One of the fundamental skills of composition is being able to extract a lot of material out of a single idea.
Perhaps the greatest example of this is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Think of that simple four note phrase, you know, duh-duh-duh-DUNnnn. Ok, those are four pretty awesome notes, but you’d never imagine just how many minutes of music he extracts from barely a second of music. Through repetition, variation and re-orchestration Beethoven just keeps that simple idea revolving in space and constructs minutes of spectacular music. This is what you refer to as ‘form’ in classical composition. In the case of the opening to Beethoven’s 5th, he uses sonata form. Sonata form is a very traditional and logical form in which an idea is presented, played with and finally brought back together in three phases known as ‘exposition’, ‘development’ and ‘recapitulation’.
The same is true in more modern formats such as film music. The temptation as a young composer is to start each new piece of music with a search for a new musical idea. But often the best idea is to go back to good idea you’ve already used and extract a little more of the ‘juice’ out of it.
Take this, it’s a classic 80s/90s style action adventure theme that I composed to accompany a scene of an action hero bounding around rooftops in Morocco.
Action Adventure Theme
On face value, that soaring melody is pure generic hero music. It doesn’t feel like it would be very good for variations into other styles appropriate for different sorts of scene through a film.
But what if after his time on the rooftop we have a scene where the hero quietly contemplates his predicament? Well, then we’d need an intimate variation.
Action Adventure Intimate Variation
And later on we might have need for a similar variation which complies more with the idea of a love theme.
Action Adventure Love Variation
The more ‘heroic’ elements of the melody, those big vertical leaps are not what you would normally use in intimate pieces like this. But having them there makes the melody stand out, and I think gives the listener a better chance of being able to connect them back to the original use of the theme.
Re-using material like this is obviously efficient, allowing for the quicker composition of a full score. But it also has the benefit of providing a stronger, more cohesive score. The Action Adventure theme has a very different mood to the other pieces, but by maintaining consistency through the melody the composer can ensure that everything continues to feel cohesive across the score and film.