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Concert Focus: Not Just Melodies

Besides melodies, what other elements does music consist of? Rhythms, harmonies and timbre are also important components. If we can manipulate them skilfully, ideas and emotions can be expressed eloquently. This is particularly so in film scores.


If you have watched the film Mission Impossible, you will surely recognise the strong, rhythmic theme music at the beginning of the film. And if you want to experience directly the charm of rhythms, you can listen to people playing jazz. The rhythms in jazz (especially swing) often utilise syncopation, and I can guarantee that you can't help swinging your body to the strong music.


On the contrary, if a piece of music is to create static atmospheres like mystery or suspense, harmonies are a very effective element. Simply put, harmony is nothing but a process expressing the contrast between dissonance and consonance. Dissonance arouses people's nervous feelings, while consonance eases the discomfort brought about by dissonance. Composers of both classical music and film scores fully utilise these two contrasting elements so that the audience can feel the dynamic tension.


The final element is timbre. An orchestra consists of four families: strings, woodwind, brass and percussion. Since it involves dozens of musical instruments, most composers exploit the variety of timbre as the major tool to express different emotions. Of the four families in the ensemble, woodwind instruments' timbre is the most diversified and therefore is often manipulated like a painter's palette. The main reason why woodwind have so many different kinds of timbre is that members within the family have different systems for producing sounds. Thanks to these distinct sound systems, woodwind instruments could bring about a wide variety of timbre effects even within their own range, not to mention the diversity and colourfulness created when combined with other instruments.


Generally speaking, composers use the entire orchestra if they want to express powerful emotions; for lively and humorous moments, they use various woodwind combinations; moments of solemnity and magnificence are when the brass have a chance to display their strength! As for percussion, the effects that could possibly be produced are arguably endless as there are so many different types of instruments in the family. Besides the usual orchestral instruments, modern composers – especially those creating film scores – also use instruments from other countries and regions like the Middle East, China, India and South America so as to open up new possibilities. The folk instruments of these regions have timbres that are filled with an exotic flavour, which can be readily utilised to represent various kinds of people, character, time, space and historical background. An example is the background to Sherlock Holmes – nineteenth-century Britain. In a scene, Holmes goes to investigate a case at a place with a lot of the British working class gathered around. That is also a motley bunch with people of various ethnic backgrounds, and there is a nomadic Gypsy, and then we have Holmes with a larger-than-life character. An instrument, which sounds similar to the Chinese musical instrument yangqin (hammered dulcimer) from the Silk Road that links Eastern and Western cultures, is used, adding an exotic element as well as a sense of mystery to this detective story. This dulcimer can be found in many Silk Road countries as well as in Russia, although the name may be different.