and as you probably know, themes from feudal Japan are strong with Star Wars. Plus, it would be contradicting, given that the taiko drum hits are also present in John Williams’ original cue. But whether you knew how they were used or not, those taiko drum hits – probably aided by the fact that it sounds like a heart beat – have become a convention, much alike the Japanese scales depicting Japan that I mentioned in an earlier post.

Yet, there is no denying that the lonely taiko is a much more disinterested way to score the scene. It is the call to brawl, not the brawl itself. It is the preparation, not the battle. The cue used in the film (drums only) delays the action and prepares you for the fight, while John Williams’ cue puts you right in the heat of the battle. 

The original cue brings a fast pace because it packs a lot of information! It tells you that you are at war and takes you right to it. The cue featured in the film brings a slow pace, because it only hints that there may be a battle approaching.

Closing Thoughts

There you have it. Do you agree with me? Do you believe that the pace of the film was influenced by that musical cue? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading.

PS: Yeah, I made fun of Hans, but only because I love him! See it for yourself.

 

 

Diego Delfino
Diego Delfino
Diego Delfino is an Argentine-Italian composer living in the United States, a film sound instructor at SAE Atlanta, and a former student of LSU, SAE, and the School of Music of Buenos Aires (EMBA). You can find out more about him at www.diegodelfino.com, as well as listen to some of his musical compositions.

One comment to Music Sets The Dramatic Pace: John Williams and Revenge of the Sith

  • Yair  says:

    You hit the nail in the head! Without the taiko drums calling to war the opening scene in ROTS E-III the orchestra is very audible and even enjoyable…with the drums is more like get ready to see some awesome action sequences!

    indeed, Such a SW nerd you are

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