An inspired melody is what really defines a piece of music and makes it memorable; however, a melody on its own — without complementary elements of harmony, texture, and rhythm — can be quite uninteresting.
A melody really comes into its own when it’s creatively supported by the other elements in your piece. There are many different ways to handle this.
Here, we’ll look at three techniques that film composers commonly employ to support a melody. While the applications of these techniques are broad, I’ve included specific audio examples of each from contemporary film scores.
For you keen etymologists, the word “ostinato” is derived from the Italian word for “stubborn,” which essentially describes the musical function of an ostinato: a relentlessly repeating motif that can be anything from a basic rhythm to a full melodic phrase. A melody can be cleverly supported by using ostinati to create rhythmic contrast or add thickness to the texture. Let’s listen to some examples of from contemporary film scores.
James Horner — “The Bioluminescence of the Night”
From the major blockbuster Avatar, this track contains ostinati that aren’t so obvious at first. About halfway into the track, we hear Gamelan-esque instruments adding a percussive layer to the melody. These instruments lie somewhere between definite and indefinite pitch. This repeating layer juxtaposes the slow and yearning string melody beautifully.
James Newton Howard — “The Hand of Fate – Part 1”
This is an underrated soundtrack from the film Signs. The three-note ostinato we hear throughout the track is ingeniously morphed from the main titles, in which it serves an incredibly sinister role compared to the relative peace of this track.
Again, the ostinato here serves the role of complementing the slow string melody with a faster rhythm that drives the track forward. It’s intriguing how, at times, the melody takes a backseat to the ostinato and then vice versa. This interplay is extremely effective, and something to consider emulating in your own work.
Danny Elfman — Spider-Man — “Main Title”
I could have picked any number of Elfman tracks to demonstrate effective uses of the ostinato (Alice in Wonderland in particular springs to mind).
Listen to sections 1:06-1:22 and 2:55-3:03 of the Spiderman track. Within these sections, it’s the strings that provide the ostinato. Downward stab-like gestures are not only a common characteristic of the soundtrack as a whole, but in this instance they support the melody beautifully, adding a real sense of urgency and excitement.
This is a personal favorite technique of mine. Layering atmospheres underneath — or even on top of — your melodies is an unparalleled way to bring them to the fore. It’s a great way of letting the melody speak for itself while keeping the texture rich and inviting. It’s also a superb way of orchestrating large, long, Hans Zimmer-esque builds.
Clinton Shorter — “District 9”
In this standout work by Clinton Shorter from the film of the same name, the melody is provided by an African vocalist singing lyrics from “The Mysteries of Life” in two interchanging African languages. This spine-tingling performance needs to be given all the credit it deserves.
Shorter starts the melody’s accompaniment with a low pad-like atmosphere, which slowly transforms into an overwhelming string section that gradually drowns out the vocal. A must-hear for vocal melodic accompaniment.
Thomas Newman — “Nemo Egg (Main Title)”
Absolute master of the bittersweet sound, Thomas Newman is an excellent atmospheric writer to study in detail. His command of orchestration is compelling to listen to, turning simple ingredients into something very special.
The opening piano melody of this track from Finding Nemo would be sparse and uninviting without the gorgeous underwater-inspired pads that accompany it. Gorgeous swells in atmosphere and, towards the end, the lush string section are a fantastic support for this melody.
Thomas Newman — “Coffey on the Mile”
This entire track from The Green Mile is a master demonstration of creative uses of atmospheric writing in combination with a beautiful melody and orchestration. Listen for the string tremolos, which beautifully support the woodwind, and also for the very low bass tones (subwoofer recommended!).
3. String Harmonies
Of the three supportive techniques I have presented, this one is the broadest in application. Here, I’ve chosen audio examples where a string melody is supported by more strings. This is a staple technique for composers of all mediums and can be used to create a powerful, consistent melodic movement — particularly when the melody and accompaniment share the same rhythm.
Alexandre Desplat — “Lily’s Theme”
The first minute of this piece would be an excellent contender for the previous section on atmospheric writing, but from 1:10 onwards, the track demonstrates supportive string harmonies. The string melody is accompanied by strings that often share a similar rhythm. If you happened to see this Harry Potter film at the cinema, you’ll recall how powerful it was when what seemed like an overwhelming wall of sound hit you.
Dario Marianelli — “Elegy For Dunkirk”
The majority of this track from the film Atonement uses similar techniques to the example above, albeit in a more subtle way. Strings are layered wonderfully, and the combination of timbres from solo and ensemble strings works especially well.
Also note how the diegetic sound of the soldiers singing accompanies the melody (or does the melody accompany the singers?). Collaboration between diegetic and non-diegetic sound worlds can be a very creative technique: Don’t be afraid to experiment with it!
James Newton Howard — “What Are You Asking Me?”
Anyone wishing to study writing for solo strings or intimate string ensembles should get this soundtrack from The Village straight away. The folk style of writing throughout the film is sublime and fitting. Notice how very fast strings can accompany a very slow melody played by strings or woodwinds. This contrast does a tremendous job of conveying lushness with a sense of urgency.
There’s lots to consider when thinking about how to support your melody. These techniques are basic, but their applications are diverse, creating infinite opportunities for musical expression.
Featured image by Ferran Moya
What are your favorite techniques for supporting a melody in a film score? Comments are open!