Music in Film

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

The soundtrack for this classic Western film was composed by Ennio Morricone, and has become so famous that fifty years later many people who haven’t even seen the film will recognise the main theme.

The title music is a distinctive motif based on two alternating notes, with a slight pitch bend at the end which gives the impression of something wild and untamed.  It is played as the three main characters are introduced and is given a slightly different twist for each one: played on flute / pipes for the ‘good’, more sinister sounding lower pitched pipes for the ‘bad’, and a savage voice for the ‘ugly’.  This association continues throughout the film, usually at the end of a scene or shot where one of the characters has done something significant, underlining the moment and giving the film a sense of cohesion.

The orchestration of this soundtrack is particularly interesting to analyse.  The most commonly occurring instruments are ones that would likely have been played in a real setting in the ‘Wild West’, such as the harmonica, accordion, pipes, castanets and guitars.  These instruments along with a fiddle can all actually be seen playing live music as a band in one particular scene (known in the industry as diegetic music).  Also to be heard at various points are tribal singing/shouting, whistling and bell gongs, all of which fit well with the desert setting and make the film feel very tangible.  Where orchestral instruments are used they have been carefully chosen with the specific scene in mind; for example brass instruments which are often associated with the military are used in a battle scene (an urgent trumpet fanfare) and also a more sombre shot of dead and injured soldiers.

The placing of music within the film is another interesting aspect.  There are sometimes long silences or dialogues where music is not used at all, and this absence intensifies the effect when it does finally start.  One good example is near the beginning of the film; music kicks in very suddenly after an unexpected shooting: an instantly loud, high-pitched, chromatic and unsettling passage startles the viewer and increases the scene’s tension and horror.  Another particularly powerful scene takes place in the remote desert when Tuco leaves Blondie to fend for himself without water or shelter in the heat of the sun.  Quiet tremolo strings set up the suspense as the scene starts to play out, and then a bassoon accompanies Blondie during his long journey through the desert with a melancholy melody.  After a while it modulates upwards to a different key which is effective in suggesting the passage of time.

It wouldn’t do the soundtrack justice to end this discussion without at least a brief analysis of the legendary duel scene at the end of the film.  After a sudden, suspenseful silence while the three characters eye each other up, a sparse musical accompaniment begins again: rumbles in the timpani and gun fire effects adding to the sense of unease.  The music builds up to a satisfying climax with a slow, deliberate and powerful trumpet melody and driving rhythm in the accompaniment.  As the first shot is fired the music instantly stops again, leaving just the audible whistling of the wind in the trees – immediately both breaking the tension of the duel and beginning yet another kind of tension as we are left to wonder how it will end.


Arabic Music

As part of this project, we are asked to choose and research a world music style, making notes on its defining characteristics and instruments.  I have chosen Arabic music as it is one of the styles I am least familiar with and I was curious to find out more about it.

Arabic music, along with Persian and Turkish, is based on a modal system known as maqam.  Key characteristics of this system are:

  • Unlike the Western chromatic scale, maqam scales (known as maqamat) are not equally tempered, and use microtonal intervals
  • An octave is divided into 7 notes
  • The Western perfect fifth is included in most maqamat, and this is tuned to the pure 3/2 frequency ratio
  • The scales are traditionally taught orally
  • Each scale is made up of a set of smaller building blocks, known as jins
  • Different maqamat are said to evoke different emotions

The music is mostly monophonic since the microtonal basis of the maqamat would cause dissonances when many of the notes are played together.  Instruments commonly used include:

  1. Oud – an 11 or 13 stringed instrument, similar to a lute
  2. Qanun – a kind of large zither
  3. Rebab – also a stringed instrument, but with fewer strings than the Oud (between 1 and 3), and bowed
  4. Ney – an end blown flute, with finger holes positioned at semitone intervals and microtones achieved through blowing techniques

I had come across the Chinese zither (‘Guzheng’) whilst visiting China a few years back, and so was quite interested to hear the Qanun.  There is a beautiful demonstration of this instrument on YouTube.  It is possible to get a characteristic tremolo effect by using the plectrum to rapidly pluck the strings in both directions, as well as pitch bend by sliding the finger on the ends of the strings.

I have written some notes on my Listening Log about some specific pieces I have listened to as part of this research.  I enjoyed listening to them, and found this style of music very expressive and emotional.  I think this expressiveness in particular is something a contemporary composer could be influenced by, together with the style’s ability to set a hypnotic, atmospheric mood.  The absence of rhythm is key to this as it helps to create a sense of timelessness.


This post is about works I have listened to as part of my research into Arabic music, and which all feature microtonality in some way.

Ali Paris: Taqasim Qanun

The first is a performance by the National Arab Orchestra, on YouTube.  It features the qanun (a type of zither), with accompaniment from other string instruments, both Arabic and Western. The qanun plays a melody over a repeated bass line, and has an improvised quality to it.  The audience are clapping in time, and it feels like the sort of music that could easily be danced to.  I don’t know which specific maqam is used in this piece but I can definitely hear some microtonal intervals; the 2nd in particular sounds somewhere between a Western minor and major 2nd interval, and gives it that distinctly Arabic flavour.

Ahmad al Khatib: Small Boats

Performed by the Oriental Music Ensemble in a concert in Brighton, this piece features an oud, qanun, double bass, and a type of hand drum.  Like the first piece, this also has a repeated bass line, over which the oud and qanun play wandering and ornamented melodies using the Arabic maqamat.  It has a more laid back, atmospheric mood than the previous piece; the repeated bass line and strong root in a single maqam creates quite a hypnotic effect.

Marcel Khalifa: Samai Bayat

This piece was also performed at the above concert by the Oriental Music Ensemble using the same collection of instruments but with the hand drum replaced with something resembling a tambourine.  In the introduction only the oud and qanun are playing, and we hear a little more of the dynamic capabilities of the qanun than in the previous piece. There’s no distinguishable rhythm in this section, it sounds like an improvised cadenza of sorts – very atmospheric and expressive, and I enjoyed listening to it.  Then the bass and tambourine join and it becomes more dance like.  Rhythm is quite integral to the remainder of the piece, with the tambourine leading the way in each section.  Parts of it are reminiscent of jazz (particularly the double bass line), and it also appears to use variable metre.

David Burnand: Night Scene

This next work is by a Western contemporary composer, David Burnand.  The piece is written for a bass flute (using microtonal pitches), with atmospheric background sounds fading in and out.  I can’t identify all the instruments being used as some of the effects and techniques are very strange.  Some kind of gong creates a sinister low pitched rumbling sound, and string instruments are played in a way that sounds like humans screaming in the distance.  There are lots of dissonances, pitch bends and microtonal intervals which combine in a rather creepy way, and disconnected percussion instruments also add to the overall mood of not knowing what to expect next.  I think I can even hear some sounds being played backwards (or at least this is the perceived effect), which is particularly unsettling.  A good track for a horror movie!

The qualities of pop music

This exercise asks us to consider what makes pop music good or bad.  I think what I am usually looking for in a good pop song is something distinctive and original (that elusive ‘catchy’ aspect), and a balance of repetition and variety.  There has to be something musically interesting – this could be in the harmony / rhythm of the song, or it could be a guitar riff or bass line that hooks me in and makes me want to listen to the end.  The following examples are ones that I consider to be good:

Sting: Englishman in New York

This song was released in 1987 and definitely shows Sting’s jazz influences, featuring saxophone and piano.  It has a distinctive off-beat percussion track, and the saxophone dovetailing in with the vocals is quite effective and original.  I also like the instrumental section in the middle with the jazzy walking double-bass line and saxophone improv.

AC/DC: Back in Black

On to a completely different style – AC/DC’s tribute to their former singer is a rock song known for its opening guitar riff.  I like the fact that there’s not too much going on in the verses – just a simple but catchy guitar chord accompaniment and distinctive drum hit on the second beat of the bar, with the guitar riff at the end of each four bar phrase.

In contrast, here are some examples of successful songs that I don’t consider to be very good:

Galantis & Hook N Sling: Love On Me

I found this in the current Radio 1 singles chart, and I think it typifies what I don’t like about a lot of pop music – excessive repetitiveness, to the point where the word ‘singing’ is actually repeated on the same pitch for over ten seconds at least once during the song.  Some predictability in a song is good, but this takes it to the extreme and there is also nothing musically interesting about it either, the whole song is based on a single melodic idea (which isn’t particularly inspiring either).

Jason Donovan: Another Night

This 1980s hit is another example of a very bland, boring song.  In contrast to the AC/DC song which has an interesting percussion track with plenty of rests, the rhythm in the drum and bass tracks in this song is constant and unchanging.  In the chorus, the backing vocals are singing the same words in exactly the same rhythm as the lead, and there is no variation in dynamics throughout the song either.