It's difficult to be totally original, whether you're writing novels, designing next year's fashions or in the movie business. We've seen it all before and we've heard it all before. Hollywood is an industry that does not like to take big possibly costly risks so we see sequel after sequel, remakes, prequels and plots which seem strangely familiar. Film Music and music in general also has its clichés. Some of these clichés are intrinsic to the medium since certain types of music suggest various locations, moods or emotions (see What is Music?), but also we must remember the time pressures that composers are working under. It's very difficult to write an hour's worth of original music when you've a deadline in a couple of weeks, and if it's backgound music which few will notice (being drowned out by dialogue, car chases and explosions anyway) then what's the point! Forget the excuses, here we've identified some of the more frequent music clichés (but this is all lighthearted, so please don't complain if your favourite film is mentioned):
Having put a lot of effort into getting the opening titles just right, why bother writing something new for the Closing titles. Come to think of it, why not repeat the same music at various points throughtout the film!
Examples: Star Wars, Superman, Halloween
Exceptions: Saving Private Ryan
Last word: well no-one's listening when there's a mad rush to escape the cinema.
Everyone knows that you just need a simple traditional melody in a major key for the goodies, and a strange, dark or repetitive sounds in a minor key to suggest the evil ones.
Examples: The Magnificent Seven, Independence Day, Star Wars, Star Trek (any)
Last Word: Of course the good guy is recognisable because he's wearing a white hat and riding a white horse, and wins the girl! This probably the most common component of movies around the world. Whether for film or commercial production purposes, the good guy with a white hat and riding a white horse has always been present.
Wordless voices can easily suggest strange, wonderful spooky things happening, whether religious, mystical or mythical. If you must use words then make it Latin or something so that no-one understands them.
Examples: The Abyss, Excalibur, The Ten Commandments, The Phantom Menace
Last Word: You can suggest evil forces in the same way with a strange and dark tune in a minor key, e.g. Bram Stoker's Dracula or The Omen
You might want to give an ethnic feel to the music, but why bother to do months of research. Authentic world music is difficult to perfect and it might not sound right in the movie. Using a recognisable ethnic instrument will give a suggestion of authenticity and you can then revert back to the typical hollywood music. So it's digeridoos for Australia, Cymbals for anything Oriental, a trumpet for Mexico and of course a whistle for Ireland.
Examples: Far and Away, Titanic, Michael Collins
Exceptions: who can tell?
Last Word: Don't forget drums in the jungle!
A lot of sword fencing scenes with an energetic orchestral score seem to have relatively random cymbal crashes. These are usually short, sharp cymbals sounding very much like two swords hitting each other. The cymbals aren't usually synchronised with the action (that would be too much like the cartoon world of Mickey Mouse and co.) but enough to carry the suggestion of the fencing action. It was probably Korngold, Steiner and the other early film composers who started it, but the convention seems to have stuck.
Examples: The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro, The Sea Hawk
Exceptions: The cymbals aren't mandatory, so there's bound to be exceptions...
Last Word: Lightsabers are sword-substitutes but they make a different noise!
It goes without saying doesn't it? There are many different types of weirdness you might want to depict: drunkenness, some other kind of trip or hallucination, a lead character becoming mentally unstable (or in horror films they appear to be seeing things, but the ghosts are real!), or aliens arrive from another planet. This weirdness might be conveyed just by the music doing odd or unexpected things, or usuing unusual instrumentation. A common example of the latter is the Theremin (a weird sounding electronic instrument) which has been used to convey many of these strange moods.
Examples: The Lost Weekend, Altered States, Spellbound, The Thing, Forbidden Planet
Exceptions: There are exceptions but they aren't weird enough!
Last Word: Sometimes you want to tone down the weirdness, so Benjamin Button is an example of mild engaging weirdness
This rule applies to love themes or any theme for the heroine or love interest of the main (male) character. Note also how many opening titles start with a fanfare or heroic masculine music before sliding into a slower, softer, gentler section with the love theme, before returning to the heroic music again for the conclusion.
Examples: Superman, The Mark of Zorro, The Sea Hawk or anything by Korngold
Exceptions: very few but this follows a typical pattern for the classical overture,
Last Word: Well most film makers and virtually all film composers are men anyway.
Jazz tends to be played by small bands rather than symphony orchestras, and usually there's one lead instrument improvising while the others accompany. No-one knows why but a saxophone seem to fit the lead role better than any other solo instrument, so why deviate from this expectation.
Examples: Blade Runner, Taxi Driver, Body Heat
Exceptions: Basic Instinct (on flute)
Last Word: Well, it's hard for a whole symphony orchestra to sound jazzy!
And while we're in lighthearted lampooning mood, have you noticed this trick appearing in a number of films and TV shows:
To be serious for one minute, many of these cliches are there for very good reasons. They are just extensions of the concepts mentioned in our article What is Music? It is usually just plain wrong to have energetic action conveyed with subdued music or vice-versa, unless you are trying to achieve a specific and unusual purpose. Likewise there is the appropriateness of high-pitched sounds versus low and deep sounds explored in the article. And finally there are the social conventions, which dictate when it is appropriate to play marches or waltzes.